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We Come in Peace, Shoot to Kill: Battleship’s Truly Alien Alien Invasion…

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.

31 Responses

  1. Nice review…totally what i was thinking! ^_^
    I really liked the “Battleship” movie, and maybe it’s because I understand the plot-holes as part of the mysticism presented by having “aliens” come to earth.

  2. Finally someone that actually thinks! I just saw this film at home. Can’t say I liked it much. But one thing for sure: I totally agree with your analysis on the “alien’s intentions” and big misunderstanding warfare. Clearly the aliens in the film responded to the attacks from the US navy. And multiple times in the film we see the aliens avoiding human casualties.

    • Thanks! I myself didn’t love it, but thought it was okay. I wouldn’t pay to see it, but there have been dumber action movies, and less entertaining ones, especially this year. Berg seemed to have a bit of a sense of humour about the whole jingoistic thing, and at times it felt like more of a parody of a blockbuster than a blockbuster. It didn’t always work, but I admried the effort.

  3. While I liked Battleship, and I think I somewhat agree with this review, if that’s true I’d like to know why the aliens suddenly decided to waylay the two ?rangers?, as well as killing a bunch of scientist grad students.

    • It’s a fair point. Although, to be fair, I think that you could make the point they were “securing” the beachhead. If I remember correctly, they seem to initially refuse to kill unarmed combatants – and generally push people out of the way where possible. I don’t remember the grad students bit? I thought the antenna had been left unattended?

      • The geeky scientist with the briefcase, whom you point out lived to tell the tale of meeting an alien, had a grad student with him at the antenna; a grad student who was literally shaking in terror at the thought that aliens were coming to Earth. The only way this guy would have been a threat to the aliens is if he fainted and landed on one of them. They killed him. The film doesn’t show it, but the guy with the briefcase tells Mick and Sam that the aliens showed up and killed his grad student. They also shredded the cops on the mountain even though the cops were just driving along and never were a threat. They didn’t even see what hit them, they certainly weren’t trying to harm the aliens.

        I would argue that if these aliens were in any way peaceful, they are TOO alien for us to interact with safely. Hopper touches their ship and gets thrown fifty feet. A ship lets off a blast of sound and the aliens respond with a sonic weapon. They capture a chunk of the Hawaiian islands, attack a freeway and a military base (killing large numbers of civilians as well as military personnel) and secure a communications station by killing everyone in the vicinity. If this is their idea of peaceful first contact, they are not people we can deal with in any way.

        I would further argue that the aliens seem to be in the manner of a recon force. The fact that they didn’t always use ammunition against civilians and they didn’t attack with lethal force until first fired upon could be the actions of a commander conserving his resources until he can phone home. That the aliens’ idea of phoning home is analogous to home invaders killing members of your family so they can use your phone, is further evidence that the aliens were hostile to our species.

        Finally, the idea that because their communication device was destroyed they had no way to talk to us is flawed. Their communication device was for contacting their home planet. Even if it was also to help talk to us, if the aliens can’t manage some basic communication on their own, they are woefully inadequate to be exploring the galaxy in the first place. It is beyond credible that they have mastered space travel and can find no way to make peaceful contact with another species.

  4. If they were trying to take the earth I think the movie makers made it too easy for the aliens to be stopped!! I mean the aliens had what looked like a unlimited amount of far more superior weapons! They could have destroyed the humans easy, but on multiple occasions you see the aliens refrain from violence! I think what made the movie too easy for me is when the scientist came face to face with an alien. The alien let him go with the communication device which changed the whole fight! That call let them win the battle. Imagine if it was like Battle LA. There would have not been a call cause the scientist would have died right there!!! I liked the movie a lot. But I feel they did make it too easy

    • That’s kinda what got me thinking about this. They have a lot of opportunities to cause a lot more damage, but refrain. Even if they aren’t ready to launch a full-scale invasion until back-up arrives, they repeatedly have the option to take care of the boat and give themselves peace and quiet to do their work. The fact that they didn’t means either they (or the script) are incredibly stupid or there was a reason. Given how heavily the movie leans on the idea of first contact with an alien civilisation being inherently dangerous, I am inclined towards the latter idea.

  5. I did not expect to enjoy this movie,I thought it would be nothing more than a generic action film. It did have generic premise, but i Though the aliens were interesting and I like watching the crew work together to stop them, it was kinda like a Star Trek episode in that regard. As i watched this movie, I thought something similar. I thought that the machine aspect to there vision was most interesting. It was almost like they we incapable of making decisions on there own.

  6. Seeing the movie an idea crossed my mind, that the aliens who came were nothing but a team of scientists with “bodyguards” who came before to ensure that the planet does not need to be attacked, and that the action of humans may have triggered the main “attack” of aliens on a second film.

    • Not a bad idea. I remain one of the (apparently) very few people who didn’t hate Battleship. I would be interested in a sequel. I know it didn’t do well in the US, so I wonder whether the international box office was decent enough to earn one.

  7. I actually liked this movie but only because of that fact that it didn’t go much into detail about our invaders which leaves my mind to wonder off into deep thought and speculation of what their intentions are. From watching the movie more then 2 times I have noticed that the invaders have weaponry looks like it could be used for deep space mining. This could be relatable to the idea of deep space industries of mining for resourse on comet and asteroids. I’ve have been reading a few reviews and came across one which point out the fact of how were the aliens able to get to earth so fast, even if they had the ability to travel the speed of light they still wouldn’t have arrived as fast as they did in the movie, which had to be between the years of 06 – 2017. The longest Obama could have been in office, as it cleary shows him on a news broadcast after the arrival of the aliens. I like too think that maybe this aliens had been mining comets and such. And at one point they had lost communication with their home planet due to a battle that must of happened; relating to the scene were the alien touches hopper’s face. Thus, when we sent out the signal they had to have intercepted the signal some were inbetween our solorsystem and theirs. More over, knowing we had a way to communicate across intergalactic solar systems they believed they could come here and send a destress signal back home using our deep space satellite. Then the movie goes on from there with us war loving humans shooting the first shot.

