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Battleship: Your Burning Questions Answered

by Ethan Alter May 18, 2012 6:02 am
<i>Battleship</i>: Your Burning Questions Answered

Everything you wanted to know about Battleship but didn't bother asking.

So I haven't played a round of Battleship since the eighth grade, but I seem to recall that it didn't involve any alien invaders as the movie appears to. Am I remembering that correctly or do I need to dig my old set out of storage?
No, your vague memory of the board game is correct. Only humans were (emotionally) harmed in the playing of Hasbro's Battleship game, which pitted two players against each other, trying to guess where their respective battleships are on a grid. E.T.'s were definitely not a part of the equation. And honestly, there was probably a way you could have made this movie so that it was -- and I can't believe I'm about to write this -- more faithful to the game. It would involve taking a page from Crimson Tide or Das Boot and creating a scenario where the U.S. and another country (take your pick -- North Korea is a pretty popular antagonist right now) engage in high-seas warfare in the midst of blinding conditions (again, take your pick -- tropical storm, nuclear fallout, the belly of a whale). But the filmmakers and Hasbro opted not to go that way, instead borrowing from the toy company's lucrative Transformers franchise and throwing aliens into the mix. Now I'm waiting for them to do the same thing with their planned Monopoly movie. I always knew there was something otherworldly about that top-hatted mascot, Rich Uncle Pennybags...

Okay, so aliens are involved. How else did they go about turning the game into a movie?
By continuing to borrow liberally from the oeuvre of one Mr. Michael Bay. Besides the Transformers connection, Battleship's story also offers up a variation on Bay's World War II epic Pearl Harbor in that it stars a pair of military dudes -- Alex (Taylor Kitsch) and Stone (Alexander SkarsgÄrd), who, in the one unique twist on Pearl Harbor, are brothers rather than just best buds -- whose relationship is tested by the extraordinary odds they face in confronting the alien menace. In this case, Stone has the Ben Affleck role of the upstanding soldier while Alex is the Josh Hartnett type who needs to grow up a little. There's also the beautiful girl Sam (Brooklyn Decker), who doesn't exactly come between them but does cause headaches for Alex at least, since her dad is his stern commanding officer, Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson, looking especially bored). The triangle between Alex, Sam and Shane recalls another classic Bay joint -- Armageddon, where the same situation played out between Affleck, Liv Tyler and Bruce Willis. See? Battleship is practically crying out to be described as Michael Bay-esque.

But it's not actually directed by Michael Bay, right? It seems like all he does these days is say mean things about Megan Fox and decide which city he wants the Autobots and Decepticons to destroy next.
Correct, Bay didn't ditch the Transformers movies in favor of this. Battleship is the product of Peter Berg, who you might recall as an actor in such movies as The Last Seduction and Cop Land before he crossed over to directing. Unlike Bay, Berg doesn't really have a specific stylistic stamp. His filmography ranges from dark comedies like Very Bad Things, to small-town dramas like Friday Night Lights to superhero blockbusters like Hancock. Calling him a rip-off artist would be a bit cruel, but there's no question that he cribs from other directors to suit whatever films he's working on at the moment. His Middle East-themed action movie The Kingdom, for example, distinctly resembled one of Paul Greengrass's Bourne sequels, while The Rundown had the look and feel of an '80s Cannon Films production. For Battleship, he hits upon a style that's part Bay and part James Cameron. (There's one shot of a capsizing ship that practically resembles a screengrab from Titanic.) The one thing he does bring to the table -- and it's something that both of those directors lack -- is a snarky sense of humor. Bay and Cameron are almost always too earnest to be very funny, no matter how ridiculous the premises of their movies are. Berg, on the other hand, seems to recognize the fundamental silliness of Battleship and openly invites the audience to laugh about what's happening onscreen; early on, for example, there's a sequence where Alex attempts to break into a closed convenience store to nab a chicken burrito for Sam that's cheekily scored to the Pink Panther theme. You would never see a scene like that in a James Cameron or Michael Bay movie. And c'mon, any film that casts Rihanna of all people as a bad-ass solider in the mold of Pvt. Vasquez from Aliens isn't asking to be taken seriously.

So when you say "silly", does that mean "silly fun" or "silly stupid"?
A little bit of both honestly. There's no question that Battleship barely has enough brain cells to power a battery, let alone an entire battleship. The logic gaps and plot holes crop up early on and only grow wider and deeper as the movie progresses. (Starting with the fact that the aliens have such clearly superior technology, they should have taken us out without breaking a sweat.) And the attempts at dramatic heft strain credulity, particularly whenever Berg cuts away to The Amazingly Boring Adventures of Sam, who spends much of the movie stranded on a hillside with disabled Iraq War veteran Chief Petty Officer Walter "The Beast" Lynch (played by an actual disabled Iraq War vet, former battalion leader Gregory D. Gadson) and fights the aliens on land while her boyfriend battles them at sea. At the same time, this plotline does end with Lynch challenging an alien to a boxing match, which is practically the definition of "silly fun." Also falling into that category is any scene where the waifish Rihanna shoots a gun, a sequence where Alex re-commissions a decommissioned battleship turned museums with the aid of a crew of elderly veterans and -- at least for Friday Night Lights fans -- the sight of former Dillon Panther Landry Clarke (Jesse Plemons, cast here as a Navy grunt) once again serving under the leadership of Tim Riggins. I only wish Berg had found a place for Matt Saracen to complete the Panther reunion.

So you're actually endorsing this then?
Whoa, let's not go that far. While Battleship isn't quite as dire as I was expecting -- thanks largely to Berg's flair self-aware humor and grand sense of scale (the movie ends with extremely explosive finale that seems to engulf the whole screen in flames) -- it's not what I could legitimately call a good movie, since it lacks, among other things, compelling characters, good performances, snappy dialogue and an actual story. But I'd also be lying if I said that it didn't keep me at least moderately entertained for most of its 131-minute runtime. And unlike Bay's Transformers outings, I didn't actively hate everyone onscreen to the point where I rooted for the aliens to win and wipe out all of humanity. That's definitely a point in the movie's favor.

One last time: is there any shout-out at all to the original board game? Does anyone say "You sunk my battleship," at least?
Sadly, nobody utters that immortal line, which is particularly unfortunate when you remember that the filmmakers shelled out all that money to hire Liam Neeson, who could have added that particular bon mot to his growing collection of classic bits of dialogue, alongside "Release the Kraken!" and "What I do have are a very particular set of skills." However, I am happy to report that the characters do actually engage in a game of Battleship midway through the movie. After night falls, both Alex's battleship and the massive alien spacecraft are unable to see each other against the pitch-black horizon. So one of Alex's fellow soldiers gets the clever idea to call up a map of nearby tidal buoys, which monitor unusual movements in the waves. When this map appears onscreen, it takes the form of a grid with letters and numbers lining on the sides that turn the squares into coordinates. Therefore, when a buoy is rocked at, say, E7, they're able to launch a missile at that exact coordinate... just like in the board game. In his typically broad manner, Berg pushes the gag even further; when they miss their target, someone calls out "That's a miss" and when their missile hits home, the call changes to "Direct hit!" That sequence sums up Battleship in a nutshell. It's blatantly absurd, but if you surrender somewhat to its silliness, it may just put a big goofy grin on your face.

Click here to learn how to tell the difference between Battleship and Transformers

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