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Non-Review Review: Battleship

Battleship is a big American blockbuster. And, to be fair, it falls pray to a large number of the pitfalls of those sorts of films. There’s more action than thought. There’s lots of CGI filling the scenes. It rigidly adheres to a formula. It’s characters aren’t developed beyond shallow archetypes. However, I can forgive most of these flaws because Peter Berg actually makes this fun. I can very honestly and shamelessly admit that this was the most fun big dumb blockbuster that I’ve seen since Independence Day or perhaps The Rock. And that’s quite a compliment. It’s never anything more than it claims to be, but does well not to take itself too seriously.

Something to sea...

Some time during the last decade or so, it seems that American blockbuster lost their sense of fun. Sure, they kept around awkwardly stereotypical comic relief roles filled with veteran performers in quick need of a nice cheque, but it seemed that far too many of these CGI-laden spectacles took themselves far too seriously. Michael Bay’s movies really suffered from this flaw at some point around Bad Boys II. Hell, Transformers managed to turn a bunch of talking “robots in disguise” into a brutally self-important and self-indulgent bloated monster. That said, there are exceptions – movies that actually manage to address their subject matter in a clever and serious manner – but they’re few and far between. For every film like The Dark Knight there’s several more like Eagle Eye. In many ways, it seems that Berg structures his movie as the “anti-Transformers”, for lack of a better word.

Of course, he’s saddled with an inherently ridiculous premise. He is, after all, making a movie based around a boardgame that has no plot to it. He’s not adapting a story, he’s crossing reference items off a checklist. Something that looks like the board? Check. Bit of guesswork? Check. Things that look like pegs? Check. An actual battleship? Check. It’s safe to assume that the mandatory ingredients were dictated to Berg on taking the assignment. Aliens? Check. Armour that looks like Transformers? Check. At least one shot of massive city-wide destruction? Check. A reckless protagonist who is forced to mature to accept the burden of command? Check.

Aliens in disguise!

What is remarkable, and what helps Battleship stand out as the most enjoyable “straightforward” blockbuster in quite some time, is what Peter Berg and his writers do with these constituent elements. The plot has to involve aliens, so Berg actually throws in a clever bit of pseudo-science borrowed from Stephen Hawkins himself to justify the confrontation. Forced to give us a feckless rogue as a protagonist, Berg pretty much brutally deconstructs the sort of “rough diamond” approach to action movie protagonists that Hollywood has taken as short hand for characterisation.

On the surface, Alex Hopper looks like your typical Michael Bay protagonist. He’s a washed up loser with a beautiful girlfriend played by a hunky actor without any sense of responsibility. He’s cajoled into joining the army by his elder brother, where he’ll undoubtedly prove himself. Other characters, including his girlfriend’s father, repeated point out that Hopper has vast amounts of untapped talent that he simply can’t focus into anything productive. So he’s destined to save the day, right?

Everybody out of the water!

The most heroic thing that Hopper does during the entire film is to concede that he is not fit to command. Showing a quality traditionally lacking in alpha male action movie protagonists, Hopper actually evaluates his own decision-making prowess and decides that he’s not the man to lead the mission. He turns his command over to a supporting Japanese character, who is much more efficient in his strategic decision-making. I think it says a lot that Peter Berg’s hero actually saves the day through humility, in marked contrast to most other blockbusters. It betrays a rare level of introspection to the film, and suggests that Berg is actually doing something vaguely interesting within the framework of the traditional blockbuster.

It’s telling that Berg, for example, surrounds Hopper with taller men. Despite being played by the hunky Taylor Kitsch, Berg makes a conscious effort to frame his lead with taller actors like Liam Neeson or Alexander Skarsgård, as if to illustrate how small this sort of character actually is. His escapades, which a more traditional film would portray as romantic and endearing, are shown to be pathetic. His epic quest to win the girl of his dreams is scored to The Pink Panther Theme, for example. Put in an all-or-nothing counts-for-everything penalty-shoot-out, his selfish arrogance does just narrowly miss the goal, but goes sailing over.

In case of emergency, break glass!

Indeed, Berg’s film seems almost like a celebration of the disenfranchised. A great many blockbusters are keen to feature young and courageous soldiers anxious to prove themselves. In contrast, the actual heroes of Berg’s film seem like a genuine break from the norm. Rather than a bunch of endearing young upstarts out to sort the world out, his cast find themselves depending on the old and experienced generation to save the day. With a crew of modern officers unable to man an actual battleship, Hopper is forced to draw on the combined experience of the old crew, all pensioned off and all but forgotten about – subject to a few kind words in a speech at the start of the film, but not that action heroes most modern audiences expect.

