Movie Review: Battleship
“From Hasbro, the company that brought you Transformers.”
That line actually accompanies some of the trailers for Battleship, the sci-fi blockbuster-wannabe that was released this past weekend. I remember watching its trailer for the first time many months ago. Like most people, I thought what I saw on the screen was an explosive blend of dumb action and bad science fiction, with actors like Liam Neeson delivering brain-dead dialogue with all the gruff they could muster.
For the record, I’m perfectly okay with this style of Michael Bay-inspired filmmaking. Sometimes what you really need is a great effects/low intelligence popcorn film to make the work week go away, and for all intents and purposes, that was what this trailer was offering. Everybody has a different take on what they want when they go to the movies. When the title ‘Battleship’ appeared on the screen in big block letters, however, the response was unanimous: laughter. Here was a title barely being taken seriously on its own, immediately ridiculed by an audience that recognized a nostalgic cash-grab when they saw one.
The naval warfare title is one of five board games whose rights had been purchased from the Hasbro game company by Universal Pictures for the purpose of adapting them to the big screen. Of the five, only Battleship has made it, the others abandoned and forgotten. You have to wonder, though: why in the world would Universal think that adapting a board game into a movie would be a good idea? Sure, such transformations are nothing new; 1985’s Clue has become something of a cult classic, though at least that game brought to the table the whole ‘murder mystery’ tale around which the film revolves.
Yes, Hasbro has had success moving their products to the cinema in recent years, but the makers of Transformers and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra never had to work from scratch to create stories and characters for their franchises; they had years of canon from comics, toys, and television shows upon which to draw. Still, Universal thought that sinking over $200 million into a generic sci-fi story was worth the purchase of film rights to a game that literally consisted of two players randomly selecting where they think their opponent is hiding. Needless to say, the idea that this film has been made at all has been fodder for journalists, none of whom thought that it would make money, let alone be worth the ticket price.
To be fair, the flak this film has received has been a bit overblown. The film’s story starts in 2005, with the world’s leading scientists attempting to send a message through space to the blandly-named Planet G, an extrasolar planet that appears capable of supporting life. Why they do this is not revealed, though I would like to add that contacting a potentially intelligent species without considering for a single moment that the recipient might carry out hostile intents is always a great idea. Anyway, cue to present day, when the combined navies of the Pacific Rim are gathering together for RIMPAC, the biennial naval exercise exhibition. Lieutenant Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) is a talented Tactical Officer on the Destroyer USS John Paul Jones who has all but been dismissed from service for his utter lack of discipline. While on maneuvers, the combined fleets observe an unknown structure jutting out of the Pacific. This turns out to be the big mean nasties, and most of the fleet soon finds itself trapped outside a force field that has completely surrounded the islands of Hawaii. Now it’s up to three destroyers that happened to find themselves inside the ring to figure out what’s going on, and Alex and the crew of the John Paul Jones are tested in ways they never imagined.
Okay, enough exposition. There’s only one reason you should even consider getting out of your chair right now to see Battleship, and that’s the outrageously gorgeous special effects. Taking the budget of a Michael Bay flick but shooting it in a far cleaner fashion than the self-styled King of Action, director Peter Berg returns to the big screen – after three years working in television – proving he still has what it takes to make a major motion picture look good. While the alien ships look like carbon copies of Decepticon machines (complete with perpetual grimace), the grace of their motion and the sheer punch of their firepower is staggering, making for some truly breathtaking battle sequences. Berg knew that he was not making some artistic masterpiece, and that the special effects would be the foundation of what makes the whole thing entertaining. As a result, he pours every last ounce of resources into making certain that everything that appears on the screen looks damned good.
Of course, that much effort put into the special effects makes the bell curve for the rest of Battleship all the more pronounced, especially when you look at the level of the performances. Action films don’t tend to invest much in trivial things like character development or halfway-decent dialogue, but the lack of serious acting talent is a real concern. Besides the peerless Neeson, the next best actor in the group is Alexander Skarsgard, and – sorry, True Blood fans – both are relatively small players in the grand scheme. While much was made of Barbadian singer Rihanna’s acting debut (and she does a decent job), the star is and always was going to be Kitsch, which is good for his agent but not so much for the rest of us.
