“The Battle for Earth Begins at Sea”
Directed by Peter Berg
Starring Taylor Kitsch, Alexander Skarsgård, Rhianna, Tadanobu Asano, Liam Neeson, Brooklyn Decker, Gregory D. Gadson and Hamish Linklater
Apparently responding to a SETI broadcast called Project Beacon, an alien force tries to establish a beachhead in Hawai’i, with only a handful of ships and personnel to stop them.
Based on the classic boardgame, Battleship is a tale of survival against the odds, responsibility, growing up, brotherhood (and sisterhood), overcoming weakness, and giant metal cans full of people blowing all kinds of hell out of each other.
In response to a signal broadcast to a possibly inhabited planet, aliens arrive on Earth during international navy war games and set up a forcefield, seeking to create a beachhead for invasion. Ranged against this interstellar strike force are the surviving crew of two missile destroyers, commanded by Lieutenant Alex Hopper (Kitsch), USN, and Captain Nagata (Asano) of the JMSDF and including fiery weapons officer Raikes (Rhianna). Meanwhile, Alex’s fiancee Sam (Decker) and her physio patient Mick (Gadson), a retired Army Colonel, find an alien team trying to rig the Project Beacon transmitter to summon reinforcements, and must work with scientist Zapata (Linklater) to delay them.
Sam’s father, Admiral Shane (Neeson) and Hopper’s brother Stone (Skarsgård) bring the acting muscle, but Neeson spends most of the film stuck outside the forcefield on an aircraft carrier, and Skarsgård goes the way of all protective big brother figures and is sacrificed to pathos in the opening exchange.
After the destruction of their destroyer, Hopper and Nagata get titular and transfer their crews to the floating museum USS Missouri, the US Navy’s last and greatest battleship.
What’s wrong with it?
To start with, the science of Battleship is for shit. Project Beacon is designed to transmit a signal to a distant alien planet by way of a satellite amplifier which shoots a fricking laser beam into space. Now, laser signalling is totally a thing, but it’s strictly point-to-point; the chances of accurately shooting that beam not only at your target planet, but at a hypothetical laser receiver built by the hypothetical intelligent race that might just live on that planet…
And this is all that satellite, millions of dollars of space hardware, does. Ever.
I don’t know how long it takes to prep and clear a battleship to put to sea, but I’m guessing that it takes more than four hours after years resting at anchor. I am also deeply unconvinced that a battleship could pull a smuggler’s turn by dropping one anchor at speed.
Poor Alexander Skarsgård is both criminally underused and given some of the worst dialogue in cinema history. Ever disappointed pep talk he gives his brother is a tooth-grinding exercise in movie cliche mad libs. Part of me suspects that he’s just mad at Alex for dodging the bullet of being named after a receptacle for building rubble.
The continuing plot of the movie is based entirely on the aliens apparently insurmountable inability to fire on someone they don’t consider a threat, regardless of context. Since at one point they slaughter dozens of civilians due to designating a stretch of freeway as an enemy combatant, this seems especially odd.
The aliens have massively variable abilities, with one exo-armoured assault trooper tossing Kitsch and two-time Power Ranger John Tui around like rag dolls, while another struggles in a grappling match with Gadson.
It’s unclear why they aliens bother with their rapid fire naval guns, when the whirling spiky death balls seem to be fit for almost any purpose.
Similarly, it’s unclear why the film makers ever give Sam anything to do, because it’s invariably a basically unchallenging task which anyone could have done and the rest of the time she’s either making eyes at Hopper or taking her lead from the nearest guy. I think she gets a couple of feisty speechlets, but that’s about all.
The film practically canonises the US Navy, but then again, they did let them borrow a battleship.
What’s right with it?
The film is based on the board game Battleship; it knows it isn’t brain food, and it basically just runs with it.
Gadson isn’t the greatest actor in the world, because he’s a real-life double amputee veteran who came onboard to climb bloody mountains on his steel legs and be a movie badass. Likewise the veterans who help to crew the Missouri are genuine Navy veterans who really know what they’re doing and helped to take the ‘Mighty Mo’ out to sea for filming (although I bet it took more than a couple of hours.) This a) is kinda badass, and b) actually doesn’t result in the kind of wooden performances you might fear (the one possible exception is the guy who machine-guns out an offer for Hopper to join the Navy SEALS at the end, who might just be a bad actor, but Kitsch is grinning like a loon at his delivery.)
