You’ll Never Sink My Love of Battleship

There exists no convincing argument that movies should never be based on board games, because Clue exists, and therefore disproves any such argument. That said, the game of Battleship is a categorically stupid idea for a movie. Battleship is basically bingo with a bit of deductive strategy and no wacky prizes at the end. People in movies cannot sit around yelling YOU SUNK MY BATTLESHIP at each other, a fact which must have been clear to the people behind Battleship. Despite its dubious source material, Battleship is the one of the greatest dumb action movies of the early twenty-teens. Writers Jon and Erich Hoeber and director Peter Berg clearly took their Hasbro/Universal paychecks, gave the game a serious side-eye, and opted to keep just a few elements: big honkin’ battleships, cylindrical missile things, and goofy coordinates.

Everything else is newly made-up big dumb action movie gold.

It is important to note that I mean “dumb” in this context not as a pejorative but a descriptor. There are also smart action movies (for example, Mad Max: Fury Road). Dumb action movies don’t need to try too hard, or even really make sense, outside their own established universe. They don’t need to have timely resonance or deeply human characters—though they can! Mostly they need shit to blow up real good, base their blowing-up on a workmanlike framework of plot, and have an amusing character or three to run through it all while wearing an awed/angry/grateful expression. Personally, I would also prefer that a dumb action movie not insult my existence as a woman, though on occasion I cannot be bothered. The Losers is a good dumb action movie. So are all the Fast and/or Furious movies, though their level of dumb varies greatly. So is basically anything with Jason Statham, the patron saint of big dumb action movies.

But few movies are as simultaneously wonderful and dumb as Battleship, which is, in a very slight big dumb action movie way, a little bit subversive. Yes, it has a very pretty, hardheaded, relatively attractively frowny white guy as its lead, but it introduces him via a misguided quest for a chicken burrito and then spends the rest of the movie illustrating the many ways in which we are all doomed if he cannot take a breath and listen to other people. And fast. Battleship is two hours of exploding boats and alien frog-ship-things and some solid infrastructure damage for good measure, but it’s also two hours of international cooperation and heroics—from people who are not often the big damn heroes.

Maybe you have questions. Why are there aliens? Why do aliens attack Hawaii? Why do aliens always look kind of buglike and have spinny death machines? These questions can be answered, but they nearly miss the point. The point is that there is a day and it needs to be saved and I could hardly ask for better dumb action movie moments that the ones that happen on the way to saving it:

1. If you give me five minutes, I will get you your chicken burrito.

Is there a better way to illustrate that your would-be hero is nothing of the sort than by having him obsessively try to fetch a chicken burrito for a girl he doesn’t even know? There is not. This is the height of accomplishment to which long-haired, beer-swilling Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) aspires: to provide Sam (Brooklyn Decker) with a microwaved chicken burrito, the truest gesture of love and/or lust.

2. You messed up my job, so come work with me!

The girl Alex was trying to impress with a burrito was a Navy admiral’s daughter; Alex’s even-prettier brother, whose name, and I am not kidding about this, is Stone Hopper (Alexander Skarsgard), is in the Navy. How dare Alex sully his ridiculous name? The only cure for this situation is obviously for layabout Alex to join the Navy as well. It will ground him. Like a stone. “Who do I call to teach you humility? I’m sorry, I don’t have that number,” is an actual line that Alexander Skarsgard intones with complete conviction.

I’m kind of jealous that someone got paid to write this script, honestly.

3. Sports!

Flash forward to a time when Alex has become modestly mature and newly short-haired under the influence of the Navy (the Navy likes this movie and let the filmmakers use their ships and film their planes and things). It’s time for RIMPAC, which is an international war-games shindig that also involves a very important soccer game. Still-hotheaded Alex is not wise enough to know that when one has been kicked in the face, one should perhaps sit down for a moment; as a result his Navy soccer team loses this very important game to the Japanese team. Sam likes him anyway, and would like him to ask her Navy admiral father (Liam Neeson, the father of all young blonde women in movies of this era) for permission to marry her. This obviously goes very well, especially after Alex gets into a fight with his new Japanese rival. Alex does not ask permission or have conversations, see. He just throws himself in there. It’s meaningful.

4. Wargames! I mean, whoops, aliens!

The Japan vs. U! S! A! rivalry having been established, a surprise third player joins the board: ALIENS! (Some scientists up on a hill saw this coming, because where there are aliens, there are always scientists, who are inevitably a little bit too slow.) The aliens have fancy technology that they use to (a) blow up Alex’s prettier brother and (b) make a big impenetrable dome over Hawaii and the adjoining sea. Most of the fleets of the world are rendered powerless, as they are outside this oceanic toddler gate. Alex, Stone, and the Japanese captain, Nagata (Tadanobu Asano), are all in the dome, with their ships and crew… until they piss off the aliens, which, naturally, blow up all but one of the ships. This all falls under the “make shit go boom real good” requirement of a big dumb action movie and it does the job quite well. It also renders Alex the most senior surviving officer, so he will have to step up his nonexistent leadership game and learn to cooperate with Nagata, who is clearly more advanced at this leadership stuff, but it’s not his country’s boat, so he can’t be captain. I guess.

