Based very, very loosely on the Hasbro board-game, Battleship (as in, “you sunk my…”) is the latest, loudest and stupidest example of the hyper-jingoistic, military-fetishising, intellect-lowering alien invasion movie of which Hollywood has recently become so fond. Directed by Peter Berg of Hancock fame, the film boasts a budget and firepower roughly akin to that of the entire US armed forces. But as with an increasing number of blockbuster action movies, the creative team behind Battleship have blown all their pyrotechnics and state-of-the-art special effects in service of a movie that is atrociously written, incompetently paced, ideologically dubious and stupendously, inconceivably, irredeemably dumb.
Somewhere amidst the sweeping shots of naval hardware set to a typically rousing score by the red-blooded Steven Jablonsky (Transformers), Berg introduces us to Alex Hopper, a headstrong naval officer played by the inexpressive muscle mass that calls itself Taylor Kitsch (John Carter). We’re clumsily informed through dialogue that he’s a naturally gifted seaman, but his rash behaviour nevertheless puts him in hot water with Admiral Stone (Liam Neeson; Wrath of the Titans), who just happens to be the father of Hoppers improbably gorgeous fiancé (Brooklyn Decker; Just Go With It). It’s against this backdrop of woefully hackneyed personal stakes that an alien assault team begin their terrestrial invasion.
What baffles about films like Battleship is how their creators continue to operate under the total misconception that the audience want anything other than a special effects show-reel. Sad as it may be, the truth of the matter is that few people care about the motivations or emotional journeys of characters in this kind of blockbuster. The name of the game is sensory bombardment: how much can be destroyed, and how loud can we make the explosion? But beleaguered by convention and perhaps some small, misplaced sense of creative legitimacy, writers and directors insist on burdening their films with cardboard characters, pointless back-story and consistently ridiculous plotting that does nothing but blow out the run time and take up space where action might have been. Batteship is one hundred and thirty minutes long. It should be ninety-five at the most.
I’m not advocating for the death of plot or depth in blockbusters. But what I am saying is: if you can’t do something well, perhaps its better not to do it at all. Berg can’t transcend the awfulness of his screenwriters’ dialogue any more than he can coax a decent performance out of Rihanna in her feature film debut. Yet there is a competency to the way he shoots and edits his action that far supersedes the freneticism of Michael Bay (Transformers: Dark of the Moon) or the wobbliness of Gary Ross (The Hunger Games). With effects that are undeniably impressive and a sense of over-the-top cheesiness that occasionally shines through an otherwise self-serious façade, Battleship does in its rare peaks come close to the fun of Roland Emmerich’s quintessential popcorn flick Independence Day. Sadly, for the rest of the time, it’s not even in as good as the vaguely enjoyable 2012.
However, unlike an Emmerich film, one cannot relegate Berg’s movie to the stupid but harmless category. In addition to its other issues, Battleship demonstrates at its heart the same disturbing sanctimony and staggering lack of self-awareness present in other post War on Terror alien invasion movies like Battle: Los Angeles and Michael Bay’s Transformers trilogy. Inevitably in films like these, the tactics of the alien invaders bear uncanny similarities to the actions of the United States military throughout history, from the genocide of Native Americans all the way up to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s political escapism at its most insidious: finally, America is engaged in a righteous war, one where they are the hopelessly outgunned natives fighting valiantly against an invading force. The attackers being extra-terrestrial removes any moral questions about murder, and allows directors like Bay and Berg to reduce complex real world issues to simple goodies versus baddies tales, ones where the trigger-happy American military is always on the side of morality and justice.
Unfortunately, in the real world, victory against a technologically superior enemy is not as simple as destroying one key military target, be it a satellite dish, a shield generator or a bizarrely undefended mothership. The easy-fought conquest of America over her inhuman enemies is further silly wish fulfilled – and it’s also narratively nonsensical. The holes in the hull of Battleship’s ending are truly enormous, and no amount of big guns or waving flags can hide it. Jettison the subtext, and throw the characters and story overboard with it. Otherwise, movies like Battleship are destined to sink.