The film sets up a number of absolute howler tropes – talented maverick overcomes the doubts of authority, tight-ass rival (Nagada) comes to respect the protagonist, real manly men outdo the men of science who caused the problem – and then knocks them right the fuck down again. The film is more of a right of passage for Hopper, as the loss of his brother and CO forces him to take responsibility for more than just his own life. Nagada is as much a maverick as Hopper, and the two come to respect each other; as they bond over anti-personnel rifles we witness the birth of a great bromance of our time. Finally, Mick is ultimately rescued by the ‘cowardly’ scientist Zapata running in with a last minute save, which is kinda awesome.
If only they’d found something that cool and subversive of expectations to do with Sam. As it is, the film is saved from total female role failure by Rhianna’s turn as Raikes, in which she makes at least as convincing tough guy as Kitsch.
Minor science save: The token nerd notes that he doesn’t know where the aliens come from. This is good because six years isn’t long enough for the signal to reach the target ‘Planet-G’, let alone anyone to respond.
How bad is it really?
Oh, man; I watch Battleship and there is a war in my heart. Half of me wants to hate it for the stupid, loud, ‘splosion-fest it is, and half of me wants to love it for its flashes of wit, fun characters and unexpected subversions (which work all the more as the use of composer Steve Jablonsky makes it sound as if you’re watching a Michael Bay movie.)
As it is, Battleship is a guilty pleasure. Perhaps a tad long at two hours, but if I wasn’t planning on doing anything in those two hours, why the hell not.
Best bit (if such there is)?
The tough part of the movie was always going to be tying into the game. This is achieved in a scene where, having worked out that they are invisible to each others detection gear, Nagada uses tsunami buoys to track the aliens and call grid coordinates to attack. Combining some of the basics of the game with the tension of a submarine movie (the scene takes place in the tactical control room, rather than on the bridge), it’s surprisingly effective, and also contains the start of the Hopper/Nagada bromance.
I also love the light relief scene before the final hail Mary shot where the crew have to manhandle a 1000lb shell from one gun to another.
Finally, there is a fun moment with the younger Alex trying to impress Sam by breaking into a closed convenience store to buy a chicken burrito, played to the theme from The Pink Panther.
What’s up with…?
- Soccer? Is association football really that big a thing in the US Navy?
- US military brand recognition? The personnel of the USS John Paul Jones wear t-shirts with ‘NAVY’ across the back, while Mick has ‘ARMY’ on his tee.
- Skarsgård’s dialogue? Did no one even suggest that maybe he could just improv his own and come up with better?
- The old veterans? When the destroyer crew boards the Missouri, the vets are standing in the… whatever the tall bits of a steam-powered battleship are that would be the rigging if it had sails, watching them like a murder of crows. Given their ages and relatively limited mobility, they must just have been waiting up there for an opportunity to be awesome.
Production values – The film suffers a little from over-rapid editing, but all in all the look of it is impressive. The alien ‘hovercraft’ have an impressive heft as they skip across the water, and it’s hard to mark down the production values of a film that persuaded the Navy to lend them a goddamned battleship. 3
Dialogue and performances – The film has quite a few snappy lines, and some beautiful exchanges between the young lovers (Hopper and Nagata; Sam doesn’t really get anything of interest.) but it also has Stone Hopper’s ‘new dynamic’ speech, in which the scriptwriter finds half a dozen ways to tell Alex to shape up, each one more tortured and less natural than the last. The acting is a mixed bag, but most of the more stilted performances come from actual veterans with the ‘tude to back up their one liners. 14
Plot and execution – The film is basically one extended action scene, but they get an impressive amount of backstory into the cutaways to NASA and Beacon HQ in the Himalayas. The Alex/Sam romance is underinvested, but Kitsch and Skarsgård work the few scenes that they share to make the fraternal dynamic work. 7
Randomness – A great deal of the film is predicated on the ‘fuck it, what if…’ principle. What if the alien ships leap-frogged across the water (I wonder if the designs weren’t recycled from the unmade Frogger motion picture)? What if they had spinny spiked balls of death that flew around cutting shit in half? 9
Waste of potential – May I remind you that this is a movie based on Battleship, a game in which two players call out coordinates and try to predict where in a grid their opponent has placed his or her ships. What were you expecting? 0