May 18, 2012
Let’s say you are a pretty decent commercial Hollywood filmmaker and you have accepted the conventional wisdom that you are now living in a “brand” and “i.p.” culture, a world where studios only want to make – and people only want to see – movies based on famous titles of TV shows and comic books and things that they remember from before. And let’s say that the toy company Hasbro has stumbled into running a movie production company after Michael Bay turned their Transformers toys into a gigantic movie franchise. And that now they are convinced they can do the same thing with the classic board game Battleship.
Well, that actually happened one time to Peter Berg (THE RUNDOWN), who had not directed a movie for a couple years after his not-brand-based Summer Fling HANCOCK floundered in 2008, and his response was “Why not?” Or maybe “I guess?” or perhaps “Okay. Fine.” Since the game is very simple, with no story or characters and I’d say less than five identifiable characteristics that would need to be used in an adaptation, he and screenwriters Jon and Erich Hoeber (RED 1 and 2) could just use it as a fake name to slap onto an expensive wannabe blockbuster than any sane person would know was gonna be broadly rejected only because of the board game name that they didn’t need to put on it. But that’s life.
(“The Game of Life” by the way is also owned by Hasbro.)
BATTLESHIP is Battleship only because it is about a battleship and has a part reminiscent of the grid-based torpedo warfare of the game. Also – this is my favorite part – the aliens drop bombs shaped like the plastic pegs that are used as markers in the games, and they stick into the ships before exploding.
Oh yes, there are aliens. This is really an admission that the game itself is not worthy of a movie. In fact it’s an alien invasion movie with a board game tie-in. It’s like if you’re watching a monster movie and half way through you think “Oh shit, this is Monopoly, isn’t it?”
The purely Bergian part is the movie’s worshipful view of military service and ceremony. The hero, Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch, star of the TV version of Berg’s FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS), is an arrogant troublemaking fuckup like Maverick in TOP GUN. He embarrasses and disappoints his older brother Stone (Alexander Skarsgard, THE LEGEND OF TARZAN) and his commanding officer Admiral Terrance Shane (Liam Neeson, DARKMAN), who is also the father of his girlfriend Sam (Brooklyn Decker, STRETCH). They always talk about his wasted potential, so we know this is gonna be about the day he called upon his dormant Great Military Officer inside and saved the world from aliens that it would finally be a good time to ask Liam Neeson for permission to marry his daughter.
The invasion happens in the middle of some war games in Hawaii, where Hopper (as even his girlfriend calls him) has shamed everyone with his stubbornness and caused tensions with Japanese Captain Nagata (Tadanobu Asano, ICHI THE KILLER, ZATOICHI). When fate puts Hopper in charge of investigating the weird spaceships that have crash landed in the Pacific, his hot shot decisions risk actual lives, and then he learns lessons and what not. Rises to the occasion and etc.
He has with him a crew of amiable one-dimensional sidekick characters, most notably goofball Ordy (Jesse Plemons, also from Friday Night Lights) and badass Raikes (Rihanna, VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS). Honestly I don’t really like Rihanna’s music very much, but I love seeing her in movies. This character is pretty much a “streetwise” stereotype, but she at least acquits herself professionally in combat.
In 1946, William Wyler’s best-picture-winning THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES explored the post-war struggles of three veterans. The most memorable character was played by Harold Russell, a non-professional actor who had lost both of his hands to a defective explosive while he was an Army instructor. In the movie he gave a raw, natural performance that involved very personal conversations about living with prosthetic hooks for hands. He was nominated for best supporting actor but, not expecting him to win, the Board of Governors gave him an honorary Oscar for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans. He also won supporting actor, making him the only person to win two Oscars for the same performance, and one of two non-professional actors to win an Oscar for acting.
