A few months back Collider, along with a few other websites, was invited to visit the editing bay of Peter Berg’s upcoming mega-budget adaptation of Hasbro’s popular maritime board game Battleship (starring Taylor Kitsch, Rihanna, Liam Neeson, Brooklyn Decker and Alexander Skarsgard), which hits theaters next May. During our visit we got to see several scenes from the movie, learn about the characters, the settings and get a sense of the film’s scope and its interstellar enemies.
There has been a lot of discussion about Battleship, much of it openly negative, but until now there has been precious little detail on what the movie actually is, and what it isn’t. And what it is, is probably very different than you are thinking. Read on for the full story and the top 18 things you should know about Battleship.
Before going any further, if you missed the teaser trailer, click here to watch it.
Writing set and editing bay visits is a tricky thing. It’s unfair to trash a movie based upon two or three scenes, but it’s also poor journalism to simply wax poetic because you’re given early access and see something cool. And Battleship is a more complex case than most.
For starters, there are a lot of odd circumstances around the film. On the surface it appears to be the epoch – or is that nadir – of modern Hollywood’s obsession with the name brand. Whereas 20 years ago someone like Shane Black could come out with Lethal Weapon and then sell original spec scripts for seven figures on the regular because his storytelling had a track record of producing big hits and franchises, today the business-school-educated elite of Hollywood are more apt to try and reverse engineer a franchise by way of adapting properties that have already shown success, even when said properties have no narrative element.
After the Transformers franchise broke box office records left and right, the major studios set up deals with Hasbro to adapt other toy properties. The ancillaries are built in, the name recognition in key demographics is high and there is a sense of nostalgia that can be monetized. It was almost as if the studios have found a way to make the sequel first.
But is that a bad thing inherently? The lack of a narrative canon obviously has its problems, but why can’t it also be a freeing thing, allowing a talented team of filmmakers to create a big canvas action adventures with a loose name attached undercut financial risk?
That’s what Battleship looks to be.
Here’s 18 things you should know about Battleship:
- 1. The film has a very strange sense of humor. During the meetcute between the romantic leads, a down on his luck Taylor Kitsch breaks into a convenience store and steals a frozen burrito in an effort to woo Brooklyn Decker. The burglary goes horribly awry and ends with repeated tasing. The scene is bizarre indeed, but it’s also fairly charming, at times even recalling the tone of Raising Arizona.
- 2. Kitsch’s protagonist may be a ne’er-do-well, but he is also the fastest promoted Naval Officer in the history of the United States of America.
- 3. The beginning of Kitsch’s character arc also reminded me of Don Quixote. The phase, “Tilting at windmills” appears several times in my notes. The angle of a rugged individual who saves the day through determination and pluck mixed with a quixotic archetype actually plays fairly fresh in the scenes we saw.
- 3. Kitsch has two primary dilemmas in the film. Obviously, he has to contend with the alien invaders, but he also has to get a marriage blessing from Decker’s father, Liam Neeson, who is also his commanding officer.
- 4. Needless to say, Neeson doesn’t approve of his daughter dating a man with a criminal record who also regularly picks fights on the ship. The dynamic between Kitsch and Neeson is established by way of a clever quote from Homer.
- 5. There is a scene with Kitsch and Decker on the beach where Decker looks Bridget Bardot hot.
- 6. During development of the film, Berg became fascinated by the interactions between Japanese Naval ships and their American counterparts as they sit docked next to each other as allies right next to Pearl Harbor. The ways in which bitter enemies become friends plays out in the film on both a macro and micro level with Japanese characters playing significant roles.
- 7. Despite the notorious history of Hollywood movies attempting to film at sea, the first week of Battleship included several sequences shot on the water.
- 8. The early interactions with the alien ships were filmed practically. The production built a giant set in the ocean allowing for massive vistas of the horizon and strange, slightly surreal cinematography assisted by the natural wave current.
- 9. During these scenes some of the cast members quoted Godspell in place of their dialogue during wide shots.
- 10. The alien ships, which also have cloaking devices, override compasses, radar and other reconnaissance tools, thus leaving the navy to shoot in the dark.
- 11. In the few moments shown, Rihanna proves herself to be a better actor than her ex-beau Chris Brown.
