On Battleship

Battleship was a pretty terrible film. It is about as good as X-Men: The Last Stand (all flash/special effects, no substance to the story), and that is saying something. But let’s get to the criticisms.

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First, Rihanna’s character, GM2 Cora Raikes, is very clearly a Smurffete (see Feminist Frequency‘s #3), being the only military woman we see active in battle, but even so, several of her scenes are given as support to Taylor Kitsch’s Lieutenant Alex Hopper (i.e when they visit the alien vessel, for example). There is even an After Ellen article, “Rihanna embraces masculinity and the power to ‘turn women gay’,” because obviously she is somehow bad ass by not adhering to gender stereotypes, in a film?

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Second, Lieutenant Alex Hopper’s girlfriend, Sam Shane, who just so happens to also be the daughter of Admiral Terrance Shane, Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, best fits being a Background Decoration (see Feminist Frequency‘sWomen as Background Decoration), i.e. non-essential character who exists to service the straight male character (Hopper). She literally has no role in the film other than to look sexy to male viewers.

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Furthermore, the film fundamentally promotes gender norms/roles (see Stargate: Atlantis Season 1) rather than accomplishing fully fleshed out characters with clear motivations. For example,  Lieutenant Colonel Mick Canales (retired) only really expresses being useful when he pummels an alien to death (when there is no reason in the first place for these aliens to require our technology to send a signal back to their planet, when they are technology superior to us in the first place). According to GRIID‘s article, “Normalizing Male Dominance: Gender Representation in 2012 Films“:

The movie Battleship was a typical military film, except instead of fighting enemies from foreign lands, the US military fights aliens from outer space. Men are the dominant characters who not only win the war, they get the girls.

Do we really need to continue to teach young men and boys that the only way to achieve validation is by objectifying women, blowing things up, and pummeling aliens to death? Really?

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The greatest pleasure I got in the film was only really the momentary hot body that we saw of Kitsch, but even so, my ability to connect with the character was just never going to happen. According to Salon‘s article, ““Battleship”: Dumbest military spectacle ever?“:

One of the great marketing constants of contemporary Hollywood is the idea of appealing to the 11-year-old boy within every moviegoer (whatever gender that person may manifest on the surface). Almost every American movie released during the summer season has that squirmy pre-adolescent id in view, and about two-thirds of the movies made the rest of the year. But what about a movie as baffling and incoherent and flat-out stupid as “Battleship” — an alien-invasion adventure by way of a Hasbro game, or maybe the other way round — a movie that would make your inner 11-year-old stomp out of the theater in disgust?

It’s undoubtedly gilding the lily to claim that “Battleship” is the dumbest movie I’ve ever seen — for all that I front as someone who only likes Turkish films where people stare at the landscape without talking, I’ve seen a lot of dumb movies — but it’s definitely up there. Over and above its extraordinary, mind-melting level of stupidity, “Battleship” (which is directed by actor-turned-filmmaker Peter Berg, of “Hancock” and “Friday Night Lights,” and written by action-flick brothers Erich and Jon Hoeber) is also extremely weird. Its shameless and nonsensical combination of ingredients finally won me over, after a fashion, when I realized that its gung-ho Navy-recruitment propaganda and retrograde gender politics shouldn’t be taken any more seriously than the ZZ Top, AC/DC and Billy Squier songs on the soundtrack. The only point of the whole exercise is to make small boys whoop and holler.

You know that bar over on the roughneck side of town, the one where all the jingoistic, pro-military, America-hell-yeah movies go to quaff some brewskis and swap tales about kickin’ Communist hiney? Yeah, that one. Well, when “Battleship” shows up there and starts breaking beer glasses on its head, “Top Gun” and “Red Dawn” and “The Green Berets” get to feel all grown-up and complicated and full of girly-man sensitivity. That’s how stupid it is. Come to think of it, that’s the same Oahu tavern where we first meet our handsome but headstrong hero, Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch, last seen fleeing the ruins of “John Carter”), who’s enjoying a birthday beverage and stern lecture, both provided by his uptight Navy officer brother, Stone (Alexander Skarsgård). Let me back up and repeat that key piece of information: Skarsgård’s character is named Stone Hopper, and I promise that if you remind me of that in three years, I’ll still think it’s hilarious.

That bar on that evening is also where Alex first claps eyes on Sam (Brooklyn Decker), a leggy, cheerleader-ish blonde who’s come into this testosterone-rich dive bar unaccompanied, only to be denied a microwave burrito. Alex gets her that burrito, and wins her heart, at the end of a painful slapstick sequence that involves the total destruction of a convenience store and him being repeatedly Tased by local law enforcement. Funny! Shortly after that, we get to see Sam wearing short-shorts and a tank top, smooching with Alex on the beach — and that’s the one and only moment of faint implied sexuality anywhere in “Battleship.” Decker’s Sam might as well be encased in a glass vitrine; for the rest of the movie she’s seen only in chaste white dresses or tomboyish outdoor clothes. She’s less a Megan Fox-style sex object than a small boy’s vague and non-threatening idea of a sexy lady, and in her remaining scenes with Alex she spends her time urging him — I’m not kidding about this! — to ask her father for her hand.

