Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Guest Review: Battleship (2012)

by ScottDS

When the first trailer for Peter Berg’s Battleship hit the Internet, that sound you heard was a collective groan: “Really? A movie based on a board game*?!” It financially underperformed in the U.S. and most likely put an end to Taylor Kitsch’s sci-fi movie career (he of John Carter infamy). However, I’m pleased – no, surprised! – to say that the movie isn’t terrible. Dumb, loud, clichéd, stupid… yes. But not terrible, and infinitely better than the last two Transformers movies.

** spoiler alert **

NASA discovers an Earth-like planet in another star system and transmits a powerful signal from their array in Hawaii. Meanwhile, Commander Stone Hopper (Alexander Skarsgård, dreamy as usual) has a problem, and his name is Alex Hopper (Kitsch), Stone’s younger slacker brother, who gets into trouble while trying to impress Samantha Shane (Brooklyn Decker), who just happens to be the daughter of Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Terrance Shane (Liam Neeson). Stone forces Alex to join the Navy and we cut to the present where Alex is a trouble-making lieutenant aboard the USS John Paul Jones (JPJ), an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. Stone is the commanding officer of her sister ship, the USS Sampson. Their ships are engaged in RIMPAC – Rim of the Pacific Exercise – in Hawaii.
Five alien ships arrive in response to NASA’s signal. Four land in the ocean off Hawaii and erect a force field, trapping the Sampson, JPJ, and the JMSDF Kongō-class destroyer Myōkō. A fifth ship crashes in Hong Kong. The Sampson and the Myōkō are destroyed and the JPJ is damaged, forcing Alex to assume command since he’s now the senior officer. They’re unable to communicate with anyone outside the force field and the radar is on the fritz, but Myōkō’s captain, Nagata (Tadanobu Asano), who had been rescued after the initial melee, comes up with an idea involving tsunami warning buoys (to detect water displacement). The JPJ sinks two alien ships but is ultimately destroyed herself. Upon returning to the mainland, Hopper and Co. assume command of the battleship-turned-museum ship USS Missouri. They destroy the communications array on the island – which the aliens had been using to contact their comrades – and with the force field down, jet fighters swoop in to destroy the last remaining alien vessel. Alex is promoted to Lieutenant Commander and asks Admiral Shane for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Shane rejects him but the two head off to lunch, presumably to discuss the situation.

This is a dumb movie... but there are different kinds of dumb. Whereas 2012 and the Transformers sequels are offensively dumb, this movie is likably dumb. It doesn’t set its sights too high, its intentions are (kinda) good, and while there are a handful of cheesy moments, there are no cringe-worthy ones. I won’t go so far as to say it’s self-aware, but I did laugh when one tough character tells a geeky character, “Let's see if we can buy the world another day!” and the geek replies, “Who talks like that?” Is Peter Berg winking at the audience? I doubt it, but it was an appreciated moment. One wishes the characters in Transformers knew how ridiculous they were sometimes. The rest of the script – if you can call it that – doesn’t do any favors. It cobbles together scraps from Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, Transformers, Star Trek: First Contact, Battle: Los Angeles, Top Gun, and even Space Cowboys. Thankfully, we don’t get any annoying parents, or robot testicles, or robots pissing on people... oh God, has the bar been lowered that much? Are we now supposed to be an impressed when a summer blockbuster doesn’t have those things? [smile]

