24 May 2012
So, anyway, Battleship. Since I really enjoy kicking a loser when it's down, allow me to be the latest to sputter, incoherently: aliens? Somebody decided that the right way to adapt the classic board game of randomly guessing where on a 10x10 grid their opponent has placed five plastic ships of varying lengths was to add aliens? Do you know how many goddamn Navy movies they made in World War II that did not feel the need to bring in aliens? All of them. All of the Navy movies they made in World War II.
The aliens, mind you, don't show up for a really long time, and until that point Battleship honestly does play a lot by the rulebook established by the Navy pictures of the '30s and '40. Incompetently, I should hasten to point out: hilarious in its incompetence, at points. There are two brothers, see, Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) and Stone Hopper (Alexander Skarsgård), and when the film begins, Stone is a U.S. Navy officer, and Alex is a dissolute, unemployed 26-year-old who would undoubtedly have died in a drunken stupor on the streets if not for Stone's incredible generosity in letting him sleep on the couch. On the night of his birthday, Alex ends up committing a number of crimes while drunkenly attempting to secure a frozen chicken burrito for a hot blonde, Samantha (Brooklyn Decker), and the only way out is if he joins the Navy himself. Some number of years go by sufficient for Alex to be a lieutenant and third-in-command of a top-of-the-line destroyer during an international war games event, during which time he has persisted in keeping Samantha sufficiently charmed that they are very much in love and thinking about marriage, though since her dad is fleet leader Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson), and Alex is a colossal fuckup at everything naval, despite being an officer with a not-inconsiderable position, it is unlikely in the extreme that he'll be able to charm the old man anytime soon, especially after he gets in a fistfight with Captain Nagata (Asano Tadanobu), a member of the Japanese delegation to these international war games.
And so this situation plays out for a while in various ways, and it is spectacularly dumb - dumb enough, that I found myself wondering why the film was bombing so hard. It was a hoot and a half, I thought to myself, in which moments are cranked through with a kind of active desperation, like nobody had made this film a thousand times already; product placement is executed with a clumsiness that I can't recall having seen since Michael Bay's exquisitely flatfooted The Island; Taylor Kitsch steadfastly remains grungy and unemotive and absolutely nothing that we want our movie stars to be - he is pretty darn great at being an embarrassing drunk in the opening seqeunce - though whereas John Carter surrounded him with mostly effective co-stars, Battleship can only offer horror shows like Brooklyn Decker's total disconnect from every emotional beat going on around her, and Rihanna's movie debut in a role that could not possibly flag its intentions any more blatantly that it requires nothing but the ability to look at objects and say short declarative sentence; and Neeson just absolutely not trying to do anything at all except growl and even that he sometimes forgets to do and just kind of blabs his threats to emasculate Alex without any conviction at all.
Then, when it could not possibly be any sillier, the aliens show up and it hops on the bullet train to Boringville Heights. The aliens, mind you, are foreshadowed in an opening scene, that posits in 2006 (or 2005? I can't remember and I don't actually care), NASA built a transmitter on Oahu for the single purpose of blasting broadcasts at a single Earthlike planet because, why the hell not, right? And then the plot happens. Incidentally, I haven't mentioned, but the plot skips around hectically, and the way scenes are put together, especially toward the beginning, is relentlessly busy and distracted, with big shiny computer readouts dancing past and editing so flurried that it creates the impression of moments rather than actual cohesive events that you can pin down. It is rather a film to enjoy with handfuls of Ritalin than with popcorn.
Eventually, of course, the aliens show, with an advance force of five vessels come to destroy and colonise, only the communication ship breaks entering out atmosphere and takes out a huge portion of Hong Kong, so the others have to start by taking over Hawai'i to get to the satellite relay and contact the homeworld. This involves shutting the island chain off from the rest of the world with a giant shield dome - and guess where the war games were taking place. This naturally gives Alex a chance to redeem himself, and it is suggested that this makes the deaths of hundreds of sailors and thousands of Hong Kong residents perfectly okay, because we are meant to like him better than them.
So it's destroyers vs. aliens, and then destroyer, singular, vs. aliens, and finally, obviously, vintage WWII battleship vs. aliens. And it is dull as hell: the CGI looks as good as it ought to given the criminally large budget, but the action is perfunctory and unimaginative (the closest we get to an exception are the giant death spheres the aliens use to eliminate local military threats, with a surprisingly large number of POV shots; the number of apparent plot holes this raises is considerable - the spheres' decisions as to what constitutes a present threat is awfully convenient for the plot - but at least it's weird), and the execution of it all is so noisome that the running and shouting and exploding very quickly become white noise. After a good long while, the filmmakers - director Peter Berg, writers Erich and Jon Hoeber, and I am certain many script doctors and executives, because it's that kind of film - actually manage to figure out a way to make a navy vs. CGI alien death fleet movie involve a protracted sequence that a) is set on a grid, and b) involves taking blind potshots at grid coordinates and hoping you hit the other guy. I will admit to being impressed by the inanity of it, anyway. The statement "You sunk my battleship!" is not ever spoken, and this is the second-most disappointing thing about the film, and here is the first: a small boychild, who is wearing a cap though I think we can rest assured that if we saw his hair, he would prove to be tow-headed, asks at one point, "what's the difference between a battleship and a destroyer?" and Alex ruins my entire week by not replying "one red peg".
This is such a crappy, dumb, by-the-numbers piece of filmmaking as product, that some people have become absolutely convinced that it is a satire; there's no actual reason to suppose this other than the fact that Berg hasn't directed anything that really suggests he's interested in making science-fiction action movies, and his last project, the sarcastic superhero picture Hancock, suggests that satire is at least on his radar. If it were true, this would actual make the film's problems worse, not better: at best, it's the kind of nihilistically hip satire that acts as dumb as it possibly can and then is smug about how only somebody smart would know how dumb that was. Starship Troopers it ain't.
But I don't really think that's the point. I think it really was just Hasbro's attempt to turn every brand name they own into a movie running into the implacable brick wall where even the rawest Hollywood mercenary product needs to have some intelligence or artistry; Battleship attains neither the idiot poetry of Michael Bay nor even the relative enthusiasm of a Roland Emmerich picture. It feels like a movie that nobody believed in at all, and made it because this kind of thing is usually profitable. Usually.