I really liked Peter Berg’s Battleship, and I think a part of that was the way that he tried to subtly bend some of the Michael Bay blockbuster conventions against themselves. So, for example, the hero doesn’t step up to the plate so much as realising he’s not the right person to step up to the plate. The heroes aren’t the bunch of hot pop-stars and would-be male models that make up the leading cast, but people who have actually experienced war and suffered for their patriotism. However, I really like how distinctively alien Battleship’s aliens were.
I don’t mean in terms of design, to be fair. The suits seem like an obvious attempt to lure in fans of Transformers and Berg has them look quite human underneath. I mean in their motivations and characterisation. Berg’s movie shrewdly refuses to give us too much insight or knowledge into these visitors, or to let them communicate with the cast. The result is an interesting exploration of culture clash set against an otherwise conventional blockbuster confrontation.
It’s funny, but in big-budget science-fiction, aliens tend to talk. A lot. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the dialogue in the Transformers series came from the pretentious mutterings of the alien robots themselves, as Optimus Prime waxes lyrical about concepts like honour and duty. Pulp audience-friendly science-fiction tends to favour loud and monologuing aliens that never seem to have too much difficulty communicating with our human characters. Consider Star Wars or Star Trek. There are exceptions of course, but generally communications between the aliens and humans seems quite clear.
When communication isn’t clear, it’s generally because the goal of the aliens in question is quite clear. The translator declaring “don’t be afraid!” was deliciously ironic in Mars Attacks! as the malicious invaders made it clear they came in nothing like peace. The eponymous xenomorph from Alien doesn’t need dialogue because its objectives are fairly clear. Similarly, it’s easy enough to figure out what the alien in Predator is after. It seems very rare that science-fiction gives us a truly alien alien, and one far outside our own frame of reference.
In a way, Peter Berg’s blockbuster seems to do just that. The creatures don’t look too alien. They are bipods, after all. They have hands, even if their fingers are a bit disjointed. Their skin seems relatively human, even if it seems like the keratin in their little goatees more resembles the keratin in out nails, and their eyes seem distinctly reptilian. We discover that they are very sensitive to light, extrapolating from lizards on our planet.
However, we never find out what they want, or what their goals might be. Don’t get me wrong, our characters are quick to deduce that these aliens are sinister. After all, they cut off a bunch of islands from the rest of the world, sink a U.S. Navy Destroyer and hijack a satellite dish. Our heroes extrapolate that the aliens are planning to signal home to inform their brethren that Earth is ripe for the taking, and that these aliens managing to send a communication to their home planet would be the end of human kind as we know it.
These creatures are certainly well-powered wearing suits of armour designed to evoke Michael Bay’s robots in disguise and tearing gigantic holes in absolutely anything that gets in their way. However, they never communicate with the cast directly. They never make ominous threats. No American commander decodes a signal that betrays aggressive military intent. Sure, they do seal off a bunch of islands, and they do cripple a naval fleet. However, their aggression is always a direct response to military force.
When the ships first appear, the U.S. military attempts to communicate with them. The aliens respond with an auditory signal of their own, a high-pitched noise that causes great physical discomfort to people and even shatters glass on ships quite a distance away. Despite possessing considerable firepower and a sizeable tactical advantage, the aliens don’t open fire until the U.S. Navy fires a “warning shot” off their side. Given that there was no way of communicating between the Americans and the aliens, I think it’s possible to argue the alien response – firing weapons to destroy an American ship – could be construed as self-defense.
After all, the alien creatures don’t seem too villainous. They have the capacity to blow the enemy out of the water with ease, but only seem to respond to aggressors. The Japanese ship is ignored until it joins in on the attack on the alien ship. Sure, there were bound to be civilian casualties when the aliens subsequently tried to disable infrastructure, but those seem almost incidental – the main objective is to diable enemy communications, not to inflict casualties.
When the aliens board a ship, they seem to (initially) make an effort not to kill anybody, merely to disable the ship’s functions. When one of the vehicles arrives on land, it spares a young child. A scientist manages to come into direct contact with one, and lives to tell the tale, even holding on to his little briefcase. Even a quick infantry raid on a ship is primarily concerned with rescuing an injured crew man rather than destroying the enemy. An alien remains behind to sabotage the ship, possibly to keep it from any further acts of aggression.
The more I think about it, the less Battleship seems like a convention “alien invasion” narrative, at least in the traditional sense. It seems more like an error in communications. After all, the alien communication craft is destroyed on atmospheric entry, and they are merely trying to use the antenna on the island to communicate back to their home planet. Naturally, the human response is one of terror and fear – because we can’t know whether they mean harm or not – and so we respond with violence.
At one point, an alien touches our lead character, Hopper. Hopper sees a flash of some alien planets and alien beings. There are hints of violence, but not a cohesive narrative. In Independence Day, there’s a similar scene when the President catches a glimpse of the monstrous alien minds at work. In Emmerich’s film, the President understands enough to immediately know that the aliens are completely and impossibly evil, and thus justifying any potential response. “I saw… its thoughts,” he states. “I saw what they’re planning to do. They’re like locusts. They’re moving from planet to planet… their whole civilization. After they’ve consumed every natural resource they move on… and we’re next. Nuke ‘em. Let’s nuke the bastards.”
It’s telling that Berg’s Battleship denies Hopper a similar epiphany. He seems unable to understand or process the imagery into a coherent understanding of the alien, only vaguely sensing something bad. There’s a sense that this alien is… truly alien. Indeed, the movie opens with a bunch of astrophysicists wondering if mankind itself is ready for alien contact. It seems that Berg and his writers might have been inspired by Stephen Hawkins’ theory:
If we should pick up signals from alien civilizations, Hawking warns, “we should be wary of answering back, until we have evolved” a bit further. ‘Meeting a more advanced civilization, at our present stage,’ Hawking says “might be a bit like the original inhabitants of America meeting Columbus. I don’t think they were better off for it.”
Indeed, the film explicitly uses that comparison, and the idea of the Incas and the Conquistadors. Personally, I couldn’t help but think of the way that the Azteks met their eventual destroyers:
“Though the Aztecs numbered in the millions and Cortes had only five hundred men, the Spanish had muskets, metal armor, and fought on horseback. The Aztecs – accustomed to fighting one-on-one to capture sacrificial victims – were both overpowered by arms and awed by the mounted soldiers (the Aztecs thought horse and rider were one being). The mystical perspective of the Aztecs prevented them from having a clue what was going on. Montezuma was taken hostage and eventually killed. Tenochtitlan – weakened by the loss of the Emperor and by European- borne diseases fell.”
So fundamentally alien were the Spanish forces that the Azteks actually believed that horse and rider were actually one distinct being. I can’t help but wonder if Battleship is based around a similar fundamental misunderstanding, and our lead characters are merely mischaracterising extreme defensive action in the face of American aggression as a belligerent invasion attempt.
I liked Battleship far more than I thought I would, and I think it’s little elements like this that add up. Rather than presenting the aliens as unambiguously evil invaders from another planet, I think it’s possible to argue that they were soldiers trapped on a foreign planet who were trying to defend themselves against aggression from the natives. It’s never really explicitly stated, but I think it is at least a tiny bit implied. We’ll probably never know for sure, and perhaps it’s best that way.