When I speak of the film’s intentions, I’m referring to Peter Berg who is obviously a fan of the U.S. Navy, so much so that many people have referred to this film as “Navy porn.” Contrast that with Michael Bay: he may have had good intentions with Armageddon (the space program) and Pearl Harbor (our veterans) but with the Transformers films, any good intentions he might have had (selling cars?) are undone by excess. To be fair, Battleship has plenty of that but it also has shots that last longer than 12 frames and action that isn’t blurred by shaky-cam. How novel! And it’s nice to see a third act involving actual human beings working on plans to defeat an enemy, as opposed to CGI robots duking it out, and we can’t even tell which one is which. Battleship might be clichéd and simplistic, but it’s not convoluted and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Okay, maybe it does but only by 10 minutes or so.
Taylor Kitsch isn’t bad as Alex Hopper – not bad for this movie, anyway – and his character arc can be seen a mile away, but he’s a little more comfortable here than he was in John Carter. Skarsgård (of True Blood fame) is good, but he doesn’t last long. Neeson brings his usual gravity to the role but it’s a thankless one that could’ve been played by any actor over 50. Speaking of actors, this film includes a few whose stock in trade ain’t acting. Samantha is played by model turned actress Brooklyn Decker. She’s... okay. Could a classically-trained actress have done better with the role? Maybe, but Decker is inoffensive and when she first walks in, all I could think was, “Boobs!” [smile] The JPJ’s weapons specialist is played by R&B singer Rihanna. All her dialogue is available here. I’m wondering why she chose this movie to make her big-screen debut. It’s a nothing role – one of those characters who makes sarcastic remarks and barks orders, but maybe it worked because if the character wasn’t played by a recognizable performer, no one would care. Tadanobu Asano is very good as Nagata (and even better as a marketing hook for the Asian market), who starts off as Alex’ RIMPAC rival but ends up an ally and Jesse Plemons plays a schlub Seaman who helps figure out the aliens’ weakness.

This brings up a problem. Remember Signs? The aliens in that film arrive on Earth, a planet consisting of 75% water, yet are allergic to water. The entire crux of Battleship’s “plot” involves a NASA mission to locate an Earth-like planet that is approximately the same distance to a star as Earth is to the Sun and is capable of supporting life. So what is the aliens’ weakness in this film? Direct sunlight! How did such a race manage to evolve on a planet like ours, let alone develop space travel? Sure, they wear visors but imagine if we all had to wear visors during the day, lest we become paralyzed. The aliens are also like Star Trek’s Borg, in that they only harm people that are considered a threat. To paraphrase one of the Trek DVD commentaries, “Well, gee, if only the aliens didn’t have that particular bit of programming, they could’ve conquered the galaxy by now!” They cause plenty of destruction, both on land and at sea, but people seem to be spared because it’s convenient to the plot, or because they’re played by recognizable actors!
I want to mention a couple of things this movie has, one cornier than the other. Samantha is a physical therapist and spends most of the movie with Lt. Col. Mick Canales, an Army veteran and double amputee. Canales is played by Gregory Gadson, a U.S. Army Colonel who just happens to be a “bilateral above-the-knee” amputee. No one will mistake him for Olivier or Brando, but again, this was something that could be appreciated. If this were a Michael Bay movie, Samantha would be a stuck-up model and she’d find a way to get aboard one of the ships, even though such a thing would be quite improbable. Now for cheese... the USS Missouri is a museum ship docked at Pearl Harbor. Assisting Hopper and Co. in reactivating her are several retired veterans... who just happen to be there... and who approach the camera in slow motion. Is the actual ship maintained 24/7 by veteran officers who served as far back as WWII? Maybe... I have no idea. I’d love to visit it one day, but man oh man, was this schmaltz with a capital “S-C-H”!
Like 99% of summer blockbusters, tech stuff is top-notch. The sound design is excellent and I envy those with a state-of-the-art sound system. ILM knocked it out of the park with the visual effects and the projectiles fired by the alien ships somewhat resemble the pegs used in the original Battleship board game. By the way, the aforementioned warning buoy scene is the one scene that gives the film its title, where the characters are able to detect the ships on a grid with a letter/number system. It’s quick and obvious but also pretty neat, though I doubt there are that many buoys and I doubt they’re arranged in the ocean on a perfect square grid! There are several different alien ship designs, including a spherical “buzz saw” weapon that wreaks havoc on land – again, excellent work by ILM and a variety of vendors. Considering the state of visual effects today, these people no doubt burned the midnight oil to get the work done on time.

I can’t help but recommend this movie – it’s not high art, or even low art… or even art. But it’s harmless and inoffensive. It’s PG-13 for generic “mayhem.” Two characters say the F-word but are cut off in comically awkward fashion. Why do I mention the rating? Because if you have young boys in your family, they’re gonna love it!