5. People make terrible decisions in times of stress!

These decisions, on the part of one Alex Hopper, include: touching a giant alien thing that’s towering out of the sea; trying to shoot a relatively small gun at a giant alien thing; desiring to ram said alien thing with his boat, thereby killing everyone who’s not already dead and dooming the sailors who are already in the water; and pulling the helmet off an alien his crew has fished out of the water. “I kept telling them no!” says the nervous subordinate (Jesse Plemons) whose name no one remembers because once Landry from Friday Night Lights, always Landry from Friday Night Lights. (His name here is Ordy.)

6. Some Battleship stuff happens, like in the game!

They get the coordinates part out of the way in a way that Berg plays for every last iota of tension; it involves tsunami buoys, water displacement, and the delicious scorn on Nagata’s face when Hopper references The Art of War. “That book is Chinese,” the Japanese captain says, cuttingly. It would be a stretch to say the buoy stuff sounds smart, exactly, but it does grant us many shots of Rihanna, her finger on the trigger, looking very intense and competent.

7. RIHANNA!

If you watch this movie for no other reason, you should watch it for the scene in which Rihanna controls a very large gun and says “Mahalo, motherfucker!” while using the very large gun to destroy a very large alien, except she doesn’t really say it with an exclamation point because Rihanna is too far cool for exclamation points, even when she is playing a petty officer in a big dumb action movie. She lurks around the edges, being a snarky observer and occasionally trying to goad Ordy into trouble and/or saving his life. There’s a frenemy buddy road trip with these two just waiting to be made.

8. Let the blonde woman drive!

What made me grin like an idiot the first time I watched Battleship was the growing realization that the writers, consciously or not, flipped a lot of action character tropes on their head. There are two practical, skilled women, which is a lot for a big dumb action movie, and neither of them die or even need to be rescued! One of them kills aliens and the other can drive! The Japanese characters are not the enemy unless you are a cocky jerkface, and they are vital to saving the day! Also vital to saving the day: the vets of the USS Missouri, who show the young folks how old men and old tech can be badass; and Mick (Gregory D. Gadson), an injured veteran who is still getting used to his new legs and is excellent in a crisis. Even a socially inept scientist can do a good thing every now and again, especially if he is convincingly played by Hamish Linklater.

You can get away with a lot of plot stupidity in your dumb action movie if you do something interesting or different or just ever so slightly clever with your characters. Battleship has crazypants action moments as nearly incoherent as something out of a Transformers movie (WHEE THING GOES SPIN CAUSES DESTRUCTION), but I’ll watch Battleship over and over again—and I cry with laughter every time I see a Transformers preview.

The difference is entirely in the characters. There’s no call for more action movies that focus entirely on the likes of a surly Shia LaBeouf or even a nicely cheekboned Josh Duhamel as blandly emotionally distant men with steely gazes and no notable personality traits. Battleship puts one of those guys at the center, but steadily, consistently, and enjoyably shapes him into not a hero, but a leader. You can, if you wish—and I do wish—view it as a cautionary tale about cocky, overconfident white guys who will be the downfall of us all if they don’t learn to consider other perspectives. The things that keep Alex and his crew alive come from everyone else, until, by the end, he’s gotten enough info to make a smart decision of his own. Ordy tells him how the alien helmets are just complicated sunglasses. Nagata explains the buoys. Rihanna tells him not to touch the giant alien structure and basically reads his mind at least once. Another officer, Beast (John Tui), tells him there are men in the water that will not be saved if he charges off on the attack. With the help of Mick and the awkward scientist, Sam tells Alex how to save the day, even though it might mean blowing up a hilltop with her on it. Alex’s job isn’t to know everything; it’s to put everything together and lean on the strengths of the people around him.

Some people identify with the one guy who’s going to save the day all alone, but for me, it’s teamwork. It’s Buffy and the Scooby gang, a hundred times better together than Buffy on her own; it’s Supergirl with the DEO rather than without them; it’s the Green Arrow grudgingly accepting that he can’t do everything on his own. It’s the end of The Martian, when so many people have to do so many things just right, and at just the right time. Battleship isn’t as smart as any of these things, but it doesn’t pretend to be smart. It’s full of goofy dialogue and explosions, like a good dumb action movie should be. But by the time the end rolls around, and the decommissioned Missouri is being kicked into fighting gear to the tune of AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck,” and Alex’s brother is dead but he’s still trying to do the right thing—by that time, Battleship has succeeded at two things. It turned a fairly basic game into a perfectly serviceable action film, and then it leveled itself up by making a game about destruction into a movie about cooperation.

Alex Hopper is still kind of an idiot who doesn’t understand The Art of War. But that’s ok. One kind of understanding at a time.

This article was originally published in May 2017.

Molly Templeton is Tor.com’s publicity coordinator. She also writes about movies for the Eugene Weekly, and talks about a lot of things on Twitter and elsewhere on the internet.

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