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Battleship [movie, review] - Elf M. Sternberg
Battleship [movie, review]
Battleship is a serviceable alien invasion flick violently and irrevocably ruined by a deep and vicious incompetence on the part of the producer and director.

The setting for this film is the universe of action adventure SF flicks like Independence Day, Predator, and Iron Man, all of which ought to be demanding royalties for the liberties taken in this film. This is the universe before artificial intelligence, biocybernetics, nanotechnology, and entanglement became commonplace SF tropes. It's a familiar place to the fans of Star Wars, Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica.

Given that setting, the plot is serviceable: a small scouting fleet of resource-hungry aliens a'la Independence Day, attracted to the Earth by our own primitive experiments with FTL communication, arrive to assess our planet's value, set up communications, and call the motherships. FTL communications is big and complicated and requires its own hauler, but something goes wrong and the ship with the FTL system crashes. The remaining scout wessels, one large command ship and three lighter ships, decide to try and take our FTL communications center, headquartered on Oahu, Hawaii, and the command ship, to make sure they aren't disturbed, puts a 20-kilometer "bubble" force field around the island.

Two US Aegis Missile ships and one from the Navy of Japan are trapped in the bubble with them. These humans, with their primitive technology but superior knowledge of the terrain, with their innate human skills, and with a little bit of luck, must prevent the aliens from calling for reinforcements.

That's it. You know something, for an alien invasion action-adventure movie, that's actually a great plot. Michael Bay could do wonders with that.

(I am going to ignore all the post-Egan-and-Stross kvetching about the real costs of FTL travel, the military incompetence of carrying exactly one FTL radio, or the space-savvy incompetence of having to land to deploy the FTL radio.)

Director Peter Berg is no Michael Bay. He wants to be Michael Bay, but he doesn't understand what Michael Bay does. The Hoeber brothers have as strong a grip on science as J.J. Abrams (who penned Bay's Armageddon).

Bay, when setting up a film, weaves together two plotlines: the growing menace and the lives that menace is going to disrupt. Berg opens with a tragically ham-handed handwavium scene about the FTL communications experiment, and then spends the next half hour focusing on the relationships, without ever telling us why FTL signalling might be a bad idea. (Okay, there's a scene where a geek gives the Peter Watts' line about aliens: "Anything capable of surviving interstellar space is going to be mean." That's not enough.) It drags on far too long before the alien vessels are inbound. And then, after showing the five ships successfully navigating past Jupiter's busy neighborhood and the asteroid belt, the FTL hauler crashes into a satellite in low Earth orbit.

What. The. Fuck. YOU, WRITER! Go back into your cave and come up with TEN different ways the FTL hauler could have been wrecked that don't involve unexcused navigational stupidity at the last second!

We get a pair of geeks at two different sites, one a "NASA expert" and the other an astronomer on-site in Oahu, talking about the crashed ship, which hits Hong Kong. "It's made of things not found on the periodic table. It's literally not of this Earth! The one metal we've been able to identify is Lawrencium!"

Headdesk. Even alien vessels will mostly be made up of the matter of the ordinary universe, the stuff we know is in orbit around every other star we've looked at: steel, titanium, and other familiar alloys. Exotium, unobtanium, and superobviousum will probably exist in very tiny amounts and for special purposes. Second, we don't have a chemical test for Lawrencium-- it takes an atom smasher to make, we've made only micrograms of the stuff, we really have no idea how it behaves chemically. Worse, Lawrencium has a half-life of 3.6 hours; if that wreck is made of detectable amounts, it's literally dissolving before their eyes in a messy and highly radioactive haze.

The saddest fact is, once you get past this painfully constipating bolus of deliberate ignorance, the rest of the film is a highly enjoyable and not entirely stupid shoot-out. The hero's girlfriends ends up on the mountain near the FTL center for highly believable and genuinely human reasons. The crew is entirely post-racial, singer Rihanna actually does a great job as Petty Officer Raikes, and Tadanobu Asano's scenes with lead Taylor Kitsch are snappy, funny, and successfully pull off the tension of Kitsch being forced into the command role of a US vessel against Asano's more experienced "Japanese Navy captain without a ship."

The film has very little to do with the board game of its namesake. The only thing that's really obvious is that the enemy vessel's air-to-air missiles are shaped like the pegs-- obviously, these aliens are so incompetent they've never thought of armor-penetrating weapons. They don't seem to have encountered them before, either, since they don't use their impenetrable force fields on their smaller vessels. The alien team that invades Oahu to take control of the FTL transmitter is divided into command, engineer, and combat teams in different colors of shiny powered armor-- which makes steampunkish hissing noises-- but they don't have camoflage, long range sensors, or know the first thing about setting up perimeter defenses.

