Art or not, the main engine driving the projects in Hollywood is money. When it comes to financial success there aren’t many things that are better than a solid franchise. A franchise usually guarantees you good returns with not many risks involved and, if really successful, you can milk it for decades. The studios are constantly looking for new franchises and each year sees the beginning of some new movie series, some smaller ones and some bigger ones. Just very recently Lionsgate Films struck gold with The Hunger Games, a series that will ensure a healthy financial situation for the studio for years to come.
Now the easiest way to successful start a franchise is not to start from a scratch, but to find something with an existing fanbase. Adaptations of popular novels, TV series and comic books come to mind here. However, with little popular material still left to be adapted, Hollywood has turned to more unusual sources for ideas. From video games (Resident Evil, Max Payne) over theme park rides (The Pirates of the Caribbean) to action figures (Transformers, G.I. Joe) – Hollywood is not leaving out anything. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that board games are next. This wouldn’t be the first time. Paramount produced a Clue adaptation back in 1985. However, next May will, for the first time, see a big budget blockbuster adaptation of a board game – Battleship. It’s not exactly uncharted territory, though. While a board game (Battleship actually originated as a paper and pencil game), it is also a HASBRO product. Paramount landed great success stories with their previous HASBRO adaptations G.I. Joe and Transformers with both turned into franchises (the G.I. Joe sequel will be released this year). Now it’s Universal that decided to milk HASBRO’s popularity and give an old and familiar brand a new blockbuster spin.
Obviously the concept of the Battleship board game give doesn’t give much in the way of a plot, so the screenwriters and director Peter Berg needed to develop a story around the basic premise of naval combat. That is not to say that the movie has much of a plot either as the storylines just serves as an excuse for bombastic and incredibly loud action scenes and the Michael Bay brand of patriotic dialogue and characters oozing machismo. For those who actually do care about the plot of a movie called Battleship (really?), here’s the quick rundown. Taylor Kitsch (whom Hollywood desperately – and so far unsuccessfully – wants to turn into the next big action star) plays the do-no-good slacker Alex Hopper whose brother Stone (what kind of a name is that?), portrayed by True Blood’s hunk Alexander Skarsgård, commands a ship in the Navy. After yet another encounter with the police, Stone decides that it is time for his brother to take responsibility and become a real man and go to the Navy (apparently he convinces him just by saying that it’s time for him to go to the Navy).About six years later, Alex is still as disobedient as ever, but somehow managed to rise the ranks and to date the Liam Neeson’s admiral’s daughter (Brooklyn Decker) – who also happens to be an understanding and brave physiotherapist. During an international fleet maneuver, alien warships land in the ocean close to Hawaii and a force field encloses the mothership as well as three destroyers (conveniently carrying the Hopper brothers). To fulfill the “international”quota, one of the destroyers is Japanese. From then on, it follows the Hollywood blockbuster alien invasion handbook. As usual, it is up to a few brave men to stop the invaders and save the whole world (mainly by stopping E.T. from phoning home).
Michael Bay set the clear precedence for this kind of utterly silly giant-scale blockbusters and Peter Berg (Hancock, The Kingdom) aspires for little more. While his track record so far doesn’t suggest a particularly distinctive trademark, in Battleship he leaves absolutely no personal touch whatsoever. This could have been directed by Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich and no one could ever tell the difference. In fact, the movie actually strives to be as Bay-ish as possible with all ingredients present. Gung-ho military action? Check. Loud patriotism? Check. A model-turned-actress in a bikini? Check. Giant explosions and massive destruction with no emotional impact? Check. In fact when a major character dies in the movie, it leaves absolutely no mark on either the audiences or even the other characters. They don’t even pretend to be affected in any way because such things as emotions would just slow down the already slightly overlong 131-minutes effects extravaganza.
Obviously no one will see this movie for well-developed characters, but even for a summer action blockbuster the characters are ridiculously paper-thin, bordering on annoying. Several successful blockbusters in the past (like X-Men: First Class or Iron Man) have shown that you have fascinating character in a big action movie without sacrificing the action aspect of it. Battleship doesn’t really care about that. Taylor Kitsch is supposed to be presented as a loose cannon who (of course thanks to the Navy) finds to his true self and assumes responsibility. However, his actions for large chunks of the movie don’t really bring the audiences to sympathize with him. In fact, when Liam Neeson tells him in one scene that he doesn’t know what his daughter sees in him, I couldn’t help but agree. Kitsch’s performance is even more one-dimensional here than in John Carter, bringing absolutely nothing memorable to the role and making Shia LaBeouf’s turns in the Transformers movies seem like high art of performing. In fact, the best scene involving Kitsch involves him breaking into a gas station to get a chicken burrito. The actual interesting fact about it is that Peter Berg apparently really loved the Worst burglar ever CCTV video from YouTube as he redid several scenes from it shot-for-shot. Knowing the original video it seems like a really weird idea, but I did like it for its weirdness and some less obvious pop culture reference (clearly appealing to the YouTube generation). Check it out for yourself. However, Kitsch’s underdeveloped performance doesn’t really stick out as the rest follows suit. Alexander Skarsgård shows here that his beloved True Blood character might just be a one trick pony for him. Brooklyn Decker and Rihanna (who tries to act as manly as possible) do little more here than trying to appeal to the horny boys’ demographics, while also trying to give the film some female empowerment. Liam Neeson plays stern and collects a paycheck.
And yet, just like with some Michael Bay films, there is some sense of enjoyment to be had here, witnessing the utterly unapologetic and sometimes self-aware silliness of this movie In one scene one character actually says to another: “Who on earth talks like this?” – an appreciated moment of the filmmakers’ lucidity. It takes for a fourteen year old in each of us to surface in order to appreciate a movie like Battleship, but you can just let it all go, leave your brain at the door and get on this ride, there are certainly worse ways to spend two hours. Unlike Bay’s Transformers sequels, this movie doesn’t have an endless showdown ruined by quick editing. Peter Berg shoots the action sequences with more clarity (though not less ridiculousness) and the $200 million budget is really put to work here. The effects here are top notch and no worse than anything you see in a Transformers movie. The scene in which an alien ship crash lands in Hong Kong is yet another splendidly made major-city-gets-screwed setpiece. There is also a scene in the movie that will be probably met with a mixture of disbelief and laughs as Berg actually goes right back to the roots of the source material - basically recreating the board game including the squared field and firing at coordinates (as well as dialogue like “Do you want to sink another one?”). It might be one of the silliest movies you’ll see this year in theatres, but if you do see it, then see it on the big screen where a movie like this belongs. Battleship embraces its silliness and absurdity of adapting a board game and plays it up to the maximum. No cliché is left unturned and there are so many plot holes that it’d take an article longer than this one to just list them all. But it doesn’t matter, Michael Bay will be proud of his influence, Universal will probably make some good cash with this film and there are numerous other board game adaptations in the pipeline including Monopoly for Ridley Scott and a Clue remake for Universal.
On a side note, it is quite interesting that Universal didn’t go for 3D with this movie as there are several angles and shots that would actually lend themselves perfectly for a 3D film unlike a multitude of other 3D wannabes.