(An aside I made in a recent post reminded me that I meant to get my thoughts in order about this movie, so here goes – a retroview, if you will, though it doesn’t say much extra in hindsight that I didn’t think about at the time.)
Battleship was a flop, right? It was kicked out of sight on its US opening weekend by The Avengers, and followed that up with a poor domestic gross, negative critical responses, and a worldwide meme of “sunk” jokes.
It’s still made a net box-office profit of over $100 million worldwide, but the informed opinion seems to be that this was less to do with the film itself, and more because it was the first major 3D release in some foreign markets, benefiting there from the added draw (and higher ticket prices) of the funky new technology.
By the time I saw the film, near the end of its UK theatrical run but well before the US release, the critical narrative had already been established. Come to think of it, the fact that Universal shunted their international openings forward may mean that the studio already felt the film was a flop, and wanted to avoid the negative publicity of a low domestic opening.
All of which is a shame, because I actually reckoned this was a pretty good movie.
There have been dissenting voices saying similar things, of course. The Australian media seem to have generally recognized this film as a high-quality piece of mindless fun. Time and Entertainment Weekly, in contrast, gave it a more intellectual sort of thumbs-up. That seems like a paradox, but I don’t think it’s a mistake.
Battleship is, on one level, a very silly movie. After the success of the Transformers film franchise, Universal Studios were looking for more Hasbro properties with a military theme to adapt for the big screen: someone picked up the old back-of-the-car board game where you try and sink the ships on the other player’s unseen grid, and decided it had the makings of a blockbuster.
It’s an absurd idea, and I have a hunch that whoever made the pitch wasn’t actually taking it too seriously.
But Battleship goes two ways with this. On the one hand, this is a gleefully silly film, one which has huge fun with a stupid dork of a protagonist, and a kick-ass alien weapons system that looks and works just like the whole process of pitching the plastic pegs into your opponent’s board. It casts Bajan music sensation Rihanna as a hyper-smart U.S. Navy seaman with an arsenal of great big guns.
It’s also silly in a knowing, cine-literate, way, constructed in large part from second-hand scenes, plot-points and soundtrack cues, patched together with insanely hard-boiled dialogue (“The fact that you know that infuriates me beyond belief!”, “Mahalo, mutha*u”-boom!, and my personal favourite: “They killed all my grad students!”). It throws Pearl Harbour, Top Gun, Independence Day, every old technicolor war movie you ever saw, and even Young Guns for no good reason, into a cocktail mixer that doesn’t spare any of their reputations, and produces something which (as the Time reviewer recognized) is essentially a merciless parody of the whole Transformers franchise.
It’s Snakes on a Plane on a big damn boat.
And no, I’m not going to mention the 2010 live-action version of Space Battleship Yamato, which, you know, has the exact same plot.
This is a film with its tongue so far in its cheek it’s giving itself a rimjob. Even the titular battleship is a shameless send-up of the “Chekov’s Gun” trope: in Act I, you draw attention to the presence of the old rifle on the wall (or, in this case, the USS Missouri and her nine sixteen-inch cannon in a museum dock), so that it can be taken off the shelf and used in Act III.
Now, I’m not someone who usually enjoys metatextual referentiality for its own sake, especially metatextual referentiality of such a huge, self-destructive scale: but the sheer, shameless aplomb with which they carry it off in this flick made me grin right through the movie.
On the other hand, when it comes down to the business of fighting, killing, dying, this film doesn’t pull its punches. While the film generally fetishizes the shiny mechanical fluidity and bright electronic wavelengths of modern military technology, there are times when it knows it can’t: the deaths of men, and the deaths of warships, are handled with an instant, unsentimental finality that’s about as authentic as you can get. Character-arcs are abruptly cut short in fire and shrapnel, and the special effects suddenly aren’t gratuitous or prurient any more.
A soldier who had his legs blown off by a roadside bomb somewhere in the War on Terror is played by… a soldier who had his legs blown off by a roadside bomb somewhere in the War on Terror. You simply can’t argue with that.
This film is basically Flash Gordon meets Went The Day Well.
Now, maybe that’s an odd juxtaposition. But it worked for me – because, I think, the freeform silliness intensifies the impact of the moments when it’s suddenly not there any more, and at the same time, provides the human motivation for the characters to keep on fighting – and it worked, one way or another, for some reviewers who weren’t paying attention to received opinions. Maybe wouldn’t work so well for most people? Maybe most people would find the juxtaposition jarring, troubling, confusing?
But my hunch (though it is only a hunch) is that the problem was more specific: the studio didn’t really know how to market the film, and the media didn’t know how to respond to it.
After all, most people didn’t go and see this movie. Did you?