On the surface, the classic board game Battleship would seem like a rather peculiar property to develop into a feature film. Unless someone was going the crafty Das Boot route, why would anybody even want to adapt the board game? And for that matter, why would anyone want to adapt the game and add killer aliens from outer space? Well actor-turned-director Peter Berg looked at the classic board game with the little pegs and the declarations of battleships sunk and said, “There’s a big summer movie in there.” With a hefty budget of $200 million, which is becoming alarmingly the norm for summer tent pole releases, Berg’s efforts have given birth to Battleship: The Movie. If it becomes a hit maybe it will start a trend. Who wouldn’t want to see Hungry, Hungry Hippos as a monster movie, or Connect Four as a searing domestic drama about alcoholism?
Off the Hawaiian Islands, the Navy is conducting an annual series of international war games in the Pacific. Oh but little did they expect to have to combat intergalactic foes. Alien spaceships crash land to Earth, emerging from the Pacific and creating a force field barrier. Along for the high seas action are the stoic Stone Hopper (Alexander Skarsgard), his screw-up little brother Alex (Taylor Kitsch), a Japanese captain (Tadanobu Asano), and a mess of other Navy personnel, including pop star Rihanna. On the other side of that force field is Alex’s girlfriend, Samantha (Brooklyn Decker), a naval physical therapist who finds herself in the middle of the aliens communications plans. The handful of Navy ships, some American and some Japanese, must figure out a way to topple the aliens before they get their communications up and running to broadcast that Earth is ripe for the taking.
For some, Battleship will be the symbol of everything wrong with big-budget Hollywood filmmaking, a perceived slapdash effort meant to appeal to as many mass markets as possible, combining clichés and empty action sequences into a cacophony of noise deigned entertainment. And for most of those charges, I cannot defend Battleship. It has its fair share of clichés, gaps in logic, and some especially corny moments (WWII geezers save the day!). And yet, I found myself becoming entranced by Berg’s siren song, laughing at the comic relief, enjoying the stock characters enough to root for their triumphs, and having a total gas with the action sequences. I was shocked at how much fun I was having with Battleship. Perhaps that means that from a mechanical standpoint it knows all the pinpoints of the summer blockbuster model and knows how to craft a satisfying crowd-pleaser of an action movie. Or perhaps it just means I have lost my mind. Or maybe this is Berg’s expertly crafted satire of the Michael Bay School of filmmaking, brilliantly capturing the beautiful bombast and cheery jingoism of Bay’s career, especially when those salty WWII vets get to strut in slow motion. A movie based upon the board game Battleship is clearly not meant to be taken seriously, and Berg’s nautical adventure wants nothing more than to entertain the masses. Whatever the case may be, Battleship, weirdly enough works, and for some significant stretches, it works really well in the mold of summer spectacle.
I’m relieved that Berg has left behind his rigid docu-drama cinema verite approach he’s patterned after working on 2004’s Friday Night Lights. Berg’s verite style felt completely mismatched with 2008’s Hancock, an inexplicable global hit. With Battleship, Berg’s cameras settle down and give you plenty of action to soak up. Berg’s first foray into action, 2003’s The Rundown, was like the announcement of a great new talent and the herald of The Rock’s ascent in action. I’ve been waiting for Berg to return to that style he displayed with The Rundown, a slick, highly stylized flair, brimming with robust energy that popped at all the right moments. Thankfully, with his biggest budget yet, it’s like the return of the old Berg. Perhaps it’s just a reaction against the overindulgence of the “shaky cam” action style popularized by the Paul Greengrass Bourne films, but it’s nice to be able to actually follow what is happening. Berg’s cameras find different and exciting ways to frame the action. I enjoyed the speedy zoom outs to illustrate the size of the field of battle. The visuals really do feel like Berg is parlaying Bay’s shooting style, the tawny glow of people’s skin, especially women, a.k.a. sex objects, the fetishized ogling of giant toys/military hardware, the soaring camera. But unlike most of Bay’s pedigree, it’s spectacle on a mass scale without turning into a glorified video game.