“They ain't gonna sink this battleship, no way!”

*Movies based on board games don’t have to be bad. Clue is a cult classic, and maybe it was just ahead of its time.

40 comments:

Tennessee Jed said...

I don't know, Scott. I appreciate your review, and your sentiments in recommending it. Top rate tech stuff is not to be completely dismissed out of hand. BUT, dumb, loud, cliched, stupid, but not terrible is just not enough to make me want to see this one. Perhaps, if it comes on t.v. on a movie channel, AND I am bored out of my skull. Maybe I am getting bored by top rate tech stuff unless there is a little more.

AndrewPrice said...

The first time I saw this, I thought it was utter crappola. It's loud, stupid and pointless. The cliches reek, the action is nonsense, etc. etc. and I frankly just couldn't care if they won or lost.

I have since seen it again and you and I discussed the review.

And while it went up slightly in my estimation upon a second showing, it's still not enough to want to see the film again. I like the Japanese captain. I like the line "that's not what that means... not even close." I like the aliens, I think they are well handled. I liked nothing else really.

soonertroll said...

I'd wandered if anyone else remembered Clue when Battleship was announced.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

I have no interest in seeing the film again either, though if I were 8 years old, I'd have it on a constant loop. :-)

Sincerity goes along way with me in this cynical age. After our discussions yesterday, I'm not even sure I'd call the Star Wars prequels sincere since ALL the emotion in those movies (save for Neeson) reeks as artificial. :-)

Granted, Battleship is just another cynical attempt at making money using a pre-existing brand we all know and love... but Peter Berg managed to make something likable out of it. Contrast that with 2012 which is anything but likable.

ScottDS said...

Jed -

Fair enough, but there was just something about this movie that made me think to myself, "Okay... not awful." A friend of mine who's even harder on movies like this agreed with me.

I realize that's damning with faint praise and maybe the bar has been lowered to the point that any movie that just barely entertains me is considered to be "good."

Yeah, best to wait for it to come on TV. I borrowed it from a friend (he has a son who loves it) so I didn't have to pay for it. Maybe that's why I kinda liked it! :-)

ScottDS said...

sooner -

Some people no doubt remembered it, but Clue works as a funny murder mystery even without the board game.

And that brings up a problem. When this film was announced, my reaction was something to the effect of, "Why do they need to call it Battleship? Why not just make a cool alien invasion movie that involves the Navy and leave it at that?"

But it's difficult to make an original movie; there needs to be a connection to something the audience already knows, even if that connection is tenuous at best.

BIG MO said...

Thanks for your review. I might have to see it on Netflix or borrow it.

But I wonder if the pre-release marketing ultimately did this film in well before it came out. My initial reaction, like many others, was "Oh, goody: A movie based on a board game / video game / TV show" and promptly dismissed it without ever giving it a chance to stand on its own.

tryanmax said...

This is one of those movies you can talk about while you're watching it. The first time. I made up a game of predicting who would die. I think I was 100%!

ScottDS said...

BIG MO -

You're probably right. The marketing didn't help, but it makes me wonder, "Transformers? Yay! Battleship? Boo!"

Why was this the reaction? Why should one be greeted with excitement and the other with jeers? Did audiences think they were being sold a bill of goods with this one?

ScottDS said...

tryanmax -

You should've put some money on it!

ScottDS said...

Andrew, et al -

I'm off to school - see ya later this afternoon!

rlaWTX said...

Yeah, I know, I don't have high expectations compared to some folks around here. :)
But, I enjoyed watching this movie at the theater. I enjoyed the schmaltz. I really, really enjoyed the nods to veterans. I enjoyed the ka-booms and ka-blooeys. I thought they could have left out the intro - that introduction to Kitsch's character seemed like they were trying too hard for "character depth".
I'd watch it again... and I'm not an 8 year old boy!

Jason said...

ScottDS- Re: Marketing.