Berg's weaknesses are still evident in that shoot-out, but they're hidden behind lots of good CGI and explosions and the like. The last half of the film made me hate the first half all the more; I enjoy big CGI spectacles where the good guys win, and this film could have been much, much more than the utter failure it ultimately turned out to be.

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Current Mood: unsatisfied

9 comments or Leave a comment
halloranelder From: halloranelder Date: September 29th, 2012 04:57 am (UTC) (Link)
Battleship was playing in the background with the sound off at a friends party recently. I think I enjoyed the film a hell of a lot more than you did simply by not being able to have anything to do with the plot.

"The film has very little to do with the board game of its namesake."

Not true! There was the grid squares when they were trying to work out where to shoot the ship thingie that was wandering around! :)
herewiss13 From: herewiss13 Date: September 29th, 2012 04:58 am (UTC) (Link)
The film has very little to do with the board game of its namesake.

You didn't catch the entire "fire at the set of coordinates and hope we hit something" homage to the Battleship game? "B-12!" "C-7!" "Hit!"


Frankly, I wouldn't have minded the first half of the movie nearly so much if the main character hadn't continually beat himself about the head & shoulders with the idiot stick. There was literally not a single decision he encountered during the first part where he did not choose the worst course of action. It was amazingly consistent...and extremely frustrating.

Good catch on the "we're sending FTL signals". I just figured it was normal radio signals and the film was deliberately ignoring the speed of light, etc. Whether or not there was actual scripting supporting FTL, it makes the whole thing a _lot_ more plausible.

...which just goes to show how much further they had to go until it would have actually _been_ plausible in the first place!

Still...I enjoyed it (after the idiot stick was set aside) and the resurrection of the Mighty Mo' made me misty-eyed. Obvious heart-string plucking, but still effective.
elfs From: elfs Date: September 29th, 2012 06:24 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, I did catch that "Romeo 4," "Tango 11," scene, but it didn't work for me precisely because, in order intermingle the theme of the game with the tension of the scene, he showed the alien scout ships heaving and breaching in the water, but had to avoid showing the "near misses" since in the game you don't know if you've had a 'near miss.' So some standard action/adventure cinematography had to be modified in a tension-wrecking way.

And you're not allowed to fire twice in the same round. :-)

As for the FTL thing, I figured the only way the aliens had their interstellar communications in one ship was that it had to be BIG and range-demanding.

These people needed an SF consultant, badly.
herewiss13 From: herewiss13 Date: September 29th, 2012 06:32 pm (UTC) (Link)
I meant that the _humans_ were sending an FTL burst. I figured the screenwriters were just ignoring the 4-year (plus) time delay in travel-time.
elfs From: elfs Date: September 29th, 2012 06:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yeah. That too.

The film was full of stupidium. I mean, the rest of the world has no idea what's going on in that bubble. None whatsoever. They have no idea of hostile forces, battle, anything. So when NASA geek says, "If they get their hands on Oahu it could be an Extinction Level Event," I said to the screen, "How the fuck do you know that? You don't know anything! The writers heard that on Deep Impact and thought it was sexy, but... aaarrgh!"

It was that kind of movie.
lovingboth From: lovingboth Date: September 29th, 2012 02:56 pm (UTC) (Link)
So, better than Prometheus's script then? :)

There's a comedy duo here who have done several sketches on lazy writers. It looks like their SF pair ("Don't open the airlock! The space will get in!") have been busy recently.

The other people who should be taken out and shot are the marketing people who thought that the film of the game was a good idea in the first place.
elfs From: elfs Date: September 29th, 2012 06:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
Nah. This could have been pulled off. It could have been Independence Day meets The Hunt for Red October. Everyone was just too stupid to know better.
ionotter From: ionotter Date: September 29th, 2012 03:07 pm (UTC) (Link)
So glad I watched that one on a pirate video site, and didn't even download it.

Total popcorn movie; unplug brain, watch explosions, eat popcorn.

But if the handwavy science made you swallow your tongue, the military errors had me pulling my hair out in chunks. About the ONLY thing they got right was the inside of SOME of the ships. And the whole, getting the Missouri to go from cold iron to full steaming in less than a day? Oh really? With *what*, pray tell? And where'd you get the shells and powder bags? Did you pull the ship into NAVMAG Lualualei and improvise? Oh, and how'd you get off the pier? What tugs helped pull you out???

Like I said. Unplug brain, eat popcorn, watch movie.
nbarnes From: nbarnes Date: September 29th, 2012 10:47 pm (UTC) (Link)
Between the post and the AWESOME storytelling tidbits from the lady at Pixar... I need to write. I need to write right now.
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