Neil Gaiman once wrote that the true art of Hollywood isn't the movie, but the contracts signed in order to make the movie. The film itself, then, is merely an unfortunate but necessary by-product of the process. Which makes sense, as the business end of a Hollywood is one based on clear, tangible results — we convinced X actor to act in Y movie for Z millions of dollars. Meanwhile, there are countless elements that can go wrong on the creative side, which is dependent on artists working to create something that's creatively successful while resonating with audiences. That doesn't always work out. It's like meticulously drawing up the plans for building your own car and then letting a lunatic drive it down the Autobahn.
All this to say that, while we're debating the merits of Prometheus, there's likely someone working in the industry that will tell you objectively that Prometheus is pretty damn good because it $341 million worldwide.
Battleship feels like one of those aforementioned byproducts, a situation where everyone did a great job doing the legwork required to get a project based on a board game set up at a major studio and getting people involved to actually get the thing made — but, alas, the film still had to be made.
Which isn't to say that a decent movie couldn't be made from a source that doesn't actually contain a story. Self-aggrandizing sequels aside, I think that Pirates of the Carribean managed to be a welcome surprise as a light, entertaining adventure movie considering its plotless source material. And Battleship the game is centered around enough concepts — an "us versus them" conflict, the tension in not knowing where your enemy is, boats blowing each other up — that one could easily try to figure out how to reconfigure that into an action movie.
And, if Battleship came out under a different title, most viewers probably wouldn't question a film about a powerful alien scouting party coming to Earth and the hapless naval destroyer forced to defend the planet from these invaders before they signal the rest of their planet to come take over. It certainly bears little resemblance to except for a surprisingly clever and tense scene where the crew has to figure out where the stealth-cloaked aliens are.
Most of the action movie success of Battleship can be credited to director Peter Berg, who has under his belt (among others) a solid action flick (The Rundown), a compelling post-9/11 counter terrorism thriller (The Kingdom) and half of a really entertaining, mildly subversive superhero film (Hancock; we won't discuss the second half). Paired with cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler, Berg shoots his action scenes with a surprising clarity, which is downright shocking considering how much Battleship looks like a latter-day Michael Bay film, and these days Bay's last concern is that you know what's happening in his movies. So, Battleship has that going for it.
Obviously making a good action movie goes against the very nature of Battleship as an enterprise, so in the end it's a film so intent on making loads of money that it simply goes for what's popular rather than what's good. In addition to the attempt at a Michael Bay masquerade, the film boasts a cast that includes Taylor Kitsch (this year's Sam Worthington but with more personality), Some Generic Model who could easily be fired and replaced Megan Fox style, pop star Rihanna and Liam Neeson, now in his parodic Bruce Willis paternal killing machine phase of his career thanks to his broad popularity stemming from Taken.
You want to know how populist Battleship tries to be? Like most hit blockbuster films, it's also about a half-hour too long — thanks to an interminable and unfunny first act that involves a B&E into a convenience store and an American Navy vs. Japanese Navy soccer game plus a momentum-killing B-plot featuring Some Generic Model, a cowardly scientist and real-life double-amputee army Colonel Gregory D. Gadson engaging in an aggressive Bad Acting-Off en route to helping disable pivotal alien communications. I have a feeling that some liberal edits could have made Battleship into a fairly engaging piece of 90-minute action shlock.
Battleship's script, by Erich and Jon Hober — screenwriters best known for having a hand in adapting* both Whiteout and Red — certainly features more ideas than "ships vs. alien ships" by going from a naval battle to Alien-esque inter-ship tension to the obligatory Battleship guessing game sequence to the inevitable last-ditch effort by our plucky heroes, but they fail to implement them in any effective way, or even offer decent dialogue for the actors to spout out. One wishes Quentin Tarantino did an uncredited rewrite on this naval combat movie, too.
Perhaps the most interesting part of Battleship is that it functions as Peter Berg's paean to the armed forces. Apparently the son of a naval historian, Berg shows an obvious love for the Navy that sends the film into completely bonkers territory during the film's final act as our heroes enlist a group of salty, elderly sailors to help steer a decommissioned battleship into the fray for the aforementioned last ditch effort. Suddenly we get slow motion Michael Bay shots depicting gaggles of old men walking towards the camera The Right Stuff style, turning giant wheels and loading torpedoes, and it's done so unironically that it's endearingly hilarious.
The most surprising thing about Battleship isn't that it exists (these days, who would expe
ct less?) but rather that it's at least watchable enough that I don't regret being two hours closer to death after sitting through it. It's not particularly good, and it's very much a move made in 2012, but whoever pulled the strings to somehow make Battleship exists deserves some kind of recognition at the Hollywood power player awards show that they televise directly from hell.
This Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital Copy/Ultraviolet contains some Blu-Ray exclusive features that — I'll be honest — I can't access because I'm a cheap bastard who doesn't own a Blu-Ray player. These features include a pre-viz of the film's alternate ending and a featurette on the visual effects of the film.
As for the DVD-centric content, there are three breezy-but-informative behind-the-scenes features that focus on the film's preproduction, the cast and the myriad difficulties of shooting a movie at sea. While the final product doesn't particularly work, the technical challenges of making it — coupled with Berg's obvious love for the Navy and enthusiasm for the process — could have actually made for a pretty good bonus documentary. I don't know if there's necessarily value to seeing a crew hustle to make a not-very-good movie, but it's not a complete waste of time.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions) and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic with Mike Prezzato, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery. His webcomic The Ghost Engine, with artist Eric Zawadzki, updates twice a week.