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Monday, May 25, 2015

Summer Not-Busters: Battleship (2012)

Director: Peter Berg
Starring: Taylor Kitsch
Domestic Gross: $65,422,625

Not that there was ever a good reason to make a movie based on the board game Battleship, but I have to think that at some point there was a better reason than to make yet another humanity vs. aliens story which turns out to be as generic as the production budget is high ($209 million, high). Battleship is a film that exists for no reason except in the hope (misplaced, as it turns out) that brand recognition would translate to box office dollars. It doesn't even have the distinction of knowing what kind of movie it wants to be and is a bizarre mishmash of tones and genres, a film haphazardly put together from the bits and pieces of a bunch of different kinds of stories and then stretched out to an interminable 131 minutes. At the very least a film based on a board game - even one which only references its source in as brief and perfunctory a fashion as this one - should have a decent sense of fun. Battleship doesn't even have that, unless its thread of retro jingoism stirs something in you.

After a brief prologue set in 2006, when scientists discover an Earth-like planet in a nearby galaxy and transmit a signal in an attempt to communicate with intelligent life which might reside there, and when the straight arrow brother of a ne'er do well forces him to get his act together by insisting that he join him in the Navy, the story proper begins in 2012. The two brothers are still in the Navy, the elder of them, Stone (Alexander Skarsgard) a Commander, while the younger, Alex (Taylor Kitsch), has somehow made it to thank rank of Lieutenant despite being the same irresponsible and impulsive hothead that he was when Stone forced him into service in the first place. Both are stationed in Hawaii, where RIMPAC exercises are to be held between the navies of various countries, which instead find themselves banding together to fight off an alien invasion. The signal which was sent out in 2006 did, indeed, attract the notice of intelligent life and five spacecrafts have landed in the ocean near Hawaii, ready to begin a scouting mission and then signal for reinforcements from their galaxy. With their advanced weaponry, the aliens destroy all the ships in their path except one, which results in Alex being the most senior officer and having to find a way to temper his impulse to simply attack the aliens without a plan in favor of taking a step back in order to develop a strategy. Meanwhile, his girlfriend, Sam (Brooklyn Decker) is on shore with Mick (Gregory D Gadson), her physical therapy patient, and Cal (Hamish Linklater), a scientist who predicted that signalling the aliens would lead to disaster, trying to figure out a way to stop the aliens from using a satellite orbiting the earth as a slingshot for a signal to their home planet to kick off a full-scale invasion.

Battleship is the sort of film that happens when a bunch of people have different ideas about what kind of story to tell and the person in charge decides to let each of those ideas have a moment in the sun, regardless of the fact that they don't necessarily mesh and will create a lumpy, meandering narrative. Battleship is at once a science fiction movie that is serious-minded in its consideration of the battle between humans and aliens, an action movie that tries to exhilarate at key moments by blasting some AC/DC and the like, a romance wherein the opening and closing passages involve Alex trying to work up the nerve to ask Sam's father (Liam Neeson), who just happens to be an Admiral, for his permission to propose to Sam, and very, very briefly a slapstick comedy in which Alex gets up to some hijinks while the theme music to the Pink Panther plays in the background. Tonally Battleship is all over the place. Narratively it is... all over the place. There is so much extraneous material here it's unbelievable. When you spend $209 million to make a movie, you would think that you would focus a little more on the actual action that shows where the money went, and a little less on the subplots which do nothing in any event to develop the paper thin characters. None of the characters is anything more than a cookie cutter archetype - the "responsible brother," the "screw up brother," the "girlfriend," the "nerd," the "battle hardened badass," etc. - and yet the film spends 40 minutes just hanging out with them before getting the plot going. It's said that to tell a story well, you enter it as late as possible; Battleship is unaware of that principle and starts its story so early that it has nothing to do but spin its wheels for 30% of its running time, waiting for the inciting incident to come along and make things happen.

One of the reasons why the actual story is so slow to get off the ground is that, in its attempt to create a film out of a guessing-based game, Battleship tries to symbolically reclaim the attack on Pearl Harbor as the ultimate American military victory. From the beginning, the specter of Pearl Harbor hangs over the film, as the story is not only set in Hawaii, but the only non-American navy that gets any significant screen time is that of Japan, and an early stretch of the film works to establish a rivalry between Alex and Japanese Captain Nagata (Tadanobu Asano). The two first meet during an inter-nation soccer tournament (one of the film's many narrative diversions), which ends with Japan beating USA after Alex takes a kick to the face from Nagata and then misses his penalty kick because he has a concussion but won't let anyone take the kick for him (because he's reckless, as the film takes every opportunity to point out). They then get into a fist fight during the ceremony that opens RIMPAC, which prevents Alex from having the discussion he needs to have with Sam's father (reckless!). As part of its strategy to reclaim the Pearl Harbor narrative, the film first reminds us of Japan and USA's past as enemies, and then creates a situation where the two have to work together against a common enemy (the aliens). First Alex rescues Nagata, whose own ship has been blown to pieces, and then Nagata gets to be the hero by coming up with a means to attack the alien ships without radar (which has been scrambled by the aliens) in one of the film's few allusions to the actual game. In the end, however, only Alex is shown being acknowledged for his part in saving the world, and then he fully takes credit for it by telling Neeson's character that the fact that he saved the world should be reason enough to allow him to marry Sam. The film includes Japan specifically to nod towards history and then to flip the script so that the US emerges victorious.

If the film's preoccupation with December 7, 1941 weren't already apparent, it becomes impossible to escape during the story's climax. At that point, with all the modern, active war ships having been destroyed by the aliens, the USS Missouri (aboard which Japan surrendered to close WWII) is brought back into service, along with a handful of retired veterans who know how to make the ship run, in order to win the battle. In Battleship, Pearl Harbor is reclaimed to become the ultimate victory, where the United States is able not only to soundly defeat its enemy, but is able to do so with outdated technology, some elderly vets who are ready to throw down at a moment's notice, a young hot shot taking the lead, and a never say die attitude. That the film doesn't end with a rousing chorus of people shouting "U-S-A! U-S-A!" is the only truly surprising thing about it.

Battleship is a really dumb movie, and dumb in ways that aren't particularly original. There are any number of better humans vs. aliens movies, disaster and destruction movies, and movies where a brash young hothead matures into a leadership role during a period of crisis. Absolutely nothing about Battleship makes it a great example of any of the number of types of movies it riffs off of during the course of its running time, and the action sequences are pretty uninspired. There's nothing in Battleship that you can't see anywhere else - though after the one-two punch of this film and John Carter, it will probably be a while before you get another chance to see Kitsch headlining a big budget movie. That's not to suggest that Battleship's failure is Kitsch's fault, mind you. He does exactly what the film requires him to do, but between the hamfisted dialogue, lack of character development, and lame plotting, he might as well have been doing nothing at all.

Should It Have Been a Blockbuster?: No. If you want to watch a movie based on a board game, just watch Clue.


thevoid99 said...

This was awful. It was just mind-numbingly stupid and it wanted to be a Michael Bay blockbuster but with a bit of brains which didn't work at all. Plus, I was baffled by the use of "Fortunate Son" in the film's final credits since the song is essentially an anti-military/anti-war song yet it used in a film that supports war and military. It confirmed to me that Peter Berg is a fucking idiot.

Norma Desmond said...

Honestly, I was so grateful to see the end credits that I didn't even notice the song choice!