  8. Nice summation. I recognized that these aliens have more depth than most based simply on their passive behavior regarding those who don’t pose a threat, but when taking the analysis to this point, one really has to wonder what the aliens’ motives actually were.

    Sadly, with the poor rating and low profit, and with the story being necessarily linked to a “Battleship” in some way, i doubt we’ll ever see a sequel.

    I almost suspect this movie was used as an opportunity for some Hollywood writer to get his deep vision of an alien encounter into a movie, but he’ll never have the chance to flesh it out and do it justice. Which is kind of sad for the would-be audience.

    • I think soemthing along the same lines, that somebody actually put a lot of thought into what was really intended as just a brainless blockbuster. Certainly, compared to Transformers, Battleship has a lot of stuff going on under the hood. Then again, I suspect you and I are in the minority in felling this way.

  9. I thought it was good although i could not stop laughing when the anchor turns the battleship around for the killer broadside lol,

    a sequel could be called carrier, the game is battleship but the biggest playing piece is a carrier and the aliens main invasion needs a story maybe they are a mostly water planet or water powers their ships, as you need to have some reason to have them out at sea again.

    sadly due to the fact Americans are turned off by to many of these films and with the economy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan i don’t think they care for seeing ‘war’ movies…..and it didn’t help having main roles filled by new actors and top names doing very little. Plus from my point if i was an American i’d hate to have a Canadian on my ship 🙂 you know British ships ain’t for french guys etc.

    • I didn’t mind the fact Liam Neeson was there for tactic support. I mean, arguably he’s even more foreign than Taylor Kitsch! Although I think they missed an opportunity by refusing to have him lament, “They sunk my battleship.”

  10. These films are nonsense. The aliens with vastly superior technology. The technological ability millenia in the making to travel through galaxies. The intelligence needed etc etc.. and yet when they reach earth. Suddenly these technically advanced species turn into morons and are quickly defeated before the end credits.

  11. To add: I can understand why the american audience likes it. They can fantasize about flag waving nationalism and all that. But for a sci fi film. Clever films are few and few between, 2001, primer are the exception.

  12. Did none of you guys notice, the scientist & alien meeting. When the grabbed the suit case. It uttered hi’ to the scientist.

    – also there were two kinds of suits. Blue & yellow. & the aliens varying in size and stature… The yellow suit aliens seemed like the captains & generals.as the blue might of been grunts.. But my review for the movie, is 8/10. Could have easily been a 9 or 10.with more dialect and a stronger story.movie was hilarious and action pact. More fight scenes or them exploring the aliens ship, would of made it a little more attractive… Again , I think the aliens were escaping from some where,& was trying to regroup , with third race.third planet seemed perfectly fine, so why conquer ours.
    When they blew their horns (naval), the aliens did the same. But becusdd of different materials and bodies. The noise hurt our ERS and broke windows. (Note it took 4-6 shots, to even make a scratch on the aliens glass windows.)

    • It has been ages since I’ve seen it. Didn’t hear the “hi”, actually! Not sure I picked up on the different suits thing, so good spot. I thnink the film was far from perfect, but I still really liked it – a lot more than most people seem to have.

  13. I liked it because. I fantasize about the unknown. (Typo in last post, I meant hurt our ears and shattered glass)

  14. My apologies. I’m on a iPhone. So many typos ….(it took 4-6 shots from a .50 cal sniper rifle. To break the aliens windows.) & normally a .50 bullet will go through anything, mostly. I didn’t catch the alien, saying hi, to the scientist. Until I watched it a second time…..and then googled why it said hi’. Lol. Which brought me to this site now.:)

  15. Superb review! and put across very eloquently, I agreed with everything you wrote

  16. One big point to add is that the aliens clearly didn’t have military weapons. No personal sidearms (Some just had a knife, and they slowly switched through multiple tools on their arm to get to it.) They had nothing that shoots straight (no guns of any type), so they can’t hit anything moving faster than a boat. No guided explosives (like the tomahawks that destroy them) so they can’t fire at anything over a long distance. They have the ability to create an enormous force field, but no equipment to create a much smaller field around their ships (which could easily protect them and drain much less power). A similar “field” could also easily be shot straight like a canon. They certainly had the technology for weapons. They just don’t have any.

    Their defenses were clearly re-purposed from some other function. The guided wheels were clearly meant for burrowing. Their mortars can only hit a fixed position, and burrow slightly be exploding. As someone mentioned above, these are tools for mining. They would be perfect for it. The force field covers an enormous area, which is exactly what you need to protect a mining operation in an asteroid field or meteor shower. And those 3 things (wheels, mortars, force field) were the only things they had to protect themselves.

    Added to the other things mentioned above, there is no way this could’ve been a military force, even a scouting party. They didn’t act like one, and were completely unequipped for it.

    (Just saw this movie on TV the other day and started searching the internet for this.)

  17. Just watched for only the 2nd time. Had to go back and see the “Hi” scene and heard it. Ok so did anyone else get the feeling that it was a female alien? I thought it was even before going back and hearing “hi”. The voice and the eyes. It is 0152 so I may just be really tired. I did enjoy the review and most of the comments.

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