I think the premise was just too smirk-inducing. When I heard this movie was coming up, all I could think about was that iconic phrase “You sunk my battleship!” Pushing that phrase out of my head proved impossible. Transformers, while it was based on a toyline, also had a beloved four-season long cartoon series plus a comic book line to mine for story ideas, plus there HAD been a cartoon movie released in 1986. So Transformers as a movie franchise wasn’t implausible.

But Battleship, like I said, I kept thinking of those board game commercials and that catchphrase. A harder hurdle to get over.

Re: the scene where the veterans came out slo-mo on the Missouri – that got a lot of applause at the theater I was at. Schmaltzy, but it did the trick.

Anonymous said...

I watched this with only one expectation, that it would suck. So I was surprised to to have liked it. If I recommend it to someone it would be as a big dumb, fun movie.

You don't need to think to enjoy the movie, actually thinking while watching the movie could lead to you disliking it.

Scott.

AndrewPrice said...

Jason and Big Mo, I will say that they actually did a credible job of bringing the board game to life. The weapons the aliens use look like the pegs from the game and the blind-grid fight was like the game too. I have to give them credit for that!

AndrewPrice said...

ScottAU, True, do not think while watching this movie. LOL!

As big, dumb movies with lots of explosions go, this one wasn't as bad as some others, but it just didn't work for me.

One thing I did like though was the portrayal of the aliens. They actually treated them like real people rather than just killing machines, for example, how they didn't kill non-combatants.

AndrewPrice said...

rlaWTX, When it comes to which movies we like, there is no right and wrong really... except for that supposed fourth Raiders movie... that's just wrong.

K said...

Didn't see it but I'm grateful for the review as I might download it.

I was kinda hoping more for a plot where the disabled vets refurb-ed the USS Missouri with alien technology so it could go into space on a suicide mission to defend the earth. Kind of letdown there, but then all those Japanese tourists without a sense of humor would be complaining about rip offs - like they did when Disney made Lion King.

AndrewPrice said...

K, Is that a Starblazers reference?

ScottDS said...

rla -

I can tolerate schmaltz… sometimes. In this movie, it was a bit much but all for a good cause, I suppose. :-)

A friend told me that the convenience store robbery was actually a parody of a popular YouTube video - presumably security camera footage of a similar incident - but I haven't bothered to look for it.

ScottDS said...

Jason -

You're right. Transformers already had a franchise and I guess live-action film was the next step (and Michael Bay, flaws and all, was the perfect man for the job).

I wonder if people might've appreciated the novelty value if Battleship came first. Most people aren't media-savvy but no doubt more than one person who doesn't follow movies thought, "Oh, they're just taking advantage of the success of Transformers!"

ScottDS said...

Scott -

Low expectations can often be an advantage!

ScottDS said...

K -

No doubt they're saving that for the sequel!

(I'm not an expert on Star Blazers or Space Battleship Yamato but that sounds familiar.)

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

It would appear that William Goldman's famous line about the movie business is still true:

"Nobody knows anything!"

BevfromNYC said...

Andrew - I thought it was the second Raiders movie that we don't like...

ScottDS said...

Bev -

Nope. Andrew was right. It's the fourth one. ;-)

ScottDS
Temple of Doom Fan Club treasurer since 1998

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, A lot of people really don't like the second, but the fourth is a true atrocity. It's the cinematic equivalent of blowing up a bus full of nuns and school children. The second is more like leaving a bag of flaming poo on someone's doorstep.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Speaking of not knowing anything, I do find it strange that this film tanked so badly when others that are just as bad (Transformers 3-7) continue to do well.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

I was going to mention that but the review ran long.

Frankly, I don't get it either. It's not like this movie is so much worse than the others, or that Shia is such a better actor than Kitsch.

Jason's right about the marketing - the movie might be sincere but they didn't know how to market it and all people would think about is "You sank my battleship!" The movie was a joke as soon as it was greenlit by the studio.

The next Transformers is in the news by the way: apparently, the studio has made a deal with some state-run media company to film in China.

Commander Max said...

Battleship better than than the Transformer movies?