The action in Battleship is huge but never dull. The scale of the demolition does not get out of hand because the movie works in shifts, focusing on pockets of action before ramping up to something even bigger and better. The alien tech, particularly the spheroids that munch through metal like the Langoliers (please, somebody tell me they remember that Stephen King TV movie), is impressively powerful without feeling completely over matched. Being totally obliterated in the movies has its own thrill, but seeing a slug fest between man and alien is more compelling. Watching the Navy go blow-for-blow and eventually triumph through ingenuity in the face of adverse odds makes for some pretty satisfying action. The Navy is learning through trial and, much, error about how to combat these alien antagonists. I enjoyed the tactile nature of the battles. I must say I found the film to be weirdly informative about the attack features of naval war vessels. I don’t know if its genius or absurd that the movie finds a way to organically squeeze in the actual Battleship game play (the alien bombs also look like pegs from the board game). The aliens are something of a mystery and kept that way. When we do see them minus their Halo helmets, you wish they kept those helmets on. They have some unexplained moral code, as we cut to alien POVs that scan for threats, choosing to spare innocent lives in other circumstances. When the alien spacecraft fist appear, they take up position in a row and wait for their Earthly challengers to strike. It reminded me of the fighting sequences in turn-based RPG video games. These aliens are more sporting than your typical interstellar advanced civilization just interested in conquest. These aliens are into turn-based RPGs. These aliens are nerds.
With all that surprising praise now established, Battleship the movie is still chock full of ridiculous moments and a rather leaky plot. The subplot involving a double-amputee veteran getting back his groove via alien invasion never feels well grafted to the major storyline. It feels like it was crowbarred in after the producers or Berg saw real-life double-amputee Gregory D. Gadson and declared, “This man needs to be in a movie.” He’s likeable enough but over the course of 130 minutes you realize likeable isn’t the same as being a skilled actor. This entire subplot involving Gadson, Samantha, and a computer techie (the amusing Hamish Linklater) strains credulity even for a dumb action movie. The fact that three easily over matched people can take out a load of well-armed aliens with little more than a Jeep and a briefcase mitigates the life-and-death stakes at sea. If these alien bad guys can lose so stupidly, then what’s the hold up? Also, the movie inserts a lot of bizarre tension between Japan and the U.S., like it’s trying to iron out the last unresolved conflict from the Second World War. The term “inelegant” cannot come close to describing the nativsm conflict and its dopey resolution. And then there’s the fact that the movie is long giant recruitment ad for the U.S. Navy. I suppose after the Marines had their own alien-fighting flick/recruitment ad last year (Battle: Los Angeles), the other branches of the armed services felt left out. I pray no one ever enlists over something this silly. No major life decisions should be made over the big screen adaptation of Battleship, people.
There’s a paucity of solid characters here. We get the bad boy younger brother who will discover his mettle and leadership by the end (by the by: having characters keep talking about how much “potential” somebody has is the annoying non-fantasy equivalent of talking about a prophecy being fulfilled). Kitsch comes off better than he did in Disney’s costly flop John Carter, but he seems too stiff and sullen for a leading man. If Battleship sinks, expect his leading man status to get dry-docked (okay, I’ll lay off the puns). Decker (Just Go with It) is still working out the kinks of transitioning from model to actress. Her romance with Kitsch is about as contrived as these things get in big action movies, a pathetic bone thrown to a deflated female audience who would rather see Decker in What to Expect When You’re Expecting. The additional seamen, including Rihanna’s acting debut (insert your “S.O.S.” joke here), are given one-note to play for over two hours. And as far as Ms. Umbrella-ella-ella is concerned, it’s certainly not the worst acting debut by a pop star (see: Crossroads, or better yet, don’t). Most disappointing is Neeson (Taken) who spends the far, far majority of the movie on the wrong side of the force field. I want this guy kicking ass and not barking impotently into a phone.
I don’t know if I can look myself in the mirror and declare, with solemn dignity, that Battleship is a good movie by the normal standards of objective excellence. Screw it, I had far too much fun with this film to stand back and pretend the movie’s flaws are too overpowering. Berg has slapped together what may be the most formulaic, pinpointed Big Summer Movie I’ve witnessed in some time, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t win me over. They may be pushing buttons but Berg and company pushes them so well. Plus, I’m still uncertain whether or not the entire bloated affair is really the most expensive, subversive swipe at Michael Bay ever attempted. This is probably just wishful thinking from a critic looking to justify liking this movie. It’s got plenty of action, though doled out into bite-sized portions before the ACDC “Thunderstruck” montage ramps up the finale. Every now and then, you need a movie that gives you the right kind of stupid, and Battleship is the right kind of stupid for the summer movie season.
Nate’s Grade: B-