What? No submarine?
That is far from my biggest problem with Battleship, Hasbro’s $200 million attempt to show the entire world that Michael Bay’s aesthetic is not difficult to imitate provided you have no shame and access to $200 million. But it’s a problem nonetheless. After all, if you’re going to spend so much money to adapt one of the most famous board games of all time into a film, you might as well throw in everything the board game has to offer.
Which, when you think about it, isn’t much. “Battleship” was never meant to be made into a film. The board game has no plot, it has no characters, and it has no discernable setting – the three most critical elements of any movie. It consists solely of two players, each trying to sink their opponent’s naval fleet before their opponent can do the same to them. And it wouldn’t make for very scintillating cinema to watch anonymous officers on the bridge of an unspecified ship pore over an ocean chart before gravely announcing, “D-2.” (Though we get a scene much like that in this film.)
Still, every bad idea has to be tried at least once, and I suppose I have to give the producers credit for letting their imaginations run free. If you had put a gun to my head and forced me to write a screen treatment for Battleship, I suppose I would have come up with a variation on Run Silent, Run Deep that went like this. During WWII, two opposing naval forces of equal strength encounter inclement weather somewhere in the Arctic Circle. The weather not only keeps them in the area, but makes their onboard radars useless. They are forced to fire blindly into the darkness, hoping against hope that they will sink the enemy fleet first. It’s not exactly the script for Citizen Kane, I admit. But if you fill it out with a few characters and set up the circumstances just right (low ammunition, some prize the enemy forces both want to claim first), it would make a not-totally-awful adaptation.
I never would have thought of aliens, though.
Yes, aliens. Battleship isn’t channeling Run Silent, Run Deep so much as it wants to be a smaller-scale, troops-only version of Independence Day. You might think that’s bad enough, that “The United States Navy vs. an alien invasion force” is a stupid premise for a movie. But I promise you that the premise is not nearly as stupid as the way the movie turns it into a story.
For starters, the aliens only came here because we signaled them. A SETI-like endeavor called “The Beacon Project” sent a signal into space in 2006 aimed at the nearest Earth-like planet, explicitly identified as planet G in the Gliese 581 star system. One of the scientists attached to the project thinks this is a bad idea, since it will set up a Columbus-Indians situation, “and we’re the Indians.” The borderline historical illiteracy of that statement is exceeded only by the scientific illiteracy on display in this first-contact situation. Even if we had sent a message to Gliese 581g in 2006 (we didn’t send a message to the star system until 2008, and planet G’s existence wasn’t confirmed until 2010), it would still be en route. Gliese 581 is about 20 light years away, so they wouldn’t even receive the message for another 14 years! Then, unless they had starships capable of traveling faster than light, it would take them at least 20 years to send an invasion fleet. But the film is set now, not in 2050 or thereabouts! I guess Jon and Eric Hoeber couldn’t be bothered with scientific accuracy.
When they do arrive implausibly early, however, the aliens must consider themselves the luckiest invaders in galactic history. Because the “hero” they are faced with is actually dumber than the movie in which he stars, by not one but several orders of magnitude. Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) is busy wasting his life, much to the dismay of his older brother Stone (Alexander Skarsgard), a career officer in the United States Navy. Late one night at a bar, Alex sees a Hollywood standard-issue smoking hot blonde (Brooklyn Decker) at the bar trying and failing to order a chicken burrito. So he breaks into the convenience store across the street, damages half the store, and is tased while escaping from police – all to get her a chicken burrito. Incredibly, she thinks this is attractive instead of repulsive. Even more incredibly, she is the daughter of the admiral in charge of America’s Pacific Fleet (a slumming Liam Neeson), which somehow puts Stone’s butt in a sling for reasons the movie slides right over because they would make no sense.
So Stone, in defiance of common sense, strong-arms his lazy and foolish brother into joining the Navy. Not only does Mr. Stupid not wash out within a year, he has somehow risen through the ranks to become Lt. Stupid (a full lieutenant, no less) in just six years’ time. He certainly didn’t go to Annapolis, then. Did he go to OCS? The movie doesn’t give us a real explanation for how such an undisciplined moron was able to gain an officer’s rank, two promotions, and a position of significant responsibility aboard a destroyer. I suspect that’s because the story would involve catching his superior officer snorting a line of coke at a donkey show in Tijuana, and you really couldn’t keep a PG-13 rating while showing us that.
I say “the movie doesn’t give us a real explanation” because they do keep assuring us that Alex is brilliant and talented. Yet his actions never demonstrate that. A man who runs from the police after breaking into a convenience store may have an instinct for self-preservation. A man who demands the right to take his own penalty shot after being kicked in the face during a soccer match may have a sense of honor. But neither of those is even an intelligent decision, let alone brilliant. And Alex’s sole talent seems to be getting into trouble. He is late for a ceremony marking the start of a massive international war games exercise, after which he tries to rearrange the face of his soccer assailant (a captain in the Japanese Navy) in a bathroom altercation. Apparently this marks the last straw for the Navy. Oh, please. If the brief glimpse of Alex we get is representative, he should have been cashiered for conduct unbecoming years ago.
In fact, by attempting to board an alien vessel that crashes in the Pacific Ocean, Alex is proximately responsible for precipitating the conflict that ends up destroying three ships and a Marine base, damaging a fourth ship (the USS Missouri, no less – perhaps the most famous ship in modern American history), and killing his brother in the process. Granted, Alex also saves the world. But all things considered, he should offer a fervent prayer of thanks that he serves under Admiral Shane and not, say, the Marquis de Lantenac.