Alex doesn’t get around to doing that right away, because after the seemingly endless throat-clearing of these early scenes, stuff finally starts happening and the action movie gets here at last. See, Alex has been dragged into the Navy by his big brother Stone Hopper and somehow gotten an officer’s commission, and Sam’s dad (Liam Neeson, doing his growly Amurkin act) is some big-shot admiral who hates him, and then some huge alien vessels from outer space show up, because of a beacon sent out there by geek scientists (thanks, nerds!), destroy Hong Kong and land in the Pacific right in the middle of RIMPAC, which sounds vaguely pornographic but is actually a massive naval exercise involving fleets from many nations. The alien ships are immense gleaming CGI monstrosities wielding impressive firepower — as usual, far beyond our comprehension, etc. — but they’re also kind of the McMansions of the alien-invader world, meaning that they look great for the first few minutes and then you start wondering what the point is, and how well anybody thought any of this through before they started building.

There appear to be no clear rules governing the behavior of the marauding aliens, which is to say that the only rule is this: Despite their overwhelming military superiority, the invaders must have weaknesses that will eventually allow the United States Navy to boo-ya all over their asses. So the aliens never fire on anyone who doesn’t pose a direct threat (except when they do), even though their apparent purpose is world conquest. They come from a planet that, as we are repeatedly told, is very similar to Earth, yet they have reptilian eyeballs and cannot tolerate direct sunlight. Their ships can apparently fly — or, at least, they flew here across millions of miles of space — yet they navigate through the ocean with a frog-hopping motion not unlike metallic whales doing the butterfly stroke. In fairness, all the big machines and humanoid monsters and things that go boom are awesomely rendered; Berg has definitely spent his reported $200 million budget on stuff you can see. It’s just all so profoundly stupid.

Thanks to whatever marketing logic dictates that these kinds of summer movies have to last more than two hours, Berg and the screenwriters pack in all kinds of Navy protocol, ludicrous subplots and irrelevant comic business, among the explosions. R&B star Rihanna is here, in a nothing role as a tough-as-nails petty officer, and Tadanobu Asano, a major Japanese star whose presence may pay off in East Asia, plays a kind of guest-star captain who figures out how to track the radar-cloaked alien ships using a low-tech grid that somewhat resembles — yes! — the traditional layout of the Battleship game. I bet there were high-fives all around in the writing room when they figured that one out. (Let me observe here that playing the Hasbro version is lame; Battleship can and should be played with graph paper.)

I’m not even getting into the bizarre “Space Cowboys” twist toward the end, in which a mothballed World War II-era battleship, and its crew of geriatric docents, is dragged into the fray in a last-ditch effort to save the world. I mean, I know what the title of the movie is, but it’s somehow especially funny that they got all worried about the fact that the real-life Navy doesn’t use battleships anymore. (“Man, we can’t let down the people like this! They want a freakin’ battleship, and they’re gonna get one!”) Plus, did you know that museum ships built 70 years ago are kept all fueled up and ready to go, with stacks of live missile shells piled up behind the Grab-a-Smurf machine? Me neither! But please forgive me; I’m just bitter. Unlike Taylor Kitsch’s endlessly enthusiastic character, I never did get around to asking my wife’s dad for her hand in marriage. And when you get right down to it, isn’t that kind of a charming custom? Why in the world did we let that one get away?

Finally, the film does the same thing to science that the Jurassic Park films do, making science and discovery appear dangerous, morally reprehensible, and an ability to open a Pandora’s Box of danger… just because we sent a signal (which wouldn’t like that in the real world).

According to The Atlantic review:

As the great Anton Ego notes at the conclusion of Pixar’s Ratatouille, the critic—in any field—thrives on, well, criticism. Negative reviews are relatively easy to write, and often great fun to read. I confess that it was with this in mind that I decided to attend a screening of Battleship.

This summer, after all, holds out the promise of astonishingly few sure-fire stinkers. The Dark Knight Rises, Brave, Prometheus, Snow White and the Huntsman,Rock of Ages, Total Recall, The Bourne Legacy—some will no doubt disappoint, but all share at least the possibility of being solid entertainments, if not more. Anyone looking for a film truly worthy of a critical broadside would be a fool to forsake so large a target as Battleship.

