First things first. There will be NO REFERENCES to the phrase “You sank my battleship!” during this review, except for just now in the middle of this sentence when I did it to illustrate a point. This joke will no doubt be used in every single review of Peter Berg’s Battleship, though I will award a troublemaking, furniture-wrecking, sleep-disrupting but very pretty cat to the critic who makes the most original play on the phrase. All I could come up with after sitting through it was, “The only thing Battleship sank was my enthusiasm for Peter Berg movies.”* I almost tweeted it, but it’s just so painful to say. Because I love Peter Berg, as long as I ignore Very Bad Things, aka the proto-Hangover. After all, this is the man who brought us Friday Night Lights, one of the finest TV shows ever made, for which he earns a deserved Shades of Caruso Free Pass.
And yet I’m increasingly troubled. The Kingdom was politically dubious but professionally made; the final fifteen minutes are lizard-brain-thrilling to the max. However Hancock was a mystifying, garbled mess in search of a point, marketed as a simple parody of superheroics while actually being a continuity-heavy franchise opener that made lots of money but seemingly no fans. People say Seven Pounds was the movie that halted Will Smith’s physics-defying career momentum, but I think it was the general annoyance over Hancock‘s failings that slowed it down enough for that to happen.
Battleship will most likely be the movie that does the same to Berg. It’s already been relentlessly mocked since it was announced; seeing Berg defend the movie over and over again is painful for a fan, because no matter what justification or defence he uses, all anyone wants to say is, “I wonder if anyone says, ‘You sank my battleship!’” as if they’re the only ones who thought of it. (Sorry, I said it again to illustrate that new point.) And for once it’s not just the critics who think it’s boneheaded; everyone seems to be scratching their heads. How can you adapt a board game into a story?
Anyone who has ever played a board game should realise by now that each iteration of that game has something that could be considered a narrative flow, just not a three-act one. Events happen in sequence and there is an ebb-and-flow of power throughout as players make decisions, attack or sabotage other players, or find themselves at a disadvantage as other players move against them. The idea of adapting a rulebook is worthy of derision, but the power plays that occur within a game are surely the kind of thing that can inspire an idea. They can be triggered by anything, and what is story but a way to interpret events, emotions, and relationships within the framework of a manipulated world?
Sadly Battleship only occasionally tries to make something of the interesting dynamic between players within the famous location-guessing gameplay, preferring instead to allude to the game with references to the shape of the pegs, or the invisibility of your opponent, or the grid with its familiar location codes. Critics will be thrilled with the late-movie action sequence with characters calling out grid references for strikes against two alien battlecruisers. They can base a whole derisory paragraph on that scene, with the only complication being that it’s arguably the only sequence in the movie that generates even a smidgen of tension, and to be honest the sheer brass balls of doing that in the middle of a blowout summer blockbuster should be applauded.
Additionally, Berg’s insistence that this is not just a lazy cash-in is very true. It’s apparent that a lot of effort has gone into making something that has some kind of dramatic or emotional heft. There is a very strong central character arc involving Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) turning from feckless charmer into a naval genius and captain of men in the space of a single day. There is an alien force with technology that feels consistent from one scene to the next, an interesting design, and an ambiguous motivation. Naval battle tactics are outlined well and have obviously been given some thought. There are a couple of reasonably orchestrated setpieces. There is an attempt at creating a range of character archetypes. Liam Neeson’s in it and everyone loves Liam Neeson, right? The camera is mostly in focus. Erm…
Okay, I’ll get to the point. There is effort expended, but the movie is ruined by weird decisions and shoddy editing, especially in the dull mid-section. Scenes feel like they’ve been plonked in at the last minute, or added in the wrong order, or shot after focus-group complaints showed serious structural faults. The result is a baffling half hour where nothing makes any sense. Big whirring balls of fire and metal wreck an airbase (makes tactical sense), demolish a random freeway (makes no sense) and terrorise a kid playing baseball (a waste of FX money). Meanwhile, some characters die off screen and an alien is captured. Both times we’re treated to exposition to cover up the cracks, but it just makes it look like a low-budget movie with cut corners, not a huge potential tentpole with a $200m budget.
Just as annoying, the decision to make the motivation of the aliens unknown is a grave error, and having someone very loudly proclaim, “This is an extinction level event!” at one point without prompting doesn’t help. They obviously have more going on than the plunderers of Battle: Los Angeles or Cowboys and Aliens; they make decisions about who to attack or ignore, and do things like waft their alien hands over machines while their HUDs show battery-filling bars like in a video game, but none of it is explained. It’s obvious that someone thought, “Making your antagonist a ship is a bad idea,” and so the alien invaders have more character than usual. We see their eyes through their visor, we see them make choices, but without knowing what they’re doing this characterisation feels like half a solution. Has this information been shifted to the sequel that won’t happen?
