Wednesday, June 06, 2012

In Theaters: Battleship

Battleship movie poster
Poster via

The sad irony of Battleship is that it would probably be doing just a little bit better- or at least receive a little more goodwill- if it weren't named after a board game in an attempt to create profitable corporate synergy. The same public that had no problems patronizing the Marvel Studios uber-franchise or a live-action Smurfs movie have drawn their line in the sand, and a film based on a boardgame is a step too far no matter how good or bad it is.

But hear me out on this. It's actually pretty good. However cynically calculated the initial boardroom meetings that produced this movie may have been, at some point director Peter Berg and writers Erich and Jon Hoeber (as well as any others who may have been involved) and the rest of the filmmakers decided to actually try and make a good, sincere sci-fi/war movie based on the simple premise of the Navy fighting aliens, and their efforts paid off. Battleship works on a simple but satisfying level, and it has the important lesson that you shouldn't judge a film by its premise.

Our hero is Lieutenant Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch), a headstrong naval officer who was only thrown into the military at the best of his brother Stone (Alexander SkarsgÄrd) in an attempt to make him something other than a total loser. And to be sure, he is dating the Admiral's daughter (Brooklyn Decker) and about to ask the Admiral himself (Liam Neeson) for her hand in marriage, but discipline problems threaten to get him kicked out of this man's Navy in the middle of their annual wargames off Hawaii. However, aliens from a distant planet choose this time to respond to our deep space broadcasts, landing several ships off the coast right next to the Navy ships. Inevitably, shots are fired, the alien technology makes short work of most of the armed destroyers, and soon Alex's brother is dead and he's the highest ranking officer on board a small, lightly armed ship dodging the alien hordes.

Perhaps since the filmmakers knew we were unlikely to take this movie seriously, they keep it light. There's a goofy comic tone to the film's early scenes that helps us connect with Alex and Stone, and it helps that Kitsch's performance is very enthusiastic and he's not afraid to look ridiculous. He honestly is a bit of a screw-up to start, and much of the film is a throwback to the classic "this man's Navy" kind of movie where a rogue officer learns discipline and leadership while falling in love with a nurse (Decker's character works with wounded vets), down to the noncoms exchanging comic banter. The film's one disappointment in this respect is that Stone's early death cuts off that particular dynamic, but it's necessary for the story to progress.

Oh, yeah, and it's an action movie too, and a well put-together-one at that. Peter Berg takes care to emphasize the spatial relations between the human and alien ships, which is fitting given the game the movie is based on (there's a nice nod to the property in the alien projectiles, giant pegs that drill into the ships and then explode.) Indeed, in one scene that's both silly and kind of glorious, the movie really embraces its roots by having a Japanese captain (Tadanobu Asano) suggest using the tidal monitoring system surrounding the islands to form a grid and work out where the alien ships are, and yes, this involves launching missiles and working out whether they hit or missed. You'll either go along with this or you won't. It is what it is.

The film introduces a couple of interesting twists to the formula as well. One is that the aliens may be, if not necessarily misunderstood, not entirely evil- as in the classic Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, we do fire the first shot, and though the aliens never can explain themselves they do seem to at least try to avoid killing noncombatants. It's disappointing that the film doesn't go farther with this- in the end we still want to cheer the good guys killing the bad guys- but it at least adds something extra to chew on. There's also some business involving the veterans of the U.S.S. Missouri that, while as cheesy as anything else, stays just the right side of sentimental.

There are disappointments. There's some business up in the mountains that, while strictly necessary to the plot, don't quite mesh as well as they should, and Liam Neeson is mostly wasted in a role that puts him outside the combat zone for most of the running time. Alex's change from goofy loser to responsible commander happens a little too quickly for my tastes- you can chalk it up to a crisis situation but, given that it's the main character arc of the film, it could have used some breathing room.

Overall, it's a shame that this isn't doing better. Sure, I have as much of a kneejerk reaction to the idea of basing major A-list motion pictures on board games as anyone else, but on the other hand, there was Clue, and now there is this. Strictly speaking the genre's pretty much batting 1.000 creatively. Maybe when the panic settles this film will get the appreciation it deserves, but in the meantime, there's no reason for you not to give it a chance. Good filmmaking can really come from anywhere.

Written by Erich and Jon Hoeber
Directed by Peter Berg

Grade: B+

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