The omens could hardly have been bleaker. Start with the initial plan to turn a 45-year-old board game—which had been a pencil-and-paper game for a generation before that—into a $200 million summer tent-pole, despite its complete lack of plot or characters. (What’s next? Hangman? Wait, forget I said that.) Then there was the notion to depart from the entire premise of the game—two evenly matched maritime fleets stalking one another—in order to substitute an invasion by an alien armada. (Was George Lucas employed as an uncredited creative consultant?) And finally, there was the decision to open the film abroad five weeks before it opened stateside, which is a bit like premiering a big Broadway play in rural Manitoba.

The movie’s title sequence is hardly any more promising, twice advertising loudly that what we are about to watch is a Hasbro property. (What could possibly go wrong?) After a bit of halfhearted exposition—astronomers find an Earthlike planet orbiting a distant sun; they try to contact it, ignoring the lone naysayer who cautions that any life there might prove unfriendly—we find ourselves in a bar. There, Stone Hopper (upright Naval commander, played by Alexander Skarsgård) is lecturing his brother Alex (hotheaded layabout, played by Taylor Kitsch) on the importance of doing something with his life, when in walks Sam Shane (Sports Illustrated swimsuit model-like blonde, played by Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Brooklyn Decker). Sam wants a chicken burrito, and when the bartender tells her that the kitchen’s closed (thwack slams the microwave door), Alex decides that what he wants to do with his life is to get her one. To that end, he engages in criminal trespass, larceny, and the extreme (if inadvertent) vandalism of a nearby convenience store. But he gets Sam her burrito, even if he has to hand it to her while being brutally tasered by police. It’s actually a moderately amusing sequence, especially for anyone who recalls the viral video of a genuine theft on which Alex’s antics are loosely based.

Cut to an undisclosed time later. Alex is now a clean-cut naval lieutenant stationed in Hawaii, and he is planning to propose to Sam as soon as he can get permission from her stern admiral father (Liam Neeson). Alex’s felonious indiscretions on behalf of Sam’s burrito are not mentioned again, nor is it explained how he avoided incarceration and became an officer. If you’re the kind of person who asks such questions, this is probably not the movie for you. Naval maneuvers involving the fleets of several countries (hello, international market!) are about to take place, but not until after the completion of a soccer tournament (hello? hello?).

The maneuvers have scarcely begun, though, when several alien objects fall from the sky, one of them tearing a large hole in the middle of Hong Kong(!). The remaining extraterrestrial dreadnoughts, meanwhile, land in the Pacific and project an impenetrable force-field over Hawaii, trapping with them three destroyers commanded by the two Hopper brothers and one Captain Nagata, played by Japanese star (okay, I’m done) Tadanobu Asano. Also notably on board is a tough petty officer played by Rihanna in her big-screen debut.

Hostilities soon ensue between the multinational cast and the extraterrestrials—who let’s face it, were never going to buy tickets to this movie anyway. In a nod to the board game that will elicit grins or groans according to temperament, the aliens’ primary weapon launches missiles shaped like pegs, which embed themselves in a ship’s hull before exploding. Also, their force-field has crippled the radar of both sides alike, forcing them to “guess” at their opponents’ exact locations.

If this all sounds pretty bad—well, it is, though not quite as bad as one might expect. The movie has a few likable gags (a couple of them about The Art of War), and a hokey, genial air, particularly in comparison to the sour tone of its Hasbro cousin, the Transformers franchise. Yes, Brooklyn Decker is cast as eye candy and accoutered accordingly—tank tops and bikini tops, short jean shorts and short lycra shorts—but director Peter Berg’s camera never leers over her like the lubricious lens of Michael Bay. (And at least Battleship had the decency to make Sam, her character, a physical therapist rather than a biochemist or art historian.)

You may find over time, as I did, that you are worn down by the Learning of Valuable Lessons; by the aliens’ peculiar, repeated habit of declining to finish off helpless foes (is it still Battleship if only one side is playing to win?); by the bringing back of grizzled old vets for one last tour; by the appalling misappropriation of “Fortunate Son”; and by the pummeling, punishing score (by Steve Jablonsky, with producer Rick Rubin and guitarist Tom Morello), which bears all too close a resemblance to the deadly sonic weapon deployed by the aliens early in the film.

In short, if you are in the market for a big-budget action movie this weekend, see The Avengers. If you’ve already seen it, see it again. But if you’ve seen it as many times as you can bear, and you absolutely need to go out to an aliens-versus-humanity blockbuster—no, I can’t go that far.

But I will say this: Battleship is substantially less awful than it could have been. And for me, writing from the selfish perspective of someone who anticipated a movie meriting true critical evisceration, that may have been the biggest disappointment of all.

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2 thoughts on “On Battleship

  1. Pingback: On Pacific Rim | The Progressive Democrat

  2. Pingback: On X-Men Origins: Wolverine | The Progressive Democrat

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