Army Colonel Gregory Gadson became a bilateral above-the-knee amputee in the age of Hasbro Films, so he wasn’t gonna get an Oscar for his role as Lieutenant Colonel Mick Canales, who’s going for a hike with physical therapist Sam when the shit goes down, and ends up fighting aliens with her. But he’s definitely the coolest part of the movie, not so much because his prosthetic legs are the real deal, but because he has a genuine soldier toughness unsmoothed by Hollywood (see ACT OF VALOR for more examples of this).
Berg takes his veteran idolization even further in the last act, when Hopper decides to DIY-recommission the U.S.S. Missouri (UNDER SIEGE), now a museum. One of his guys tells him that even if they got everything up and running they wouldn’t have a crew to run it. Suddenly AC/DC starts playing and a mob of elderly real life combat vets (introduced earlier during a ceremony) strut in in RIGHT STUFF style slow motion. It is among the corniest things I’ve ever seen put on film, but I’m okay with it. I think it is sincerity that cannot help but come across as pandering.
But the effects in this movie seem less like “this is what Peter Berg is like” and more straight up just trying to cosplay as Michael Bay. The design of the ships, the way they move, the way they are shot, the way the sun hits them, and especially the dubstep sound effects (not to mention the Steve Jablonsky score) they make seem like leftover shit from TRANSFORMERS movies. And that’s a bad move because when you see a giant bladed wheel spinning through the air going ZZZHHHHHOOOOOOPPPP ZHIP zap zap zap DWWWWWOOOONNNNNNGGGGKKKTTTTTTT shoop shoop shoop BWWWWWAAAAAANNNNGGNGGGTTTTTTTSSSTTTTTT and then realize “oh, it’s just going to spin like this, it’s not going to turn into a robot,” it makes you actually miss Bay. He may be way more insane and racist and bad at telling stories and jokes than Berg, but at least he’s gonna for sure have a robot! A flying wheel is not as good as a robot.
The aliens, at least, are a little different from what we usually see. They’re humanoid and wear space suits but their faces are mocap creations like something out of VALERIAN. Pretty good designs on those. And I kinda like the dumb idea that Ordy tries on the helmet and can barely see out of it so he figures out they have to be shielded from sunlight. And then they do a whole elaborate trick to get them in the right place to shoot out their windows exactly as the sun comes up.
There’s a thing going on with the aliens that I didn’t get. We often see through their helmet vision, their computers sizing up the scenery like a Terminator’s, and it always singles out non-organic enhancements to bodies, including glasses and horseshoes. It seems like it lets a guy go because he wears glasses. It happens enough times that it seems like an important thing that they’re drawing too much attention to… like there will be some reveal about how they are the aliens with cyborg implants so they consider any sort of enhanced people to be on their side, or who knows. But definitely it will relate to Canales and his metal legs, right?
Nah, never becomes relevant. Just a thing that they do and underline a bunch of times and really make sure you notice it and then don’t do anything with it.
Another thing they don’t pull off: people were lying to me when they said that Liam Neeson says “You sank my battleship.” Nobody ever says it. Boo.
This is not an unwatchable movie, everybody did their job well enough, but I think it proves that we haven’t sunken into this product mentality as deeply as we worry we have. You can’t just get away with slapping CAPSELA or APPLE JACKS or some shit on a generic story and shoving it down the throat of the world. You have to at least come up with a good concept first. As terrible as the TRANSFORMERS movies are, I don’t think it’s only the brand name that made them successful. It’s also the concept that goes with it: robots from space that turn into vehicles and fight each other. That’s more of a hook than “there is a battleship that fires onto a grid.” You gotta have enough. A couple years later THE LEGO MOVIE was a smash hit and again, this was something that worked because they came up with a clever premise for it. The magic did not hold up for EMOJI MOVIE. We’re not that far gone yet.
If you don’t watch the whole movie, be sure to fast forward to the EVIL DEAD 2 type ending where he gets sucked into a portal and finds himself being worshipped by the hordes of Candyland. It’s a pretty cool twist that, if followed up in the sequel, will– Nah, I’m just fucking with you. I wish that was the ending, but they just do a post-credits thing where he gets eaten by hungry hungry hippos.
