A dramatic journey through the dreck we all know and love
By Zak Attack
Why Did I Watch This?
I watched this because of Neeson Season of course! More importantly, however, this is a pretty wonderful example of a soulless blockbuster which failed both critically and financially. Clearly, this is the best way to finish up our celebration of the dumping ground of lowbrow action films that is January.
“Battleship” (the game) is kind of fun. While it may be mostly based on luck, there is at least a touch of amateur game theory everyone incorporates into their strategy, à la ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors’. Can you fool your opponent? Is their a mathematical way to guess where they are based on previous rounds? The act of sticking in those little plastic pegs while tensing up at your opponent’s hits is pretty darn thrilling as well. A filmic experience in the vein of The Hunt for the Red October by way of the similarly unanticipated adaptation Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl has some incredible potential as a fun popcorn flick.
Despite that, this was pretty low on the Queue before I bumped it to the top for Neeson Season… about #2,701. Netflix estimated my rating at 2.4 out of 5 stars.
How Did I Watch It?
A mindless movie deserves some mindless drinks. Battleship is Jim Beam and Coke Zero all the way.
What Did I Watch?
Peter Berg can produce the work of a surprisingly talented director. Very Bad Things is an underseen, pitch black comedy. The Rundown is one of the most pure fun action-comedies of the 2000’s. Friday Night Lights is possibly my favorite football movie of all time. While his movies would hardly be described as “smart”, they’re certainly not stupid. Even middling blockbuster Hancock has a satirical edge in the first third that intrigued filmgoers enough to warrant rumors of an upcoming sequel. Battleship, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have that Peter Berg stamp on it (if such a thing even exists). It’s a workman-like Michael Bay imitation which lives and dies by its setpieces and ability to captivate audiences.
Battleship actually assumes you’re an idiot. Maybe it serves you right for purposefully watching a movie unironically based on a board game, but it’s frustrating nonetheless. The opening scene lays out some needless text explaining the purpose of a communications satellite in Hawaii, as if the simple line “Hey, that’s a communications satellite” would confuse and enrage audiences. Am I the only person who has noticed how a trend with films that begin with a typed out explanation of a concept that the characters adequately discuss within five minutes. It’s not as simple as “show, don’t tell”. This technique is “Tell and then tell again, and then also show too, maybe.”
After this prologue, some scientists over-explain the concept of a Goldilocks Planet. The whole reasoning for using a children’s fairy tale to describe the “just right” conditions for intelligent life is so laypeople won’t need too much explanation… but the filmmakers talk through it anyway. Battleship thinks you’re so stupid that the DVD even has an entire featurette focusing on the idea. Then the film’s scientists send out a signal to said planet, however when the aliens receive it they decide to attack. This unnecessary set-up doesn’t actually pay-off in any way as it boils down to “Humans try to contact aliens… aliens try to kill humans.” It would make sense if Battleship had something to say about the nature of the aliens… but it doesn’t.
Did anyone even need to justify the idea of wanting to communicate with intelligent life? Why pad out the 2+ hours of running time to lay out all these concepts when the basic idea of “aliens could attack humans one day without provocation” is entirely believable? Independence Day is an exceptionally dim-witted movie and even it trusts it’s audiences to accept “aliens attack Earth” without giving pointless reasons. The only possible purpose for putting any work into the origin of such a bare bones concept would be if Battleship was anti-science or anti-exploration. To top it all off, one of the scientists clumsily paraphrases Stephen Hawking with a vocal tone that brings to mind some jerk talking down to a fast food worker: “If there is intelligent life out there and they visit Earth, it’ll be like Columbus and the Indians.” In case anyone in the audience doesn’t feel like taking any mental steps to understand the metaphor, he adds, “but we’re the Indians!!”
