(Really, any movie reviews on this blog should come with a spoiler warning)
What can you say about a film like Battleship?
Yes it is based on the Hasbro game with the little model ships and the pegs. Just about anyway. Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) is a young weapons officer in the US Navy, a talented yet reckless individual facing expulsion from the service due to his persistent insubordination. First though, under the watchful eyes of his girlfriends dad Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson) and responsible older brother Stone (Alexander Skarsgard) he takes part in a Pacific naval exercise. Then aliens turn up, and due a very odd series of events, Hopper winds up using the art of “Battleship” to take them on.
There is a thing with these kind of movies, that they are frequently described (or maybe excused is a better word) as the kind of film that requires you to “turn off your brain” in order to enjoy it. The classic staple of this new genre of “brainless” CGI-heavy action flicks is Michael Bay’s Transformers, which got the “turn brain off” description frequently.
That kind of description has never fully washed with me, as it is a very easy way to excuse really bad writing, really bad plot and really bad characters, as if these things can be easily brushed aside by encouraging the audience not to think about them. Come on, you’re going to see Battleship, what do you expect?
Well, a little bit more please if you have a budget of 200 million. Any movie, Battleship, Transformers, whatever, can be written with intelligence and subtlety, and still retain the tag of being an action fest. Good writers can write good dialogue regardless of the circumstances, good directors can get good performances out of actors. But films of this nature just seem to take the easy route because they know that the right application of explosion filled trailers and celebrity casting will get people in seats. It makes money, so there is little motivation to change the formula or to expend more effort than is absolutely required on things outside of special effects and fight choreography.
It shouldn’t be acceptable, but this is like pushing against the tide. We are well beyond the formerly standard mindlessness of the action film, buying that John McClane can fight a whole building full of terrorists or that President Bill Pullman can fight aliens in a fighter jet. No, the lens-flare club represented by the Transformers franchise, 2012, Battle: LA, and Battleship are a different level entirely, where the art of pacing, dialogue, characterisation, and realistic female roles is treated with a sort of contempt that is genuinely sad to see, placed below the need for something shinier, a better explosion, a better computer model of a building collapsing.
You see, I actually had some expectations for Battleship. I ignored the actual “based upon” aspect because the finished product is so unlike a game of “Battleship” that I’m surprised they even paid out money to the franchise. It is an alien invasion movie, only this time it is the navy, War of the Worlds-style that has to face them down. It has a decent cast, with several actors I really admire, some beautiful locations, stellar CGI work (hey, I don’t dismiss it, just question its priority), decent score. This could work on a critical level.
But it doesn’t.
The basic plot structure is far from perfect. Very little is done with the time before the aliens show up other then define our main character as a screw-up and his brother as the opposite. Some fancy ships are shown off, there is a football game, Rihanna talks for a bit, the, by now, obligatory blonde bimbo girlfriend gets some screentime.
Then, it’s just a heavy mix of ship-to-ship combat and nonsensical sci-fi talk, mixed in with a heavy amount of American patriotism and green screen acting. It trips along, but suffers from abadoning effective dialogue and plot in the latter half in favour of more explosions and fights, the typical flaw of many of these movies.
The aliens are basically there and out for a fight, with little else to show them as a multi-layered threat: they don’t talk, there is no interaction. There is more believable and enjoyable conflict between the American and Japanese allies then there is between the humans and the aliens.
The actual smartest part of the whole thing is how the writing team come up with the scenario of an actual game of “Battleship” in Battleship (the aliens communication/radar ship is destroyed early on, their technology does the same to the humans, necessitating firing blind. Using tidal wave detector systems creates the game board) which just about stops that whole idea becoming laughable.
At a certain point, the destroyers that make up the bulk of the film are ditched by the production team in favour of the titular battleship, the USS Missouri, which our heroes get out of mothballs and made battle ready in a short montage…with the help of the veterans who crewed it over 50 years ago. Yep. The patriotic cheesiness oozes thick and fast on that one.
The ending comes fast, and everything is wrapped up sharpish in the aftermath, leaving you with this horrible sense of dissatisfaction, like the creators were desperate to cut down on the running time so they simple aped the medal scene of A New Hope and threw in some cringe-worthy “disapproving father/prospective son-in-law” stuff.