Ever since his breakthrough on Berg’s own television show Friday Night Lights, Kitsch was expected to become a big deal, a superstar for the next generation. Well, that hasn’t quite worked out. The poor reception of X-Men Origins: Wolverine killed any talk of a Gambit spin-off, John Carter was an under-appreciated bomb, and now Battleship flounders thanks to a weak script that I doubt Kitsch even read before agreeing to play along. Despite an excellent opening sequence that introduces us to Alex Hopper and his romantic involvement with Brooklyn Decker’s physical therapist character (set to the Pink Panther theme, no less), the rest of the movie features Kitsch’s emotionless mug delivering lines that wouldn’t have passed muster in the days of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s language barrier, let alone today’s more joke-quipping heroes. I don’t know when Kitsch is going to finally turn the corner and become this big star that everyone is predicting, but if it doesn’t happen soon, you can bet it never will.
The story itself might be idiotic, full of plot holes and detritus, but at least Berg has the good sense to have some fun with the material. The script is full of one-liners, unbelievable scenarios and feel-good moments, engineered solely for the entertainment of the audience. Every war movie is (and should be) a tribute to the sacrifice and service of veterans, but only in this film do the honored vets play key roles in the final battle (complete with their own battleship, a mean feat as the ship class was decommissioned after the Cold War). The same is true with those whose sacrifices came with a price; Berg cast real-life bilateral above-the-knee amputee Colonel Gregory D. Gadson in the role of an army officer who gets to hang out with a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model on Oahu when aliens invade. He can’t really act worth a damn, but when he gets to beat the tar out of a CGI-rendered extraterrestrial, he is the king of the screen. These scenes, like most of the movie, are designed to be so bizarre as to defy belief, and that element raises the whole thing above the level of most common war films, creating its charm.
But while Battleship is a far better way to spend your time than you originally believed, the license that created it is also the main thing holding it back. The many references to the game – from the aliens launching peg-like projectiles at their enemies to an extended in-the-dark battle that has spotters calling out whether our heroes “hit” or “miss” their targets – don’t detract that much from the movie, but it’s obvious that they’re only there to appease what the filmmakers must imagine are “fans” of the original board game. Battleship is so far removed from anything you played as a kid, however, that you can’t help but shake your head at such efforts. As much as I could have done without the constant barrage of reminders that all this was actually based on a simple board game, I find myself wondering whether anyone would have dropped as much money making this if not for that original Hasbro game. That’s a shame, as even with the forced elements Battleship makes for a fun – if brainless – theatrical excursion. Even though you might have more fun re-watching The Avengers for the fourth or fifth time, Battleship is a solid #2 choice, and that’s not a bad place to end up.
So what’s next in store for board game movies? Work is already being put into big-screen adaptations of Monopoly, Candy Land and Ouija, but why stop there? Sorry could be an Ashton Kutcher rom-com in which his girlfriend becomes upset at his constant mistakes. Connect Four could be a French spy flick, called Brancher les Quatre. Operation could be a Robin Williams vehicle in which he plays a senior surgeon unable to tell his Adam’s Apple from his Funny Bone. Hungry Hungry Hippos? I’m thinking Matthew McConaughey and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as rival adventurers racing to find a legendary diamond mine in the jungles of Africa, one protected by the four Hippos of Legend.
The kicker of course is that all these titles could easily be made without their exclusive licensing agreements. Anyone can say that branding is important, and for the most part they’d be right, as recognizable brands more easily create awareness for a product. But the more emphasis we put on familiarity and nostalgia, the more we justify the argument that Hollywood is out of truly unique ideas. I don’t believe that is the case, but when Hollywood spends as much money as they did to create Battleship, it’s painfully obvious that they do, and that’s a very bad thing.
John C. Anderson is a freelance writer and film enthusiast living in Boston. You can find his reviews at Hello, Mr. Anderson.