So, uh, that takes care of the first fifteen minutes. One hour and fifty-six minutes to go… Let’s speed through the rest of this: Taylor Kitsch plays Alex Hopper, the devil-may-care brother of Navy Commander Stone Hopper (Alexander Skarsgård) who gets into trouble with the law and shapes up by joining his brother in the Navy. Flash forward an unspecified time later and he is a lieutenant despite being terribly undisciplined and on the verge of being dishonorably discharged by Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson, yay). He’s also about to be engaged to the admiral’s beautiful and caring daughter Sam (Brooklyn Decker) even though he has no apparent redeeming qualities. During an exercise with a Japanese fleet led by his rival, Captain Yugi Nagata (Tadanobu Asano; Thor and Ichi the Killer), the aliens land and create a forcefield around Oahu and blow up all but one of the ships. It’s a destroyer, however, which we all know only takes up three spaces… so they need to get a battleship (four spaces) or an aircraft carrier (five spaces) quick!
The aliens manage to jam the heroes’ radar, leaving them unable to properly target coordinates. So our “money sequence” happens when the Japanese explain how to use tsunami buoys to monitor water displacement and shoot where they guess the ship will be next. Meanwhile, a sailor on the top of the ship shouts out “it’s a hit” or “it’s a miss” to the officers below. In what is either the laziest or the most stupidly clever adaptation move in recent history, the aliens shoot back devastating missiles that look remarkably like the pegs from the board game. The major difference is that after these pegs stick into ships, they explode.
Seriously, though… Battleship puts in more effort in setting up this hackneyed, game-inspired sequence of commanders shouting out “Bravo 11” than in developing nearly any of the characters. There is even a scene where Alex Hopper somehow mindmelds with one of the aliens and sees quick flashes of some stuff blowing up on an alien planet. It’s not quite clear what’s happening, but then he remarks, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” This is all the indication we get of the aliens’ intentions. All this work is put into explaining what kind of planet they live on, how and why NASA contacted them, and POV shots from the aliens. However, the audience never gets clued in on what the aliens truly want. To yet again invoke Independence Day, that particular “mindmeld” scene results in Bill Pullman explaining that the species is like a group of locusts who quickly consume a planet’s natural resources before moving on. This simple sequence sets up stakes, gives context, and provides motivation for the villain. Battleship provides none of these essential storytelling elements.
In fact, the motivation of the aliens is so vague, it’s not even clear if the aliens are bad. Check out the IMDb message board (ed. RIP) and there are several discussions about whether the aliens had malicious intentions. All the audience knows is that the aliens want to use NASA’s communication satellite to contact their planet and send more aliens. They clearly kill a lot of people, but without warning will decide to spare certain characters based on undefined criteria. A Predator-like HUD system often shows up, representing the aliens evaluating something as a threat (red) or not a threat (green). It might be about whether a threat is armed or attacking (like Predator, of course). However, sometimes entire gunships show up green. Sometimes a guy will literally be hitting an alien with a metal pole and still show up green. There’s no apparent rhyme or reason but it almost supports the theory that the aliens are, at worst, misunderstood. But that reading isn’t made clear in any other part of the movie. Maybe a committed viewer could go through and really track what is happening when they mark someone or something as “green”, but why would you want to? Every time an action scene starts it is obvious that Battleship has no interest in exploring whether the aliens were technically peaceful or if the military is too quick to resort to violence. Its only interest is to revel in *Explosions* “Kill the aliens! USA! USA!” This propagandist “military porn” slant makes Top Gun look subtle in comparison. It’s no surprise that Berg’s follow-up project was the similarly uncomplicated Lone Survivor with Mark Wahlberg. Maybe there is something to be said about the US teaming up with the Japanese to fight foreign invaders off the coast of the famed Pearl Harbor, but I don’t think anyone involved had anything specific in mind. The Japanese element seems like an underdeveloped way to sell the film globally.
Speaking of jingoistic nonsense, the finest scene announces itself nice and loudly in the third act. The destroyer that houses all the survivors is “destroyed” (I’m pretty sure that’s ironic), so the remaining American and Japanese troops decide to fire up the steam-powered USS Missouri which has been decommissioned as a museum for several decades. Nobody knows how to run the thing, but luckily a bunch of real life WWII veterans crawl out from nowhere and decide to help out. AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” starts to blare while a montage plays of non-actor octogenarians doing official looking battleship stuff. I was struck at how charming and badass this tribute to actual soldiers played out. However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the scene is also shameless, artless, and on the verge of disrespectful to both the military and the entire concept of storytelling. The pandering montage not only loses all sense of the imminent alien attack as the classic rock track plays in its entirety, but seems to think pausing a bad movie to do lip service to the military-industrial complex counts as bonafide honor.
