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Battleship

a survey of summer movies that just didn’t catch on

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.

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28 Responses to “Battleship”

  1. This is one of the very few movies, that I can’t say anything positive about. Well, maybe the production values. I mean, I didn’t HATE it, to the the point where I am angry that it exists and I demand my 2 hours of lifetime back. Only very few movies do that. But I just felt so completely indifferent about every single thing that happened on screen! There is lots of shit that I love (‘splosions, the story of a fuck-up who learns responsibility, rivals who learn how to respect each other, the stuff with the veterans who save the day one more time, etc) but for some reasons none of it ever clicks. It’s crazy!

    Also are women really that stupid, that when a complete stranger commits burglary, runs from the police on a crowded street and risks some people’s lifes and health by causing a car accident, just to get her a fucking chicken burrito, they immediately fall in love with him? Sorry, but if a woman would do this for me, I would try to get a restraining order against her as soon as possible!

  2. I disagree vehemently with Vern on his assertion that you can’t make a good movie out of a board game. Battleship could also easily be a good war time movie. Maybe it doesn’t work as a blockbuster type thing but why couldn’t they craft a Hunt for Red October style war movie about a Battleships. Plus, there are board games that I play that are more cinematic that some movies that exist. Board games fucking rule is what I’m saying.

  3. The only board game I ever wanted to see turned into a movie was NUKE’EM. Sadly it wasn’t a real viard game. Well ok I’d also like to see HUNGRY HUNGRY HIPPOS as a heist movie. Until then CLUE remains the GOAT.

  4. *board

    God knows what a “viard” actually is.

  5. This and ID4: RESURGENCE kinda form an odd duology for me on the basis ‘Unwanted movie that everyone says is garbage and I didn’t want to see it anyway but then I borrowed it from the library and thought it was okay.’

    I mean I’m not planning on rewatching them ever nor will I recommend them but as a late-night TNT ‘well it’s on’ movie it’s not terrible.

    I will single out how much I enjoyed the sincerity of celebrating it’s non-actor veterans. Too bad we couldn’t get a whole movie of them (silly high-concept one like this or drama). Kinda pissed me off how many people I read complained about their performances. They did fine and again I thought it was legit cool that the climax got to focus on them kicking-ass. Very different from what we usually get or were expecting from such a movie.

    Too bad the rest of it is so forgettable and derivative (of Bay’s movies).

  6. Hancock was a massive hit btw Vern. I actually quite like Battleship, there’s a few quirky moments and some excellent visuals that make it stand out against the glut of Transformers and alien invasion films around. The comedy cctv break in is taken almost exactly from a famous bit of footage from a real life burglary. I remember watching that on early YouTube. Anyway, Berg has only made worthy real life stories since, I for one want to see him go back to his fun/crazy Very Bad Things mode again. On an unrelated note, I just watched Hitchcock’s Rope (I have never seen a Hitchcock film save for North by Northwest before), it was supremely entertaining. Got myself a cheap box-set of his stuff and am getting an education!

  7. I hated this. The Aliens weakness was so so stupid.

  8. Man I figured Vern would like this a whole lot more – this is probably my favorite of the Summer Flings (behind Batman and Robin) and maybe I just run in weird circles but I actually feel like most people I run into say “Y’know that movie was surprisingly pretty good”. I guess I’m just a sucker for unusual or interesting things in my movies, and I honestly can’t think of an any other modern naval battle movies (they’re almost always Pirates of the Caribbean/Master and Commander old-timey). Show me something I don’t see very often and you’re already one step ahead of most movies in my book. The action sequences are actually really good (that one continuous shot of the first ship sinking is actually pretty amazing even though it obviously borrows from Titanic), and that final act when they fire up the USS Missouri (I think they even throw in a line that it was decomissioned the year Under Siege came out), just had me grinning from ear to ear. It’s so fucking stupid and unrealistic on so many levels that I had to just admire the balls of them to do that.

    Also: I didn’t mind the alien plot at all because I honestly think it would be kind of wrong to have an actual human vs. human modern naval warfare movie. I mean, in Star Trek they usually make sure to establish that either all of the guys on the bad ships that eventually explode are evil, or they establish there’s like, a skeleton crew of 7 people or something on them. To have a modern day action movie where we’re supposed to cheer when an enemy ship gets sunk and we know that there’s over 100 young guys onboard who will all drown horribly, it would kinda be in bad taste. (That part always bothered me about the end of Hunt for Red October where what, a couple of hundred innocent Russian sailors die horrible deaths but it’s still supposed to be a happy ending)

  9. The only way I can imagine a BATTLESHIP movie working is if they take the Ace Combat video game series approach of setting it in an alternate world with fictitious nations but using real life military hardware and being able to tell any kind of war story they want without worrying about real geopolitics.

    A movie that explores what naval combat with modern naval ships would be like could actually be interesting, though the idea of an “alternate world” might be too confusing for mainstream audiences, but it couldn’t be any worse than “I don’t know, aliens?” which is just fucking lazy and dumb.

