Sunday, June 03, 2012

In Defense of Liking Battleship

Battleship wasn't my first plan for last night. I was going to go to the premiere-and-likely-only screening of a locally produced action movie, but I wound up running late because I was building the eFilmCritic page for the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival (I think 10+10 might have taken a half-hour on its own!), so by the time I got to Central Square, it was too late to get to the Regent Theatre in Arlington, and since I wasn't going to have gone out into the rain for nothing, I decided to see whatever was playing at Boston Common at a convenient time that I hadn't already seen. That wound up being Battleship.

(There was a whole bunch of stupidity on my part here, from not being a good judge of time from the start, to letting the people getting off the outbound train pass or dawdle in front of the door without just cutting through, to forgetting my umbrella on top of the fare vending machine so that I paid two fares because exiting and re-entering was cheaper and more convenient than buying a new umbrella. That is to say, seeing this movie could have been the capper on a night of me being very dumb.)

That I was looking at NYAFF stuff not only set me on the path to seeing Battleship, but also offered a reminder of why I perhaps shouldn't be completely cynical about it: One of the movies which I put in (and will likely see on a weekend trip to NYC for the fest) is Takashi Miike's Ace Attorney (NYAFF description here), what looks like a dead-on live-action adaptation of a quite frankly absurd Nintendo DS game. It's not the first goofy concept like this that I've made a beeline for coming from Japan, so why shouldn't I run toward Hollywood movies that come from similarly mercenary places, especially if they've got similarly good people involved?

Understand - having Peter Berg, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano, et al, doesn't elevate this thing; it's still a great heaping bunch of stupid that winds up being entertaining in large part because everyone involved commits fully to the idea - they're not trying to make something that transcends being based on a board game, and they're not winking at the audience about what a goofy idea the whole thing is. They're making what they hope is an entertaining action/adventure movie while staying true to its source.

And while it's not sneering at itself, it perhaps does take a bit of irony and distance to really enjoy this thing. Part of what's enjoyable is seeing how director Berg and writers Erich & Jon Hoeber translated bits of "Battleship" to the big screen in very visible ways, and they call just enough attention to it for the audience to recognize the source and note that it works better than you could possibly expect. While I smirked a little at the aliens having five ships fall to Earth in the opening, I legitimately loved their peg missiles, and when a ship winds up with a whole line of them across its broadside and then explodes? Well, I felt sorry for the characters, sure, but I grinned. It's just so charmingly literal, as is the last act where Asano's Captain Nagata introduces a way to make the thing into a grid so that he and Taylor Kitsch's Lieutenant Hopper are barking out letter-number combinations for the missiles to fire at.

Of course, there's a whole movie around this, and a lot of it has the same sort of charm. The opening is kind of idiotic, but the particular brand of idiocy seems familiar to the characters, and there's something agreeably goofy about how Brooklyn Decker's Sam does, in fact, appreciate the burrito Hopper gets for her enough to go out with him. The filmmakers love their military people - especially veterans, wounded, retired, and otherwise - but it doesn't come off as either defensive or aggressive. They just show them as capable, dedicated men and women without griping that civilians don't understand or the brass holds them back. Heck, they have a Japanese officer playing a major part in action scenes involving a WWII battleship at Pearl Harbor and don't make a thing about it.

That is, honestly, kind of weird, and I wouldn't necessarily argue with people who see that as something that should perhaps be acknowledged. I, personally, think it's kind of a rebuke to those who say Battleship is Michael Bay-ier than actual Michael Bay movies - no way Bay doesn't seize on that for cheap, tacky conflict/sentiment - but the other side is very easy to see. In between the fun, charming bits, there are a lot of times when the filmmakers are just going through the motions: They've got some of the least imaginative aliens since Star Trek: The Next Generation went off the air, clearly just stand-ins because having any human nation as an antagonist would be bad for business (counterpoint - except North Korea, but the filmmakers slyly note that as absurd). The bit about Hopper asking Sam's father for permission to marry is a creaky plot device with no cleverness to it at all, and the idea that Hopper could be an officer within a year or two of enlisting and yet still be considered a screw-up just doesn't sit right.

Enough is dumb without having charm that I can't imagine myself actually buying Battleship on Blu-ray unless the price drops to five bucks, but enough is simple fun that I do tend to think that the hatred thrown at it is more the result of resenting the idea behind it than actually judging the movie on its own merits. Yes, there are almost certainly better ways to spend a couple hundred million dollars. But I'm not spending a couple hundred million; I'm spending ten, and for that money, I get a big action/adventure movie with a likable cast, decent action, and just enough cleverness to distract from a lot of stupidity.

Seen 2 June 2012 in AMC Boston Common #6 (first-run, Sony Digital 4K)

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