Despite these drawbacks… I think I have concluded that the scene with “Thunderstruck” is pretty cool. Maybe it even plays better out of context of the mindless destruction surrounding it:
You would think that one sequence with distracting non-professional performers all but breaking the 4th wall would be enough. However, there is even a highly decorated, paraplegic veteran (Gregory D. Gadson) who leads up the b-story with Brooklyn Decker as they fight the aliens on land. He gets his moment to shine when he literally gets in a fistfight with an alien while effectively accomplishing nothing of note in the larger scheme of the aliens’ evil plot.
Also before shooting one of the ship’s huge guns, one of the veteran characters mutters “Somebody’s gonna kiss the donkey!” Can someone please explain if that’s a real phrase? Should I be using it? Either way, it is a striking enough snippet of dialogue that they named a track from the official score after it.
In addition to the insulting patriotism, the inconsistent tone, and the hyper-kinetic editing in the simplest of scenes, something that really stood out was the soundtrack choices which were either completely perplexing or oddly on-the-nose. “Interstate Love Song” shows up in an establishing shot in a hamfisted, “What year did this movie come out?” kind of way. One scene at a veteran’s hospital has the camera floating lovingly over amputees while Billy Squire’s inappropriately upbeat “Everybody Wants You” plays. This sequence is incredibly unnerving… especially considering how disgraceful the Department of Veterans Affairs treatment of servicemen and women has been.
At other times, there are Watchmen levels of directness in the songs. Even though I guess I “liked” the scene, “Thunderstruck” is an intensely overused piece of music since it was featured in Varsity Blues and every sporting event in America. That’s not the only offender, though. The obligatory pop song appears with The Black Keys’ “Gold on the Ceiling” shortly after we’re treated to the twangy pro-soldier ballad “My Lai” by Lucky Clark during an international soccer match. When Taylor Kitsch needs to break into a 7-11 to steal Brooklyn Decker a burrito (don’t ask), the soundtrack cues up “The Pink Panther Theme”, presumably because Ghost Protocol wouldn’t let them use “The Mission: Impossible Theme”.
I guess the soundtrack isn’t enough to outright ruin a movie, but in something that was this consistently annoying, it’s nice to have a strong tangible detail to really complain from the rooftops about. The scene with the Billy Squier song was really weird.
Do not see Battleship. Liam Neeson is stuck outside the aliens’ forcefield and barely has more screentime than he did in Darkman III: Die Darkman Die, where he doesn’t appear at all. What a crappy way to end my Neeson Season run. Even worse are the missed opportunities. When the aliens are revealed to be strikingly humanoid, one hopes that there is some point to be made about the “othering” of the enemy during wartime. But then Peter Berg pulls it away like a carrot that’s out of reach of a chained up donkey. In his case, though, I’m not sure there ever was a carrot. I mean somebody’s gotta kiss the donkey.
That being said, it actually makes the oft-maligned Transformers movies look good. At least those Hasbro movies (I still can’t believe that’s considered a “studio” now) were able to admit how dumb they are. Not to say there isn’t plenty of goofiness in the film, but unlike the following year’s Pacific Rim, Battleship is unwilling to commit where it counts. Before I even saw the film I was hoping for a scene where they realize that the radar isn’t working so they have to guess at locations of the enemy ship. One of the gunnery sergeants would look at the camera helplessly and intone “I’m shooting blind here!” Nothing occurs with that much dumb conviction. Even the famous line “You sunk my battleship” is nowhere to be found. Instead, one of the several real life veterans (who are all, unfortunately, entirely unconvincing actors) just manages to shout “Nobody’s gonna sink this battleship!” I think it happened after the donkey thing. Oh, well. I guess we’ll always have Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.
Zak has been an avid movie fan since his mom made him cover his eyes before the “icicle stabbing” when they rented Die Hard 2 in 2nd grade. As a consolation, in 6th grade he got straight A’s so she gave him the entire Die Hard trilogy on VHS. The rest is history.
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All images courtesy of Universal Pictures