Berg seems to set the film around characters who actually have experience, rather than those Hollywood might be comfortable with. One a small island, a soldier who lost both his legs overseas pretty much singlehandedly keeps the alien beachhead at bay. This is a character that a normal movie really wouldn’t look twice at, and it’s to the credit of Battleship that it actually does feature a character who actually has experience and actually carries scars. It’s people like that – people who have served and who have sacrificed tremendously in that service – who deserve the bravado and respect that Hollywood action films traditionally reserve for the handsome or the beautiful actors who seem like they might have come from a box stuffed with cotton wool.

Making a splash?

Of course, the film is subject to the same rules as most of the blockbusters it seems to subtly subvert. It is loud. It is bombastic. It is, as far too many American films focusing on the military are prone to be, a little too earnest. I don’t need slow motion footage playing over Liam Neeson’s stirring speech to understand that serving in the military involves commitment and sacrifice. Most audience members, even the most cynical ones, know that such service requires bravery and courage. Even if they don’t, telling us does nothing. Showing us is much more convincing.

Still, I can’t help but feel that Peter Berg is playing with the conventions in a sly and almost subversive manner. After all, the entire incident begins when a bunch of American ships fire (“a warning shot”) at an alien craft. The film never explicitly identifies the aliens as aggressors, and our characters never really understand too much about them, and it seems like the entire situation arrises because of the gung-ho macho aggression that films like this take so readily for granted.

A blast...

That doesn’t mean that the movie’s too heavy or serious, but it does imply that there’s a bit of thought beneath an admittedly shallow surface. In many ways, the movie seems to subtly mock the jingoistic patriotism common to films like Independence Day. Hopper is quick to insinuate that his Japanese colleague is schooled in Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, assuming that the book is a cultural touchstone for his oriental fellow officer. “That book is Chinese,” the officer informs Hopper, who seems to care little beyond the umbrella term “Asian”, so ethnocentric is his perspective. It’s telling that a lot of the news footage used comes from outside the United States.

And there is fun to be had. Although Liam Neeson does not mutter “they sunk my battleship”, the movie does treat us to Neeson insisting “no means no!” And it’s hard to hate a movie that indulges in such silliness. There’s a nice bit of conference-call related fun, and a wonderful response to a bit of stiff-upper-lip heroism. “Who really talks like that?” one character muses as another vows to help humanity live to see another day.

Holding the line...

Battleship isn’t perfect. It is big and it is loud, and it’s a slave to conventions that most of us know inside and out. However, I think it’s also quite a bit smarter than it lets on, and considerably shrewder. It’s a blockbuster that isn’t as self-important, self-indulgent or serious as most of its more recent brethren, and for that reason alone I enjoyed it. I honestly think it might be the most fun I’ve had at a standard and conventional paint-by-numbers blockbuster in years.

7 Responses

  1. Wow great review! I really wasn’t expecting much at all from this movie. I will most definitely be keeping this review in mind when I see it. Sounds like a good deal of fun with a sly subversive streak. And all wrapped up with plenty of aliens and explosions and stuff!

    • Thanks Pete! Hope you like it. It’s not brilliant – it is too much a slave to “big dumb action movie conventions” – but I liek the way berg plays with many of the tropes we take for granted. It’s not a deconstruction, per se, but you can see Berg pushing the film as far in that direction as he can without getting into trouble with the studio.

  2. Ye Gods, a reviewer that actually watched the film they are writing about. Excellent review. Picks up all the unusual scripting that made the film intriguing for me… it’s not so ‘dumb’ after all. Thank you for an intelligent, thoughtful article.

  3. The movie starts with a high tech sort of introduction which sets the film in the US navy, turns into a messy totally overlong introduction to the hero Taylor Kitsch and over longed buildup to the actual plot. Second half have some surprises in terms of special effects and spectacle. The film is way too long, the music is distracting & the characters are very much half baked.

  4. I’ve just started into the art of reviewing…and your reviews totally inspire me. Your insights are well thought out and worded with real sincerity. Thanks for keeping such a great website!

  5. It was a fun movie, but I was led to expect I’d see more of Neeson in it than there actually was. Plus, from the perspective of someone whose hobby is military engineering systems & such fun toys, I’d find it completely laughable that anyone could fire up a museum ship & take it to sea.
    Other reviewers have pointed this out & said that the Missouri isn’t in any kind of shape to sail at all or shoot any of its weapons. Plus, nobody would keep live ammo or powder aboard any such ship, or any fuel.
    The boilers would take MANY hours to bring online if everything was in perfect operating shape, & I’d be crazy to put high-pressure steam into those main propulsion turbines after years of them just sitting there doing nothing! At least death would be quick!

    That anchor maneuver is just plain nuts, too. Someone paid no attention to their tech advisor, eh?

    BTW, There IS an overhead ammo handling system built-in to move shells around the ship, no carrying them on shoulders required. 🙂

    I happen to have the tech manual for those 16″ rifles, & they need a LOT of crew each. did they really have that many spare old sailors hanging around?

    • I can be quite forgiving about rather obvious plot holes like that if the movie’s enough dumb fun to sweep me along. It’s if I am bored enough to ask those questions that I know there’s a problem.

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