Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
May 2012


Transformers: Except We Called it 'Battleship' This Time

'Battleship' wears its Michael Bay Stamp of Approval proudly on its sleeve

Universal Pictures
Director: Peter Berg
Screenplay: Erich Hoeber and Jon Hoeber, based on the Hasbro board game
Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Brooklyn Decker, Tadanobu Asano, Rihanna, Alexander Skarsgård, Hamish Linklater, Gregory D. Gadson, Jesse Plemons and Liam Neeson
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 11 minutes
Opened May 18, 2012
(out of four)

Well, it worked. From the very beginning, Battleship's intentions were clear - to remind as many people of Transformers as possible. From its inception (both are based on Hasbro toys), to its marketing, all the way through to the look and feel of the actual movie. It exists to convince us that it is exactly like Transformers. "C'mon, look at 'em!" they're telling us. "They're practically twins! And if you liked those alien robots, you're gonna love these!"

Basically, Battleship is like one of the celebrity-lookalike hookers from L.A. Confidential. The resemblance, by design, is uncanny. And the gambit certainly paid off; you won't find anyone discussing this movie without referencing Transformers.

In that sense, this is one of the most cynical products Hollywood has ever produced. Hijacking the aesthetics of a successful brand, style or franchise is nothing new, but rarely has it been devised so transparently. The film's entire ambition is to pander to its 14-year-old-boy target demo as fully and exhaustively as possible - but lacking even the courage to forge its own identity of 14-year-old boyishness, it apes Michael Bay's. Which means lots of rah-rah pseudo-masculine nonsense, plenty of explosions, a stupefyingly dumb plot . . . and chicks.

You can always tell how much a movie cares about its female characters. In this case, the filmmakers just brought in two of the hottest women on the planet and left it at that - and not even actresses, but a pop-star sex kitten and a world-famous supermodel. (Congratulations, Peter Berg, you're the honorary new editor of Maxim.)

Beyond that, the film piles on a hefty dose of patriotic bluster - basically free advertising for military recruitment. ("Hey fellas, while you're watching us blow up some aliens, how about joining the Navy? Sign here, please. U-S-A! U-S-A!") And then, of course, there's the smoking gun - the mere fact that the movie is based on a board game that requires approximately the same mental exertion as a round of checkers. I suppose there have been stupider origins for movies, but surely not very many.

The studio knows audiences will immediately recognize this type of pre-packaged idiocy, and it expects them to bite.

Now, having said all that, I must admit that it is much easier to hate Battleship in theory than it is in practice. The truth is, the movie isn't all that bad, all things considered. It's competently made, at least. Intrinsically uninteresting and devoid of ideas, of course, but competent nonetheless - and it even has a few moments that are genuinely entertaining. So let's say it's probably as good a movie as you could get from the worst possible intentions.

Even the aforementioned actresses - Rihanna and Brooklyn Decker - don't embarrass themselves. They don't give what I would call good performances, but that has more to do with the fact that zero effort was put into writing either character. For all I know, both Rihanna and Decker will go on to be fine actors after all. Who knows. But in Battleship, they're incidental, merely the eye candy surrounding our courageous misfit heroes - namely Alex Hopper (Tim Riggins Taylor Kitsch), a twentysomething screw-up forced into the Navy by his brother Stone (Alexander Skarsgård) after one too many run-ins with the law.

Needless to say, he got into trouble for a girl, Sam (Decker). And needless to say, her father, Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson), is now Hopper's commanding officer. And needless to say, Liam Neeson does not approve of Hopper. Not one bit. And save for punching a wolf in the throat or saving the world from an alien invasion, there is nothing - I repeat, nothing - Hopper can do to change the Admiral's mind.

On what should be a series of routine Naval exercises, alien spacecrafts - responding to a signal sent out into deep space by NASA - land at sea, and don't seem to be the particularly friendly kind. But the aliens' ultimate agenda is of no interest to the film. The aliens themselves are not adversaries, but a narrative device and nothing more. Once again, a film finds no reason or inspiration for the presence of its own villain. (Hey, at least the Transformers series took the time to establish a backstory.)

The pieces are easy to put together from the beginning - another sign that the film doesn't want its audience to put in any thought whatsoever while watching. When a not-so-friendly rivalry forms early on between Hopper and a Japanese naval captain named Nagata (Tadanobu Asano), we know where that relationship is headed. Ditto the disapproving future father-in-law, the depressed Army veteran (Gregory D. Gadson) who's just about to give up all hope, and the nebbish scientist (Hamish Linklater; sadly, Jeff Goldblum was too old for the role) who keeps yapping about his lack of courage. There is a remarkable absence of curiosity toward virtually every character and situation in the film.

But as I said, Battleship is a bit better than it could have been. Berg (The Rundown, Friday Night Lights, The Kingdom) is not a bad director, but he's working with third-rate material - and he knows it. So even if the film surpasses our (extremely low) expectations, the result is still . . . well, crap. It's watchable crap, but it's still crap.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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