A Droid Premiere: Battleship (2012)
The knives are out and no one’s been sharpening more furiously than me. ‘Battleship’ has got to be the nadir of Hollywood creativity. It’s a film, based on an antiquated 80’s board game. Hasbro, the company responsible for Transformers and GI Joe, are unflinchingly determined to exploit every possible product they have in their catalogue. But a board game? Transformers and GI Joe I can fully understand, because they began life as a line of toys, and by proxy have somewhat identifiable transferable characteristics and personality for a feature film. But what characteristics and personality does a board game have, when the whole game is just players taking turns yelling out grid coordinates in an attempt to hit the others plastic ship? And would the target audience know what ‘Battleship’ is? Does anyone even play board games any more?
You get the gist of where I’m going here, don’t you? The entire concept, the purpose behind the production of a ‘Battleship’feature film is hateful. It’s a market research product from the sputtering Hollywood machine. It’s hateful for what it stands for. It exists because kids in the 80’s played a board game called ‘Battleship’. So it had that going against it. It starred a charisma free actor (fresh off a ginormous headline grabbing bomb), along with a pop singer who’d never been in a film before and a model better known for having big knockers. Well, it’s the only reason I knew who she was before this movie. Strike two. And then there were the trailers. Boy did they make the film look like complete shit. Strike three. That should be out right?
In response to the discovery of a goldilocks planet, NASA starts hooting and hollering Aloha at ‘Planet G’ from a communications base on Hawaii. Stationed there is the former loser (seen in a pre-credits sequence breaking into a quickimart for a burrito), now hothead Navy Lieutenant Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch). There’s a bunch of not very entertaining junk about Hopper dating Samantha (Brooklyn Decker), who happens to be the daughter of Vice Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson). Some other nonsense about international Navy games, Hopper unconvincingly playing soccer and a rivalry with the Japanese Captain Nagata (Tadanobu Asano) is established. Nothing very interesting happens for about 30 or 40 minutes while we’re introduced to these and a number of supporting characters, including Hoppers Captain brother (Alexander Skarsgård, who was obviously not born of the same uterus, nor from the same sperm source), Petty Officer Raikes (Rihanna) and Beast (John Tui). But then the Ambassadors from Planet G arrive, and shit hits the fan. Hopper becomes separated from the rest of the fleet, and engages in a one ship navy battle for the fate of the planet.
‘Battleship’ is, quite simply, one of the most ludicrous alien invasion action films I’ve ever seen. It is also, despite my better judgement, a very entertaining one. Once it gets going. For the first third of the film, it’s a bit of grind, and while the film tries and fails at comedy, it’s a blessed relief that they’ve attempted comedy based more around character and situation than leg-humping and knob jokes. And once you get past the early, pre-Navy scene, Kitsch makes a tolerably bland man of action. In that early scene his character is so annoyingly overplayed as a dimwitted loser that it’s a little startling when the film tries to sneak in references to his intelligence.
But hey-ho, deep character development and subtlety aren’t what we go and see an alien invasion action movie for (even though some would be nice), and once the cannons start booming ‘Batteship’ kicks into gear and becomes a pretty damn fun movie. The films greatest asset, and all credit to director Peter Berg and writers Jon and Erich Hoeber for this, is the films knowing, self-aware sense of humour. There is a lot of intentional comedy in ‘Battleship’. Comedy that recognises the astonishingly absurd premise, and most of the time that comedy works. Towards the end, the film becomes one of the best comedies in a while, with the finale featuring the decommissioned USS Missouri returned to active duty, along with what looks like a small selection of its original crew. This sequence is so well executed, complete with ACDC blasting on the soundtrack with pitch perfect comic timing, that it had me laughing out loud.
The other winner in ‘Battleship’s arsenal is that Berg has delivered a couple of really fun, effective action sequences. There’s one scene that specifically apes the actual board game, with Captain Nagata yelling out coordinates for missile launch, that is a humorous nod to the board game and an exciting scene to boot. One of the key things Berg does is establish at least rudimentary strategy to the warfare, and unlike Michael Bay’s ‘Transformers’ films, it feels like there’s at least some logic at play during the film.
And then there’s the aliens themselves. They’re never fully explained, but we are dripfed enough information to get the idea. We’ve discovered their planet, and sent out an open invitation. But instead of coming around to see our place with a “Howdy neighbour” and a potted plant, they’re intending on becoming houseguest from hell. For beings capable of interstellar travel, their tech is amusingly shonky. Their ships appear to only have the capability to leap a short distance before pausing for breath, seemingly recharging before leaping forward again. This is, obviously, in reference to the board game, moving one notch at a time, but since the Navy ships themselves do not adhere to this rule, I’m not sure why they bothered. Well, that’s not entirely true. They bothered because they were looking to tie into the board game as much as possible, and when all you’ve got to work with is plastic pieces on a small grid you’ve got to use whatever you can.
The other curious thing about the aliens, is that they don’t seem to intend to do us harm. Or more accurately, they’re reluctant to do so. Berg frequently cuts to “alien cam” with an on screen display that processes information about ships, people, cars et al and identifies threats (such as weaponry), and then takes them out. A key strategy towards the end of the film depends on the Battleships guns pointing in the wrong direction, and therefore not being recognised as a threat. It’s a strange element to the film, and while it helps establish some rules and tactics, it also raises questions. Like, what are these aliens after? Maybe they really did come in peace. Hell, to begin with they did only fire when fired upon. Maybe if some trigger fingered nervous nelly hadn’t got jumpy, we’d all have new weird, gecko eyed intergalactic BF’s to hang out with.
As far as performances go, no one really stands out as either being especially good or bad. I liked John Tui as Beast, who seemed to me the most capable, and sensible character in the film. Alexander Skarsgård and Liam Neeson both don’t get a lot of screentime, and Neeson in particular is largely wasted. I don’t know if Skarsgård is capable of better performances because the only other film on his resume that I’ve seen is Zoolander, and I don’t remember him in it. Rihanna doesn’t embarrass herself, which is the best compliment I can come up with for her. And Brooklyn Decker is, quite frankly, not very talented. But she appears to be trying her best, and she is actually given something to do (which includes running in a singlet, something I highly recommend seeing), which automatically makes her character better than the Transformers damsels who are dragged around by the male lead.
The film features a couple of cameos that only really serve to distract you. Blink and you’ll miss a beardless Turtle from Entourage, and Stephen Bishop (who played David Justice in Moneyball). Maybe these are less cameos, and more very minor supporting roles, but due to the very recognisability of the actors, they’re a bit distracting. Finally, in the lead role, Taylor Kitsch is okay. He starts off badly, but once the film kicks into gear, he delivers an acceptable square jawed action hero performance. After two huge films in quick succession, one of which failing badly, I don’t expect that we’ll be seeing many more films with this type of budget being headlined by Kitsch. But good on him for grabbing a couple of big films while he could.
‘Battleship’ was a big surprise for me. For the past 6 months I’ve fully expected to hate it. But, just like 2010’s ‘The A-Team’, the film is self-aware enough to know it’s absurd, and it’s made with a good natured, eager to please approach that is kind of disarming. The crassness of the ‘Transformers’ films has been jettisoned and what we’ve ended up with is a film that is very silly, pretty funny, and a mostly entertaining experience.