There is a sub-plot with previously mentioned blonde, a double amputee Army veteran (actually played by Lt Col Gregory Gadson, director of the American “Wounded Warrior” program) and a science nerd – none of whose names I can remember – trying to stop the alien bad guys from getting a signal out to their home planet (this is crux of the movie, that the aliens are unable to communicate back to their homeworld). Apparently, stopping the aliens from sending a phone call home will prevent more from turning up. Apparently. Anyway, our trio of racially/culturally diverse heroes step up to tackle this problem on the ground while Taylor Kitsch sorts out the aliens at sea.
Only, our trio don’t have any lasting impact on the story as a whole. They delay the aliens getting the signal out allowing Taylor Kitsch on the Missouri to destroy their broadcast medium, but in terms of impact on the plot, there is no reason why Kitsch couldn’t have just done the whole job himself, if that was the ultimate outcome they were going for. Why not just have the trio succeed completely, giving them some relevance to proceedings? Instead, we get a very ham-fisted sub-plot about the amputee veteran getting his self respect back. That’s about it.
As I said before, the actual casting isn’t that bad here. Taylor Kitsch? Liked John Carter, liked Friday Night Lights. But he isn’t really called upon to do that much here, other than roguish snark. Alexander Skarsgard? He was badass in Generation Kill. But despite being a better actor then Kitsch, he gets relegated to a secondary role here and his impact is measured in the number of disapproving glances he gets to deliver. Liam Neeson? Obviously, one of the great actors of our time in my opinion. But he seems to be the obligatory big name casting here (remember Jon Voight in Transformers?) and just coasts through to paycheck land. Rihanna? Well, she doesn’t really get that much to do at all. I guess she’s…competent? Certainly didn’t disgrace herself as might have been predicted. Brooklyn Decker? Well, she’s not as bad as Dark of the Moon’s Rosie Huntington-Whitely and she made me actually bye that she could be a physiotherapist, so kudos to her I guess, but, again, she doesn’t get to do much.
The rest of the cast, from supporting navy personnel to the scientists just go through the motions with what little screentime they get. I’ll give special mention to Tadanobu Asano as the Japanese naval officer who acts as a foil and later ally to Hopper as one of the more stand out guys. And hey, look, there’s Peter McNicol for around 20 seconds!
The script is pretty bad and won’t be winning any awards anytime soon. Every cliché is trotted out here, in a bland workthrough designed to simply bridge the gaps between various action sequences. The extra mile required to produce something better just isn’t being travelled. Most notable is probably the stilted paragraph given to Rihanna when she describes her father’s premonitions of aliens, which was just awful, both in its structure and placing in the film.
The CGI work and the action sequences actually are quite good. Visually spectacular, tension filled etc. There aren’t enough naval combat movies in my opinion and Battleship, at the very least, could be a precursor to more. You know what you could do with this? Ditch the aliens and just make a Jutland movie.
The aliens look cool if a bit unbelievable (that is, the CGI aliens do not blend into the sets as well as they could), their ships have a pretty unique design (even if their weapons, inspired by the board game pegs, may inspire head shaking), and Battleship offers up some really excellent representations of destroyers being, well, destroyed.
Naturally, the plot holes are numerous and more then up for destroying suspension of disbelief. Hopper becomes a Lieutenant despite a criminal record and his set role as insubordinate and as a screw-up? A navy officer who can’t understand Sun Tzu? Nobody bats an eye at making Japanese Navy personnel attend a welcome ceremony on the Missouri, where Japan was forced to surrender in 1945? 60-70 year old veterans have the modern training, physical health and mental well being to crew the aforementioned battleship? The aliens aren’t just going to send more ships from their home planet? The aliens have ships capable of FTL but can’t operate their own independent radar systems? Everyone at the end seems causally uncaring about the fact that Earth was just attacked by freaking aliens?
Battleship just doesn’t try enough. It is just another example of the lens-flare club that is dominating the action/disaster movie genre, where the human element is sidelined. It is possible to enjoy a film like Battleship. I certainly didn’t hate it, just thought it was pretty stupid throughout. Is that acceptable for a budget of 200 million dollars?
Nowadays, seems like it is.