Wednesday, May 2, 2012

‘Battleship’: Silver Screen Saucers review

By Robbie Graham Silver Screen Saucers

Battleship’s choppy seas may be confined to the cinema screen, but you’ll still need a sick bag. 

There is a scene in Rob Reiner’s 1984 comedy masterpiece, This Is Spinal Tap, in which the members of the charmingly deluded heavy metal band are read a back catalogue of progressively terrible reviews for their albums to date. The final review as read to Spinal Tap by the rockumentary’s fictional director Marty Di Bergi (played by Reiner) is for their album Shark Sandwich and consists of just two words... “sh*t sandwich.”

With this in mind, a carefully considered review of Peter Berg’s latest directorial effort, Battleship, writes itself: “Battlesh*t.” Tempting though it is to leave it at that and to try to forget about the cinematic assault I recently endured, I must find it within me to mentally revisit this heinous movie-crime, not only in an attempt to cleanse my psyche of its foul stains, but also to take it to task for the vile propaganda it is. This might seem like disproportionately harsh language to be using in the context of what many will no doubt defend as a “harmless popcorn movie,” but the point is that, while Battleshipmay be popcorn fodder, its underlying purpose is to make cannon fodder of cinemagoers – quite literally. Battleship is an aggressively jingoistic, fear-mongering Pentagon-backed military recruitment campaign that revels in fetishising the hardware of war and shamelessly targets the most disillusioned of America’s youth.

In December 2011, Peter Berg shared with journalists in Santa Monica the details of Battleship’s elaborate cinematic conception:

“I went and talked to the guys at [toy company] Hasbro. I said, 'I want to do a film about naval warfare, the modern navy.' They said, 'What's the story?' I said, 'I'm not sure what the story is, but I'll figure one out. But I'm your guy...' [and]For some reason they were like, 'Okay, you're our guy.'” 

And that, apparently, is how two-hundred-million-dollar movies get greenlit in Hollywood today. As it turns out, Berg never did “figure out” a story for his big screen board game; but then, who needs a story when you’ve got Rihanna, massive guns, aliens, and Rihanna shooting massive guns at aliens? Alright, technically, Battleship does have “plot”, albeit a “plot” so weak that the word “plot” must, out of respect to real plots everywhere, remain in inverted commas throughout this review.

Battleship: the game on which the movie is based


The opening moments of the movie are set in 2005 when NASA – represented here by a smug, weasely British scientist and a concerned, more attractive wise-cracking American one – transmit a signal to a nearby star system referred to only as “Gliese” in the hope of contacting intelligent extraterrestrial life.

So far, so factual... sort of. In August, 2009, the Australian government and NASA really did transmit a signal to the Earth-like extra solar planet Gliese 581D in an effort to establish contact. The signal consisted of some 26,000 (carefully vetted) “good will” messages from the citizens of Earth. This proactive approach to alien contact – known as METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence) –differs from the traditional passive approach favoured by SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), which devotes its efforts simply to listening for any potential incoming alien signals.

The METI approach is controversial, however, as some scientists consider it unwise to knowingly alert our presence in the galaxy to any potentially technologically superior civilizations. In April 2010, Professor Stephen Hawking made international headlines by stating his firm belief that humanity should seek to avoid extraterrestrial contact: "To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational," Hawking said, but added, ominously, "If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn't turn out very well for the American Indians.” Hawking suggested that aliens "might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet” and would perhaps be “looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach.”

Artist's impression of Gliese 581d

NASA’s recent efforts to reach out to Earth-like planets in our galactic neighbourhood and Hawking’s stated concerns about such efforts have clearly resonated with Hollywood filmmakers. In 2010, the alien invasion film Skylineused as its premise the aforementioned “good will” signal to Gliese 581D, incorporating the facts of this scientific endeavour into its marketing campaign – a campaign that also made use of Stephen Hawking’s ominous anti ET-contact advice (“perhaps we should have listened,” stated the trailer).

Indeed, Hawking’s warning is also referred to in the opening scenes of Battleship. As NASA prepares to transmit its signal to the Gliese system, our wise-cracking American scientist comments that “it’s going to be like Columbus and the Indians – only we’re the Indians.” In any case, the signal is sent and NASA gives itself a hearty pat on the back.

Meanwhile, in a nondescript grimy American bar, we are introduced to the hero of the piece – a devilishly handsome young slacker and petty criminal (he steals a burrito in an attempt to woo the girl of his dreams) by the name of Alex Hopper – a man whose potential could fill a battleship if only he had the right outlet for his natural skills and derring-do. But, hold on there; wait just a minute now... Alex’s brother, Stone Hopper (no, really, that’s his name), is an officer in the US Navy. Can Stone help his brother realise his true potential? Help him win the heart of his dream girl? Help him become a worthy American citizen? You bet your Top Gun shades he can! “It’s time for a new course of action!” Stone hollers in his brother’s face, “A new direction! A game change! You’re joining me in the Navy!”