I guess Hasbro knows the toy business enough not to make action figures of this shit. Instead they made a movie edition and other new versions of the board game, and licensed a video game. There was a novelization by Peter David, famous Incredible Hulk comic writer who also wrote TRANCERS 4 and 5 and OBLIVION 1 and 2. Some of the reviewers on Amazon feel that the Naval protocol is not accurate.
One sign that somebody expected it to be a hit: The Asylum made their own battleship vs. aliens movie starring Mario Van Peebles and Carl Weathers. Originally advertised as AMERICAN BATTLESHIP, they changed it to AMERICAN WARSHIPS after a lawsuit from Universal.
BATTLESHIP opened at #2 behind THE AVENGERS in its third week, but above newcomers THE DICTATOR and WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU’RE EXPECTING. Each week after that it had to compete with other fairly unwanted potential blockbusters: MEN IN BLACK 3, then SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN, then MADAGASCAR 3 (plus PROMETHEUS). It did much better overseas (maybe the Japanese co-stars helped?) and racked up more than $300 million, but on a $209 million budget that was considered a major flop.
And I think most people have forgotten it existed. That’s for the best, because after enough time has passed, hopefully a new group of artists will be able to start over from scratch with a more faithful adaptation of the source material. That’s a joke! Battleship is a terrible idea for a movie. I’m not convinced it even counts as an idea for a movie. It’s easy for us to look back and ask “What the hell were they thinking?,” but honestly I gotta assume they were thinking “What the hell are we thinking?” while they were thinking it. In fact, right before the first guy said “You know what? We should do Battleship!” he first thought “What the hell am I about to think?”
I don’ t think Gadson got much credit for being the best part of the movie, but he was later on ten episodes of the CBS crime drama The Inspectors. Rihanna won both Choice Movie Breakout at the Teen Choice Awards and Worst Supporting Actress at The Fucking Dumbass Razzies. She’s only done a little more acting since then: a cameo as herself in THIS IS THE END, something in the remake of ANNIE, a voice in the cartoon HOME, and VALERIAN. She’s gonna be part of the team in OCEAN’S EIGHT, though, I bet that will be pretty cool.
Kitsch got the role after scheduling conflicts prevented it from being Jeremy Renner’s followup to THE HURT LOCKER. And I mean, poor fucking Taylor Kitsch. He was acclaimed for Friday Night Lights, but in movies he’s been stuck doing what MEAN GIRLS would term “trying to make fetch happen.” He was in SNAKES ON A PLANE, famously a phenomenon on the internet… until it was released. He played Gambit in X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE, which was widely hated and therefore failed to launch him into a spin-off or an appearance in the regular X-MEN movies. Then he starred in JOHN CARTER, a giant flop. And then this, where he probly shows the most potential as a movie lead, but it’s wasted on some bullshit. Actually my favorite movie with him is Oliver Stone’s SAVAGES, but again, that’s a movie that didn’t catch on with many people.
Things seemed to worked out well for Berg, though. He was able to shed the board games and the aliens for a trilogy of dramas continuing his veneration of All-American men of heroism and sacrifice: the hit LONE SURVIVOR (which did have a supporting role for Kitsch), plus DEEPWATER HORIZON and PATRIOTS DAY.
When BATTLESHIP came out, Hasbro and Universal had already halted development on movies based on Monopoly, Candy Land, Clue, Stretch Armstrong and Magic: The Gathering. But they set them up at other places, and made a low budget OUIJA that was successful enough for a sequel. In 2014 they started a division called Allspark that made JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS and plans a (jesus christ) five movie shared universe of G.I. JOE, MICRONAUTS, VISIONARIES, M.A.S.K. and ROM devised by a TV style writers room that includes the novelist Michael Chabon and comics writer Brian K. Vaughan. Yeah, good luck with that, you guys.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.