Battleship does attempt to include some sense of the game on which it is based, but those moments are undermined when you stop to think about how poorly they match up either to the game or to the real world. Its grid-based scene actually has a clever setup; the grid squares are defined by NOAA buoys meant to monitor ocean levels, and our heroes fire missiles at the buoys as they show significant disturbances (the alien ships being invisible to radar). That works fine in the real world. It’s a pity that in the game of “Battleship,” moving targets would count as cheating.
Also, you might expect that in a movie named Battleship, we’d see an outing by a member of the title class of ships. The problem is that no one makes battleships anymore. They have terrific offensive capabilities, but they’re too slow and too clumsy for modern naval warfare, they can’t project offensive power the way an aircraft carrier can, and they can’t defend themselves very well. They’re an active liability to any surface fleet. Yet it would just seem wrong to not have a battleship play a key role. So the Hoebers find a way to make that happen. Again, it’s cleverly engineered. After losing all their other ships, the heroes are in need of some serious firepower to decimate the largest remaining enemy ship. And it just so happens that there is one ship they can borrow – the aforementioned Missouri. So they break it out of mothballs, train its massive guns on the…
Wait, what’s that? You just remembered that there should be more than one ship available, because there were major military exercises going on in the region? Yes, you’ve just hit on the biggest contrivance of all. You see, the aliens that have landed on Earth have thrown up a massive impenetrable energy shield around the Hawaiian Islands, trapping our heroes inside. All of the other surface vessels are outside the shield. The aliens are simply trying to prevent anyone from sabotaging their efforts to seize control of the Beacon Project and send a signal back to their home planet that the time for an invasion has arrived. Little do they know that there would be no movie without their impeccable timing. You see, there’s no way they could possibly have known about the departure of the U.S. Pacific Fleet for war games. Had they arrived a half-hour earlier, they would have trapped the fleet inside the shield with them – and as we see at the end of the movie, that would have turned out badly for the aliens, because we have Liam Neeson and they don’t. A half-hour later, and the aliens would have been able to finish their work unimpeded. As it is, we have the recipe for a standard action movie.
Make no mistake. That‘s what we have here. Battleship wouldn’t dream of striving to be anything else, anything more. We have the hero who breaks the rules. We has the hero’s girlfriend, who is reputed to be any number of wonderful things but in reality doesn’t excel in any particular area except “being blonde and hot.” Unfriendly rivals are forced to team up, and gain a newfound respect for each other. A hero who’s lost his way learns that he’s still a man. Unlikely heroes rise to prove their worth in a series of laughable “action heroism” moments. Lines that are seemingly meant to be funny induce pain instead. Liam Neeson makes us wonder whether the paycheck was really worth it. And of course, there are lots of explosions, and there is lot of swearing. But no graphic violence or blood, and no really bad words. Otherwise they wouldn’t have the opportunity to dumb down whole families at once.
I should clarify where I’m coming from here. I have no beef with action movies in general, nor would I turn up my nose at a good one. Had I written a review of The Expendables, it would have been glowing. I’m not a snob. But Battleship tasks my patience, because the motives behind it are so plainly mercenary. There is no love of the action genre here. There is no attempt to use the action movie template to do something new, or original, or even good. Peter Berg doesn’t do anything inventive with the camera. He doesn’t even try. He just shot a two-minute trailer, and then enough additional material to fill it out into a two-hour film. That’s all he needs to do, right? It moves. It talks. It explodes. Give me your nine dollars, please.
Occasionally, the movie gets something right. There’s a great scene where downtown Hong Kong is decimated by a piece of falling alien debris. And I love that one victory over the aliens actually hinges on the well-timed use of a scientific fact; since they come from a solar system with a star that is considerably less bright than our sun, they would be blinded by our sunlight. But that moment of insight is then delivered in the worst way possible – a speech about a pet lizard whose existence hadn’t been set up until that moment. Nor does the bad stop there. The world we see here is one where an American sailor makes a crack about Sun Tzu’s Art of War to a Japanese naval officer, but where no one comments (however obliquely) on the irony that the last time the Hawaiian Islands were attacked, the Americans and the Japanese had a very different relationship. It attempts to make an appeal to sentimentality which it has not earned by crewing the Missouri with members of the Greatest Generation, and additionally fails to do enough math to know that the youngest of those men would now be in his very late 80’s, and probably not in great ship-crewing shape. It gains an amazing amount of technical assistance during production from members of the U.S. Navy, and then has its hero refer to the Missouri as a boat. Here’s a fun exercise for you. Find an old Navy man who served on a surface vessel, and ask him about his “boat.” See what reaction you get.
One last thing: Why are the heroes celebrating at the end? I mean, they’ve destroyed the invasion and stopped the aliens from sending a signal that Earth was ripe for the invading. But eventually, the aliens on Gliese 581g are going to realize they won’t get a signal. Then they’ll probably take a good guess as to why, and send a much larger support force. If five ships can do this much damage, just stop to think about what 5,000 could do.
Ultimately, what we have in Battleship is a sub-standard movie that will probably do okay (but no better) at the box office on the strength of two crowds: the people who want to see things blow up, but don’t care what; and the people who want to see a movie, but don’t care what. Yet I can’t shake the nagging feeling that this thing never should have been made. In fact, the now-obligatory post-credits sequence held my attention more than the actual film. A piece of alien debris crashes to earth in Scotland and a farmer and his kids break out the alien inside? That sounds like the setup for an actually worthwhile monster rampage movie. Instead, I have an awful feeling it’s actually the promise of a sequel to this underwhelming underachiever.
Sorry, guys. You sunk my interest.