29 May 2012

First Impressions: Battleship

Oh, Battleship. What an OK game to play in my youth. I'd shout "B5!" and someone else would answer back "Miss!" And that was all there was for centuries. In the last few weeks though, we've seen this simple and fairly stupid game get a $209 million movie treatment, replete with Aliens, protagonists struggling to find their way, and of course, Rihanna. I, however, will not join the bandwagon in condemning this film - I actually sincerely believe it is one of the better films of Summer so far, an underrated gem that whose reputation will grow with age. Like Starship Troopers (1997) or Josie and the Pussycats (2001) before it, this is a hiddenly subversive film that mashes together Sci-Fi and Action film tropes, liberates the story from their need, and rests itself on higher ground than many other more common Blockbusters. For sure, plenty of SPOILERS will start here so if you are one of the half-dozen people out there who actually still plan on watching Battleship (2012) and enjoying it for yourself, leave now.

Pilgrims and Indians

Let's start with the big picture - the Alien Invasion. Except of course for the fact that this isn't an Alien Invasion at all. Numerous times in the film characters allude to the parallels between the Aliens touching down and the first European Settlers coming to America. Unable to work through their differences, the Europeans and some tribes of Native Americans went to war, which with their technological superiority, the Europeans came out triumphant. This is the major fear of the characters involved in Battleship - that their planet will be overrun by Aliens seeking to conquer them. This is naturally the built up suspicion from a lifetime of ingesting Sci-Fi stories like Battleship's contemporaries such as The Avengers (2012) and Men in Black 3 (2012).

That's not really the case here, though. The Aliens do not attack any humans unless the humans are aggressive first. It's also notable that humanity contacted them first, and when they arrived they are met with gunfire, suspicion, and destruction. They're also not an all-powerful race with super-strong armor like in the Transformers franchise, even a WWII Battleship puts some sizable dents in their best ride. Because of this, their communication ship goes down when it crashes into a satellite, accidentally landing in the middle of Hong Kong. This is misinterpreted by the humans as a threat, but really, the Aliens lost an integral part of their operation - probably their only ticket home.

We're conditioned to believe that these things are bad. The Aliens, though, are actually not all that different from Humans in their design, they're big fleshy, pale-skinned dudes with eyes and noses and lips and teeth. They don't mean to harm other than when defending themselves (and perhaps giving Oahu a little Shock and Aww) and they act fairly like a stranded group of survivors would. Think of a little Black Hawk Down (2001) and you can understand what these things are trying to do - it really upends the whole premise.

Within this idea there have been complaints that Battleship rips off a ton of source material, from Transformers, to Titanic (1997) and Pearl Harbor (2001), it's easy to see that it's playing with tropes rather than trying to steal from them and stand on its own. It outright makes fun of its own dialogue and the zaniness of the first half-hour establishes Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) as the opposite of any "Destined Hero." In fact, the ending does the same.

Speaking of Taylor Kitsch...

This poor guy has know starred in two of the biggest flops of the year, if not some of the more famous of all time. What kind of career is this cat going to have? It's not like he hasn't done a great job. He plays well into that reluctant but brilliant rebel, sort of like a dirtier version of Chris Pine's Kirk from Star Trek (2009). He has a nice dose of irreverence, attitude, and capability that makes him a unique and engaging star.

Still, neither John Carter (2012) nor Battleship had any faith in his star power even though he's at the center of both films, not the effects and hackneyed legacy, to which the marketing of both hitched their wagons to. That's one of both these flicks' major problems - they're pretty good, entertaining, cinematic originals because the spectacle tried to outrun the story, even though the story was pretty solid in both. This of course leads us to...

The Marketing Failure

The issue with Battleship doesn't lie in the film itself. It lies in a marketing campaign that was so totally off base that it laughed away any serious attention. It didn't put anyone in a frame of mind to critically examine a new kind of action film with a cool premise and an authentic array of characters. There's a bit of irony here. The world expected a rip-off of Transformers films and avoided this one - although people never seemed to avoid that series at all. This is yet ironic, because Battleship is far more original than any Transformers film because it had to invent its own narrative material. This puts it above other Hasbro adaptations like G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009) or even the possible Candy Land movie.

This was another hurdle that the film just couldn't get over. The problem here is that apparently no one realized the ridiculousness of associating the film with a toy. When Transformers (2007) was first made, it wasn't just the toys that it built its franchise on, it was thirty years of animated movies, cartoon shows, and comic books, as well as some of the most recognizable characters from the childhood of Generations X and Y. This doesn't work the same way with a game that had no previous association with Aliens and thus the juxtaposition is rather jarring to just throw at a potential audience, seemingly with full seriousness. As mentioned, this isn't really the case, and nothing about the "Invasion" is typical, and this should have been a selling point. It wasn't.

With all this nonsense though, the filmmakers actually did work in a lengthy scene that connects rather directly with the original Board Game. It's a fairly ingenious connection and has some of the most tension, character development, and human success in the film. Isn't that curious? While disparaging the source material, almost all critics have agreed that the only scene that actually calls back to the source material is by far the best in the film?

There's also Rihanna. Oh, Rihanna. She isn't used for sex here, although there is plenty of unsubtle Male Perspective and boobie shots, mostly of Brooklyn Decker. I don't know why Rihanna is here and it's kind of funny and weird and awesome whenever she's on screen. Still, she doesn't take away from the film at all, and does what she needs to do, even if her speech about her father's Alien Prediction kind of comes out of left field and is never really revisited. Sequel in Barbados, anyone? If this film got her a role in Fast Six, that's OK with me. Just answer me why we didn't get a kick-ass Rihanna tie-in song for the Summer instead of Tom Morello's stuff?

This is also by and large a proud Navy film, and after years of highlighting Marines or the Air Force or SEALS, isn't it about time these boys (and girl) got a solid action flick? They even incorporate some of the Navy's most relevant history when John Carter recruits a horde of WWII vets for the final Alien Battle.

OK, So it was pretty goofy.

There is some pretty bad dialogue. It's kind of insane to see all these 90-year olds fighting Aliens on the USS Missouri. The acting is never really great. I don't really know what the point of Brooklyn Decker's hike up the mountain was other than to provide exposition, telling her bf John Carter what to blow up. There also seems to be some ignored significance in having the American and Japanese Navies unite to work in tandem right across the bay from Pearl Harbor. There's a lot of stuff that probably shouldn't be happening.

All of this contributes to the fun, though. None of it really gets in the way of the story, and every character is extremely likeable instead of frustrating. There is tension enough to panic for the characters, but never so much that it becomes indigestible. It's one of the more perfect Summer Movies that has hit theaters in a long time. Above all else, its subtext is intriguing and does things for its genre far beyond something like The Avengers, which seems awfully cliched in hindsight. I said it. I would take Battleship over The Avengers.

Let the Internet hate me forever.

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