That said, they do better than most of the humans. Only Alex Hopper has an arc; everyone else is there to provide help or hindrance on that arc, or to be sassy (Rihanna) or dopey (Jesse “Landry” Plemons; a welcome sight for FNL fans). It’s all archetype and cultural representation. Liam Neeson (underused) plays a grouchy father figure to appease. Alexander Skarsgård (tall) plays the disapproving family member. Tadanobu Asano plays Iceman (by way of Yokohama) to Kitsch’s Maverick. Yes, Battleship is Top Gun on boats, with a dash of Battle: Los Angeles and a hefty dollop of Transformers. If you dislike any of those movies, you’re gonna dislike this.
The Transformers comparison is the hardest one I have to make. Midway through Battleship, as the characters suddenly exclaim, “They’re on the boat!” before scuttling down hallways with guns in a scene that looks like it was added after principal photography wrapped, I realised what was bugging me. Berg is a better director than the material here, and could have been off doing something far more interesting. Though everyone hates Michael Bay, he would have been perfect for something as mechanical as this, and in fact would have made a better, dumber movie, much as it pains me to say it.
In fact, it feels like an amalgamation of his movies. It’s set in Pearl Harbor, and features the elaborate sinking of one ship that is reminiscent of the unwieldy but technically dazzling centrepiece of his epic pile of WWII crap. The machines don’t turn into cars but they do clank about and change shape in a way that’s meant to evoke the movement of the robots in Transformers. Steve Jablonsky did the score. There’s also a lot of jingoism and military fetishism, though Berg approaches this in a more interesting way, which I’ll get to in a bit.
And yet what Battleship lacks that Transformers 1-3 have is clarity. I don’t mean in editing; I’ve said many a time before that Bay’s action scenes are not edited with the eye in mind, but the ear. They’re drum solos, not ballet. If you happen to like that kind of thing, as I do, then it can be exhilarating to experience that bewildering mash of image and cacophony. But within that garbled and clumsy tumble of event, the imagery is relatively clear, considering the Bayhemian tumult. You can see things within the syncopated cuts. Some of Bay’s imagery is piercing, even stirring at times. Despite his misogyny and racism (and never let us forget those despicable flaws), he’s good at that.
Battleship, on the other hand, is quite ugly. The palette of the movie is almost entirely blue, green or battleship grey; at least Bay throws a lot of orange in there as well to mix it up. The effects here are used mostly to obscure what’s going on. Thematically that makes sense, as the game is about not being able to see what’s going on, but it’s a pain in the eyes. There are also enough lens flares to make JJ Abrams run to the box he keeps his lens flares and start wailing in horror at the horrible theft of ALL THE LENS FLARES. Even his use of ramping and slow motion is disappointing. Though I’m not one to dismiss CGI altogether, and in fact take a great deal of pleasure in well-executed computer effects, the worst thing a director can do is not choreograph his action properly, instead expecting the FX guys to fix things in post.
The result of this is ugly distortions of image through energy effects such as the blast from engines, water vapour in the nautical scenes, so many lens flares, or just general smearing of the image. During shooting (not just in Battleship but in many modern SF movies) the camera is whipped around to denote the frenetic darting movements of objects not present on set, and the FX guys have no choice but to work with that clumsily-shot footage, with the result that the objects have to move with no connection to the world they’re supposed to be in. Even objects from a technologically advanced civilisation would be hamstrung by momentum, inertia, gravity or atmosphere. Instead movies too often feature poorly-choreographed scenes with no awareness of how the final product will look.
Berg has not yet mastered this; Hancock was similarly poorly shot on an FX level. Battleship features far too many moments where the FX work isn’t integrated properly. Compare the action scenes here to the bug scenes in Starship Troopers, or anything by Peter Jackson, or even Transformers 3, where there are many more physical effects than you would think, allowing Bay to choreograph the subsequent CGI better. These filmmakers, and guys like Spielberg or James Cameron understand this — especially Cameron, whose action scenes are clear, choreographed with care and feature imaginary objects designed with an engineer’s rigour. Too many other directors have yet to understand that FX can’t fix everything.
Of course Berg is a much better filmmaker than Bay, especially in terms of his facility with actors and his treatment of women and ethnic minorities. He’s also better at filming action than Battleship would have you believe. As mentioned earlier, the end of The Kingdom is truly nail-biting stuff, and his early action classic The Rundown / Welcome To The Jungle shows that he knows what he’s doing, and has an imaginative approach to the staging of an action scene. As an actor he also knows how to get quirky performances from his actors; Rundown and both film and TV versions of Friday Night Lights are perfect examples of this.
However the demands of something as vast as Battleship has forced his attention from the small and onto the vast, meaning the only scene with any real life to it comes right at the start, as Kitsch attempts to woo Brooklyn Decker (given nothing to do except be blonde in some short shorts, even Rosie Huntington-Whitely gets more agency in Transformers 3). It’s a terrifically funny and likeable meet-crazy scene, with Kitsch evoking a dopier Tim Riggins in a way that made me think I was in for a treat. It also showcases Kitsch’s charms — and potential movie-star charisma — way better than John Carter; a far far superior movie but one that regrettably couldn’t tap into the source of the absurdly handsome actor’s best attributes (no, I’m not talking about his finely-chiseled musculature).