That movie was so stupid on so many levels, the Transformer movies didn't even come close to that level of stupid. I must be out of the demographic, I put Battleship about 10 points above Stealth. The wost movie ever made. Battleship came across as if it was written by a retarded eight year old.

Well I could go on all day about how dumb this movie was, and the comparisons. You know I'm sick of this stuff. Everybody has their opinions, that's fine. But I'm sick of making arguments on deaf ears.

ScottDS said...

Max -

Better than the Transformers sequels at least.

I'm not saying it's a great movie but that it was better than my sub-zero expectations had led me to believe and that the bar has been lowered to the point where "better than sub-zero expectations" = quality!

You can make your arguments - I promise they won't fall on deaf ears.

(Now I almost want to see Stealth just to see if it's really that bad.) :-)

Jason said...

Re: Why TF did better than Battleship.

Nostalgia probably helps. Lots of people did grow up on Transformers, and the fact the original cartoon voice actor for Optimus Prime (the leader of the Autobots in the flicks) came back for the movies helped a lot. Nostalgia may even be helping the current G.I. Joe sequel do boffo business even though I thought it was a little underwhelming. With Battleship, you had to invent characters from scratch, which audiences had no pre-existing connection to. Granted, movies create characters from scratch all the time, but most movies don’t have a board game premise to overcome out of the gate.

Also, I have seen Stealth. I…barely recall it much at all.

AndrewPrice said...

Jason, I know this was said above, but I wonder if they wouldn't have been off dropping the idea that this was connected to the game and just calling it "Alien Invasion" or something like that.

I saw Stealth and remember it was atrocious, but I don't remember much more to it. I'm not even sure I finished it.

ScottDS said...

Andrew and Jason -

Yeah, I mentioned that above: they might've been better off calling the movie something else.

This movie also had one of those DVD rip-offs, titled American Warships. Carl Weathers is in it, so that's something. :-)

K said...

K, Is that a Starblazers reference?

You bet your wave motion cannon it is, or more precisely Space Battleship Yamato as the Otaku refer to it.

A few years back there were some Hollywood rumblings about a US live action version of Yamato but using the Missouri instead and making it from a US POV. Since the Yamato story carried a lot of patriotic baggage for the Japanese I wouldn't be surprised if that didn't spur the Japanese into do the recent Yamoto as a pre-emptive attack.

Meanwhile, "Battleship" came out at the end of the movie sausage machine and I wouldn't be surprised if it wasn't a direct decedent or at least influenced by the earlier project.

That being said, my favorite rebuilt battle ship story is from the SF book "The Ayes of Texas" where a group of vet restore the USS Texas but with nuclear reactors (100 kt speed), particle beam weapons and the ability to be controlled by one man who uses it to thwart a Soviet invasion of the independent republic of Texas. Hee haw!

AndrewPrice said...

K, I want to see the Japanese version of Yamato. So far, I've only seen the trailers. I have seen most of Starblazers by now and I'd like to see the rest of it too, but haven't found it yet.

I can't imagine that Hollywood version would be very good.

shawn said...

Kitsch was fine, his character was not. He played a schmuck who was unchanged by military life and somehow was never cashiered- yeah right. Like some other reviews I've read, lose the first 30 minutes and the film isn't too bad.

The recent live action "Yamato" flick is pretty good considering it's condensed down to movie length from a season's worth of episodes. Excellent effects considering the film's budget.

ScottDS said...

shawn -

I did find that somewhat unrealistic (yeah, in this movie of all things!)... how did he ever make it to the rank of lieutenant?

It was going to be mentioned in the review but I ran out of room.

T-Rav said...

So I guess the takeaway here is that there's a difference between movies that know they're dumb (Battleship) and movies that don't know they're dumb (2012). Still not interested in seeing it, though.

ScottDS said...

T-Rav -

...I guess that would be an accurate assessment, and I expressed a similar sentiment in my "Air Force One vs. Executive Decision" review.

The point here is that some movies are just stupid. But they're not all created equal and some are still better than others, even within the "stupid" category.

Best I can do for now. :-)

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