Cut to 2012: seven years have passed and LieutenantAlex Hopper is now the Tactical Action Officer aboard the destroyer USS John Paul Jones, while Stone is the commanding officer of the USS Sampson. Alex is also now in a long-term relationship with the burrito girl, Samantha (Brooklyn Decker), and wants nothing more than to marry her, but, for some reason, can only do so by first seeking her father’s permission. Only problem is, her father just happens to be the steely-eyed Vice Admiral Shane – Alex’s commanding officer (played by Liam Neeson with, shall we say, an avant-garde take on an American accent).

"You're gonna need a bigger boat": aliens attack in Peter Berg's Battleship (2012)

Before Alex has chance to seek Admiral Shane’s approval, however, a fleet of five alien ships decides to answer the signal NASA sent out seven years prior. One ship crashes in Hong Kong, while four others settle in Hawaiian waters. The US destroyers Sampsonand John Paul Jones promptly break off from the international war games in which they are engaged in order to investigate. How the rest of the “plot” unfolds is entirely predictable and frankly not worth writing about. Suffice to say, maritime battle mayhem ensues within the confines of a large force field erected by the aliens. The force field is intended to protect the alien craft from human attack, but, unfortunately for the hapless ETs, actually seals inside it the aforementioned destroyers, as well as the Japanese vessel, Myōkō. Although Sampson and Myōkō are obliterated by the aliens, slacker-come-good Alex Hopper and his destroyer, the John Paul Jones, go on to save the world – but not without a bit of help from an unexpected source: in the final act, just as you think it’s safe to remove your anti-cheese goggles, a moustached troupe of crusty WWII veterans hobbles in to save the day with their trusty battleship – the heroes of old stepping forth once more to serve their country in its hour of need.

In the Navy...

It is important to note that Battleship was produced with the full support of the US Navy. This means that – in exchange for the use onscreen of the Navy’s coolest, shiniest hardware – the US Department of Defense (DoD) has been granted contractual power to significantly influence the content of the movie and how it is sold to the masses.

The DoD has lent extensive co-operation to Hollywood for over sixty years in exchange for the right to edit scripts with the principal aim of encouraging recruitment and retention of military personnel.However, in practice the Pentagon’s remit is more wide-ranging, as it frequently promotes its own – rather sanitised – version of US history and politics, as with its removal of a key character in Black Hawk Down (2002) who in real life had been convicted of raping a twelve-year-old boy; when it removed a joke about “losing Vietnam” in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies(1997); or when it cut images of US Marines pulling gold teeth from the mouths of dead Japanese soldiers in the WWII movie, Windtalkers (2002).The number of examples along these lines could – and indeed does – fill a book (David Robb’s Operation Hollywood: How Hollywood Shapes and Censors the Movies).

Censorship aside, Battleship is all about turning cinemagoers into sailors, and not since Top Gun (1986) has a movie been geared so brazenly toward naval recruitment. In a Battleship promotional featurette (also made with cooperation from the Navy), director Peter Berg says:

“I have a good relationship with the Department of Defense and they know that I love soldiers and I respect the warrior spirit of any soldier, anywhere in the world... As a result, they’ve opened up their doors to us in fairly unprecedented ways.”

The last time the DoD opened its doors to Hollywood in “unprecedented ways” was for the production of Transformers: Dark of the Moon. The end result was both UFOlogically fascinating and – unsurprisingly for a Hollywood-DoD collaboration – nauseatingly propagandist.

The Pentagon: Washington, D.C.

But back to Battleship. The fingerprints of Pentagon staffers can be found on almost every page of the movie’s threadbare script. In one of the earlier scenes, Alex tells a young boy curious about naval hardware: “battleships are great” but destroyers are “just awesome!” Throughout Battleship’s run-time, the entire process of combat – from preparation of weaponry and selection of targets, to the devastation the Navy inflicts upon its enemy – is techno-fetishised by Peter Berg’s leering camera. Indeed, the movie is jam-packed with phallic symbolism – I lost count of the number of lingering, close-up shots of long, wet, erect gun shafts shooting their load – and whoever chose to have AC/DC’s “Hard as a Rock” accompany our introduction to the destroyer USS Ronald Regan is either a comic genius or the real life Stan Smith from American Dad.

Even the process of physical rehabilitation is techno-fetishised in Battleship. Yes, that’s right, thanks to cutting-edge DoD rehabilitation technologies, never has there been a better time to be maimed in the armed forces. Enlist today and – providing you’re lucky enough to be injured in combat – you too can learn to walk again in super cool, futuristic simulated environments! You know, like you’re in Star Trek or something! You can have full use of indoor climbing-walls and work out in a shiny DoD gym! As if all of thatweren’t enough, you too can get fitted with awesome, terminator-style prosthetic legs (all the better for kicking alien ass with!) and learn to use them on guided strolls through the stunning Hawaiian countryside with your very own attractive female physician (Brooklyn Decker)!