Sadly, much as military life crushes the individual, as soon as he ships out that sense of fun mostly vanishes, which moves the burden of making us laugh onto Plemons (a good choice) and Hamish Linklater (an excruciatingly unfunny scientist). The strictness of naval protocol saps much of the movie’s energy and robs Berg of chances to goof off. It’s not entirely laugh-free, but Bay’s awful shouty-jokes approach would, again, have done much to save Battleship from its doldrums. The tone of the movie hints at funnier things to come; it’s a box that says “funny” on the outside but inside only has packing peanuts and not one but TWO instances of someone saying, “motherfucker” with the soundtrack prudishly cutting away halfway through. And that’s just unacceptable.
But it’s not all bad. While Berg has made a movie praising the glory of the military-industrial complex, in which the only thing that can make a man out you is military service, he’s not just about the Ooorahs and “Bring the rain” nonsense of most of those paeons to the penis. While this sub-genre of action cinema is filled to the brim with gallons of stinky testosterone and troubling patriotism, Berg is thankfully more thoughtful than that, and while we get the requisite pro-armed forces message, it’s tempered by an awareness of military history, tradition and international comity that would baffle Bay.
For a start, the presence of Tadanobu Asano would never happen in a Transformers movie. In Battleship Asano’s Nagata is noble but impulsive, the only vaguely interesting character next to Alex Hopper. In Transformers 4: Metal Machine Music he would be a shrill fool who gets trapped in a toilet. Twice. I guess this is part of the international strategy for Battleship; it opens worldwide over this week, then eventually appears in the US in the middle of May. Studios are finally committing to chasing international dollars first on a movie that’s so expensive a slow US opening weekend would likely taint it with seeming failure. Nevertheless, it’s gratifying to see the rapprochement between the US and Japan dramatised in this way, especially in the historically significant locale.
That’s one of the more interesting things about the movie. Additionally, there’s a sizeable role for Gregory G. Gadson, Director of the U.S. Army Wounded Warrior Program. Bay’s military fetishism has so far found no room for the war-wounded, but Battleship features a significant sub-plot for Gadson’s character getting over the terrible injuries he received in Afghanistan. It’s an entirely predictable arc, but for highlighting this aspect of war in the middle of a populist action movie about killing aliens, Berg deserves some credit. [Spoilers coming up in the next paragraph.]
Even more interesting is the final act, in which the crew of the USS John Paul Jones are forced to go analogue and commandeer the USS Missouri, the decommissioned battleship currently standing as a museum in Pearl Harbor (“You recommissioned my battleship!”) (Sorry). Along with the old ship comes a crew of old-timers, former navy crewmen who get their own walking-in-slow-motion moment that made the audience I saw it with burst into laughter. (Ugh, kids today. No respect for their elders and betters.) With this crew of expert seamen helping them, they take the Missouri out to sea one more time to take on the main alien superbattleship that conveniently appears in an end-of-game big boss stylee. [Spoilers end]
This awareness of naval history was entirely unexpected, and while it’s no less patriotic than anything else in this sub-genre, it’s also quite touching to see something modern pay tribute to the fighting men of the past. Who would have thought that a dumb sci-fi movie about alien invasion could take the time to comment on the real world with a more respectful manner than Bay and Bruckheimer had when making a film about the actual attack on Pearl Harbor? It’s one of the reasons why the movie rallies in its last 15 minutes. It doesn’t suddenly become good, but the set-ups pay off better than anyone could have hoped.
Yes, the battles depend on the belief that enormous ships can manoeuvre as nimbly as jet-skis, and one particular move made by Kitsch in order to defeat the final ship is… how can I put this delicately… fucking bonkers? But it was at that moment that I realised what the movie could — and should — have been. Naval battle is slow and thoughtful. It’s strategic and smart and doesn’t depend on dexterity or speed, like a video game. It’s a crawl to victory, like a board game. Battleship shouldn’t have tried to mimic Transformers, which is influenced by the pace and power of a first person shooter. It should have emulated the greatest movie about naval warfare ever made: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.
That’s a movie that owes a lot more to Battleship the game than anyone seems to want to admit. It honors naval history, it is filled with detail and character and fun, it revolves around a cat-and-mouse chase between two vessels, and is exciting even when things move slowly. If Berg had been able to fully commit to making a modern Master and Commander instead of hinting at a link between the two, I would have dedicated my life to making a case for it to be the biggest film of all time. Instead I say this; despite being one of the few people who looked forward to this, and despite being its target audience, while I very strongly doubt it’ll be the worst movie I see this year, I just as strongly doubt it won’t be the best movie I see this week, and I only intend to watch one other one. No one is more upset or disappointed about this than I am.
*Actually, at the moment of finishing this review I also thought of “You spunked my crappleshit” but that’s just gross, and too mean. It’s a 3-5/10 movie at worst.