21 May 2012

I Go to the Summer Movies: Battleship

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

You sunk my interest.

And so The Avengers gets another week at #1. Welcome to the Billion Dollar Club. Have a seat next to The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and watch that The Dark Knight doesn’t try to steal your popcorn.

The question burning my mind as I left the theater after watching Battleship was: “Why ‘Fortunate Son’?” At the close of two hours of a rah-rah, fist pumping, pro-military glamor parade, why play one of most famous and angriest protest songs ever over a montage of alien ships getting smithereen’d? Did no one involved in the movie listen to the lyrics? “Some folks are born made to wave the flag / Oh, they’re Red, White and Blue. / And when the band plays ‘Hail to Chief’ / Oh, they point the cannon at you.” Maybe the music supervisor thought, “Oh, hell ya! People love Creedence Clearwater Revival. Let’s crank it up!” Perhaps director Peter Berg was trying to allay blame for the film, screaming “It ain’t me! It ain’t me!” Or maybe Berg filled his Navy vs. Aliens blow-em-up flick with a subversive anti-military/industrial complex message that I failed to find on my radar.

However, I will never know for certain, because there’s no way I will ever watch Battleship a second time. This is the essential Stupid Summer Movie, a Michael Bay film without Michael Bay’s obsession with disaster porn that at least gives his junk a crazy edge. If you thought the idea of adapting a strategy guessing game was a poor choice for a blockbuster movie, you were right: stick a red peg on your upper tactical screen.

Maybe the “Fortunate Sons” are the film’s heroes, who have the luck of going up against an expeditionary force of the stupidest extraterrestrials since Mac and Me. These heavily armed dreadnoughts fly twenty light years to reach Earth, but immediately smash their most crucial vessel into a satellite (they were drinking, I assume). Later, the aliens suffer defeat from the insurmountable force of senior citizens, a tourist attraction, a paraplegic, a supermodel driving a Jeep, and a tech-geek with heavy luggage.

However, if I can muster up a subversive undercurrent to the movie, it rests on these aliens. They show odd behavior for extraterrestrial invaders, if that’s indeed what they are. Their massive ships only attack the naval vessels if they are struck first. The HUD displays on the aliens’ helmets show that they aren’t interested in attacking live targets if they don’t need to—they are principally interested in gathering equipment. The damage they spread through Honolulu with their buzz-drones (which, I admit, look pretty great) appears strategic, and they avoid causing civilian damage if possible, even going so far as making a display of not attacking a Little League game. At one point, the aliens stage a commando rescue to get back one of their men from captivity. For most of the movie, the aliens’ goal is to escape: with their communication ship wrecked, they need to find some way to get a message off-planet.

So is it possible that from the POV of the aliens, this is basically Black Hawk Down? Or the Anabasis by Xenophon? Since the purpose of the aliens coming to Earth in the first place is never stated (we only know they are reacting to a communication signal sent from Earth in 2006), it is possible that the arrival of the five ships is nothing more than an intelligence-gathering mission to make sure Earth does not pose a threat, and the ships never harbored any intention of causing harm until they got caught in a dangerous situation after their little DUI steering accident. I still insist these are pretty dumb aliens, but they may not be specifically bad aliens.

Imagining this possibility is far more entertaining than anything in the film itself. Honestly, I think this hypothesis is far-fetched and gives too much credit to a movie based on a game where two players declare coordinates to each other until someone wins. I’m just digging around to make some sense of “Fortunate Son.”

From the beginning, Battleship desperately wants to capture the boisterous, proud stupidity of a Michael Bay film—specifically Transformers, another Hasbro property. It loads up on macho-posing idiocy and characters acting in ridiculous ways that are the hallmark of Bay’s blockbuster brand. The painful opening, where Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) commits multiple felonies and destroys private property so he can get a chicken burrito for a hot girl at a bar, has the movie sunk before the aliens appear.

Taylor Kitsch is riding his second disappointment in a row after John Carter of Mars. Kitsch was one of the few things about John Carter that I didn’t love, and his general low charisma carries over here. There’s simply little heroic about him to latch onto. It’s difficult to shake the first impression we get of him: a drunk, horny imbecile. In most of Kitsch’s scenes in command aboard the USS John Paul Jones, the Japanese military Captain Nagata (Tadanobu Asano) overwhelms him. This guy should’ve been the hero.

The movie goes on its tedious way, alternating bland action sequences between the two armadas with large-scale urban destruction and terrible “character” moments. There is nothing much to say about the main stretch of the movie except it’s playbook flavorless blockbuster material: loads of visual effects and no reason to care about any of it.

If you think Liam Neeson might salvage some of this sinking regatta, I’m sorry to inform you that he appears on screen for a total of ten minutes and is completely removed from the action because he’s on the wrong side of the barrier the aliens drop around Hawaii. He doesn’t even get to shout “You sunk my battleship!” despite having ample opportunities to do so. Did the filmmakers think that among the inanity of this film, avoiding the line most associated with the game was “being subtle”? You sunk my pop culture fun.

Oh, Rihanna is in the cast. I don’t know why, because she brings nothing to her role or the movie.

An actual war hero plays a major part: Gregory T. Gadson, a U.S. Army Colonel who also works as a motivational speaker. Gadson lost both his legs to a roadside bomb in Baghdad in 2007, and now walks using next generation prosthetic technology. He doesn’t turn in a great performance as Colonel Mick Canales, an extremely embittered amputee, but he does provide sincerity that plays well, and he upstages Brooklyn Decker, who as an actress is a great fashion model. However, this section of the movie—the ground-based mission to stop the aliens from taking over communication dishes—is even duller than the naval combat. I’d prefer to see Gadson in a documentary short subject about his experience with the groundbreaking prosthetics.

Strangely, the best segment of the movie is the one that tries to adhere closest to its unlikely source material. Battleship was originally a pen-and-paper game and is basically an educated-guessing contest: not exactly the starting point for grand cinematic drama. But the movie has a section where the John Paul Jones, with its radar destroyed, uses buoys to create a grid target-system. The navy calls out co-ordinates like “A10” to try to make blind missile strikes on the alien ships. It plays far better than it sounds, and for that the credit goes to actor Tadanobu Asano, who handles the strategy as Captain Nagata. Again, why isn’t this guy the actual hero?

There are a few other hand-waves to the game, such as the peg-like weapons the aliens use to sink ships, but since Battleship is not a character-based property like other Hasbro big-leaguers G.I. Joe and Transformers, none of this means anything. The most hardcore Battleship players have never rallied for an “accurate” film presentation. (I don’t know if there are “hardcore” Battleship gamers, but I assume there must be. If a game exists, it has dedicated gamers.)

The film’s climax, where Alex Hooper leads an effort to put a decommissioned World War II battleship that hasn’t sailed in ten years into play against the remaining alien vessels, asks the audience to believe so much nonsense that it might actually be entertaining—if the film wasn’t dead in the water long ago. There is something adorable about seeing aging vets get back in action, but “adorable” isn’t on my list of things to see in an action finale.
By the way, the Creedence Clearwater Revival song that should have played at the end: “It Came Out of the Sky.” Duh.

Also by the way, “Fortunate Son” is a great song. That is all.

My Summer Movie Scorecard
Battleship . . . . . . . . . . D
Dark Shadows . . . . . . . . . . C-
The Avengers . . . . . . . . . A

Next week: I’ll find out if I wanted a third Men in Black film.