    I’d actually like to see them try CLUE though because the original movie is great and it would be interesting to see another take on it.

  10. I’ll never forgive this movie for killing any chances I had of selling my script for a steampunk film version of Risk.

  11. like vern said, the only good scene in the movie:

    amputee v alien

  12. Sternshein – #NotAllBoardGames

    I just mean that the specific game Battleship does not have enough of a concept to be cinematic. It’s just a game version of a thing that exists – naval battles – not a unique concept. You could have a naval battle movie and it would not be improved by having any connection to the game.

    Beans – You’re right, I forgot that HANCOCK made money. However, I liked it more than anyone I ever met, and I didn’t think it was great. And I haven’t heard anyone mention it in at least five or six years. I would’ve done it as a Summer Fling if I realized I hadn’t reviewed it at the time.

  13. I just wish it had fully embraced the batshit idea of doing a board game movie and gone “Yeah, we made a movie out of Battleship, motheruckers!” More stuff like launching the USS Missouri with WWII veterans and the amputee vs alien. Trying to make it like mainstream blockbusters watered down the crazy.

    There was talk of a Hancock sequel at one point. Guess Big Willie thought it could be another franchise but then he got busy making movies with his son.

  14. HANCOCK 2: HALF-COCKED?

  15. Board games can be used cinematically. Look at how they implemented Tic-tac-toe in WARGAMES. If that even is considered a boardgame…

  16. HAN2COCK: A COCK IN HAND IS WORTH TWO IN THE BUSH

  17. neal2zod- I definitely got quite a kick out of this at the time and remember it fondly, more so than either ID4er for what that’s worth. I don’t have any urge to watch it again, at least not yet, but cheerful one-and-dones have their place.

    At the time Berg made quite a spirited defence of IP-driven moviemaking, taking James Cameron to task for pre-emptively criticising the film. Whether or not he would stand by those comments now it seemed fairly genuine at the time.

  18. I kinda love Hancock. Spoilers: That they were one another’s kryptonite was a surprisingly powerful revelation and beyond anything I expected to feel going into it.

  19. HANCOCK is one of those movies I respect and like what they were going for rather than liked on it’s own merits. As a result I don’t think it deserves the hate it gets. One of those ones I wouldn’t completely mind seeing being remade down the line so it can (maybe) be refined into something great.

  20. The monopoly movie was going to be in the style of Blade Runner… seriously.

  21. Also… I can’t go into details, but at a former industry job I held, there was months of legal back and forth between two studios arguing about who would have first dibs on the spinoff rights to a Hungry Hungry Hippos feature if a different never-made board game movie was a hit.

  22. Also also, I read 6 drafts of Hancock and none of them had *anything* in common, except the vague idea of a drunk superhero named Hancock.

    It started out as a dark comedy called Tonight He Comes about a sexually frustrated superhero who forces himself into the life of a hapless security guard and his nerdy son – who gets peed on by bullies in an early scene. The script ended with the security guard facing off against Hancock in a construction site after Hancock kidnapped the man’s wife, with plans to rape her.

    The film was in development for over ten years. Vince Gilligan (of Breaking Bad fame) wrote over 20 drafts.

    None of the scripts I read had any mention of the Theron character.

    And IIRC, the finished film was wildly reedited at the last minute to avoid an R rating. Originally, Hancock went to jail for fucking a 17-year-old the night before she turned 18.

  23. Tawdry that was to be the Monopoly movie by Ridley Scott right? What the hell happened to that thing anyway? It sounded so peculiar that I was actually curious. I’m dying at the Hungry Hungry Hippos anectdote. You really can’t put ANYTHING past Hollywood.

  24. Hungry Hungry Hippos as a *spinoff* of a different Hasbro owned property. If you think battleship was non-narrative… woah-boy!

    That said, the writer – who was paid about $600k for his/her script – actually did a damn good job and churned out a fairly entertaining document. So, cheers to him/her.

  25. I can say this —

    The project featured several different Hasbro properties and, because of copyright and trademarks related to these toys versus similar competitor brands, The notes from Hasbro were bizarre and fascinating.

    Like, they were extremely specific on what types of things the toy-inspired characters could and could not do, physically. It was never about staying true to the core of the toy, it was always about staying within the parameters of the toy’s copyright.

    I can’t go into specifics because it would give away what properties were/are in development, but it was the second strangest document I have ever seen in Hollywood.

    The most strange was the network standards and practices notes for a Miley Cyrus concert special from a few year’s back. Clearly, the broadcast network bought the rights to do a prime time special without knowing how raunchy the tour would be. Every song had 8+ pages of notes on removing various shots of twerking and licking and so on. I once read the S&P notes as a piece of found poetry at a poetry slam.

  26. Never stop posting your Hollyweird stories. All of them are amazing.

  27. I can only post about shit where there was no NDA involved. I always take those seriously.

  28. You definitely should! I’d never ask you or anyone else to tell me something that would greatly endanger their job/livelihood, especially if it is just for my own entertainment and amusement.

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