“Why so serious?”
This iconic question, delivered by the late Heath Ledger in his astonishing inhabitation of The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s smash super-hero epic, The Dark Knight, could aptly be posed to the new breed of “Summer Movies”.
There was once a time, before the days of Ipads, Twitter, and the Dorito-shelled taco, that films released in the summer were synonymous with terms like, “fun”, “cheesy”, and “light-hearted”. They didn’t reinvent the wheel, but they didn’t need to. Yeah sure, the dialogue was pretty corny, and the plot was more often than not ridiculous, and there was also no denying the whole formulaic, rote nature of the affair, but all this was acknowledged at the outset.
In films such as Top Gun, Speed, and Air Force One (just to cite a few examples), you knew you weren’t going to see the boundaries of cinema being pushed, but on a 96-degree day, without any air conditioning at home, these “popcorn flicks” were as refreshing as two scoops of delicious vanilla ice cream.
Then something happened. The 21st Century of Hype was ushered in and new rules were decreed throughout the land of Summer Cinema. No longer was it enough to have a few explosions (real explosions by the way, no cartoonish CGI), some comical one liners, and flawed heroes. No, now everything had to be a struggle of life and death, with absolute good battling it out with absolute evil in the most EPIC!!!! manner possible.
All of this, of course, mandates a lot of exposition about undertaking such a drastically heroic journey, whether it be why the sword of gimbledorf holds the answers to the understanding of the world, or why the key of hogsmere is the only artifact that can save existence from the impending blackness of the ravensguaard, but whatever the specifics, we end up listening to a lot of earnest talk about made up words that have no connection to the realm of reality whatsoever.
While some films have pulled off mixing fantastical settings and subject matter with stern tone and zealous dialogue (Nolan’s masterpiece The Dark Knight being the prime example), many more have failed. Franchise films such as the Transformers movies, the latter Pirates of the Caribbean movies, the latter Matrix movies, Tim Burton’s terrible take on Alice in Wonderland (which came out in March but made the box office of a summer movie), the Harry Potter series, and, as much as I hate to say it (and as much as you’re going to hate to hear it), to some extent, the Lord of the Rings series, were so inflated with their own egos, that they collapsed under the weight of their sense of self-importance. This trend of sanctimonious action flicks has become so odious over the past few years that the prime time of box office receipts, the summer movie season, has become something I dread instead of look forward to.
It’s with this mindset that I went into Peter Berg‘s Battleship, and when combined with the fact that the movie is based on a board game (that’s right, a board game, and an Adam Sandler-starring rendition of “Candyland” is next), I would estimate my expectations for the film to be equivalent to the elevation of Death Valley. It is much to my pleasant surprise then to report that, all in all, Battleship ain’t half bad. (I may start preparing for the 2012 “end of the world” scenario if I were you).
The story, if you must know, centers on one Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch), a slacker/loser who is more or less forced to sign up for the Navy by his brother (Alexander Skarsgard) after landing in jail attempting to steal a burrito from a convenience store in order to please a woman in a bar named Sam (Brooklyn Decker). Fast-forward a few years and Alex is a full-fledged member of the Navy, as well as the boyfriend of Sam, who happens to be the daughter of Admiral Shane (played with the typical bravado by Liam Neeson). After landing himself in trouble with the Admiral, Alex is sent on what is suppose to be a routine exercise. The excursion turns out to be anything but normal though when a group of extraterrestrials respond to a satellite message from NASA in an extremely hostile manner.
The film’s characters aren’t terribly original, but they’re all likable, and most importantly, human. No character is a shining beacon of light, or a sarcastic one-liner machine of wit. They have their strengths and weaknesses, but neither in such an unbalanced manner as to become grating. The film is also mercifully sparse on details about the motivation of the villainous alien horde. We don’t know why they’re set on destroying everything in sight, and we don’t care. It’s a refreshingly simplistic take on “the bad guys” that I wish more films would consider copying.
Of course, the film is chock full of action movie cliches. The dialogue is undeniably in the cheeseball territory (including twice cutting off after the word “mother-” to ensure a PG-13 rating), the film panders to the military crowd (especially to octogenarian veterans in a small twist towards the end that was a little much for me), and the obligatory use of AC/DC and Creedence Clearwater Revival in the soundtrack felt like someone forgot to turn off the default sound settings.
Overall though, I was relatively impressed with the screenplay fashioned by brothers Eric and Jon Hoeber. I can just imagine starring at the board game Battleship and saying, “Okay… a movie… a movie… how the hell am I suppose to make a movie out of a board game”. It’s not an award-winning script by any stretch of the imagination, but other writers have done much worse with a lot better source material than a board game.
Unfortunately, the film doesn’t totally shed itself of the grandiosity of its peers, especially in the area of run time. Going for about two-hours and fifteen minutes, the film throws one or two obstacles too many at its heroes. It also continues the trend of letting CGI do all the action work, and I’m sure a certain contingent will be angry at how humanistic the “aliens” look (they bear a strikingly curious resemblance to actor Ron Perlman), but comparatively speaking, the direction under Peter Berg is straightforward and unfussy. He utilizes a lot of quick cuts and some slow-motion, but he manages to restrain himself from too many unnecessarily complicated shots that serve no purpose other than to build up a director’s ego (cough*Michael Bay*cough).
Well, what can I say. I’m as surprised to be in this position as anyone, but here I am, giving Battleship a positive review. I’ll be honest with you, if I wasn’t writing for this site and taking part in its podcast, I would have never seen this movie, but, while it certainly is not a must-see, if you want to burn a few hours to escape the scorching summer sun, you could do much worse, and have a lot less fun, than seeing Battleship.