- 12. Berg is unafraid of the recent onslaught of alien invasion films. He saw and enjoyed Battle: Los Angeles and took from it only that the genre works when it is well executed.
- 13. Though there is a long tradition of alien invasion narratives functioning as a metaphor for international war and elements of imperialism, Berg, who previously directed The Kingdom, says that politics never crossed his mind during filming.
- 14. However, Stephen Hawking’s theory of “Goldilocks Planets” was an influence.
- 15. Berg on how the game influenced parts of the movie: “There’s actually a very interesting component of playing Battleship which is, if we’re playing against each other, you start out calling, “G8!” and random, and eventually something happens, and what that phenomenon is, is you go from being an unknown enemy to a known enemy and there’s a point of discovery in battleship and it’s actually kind of, it’s a hook and it’s actually why the game’s been around for so long. if you and I are playing I have absolutely no idea where you are and suddenly I start to realize where you are and it’s very satisfying. And the second I realize, ‘Oh that’s where he is! That’s his strategy!’ and as soon as I figure out where you are, what do I do? I try and destroy you as quickly and violently as I can before you kill me. There’s something very inherently dramatic about that.”
- 16. There are several different types of alien ships shown in the film and several types of aliens.
- 17. The aliens will not hidden in the shadows, “We’re a movie that puts it out there.”
- 18. Berg already has plans for a sequel. “I never go one and done. I’m always thinking, ‘Lets keep going!’ I love these characters and I love these [aliens] and I love the world they come from and I love the idea of the goldilocks planets.
Battleship seems like a strange movie to be excited for, but I am tentatively optimistic. Berg is a very talented director who spent years as Michael Mann’s protégé before moving to the A-list. The exquisitely blackhearted Very Bad Things displayed a knack for off-kilter humor mixed with real menace, Friday Night Lights proved that he could tackle character nuance and The Kingdom still stands as the best mainstream film about modern Middle East politics, balancing B-movie thrills with surprising amounts of detail and insight. The man hops genres well and has built in scale and ambition with each project. I think he’s earned the benefit of the doubt.
And once you get beyond the daisy chain of origin, what’s wrong with a new Naval action film? The last one I can think of was K-19: The Widowmaker. It’s a fallow genre that could benefit from modern technology.
In fact, the biggest concern I have about this film is not the alleged creative bankruptcy in symbolizes, but rather the tone and target audience.
Transformers is clearly a reference point for Battleship on many levels, but they are very different films. Transformers fit into an easy fantasy box. Sure, there are big battles and bigger explosions and even dozens of decapitations in the third, but the whole thing is so totally removed from any human reality that it remains relatively inoffensive. There is a comfort to the overt, absurd fantasy of Transformers that softens the blow of the violence and allows it to have grown up action while still functioning as somewhat appropriate entertainment for the tween set.
Battleship doesn’t have this advantage. The idea of actual naval ships involved in a fight that specifically recalls Pearl Harbor, at least subconsciously, seems more adult in nature, even if it involves aliens, but the casting, creature design and branding tie-ins all feel like they’re designed for an uncomfortably broad audience.
Maybe this comes from my preconceived notions about what a war movie is or should be, since I suppose all of these same criticisms could be levied against Transformers – lord knows the moment when Meagan Fox climbs onto that motorcycle is burned into the back of my retinas – but even after seeing the trailer and some rough scenes, I’m still not sure if this is a movie that will have a Saturday morning cartoon feel or if it will be more in line with Berg’s previous efforts. I mean, even Hancock was pretty messed up in parts.
That said, as soon as I see the aliens in fully animated motion I’m sure that the cushion zone of fantasy violence will become clear and the more hard-edged memories of both Berg’s previous films and my basic knowledge of history will fade.
I was expecting something more along the age-appeal lines of Skyline, Battle: Los Angeles, or Cowboys and Aliens, but Battleship something entirely more broad, and in retrospect, that’s clearly the right way to go when you’re adapting a children’s game.
I’m not sold yet, but the footage Berg had to show piqued my interest. Battleship might just be a whole lot better, and stranger, than you’re thinking.
Battleship opens May 18, 2012.