Yet more evidence of DoD script “input” is evidenced in the immediate aftermath of the aliens’ first strike when a sailor shrieks: “It’s the North Koreans, I’m tellin’ ya!” Russia and China are also considered as possible culprits – the Pentagon never missing an opportunity to paint a target on those countries it considers a threat to national security. Similar ground was trodden in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, in which the U.S./Autobot alliance is seen busying itself by dispatching black-ops military teams around the world to assist in solving human problems, with “the world” being represented onscreen by “the Middle-East”, and “human problems” taking the form of an “illegal nuclear site” in Iran.

The aliens of Battleship

But the true enemy in Battleship is, of course, extraterrestrial in nature. And, in supporting this movie – by officially shaping and approving its content – the DoD implicitly supports the message that potential extraterrestrial life poses a grave threat to US national security. This is hardly surprising, though – after all, post 9/11, there’s almost nothing in all of creation that doesn’t pose a threat to US national security. To be clear, while aliens in Pentagon-backed movies undoubtedly do represent perceived terrestrial threats (North Korea, Iran, etc.), they are not merely cinematic allegories. As humanity now moves rapidly closer to answering the question: “Are we alone in the universe?” hawkish eyes at the Pentagon no doubt view the notion of open ET contact with considerable suspicion and concern (justified or not) – just as shareholders in the defense industry undoubtedly view it with glee. Without a perennial threat to national security, America’s multi-billion-dollar war machine is without purpose, without function. From the perspective of the military-industrial-complex, then, providing support to Hollywood’s UFO movies is as much about encouraging public fear of potential ET life as it is about drumming-up fear of human adversaries.

Face-off: Alex Hopper goes head-to-head with an alien soldier in Battleship (2012)

In keeping with previous Pentagon-backed UFO movies (such as War of the Worlds, the Transformersfranchise, Battle: Los Angeles, etc.), US military leaders as depicted in Battleshiphave no prior knowledge of ET visitation. This is to be expected: plotlines involving a pre-existing DoD cover-up of UFOs are a strict no-no for filmmakers wishing to gain Pentagon support – as Steven Spielberg learned in 1976 during the production of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).

Also notable in Battleshipis that the Secretary of Defense himself (here played by comedy actor Peter MacNicol) is a vaguely perplexed – almost bumbling – character content to take orders from military leadership and be yelled at and ignored  by naval admirals who don’t like his orders. In this sense, the US military – and the Navy specifically – is depicted as a relatively autonomous institution free to exercise its military might for any cause it deems righteous. The message to potential recruits is clear: the Navy is not a political institution – it’s just freakin’ cool!

Incredibly, in addition to DoD cooperation, Battleship also received support from “The Science & Entertainment Exchange’. Established in 2008, “The Exchange” is a program of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) that, according to its website, “connects entertainment industry professionals with top scientists and engineers to create a synergy between accurate science and engaging storylines in both film and TV programming.” The goal The Exchange is “to use the vehicle of popular entertainment media to deliver sometimes subtle, but nevertheless powerful, messages about science.” If the NAS’ message about science in Battleship is “extraterrestrials are invasive creatures to be avoided at all costs” then message received, loud and clear. As for the NAS’ goal of creating “a synergy between accurate science and engaging storylines”, that’s an epic fail.

Witness, for example, the movie’s aliens – a species that, despite having mastered interstellar travel, is still reliant upon 21st Century explosives (only marginally more advanced than our own) and cumbersome flying ‘machine-bombs’ to wage war. So, although in real life the US military has in its arsenal weaponized laser technologies, in Battleship the superior alien invaders do not. Even more bizarre is that, although we have long had the means to detect and image heat signatures of people and objects using infrared technologies (such as FLIR), again, apparently the aliens of Battleshipnever thought to develop their own gadgets along these lines; consequently, successfully evading them on foot is as simple as hiding behind the nearest bush or wall (seriously, this actually happens in the movie – on several occasions).

Battleship's aliens: fond of thrash metal

We learn very little about the aliens themselves, although, judging by their bald-headed, goateed visage, it would seem they’re big fans of thrash metal. As regards natural weaknesses, we are told the aliens are “sensitive to sunlight”, but this potentially interesting narrative device is quickly thrown to the wayside as the Navy soon realises the aliens are even more sensitive to its big-ass guns – just as the ill-prepared aliens in Battle: Los Angeles (2011) were sensitive to the Marines’ bazookas. If hostile aliens really do decide to invade one day, we can only hope they’re as technologically and strategically inept as Hollywood imagines them to be.

Of Battleship, Berg says proudly: “It’s been a long time since the world has seen what we do over here in America with our military and just how strong we are.” Thank goodness, then, that the actor-turned-director has stepped up to the plate with his new movie. For what better way to project American power than to kick some extraterrestrial heinie while flying the stars and stripes on the international stage?

As 2,796 words is 2,795 more than Battleship deserves, I’ll abandon ship now with a desperate appeal: please, Hollywood, shining beacon of creativity and wonder that you are, end your relationship with the military – creativity and destructivity do not a good marriage make. And while you’re at it, end your sordid affair with ‘that’ toy company. To date, working side-by-side, Hasbro and the DoD have assaulted us with two G.I. Joes, three Transformers and a Battleship. One shudders to think what might be next...

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