“Renn’s Battleship Review” –or– “How Peter Berg sunk my giveashit.”
Be it fashion, automotive design, or media, the mass corporate-driven culture (i.e. shit we watch and buy) exists in a sort of ever circling Ouroboros straight out of cosmic mythology. In this case of American culture you can of course snap zoom into the spine of the self-consuming beast and you’ll see hundreds of tiny executives — like birds riding a crocodile — waving their top hats and bags of money as they Slim Pickins around on the back of this ancient beast. In the case of fashion, the head of the beast — your Michael Kors and Pradas — are constantly consuming previous trends that ultimately filter down into the clearance Macy’s bins: shit that years later the high designers will re-consume and reinterpret in a new way.
Such as it is in the blockbuster and commercial world, where your Michael Bays and Roland Emmerichs have taught us what an ultra-glossy, hyper-kinetic, four-quadrant disaster blockbuster looks like and sounds like when the most technically proficient people spend the most money to make the most cutting-edge movie. With Battleship, Peter Berg is attempting join that small pantheon of masters of shallow, golden-hour spectacle, and he proves that while he’s not quite the asshole of the great spinning blockbuster beast (we’ll reserve that for cheap action TV and Asylum movies), he definitely lands no higher than, say, the upper digestive system. Which is still where shit is made.
If you care to parse all that down to something more simple, I’m saying Peter Berg is responsible for making gooey, ill-formed blockbuster excrement, and that he’s about one step above being the JCPenny of commercial blockbuster directing.
You see, Battleship is dumb, knows it’s dumb, doesn’t care it’s dumb, and know’s that you won’t care it’s dumb, but it’s also fucking boring, because the stupidity isn’t even buttressing stellar visuals or excited filmmaking. Instead it’s an unrelenting cacophony that smiles big and apes-its-betters hard, but lacks distinctively kinetic action and even the “people stuff” is missing a distinctively stupid vision worth gawking at (as is often the case with Bay). No, all we get is a long, weak borscht attempt at a Transformers riff that hits the beats but infuses them with none of the iconography that lets them (kinda) work in those films.
Take for example the first fifteen minutes, which begin with a triumphantly over-visualized explanation of how NASA (or whoever) shot some beams into space towards a planet that could have life. In true Bay style we then zoom in on our regular-Joe dude (Taylor Kitsch), scheming on pussy and being completely oblivious to the coming shit-storm. It all takes place in an over-designed bar with a sexy girl and cheesy one-liners, but it’s twice as long as it should be and commits way too hard to its gag, the only point of which is to make our protagonist come across as literally retarded. It would give me a headache to even try and retrace the fascile bullshit it takes to get us from there, to where this man has to prove himself by leading a Naval Destroyer ship against arbitrarily handicapped aliens in an arbitrary combat sphere.
And here we reach the most ostentatious element of the film: the whole Battleship thing. You see — and I’m doing my genuine best here — our call to the stars apparently frightened or intrigued some humanoid aliens far away, and they send a small fleet to check us out, and/or attack us. (Where Emmerich made sure a genuinely creepy scene in Independence Day gave us temporary communications with the aliens that made their goals explicit, here we’re given no such insight.) In any event, they arrive and accidentally ram one of their ships into a satellite, screwing up their communications and forcing them to land near our dish array, which is also near Pearl Harbor. You know, the place where there are battleships. But the thing is that when they land, active Naval war games means the entire fleet is far away from the island, thus isolating them from the action when the aliens bust out their protective force-field. This leaves only a few severely outmatched destroyer ships that are immediately obliterated, except that the alien ships are inexplicably unable to detect one of them, except when they are. Meanwhile, the main character’s girlfriend and her prosthetic-legs-sporting patient are crawling the mountainside nearby in what might be the lamest blockbuster B-plot ever conceived.
I really really have to stop here.
There is such a massive volume of logical gymnastics the script must overcome to put these game pieces into the unique scenario that allows it to be called a Battleship movie, that the film literally drops any pretense of explaining them, even in a typical blockbuster “exposition-dumb” manner. People assume things out loud and figure out short-term goals, but the aliens, their presence, their handicaps, their tactics, and their goals are virtually never explained in a meaningful way, and in fact are often contradictory. We frequently see alien POV shots with an overlying HUD that analyzes objects and outlines threats in red, and yet the sophisticated beings that programmed such a thing are tricked simply by guns being pointed in a different direction. It’s insane, and the lack of even the tiniest shred of internal logic means you’ll never have even the slightest investment in any of the action.
If you’re wondering why the film would create so many complications only to leave them unexplained, I have the answer: to make it a Battleship film. You probably expected them to make an alien combat movie with ships, slap on a logo, make a few cute references, and cash the checks. That’s not the case: Peter Berg and company have made an outright, absolute, and thorough adaptation of a board game, from mechanics to aesthetics – with every rule and peg accounted for.
The film hits every possible note from the classic game that it could manage, from subtleties like the alien craft’s force-field device resembling two glowing, slightly perforated plates lined up next to each other, to the obvious cues like the peg-missiles that serve as the alien’s primary weaponry, or the 30 minute long literal Battlship sequence in which a grid system is devised and missiles blindly launched based on educated guesses.
These sequences are as much of a joke as you could possibly imagine, making them feel like someone let loose a hugely budgeted youtube joke video in this otherwise template blockbuster. Naturally things like the aliens and their weaponized hamster-wheels that grind through highways and ships are inventions of the film, and these feel like second-hand Transformers gags used to pad out the runtime, but they only create more nonsense to be dealt with, which in turn wastes at least 30 more of our minutes than this film ever a had a right to.
As for the naval combat, it occasionally edges toward cool, but if you for a second think there is a hint of visual ingenuity on display (especially in comparison to a Bay film), you quite simply suck at watching action movies. Battleship contains some of the worst integration of isolated effects shot I’ve ever seen in a blockbuster of this scale, as specifically composed effects shots (that surely took weeks to build) cut in like shit in the midst of bigger scenes.
If the film has any redeeming quality, it’s that it does at least have a consistency of energy in how it pushes forward, never looking back and never getting gummed up in its own bullshit. Even the stunningly lame side-plot is so breathless that any given segment is gone by the time you get annoyed. There is also an admirably knowing smile on the film’s face that never allows it to get too serious, even as it’s killing tens of thousands of men and women. This is almost enough to make the film worse, but it allows some genuinely silly-fun things to unfold, including a montage that has absolutely no fucks to give about realism or believability. By that point in the film you’re not walking out, so it can care even less about making any sense.
If I may be so callous, I’d like to ask you to picture in your mind footage you’ve seen of places that have experienced large-scale natural disasters, where perhaps a tornado has ripped an entire town to pieces and strewn the leavings across multiple square miles. Imagine the jumbled houses and indecipherable fragments of civilization piled up in a landscape of chaos. Feel in your heart that hopeless, paralyzed feeling of not knowing where to even begin cleaning up this mess, because even as you being to sort one pile, it just uncovers an even bigger one.
That right there. That feeling you have in your chest right now is what I feel looking back on Battleship with a critical eye. This is where Berg has sunk my giveashit.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars