Peter Berg’s Battleship has been little more than the butt of a joke since it’s green light was announced around 18 months ago. The collective groan of the internet could be heard for digi-miles and digi-miles, as commentators up and down the land wailed on about a Hollywood bereft of ideas, resorting to adapting the most obscure of subjects to compensate for their creative failings.
The board-game is an area pretty much previously untapped by the suits in Hollywood. Clue aside, we’d struggle to cite any other examples of works that have made the leap from familiar living room to the silver screen, but lets not forget, Clue is a pretty great movie, and with a filmmaker like Peter Berg behind Battleship, anything could happen.
Let’s get this out of the way from the off. Battleship is no masterpiece. But then again nor are many films that are created on a grand scale and spat out of the Hollywood machine. But neither is it the punchline to a stale 2 year old joke that I suspect many within the critical community had hoped for it to be. It does what it sets out to do very well. Berg has crafted a “Super Movie” (his term, not ours) that basks in spectacle, coated in a sense of humour that one might not usually find in a work of this ilk. It’s subversive (to an extent, and more on that later), and while we might not be talking Verhoevian levels of wit the film clearly knows exactly what it is, with Berg and co. all in on the joke.
The first great surprise that Battleship brings is just how brilliantly hokey the off-kilter premise is. While on paper the notion of the board-game struck on celluloid might sound ridiculous, it actually works quite well. Granted, it’s daft in places, and silly in others (birthday wishes and chicken burritos), but, and thanks largely to a likeable cast, a charm does remain. The film actually owes significantly more to video-games than those of the board variety, with it’s closest contemporary visual reference point being the Mass Effect series from BioWare. Even with that in mind, the film does translates the mechanics of the original board-game to the screen surprisingly well too. The tactical nature of the game actually gives the film the opportunity to step back and take a breather. It’s not as relentless as some of it’s contemporaries, and in turn a genuine sense of menace is actually groomed.
Taylor Kitsch, the punching bag of a thousand computer keyboards, turns in a second fine performance of 2012 following the years earlier John Carter. He plays the role of the Wells-ian privileged everyman well, with a marriage/boss/daughter subplot doing a fair job of placing him in to a relatable situation. Elsewhere the likes of Alexander Skarsgård and Liam Neeson ham it up tone perfectly in minor roles, while pop star Rihanna is pretty much fleeting in her appearance as a random grunt. A subplot involving a crippled war veteran, the love interest of the lead and that special kind of stereotypical scientist that can only be found in Hollywood disaster movies is pretty forgettable, and ultimately causes more issues with the plotting of the film than it adds to the experience (largely thanks to the trio of poor performances that portray the characters).
A popular filmic comparison for Battleship has been the Michael Bay Transformers movies. As regular readers will know, Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second aren’t the biggest fans of those films, so it was with that in mind that we ventured in to Battleship with some caution. We’re happy to report back that, occasional moving metal things aside, the two are nothing alike. Berg’s film is not as nasty or cynical as the Transformers films, nor is it as distasteful. It’s not jingoistic, militaristic or fetishistic like the Transformers films are either, which are by far the greatest problems with the Bay flicks. Ultimately Battleship is a pretty old fashioned blockbuster, with the tone planted firmly in the cartoonish. There’s very little in the way of propagandist undertones, and Berg is in on any gag thats on screen. It’s harmless fun, recalling Stephen Sommers’s G.I. Joe most closely, and the kind of solid little blockbuster that Hollywood has always churned out.
As mentioned above there is a satirical edge to the film that, while not at the level of Verhoeven or Carpenter, is still impressive. There’s a certain edge to the notion presented that the US brings nothing but trouble to the idyllic sands of Hawaii (although to be fair, Battleship is a largely international affair, there’s very little in the way of Team America-esque chest-beating going on here), while the ultimate message of the film, which essentially boils down to “fighting is not good, turn down your arms and all will be well” is quite at odds with what one might expect of this type of fare (and a little muddled to boot). This anti-fetishistic, old-fashioned approach ironically feels like a breath of fresh air at times, with a sincerity on display generally lacking in this type of work. Alas, there is one moment that leaves a sour taste, in which President Obama makes a brief appearance as himself on a video screen. This appearance grounds the film firmly in the real world: prior to this sequence the film was very much of the realms of the cartoonish, and to take it out of that damages the aforementioned sincerity somewhat.
Ultimately Battleship is no worse than any of the other blockbusters that have graced us with their presence thus far this year: it’s big and its over-the-top, but it is so in a reassuringly knowing way.