Game vs. Watch – Battleship

Hollywood has a long history of awkwardly turning video games into movies. In Game vs. Watch, Tyler reviews these feature adaptations, as well as examining the development history behind them.

The Game

Battleship (Milton Bradley, 1967)

Two players, sitting across from one another with a visual shield in between, place ships on a grid. The players then take turns firing “missiles” (plastic pegs) onto specific squares on the grid, hoping to sink the other player’s fleet first.

Although Milton Bradley introduced the “board game” version (as well as a number of electronic variants), the game dates back to the 1930s and was originally played with pencil and paper.

That's right, ladies: this is a man's game.

That’s right, ladies: this is a man’s game.

The Movie

Battleship (Universal Pictures, 2011)

A signal beamed to a distant planet bearing characteristics similar to Earth has an unexpected payoff when a race of hostile aliens pay humanity a visit. One of the locations they drop in on is a Navy training mission in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, where rebellious lieutenant Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) is just hours away from being dishonorably discharged. The aliens generate a shield over a section of the ocean that contains three ships, two from the US and one Japanese, while the rest of the fleet waits just outside, unable to penetrate the aliens’ defenses. When normal attacks prove catastrophic, Hopper and the rest of the crew must adopt a more tactical approach to shooing away Earth’s unwanted houseguests.

The Results

It might have been an original flop, but Clue has become a major cult classic.

It might have been an original flop, but Clue has become a major cult classic.

In 1985, Paramount Pictures released Clue, a movie based on the popular Parker Brothers board game. Armed with a “multiple endings” gambit that the studio was sure meant people would see the film at least three times, they even started developing movies based on Monopoly (which would’ve been a “Fawlty Towers”-like comedy about rival hotel managers) and Sorry! (???). Unfortunately, audiences opted to see Clue zero times, and plans for other board game adaptations were quickly scrapped. It’s a shame because Clue is actually a fun film, playing around with its premise and making great use of a sharp script and a talented cast.

Jump forward to 2007, when Paramount/DreamWorks’ first Transformers film notched a massive $709 million at the worldwide box office. Hasbro became the next big thing after comic books and video games for studios to mine for future movies. Unfortunately for them, Paramount had already snapped up the rights to the most obvious property, G.I. Joe, leaving rival studios scrambling to look at the toy company’s other options.

With Transformers a smash, Hasbro was in a position of power. Development of the G.I. Joe film had begun in 1994, 15 years before the movie would actually reach theaters, and they didn’t want to be trapped in a similar purgatory. In February 2008, Universal signed a six-year deal with Hasbro to adapt a number of properties, including Ouija, Candyland, Stretch Armstrong and Battleship. The penalties for reneging on the deal were extreme: a $5m penalty for each film Universal was slow to develop or canned.

Just over a year later, Universal had an exceptionally underwhelming summer, releasing a string of flops that included Drag Me to HellBrunoLand of the LostPublic Enemies and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Faced with a bunch of movies that weren’t ready to go, they took a gamble: OuijaCandyland, and Stretch Armstrong were all shuttled off to different companies (the projects respectively garnered Michael Bay as a producer, and Adam Sandler and Taylor Lautner as potential stars), and they greenlit a $200m adaptation of Battleship, which they hoped would cover the $15m loss by becoming a surprise smash.

Peter Berg, director of the Jamie Foxx/Jennifer Garner military thriller The Kingdom, was hired to direct, with the provision that the studio would also front Berg’s low-budget passion project, an adaptation of the book Lone Survivor. With a director in hand and a 2012 deadline to meet (part of Universal’s concession deal with Hasbro to dump the other movies), the picture went into production in Hawaii in 2011.

The similarities between Battleship and Transformers are a little disconcerting, right down to the taglines.

The similarities between Battleship and Transformers are a little disconcerting, right down to the taglines.

Looking at the finished movie, it seems that Berg had a single note from Universal on the project: make Transformers. Although Berg brings his own passion for the armed forces to the table, every creative choice on the picture seems designed to ape Hasbro’s cash cow and the distinct style of Michael Bay, the director in charge of them.

When the satellite project, Beacon, is shown transmitting their signal to the mysterious, Earth-like Planet G in the movie’s prologue, a diagram won’t suffice. Instead, Berg serves up a massive CG tracking shot of a CG laser flying up into space to meet an elaborate satellite, which then blasts the signal off into the sky, complete with ridiculous sound effects and tense “action” music. Later, when the aliens arrive, they appear in ships that appear smooth in some areas but open to reveal masses of pointy spikes and gears, much like the Decepticons. Berg also lays on the teal and orange, dividing the screen between tanned faces, gray boats and the blue-green Pacific Ocean.

However, while Berg expertly mimics Bay’s bombast, he lacks the demanding director’s abrasiveness. Although it can be argued that Bay’s nearly nihilistic misanthropy is part of the package (Bad Boys II‘s utter disregard for everything and everyone is part of what makes it compulsively watchable), Berg tones Battleship‘s action down from a aggressive assault of flying robot bits and makes good use of his charismatic cast.

Poor Taylor Kitsch, would-be Hollywood megastar.

Our protagonist, Alex Hopper, isn’t perfect (more on this below), but Kitsch is a perfect fit for the material. Although audiences have sadly been less than receptive to his multiple attempts to launch a franchise (Kitsch also starred in Disney’s ill-fated John Carter), he’s got everything a viewer could want in a male hero: he’s handsome without looking unreal or generic, good with comedy (his introductory scene calls on him to perform a fictional recreation of a botched convenience store break-in that went viral, then get tased in an attempt to deliver a chicken burrito to his character’s future girlfriend) and, most importantly, he’s got a rebellious charm, allowing the audience to like him even when the script fumbles the ball.

Berg’s casting instincts are strong across the board. Support includes Alexander Skarsgård as Alex’s disapproving older brother Stone; Brooklyn Decker as Samantha Shane, aforementioned burrito lover and Navy rehabilitation therapist; Tadanobu Asano as Captain Nagata, who ends up butting heads with Alex; Hamish Linklater as Cal Zapata, a scientist working on Hawaii where the Beacon satellites are located; and Liam Neeson as Admiral Terrance Shane, who oversees both Alex and Stone, and is also Sam’s father. Friday Night Lights alum Jesse Plemons and pop star Rihanna also have notable supporting roles, and real-life Army colonel and dual-leg amputee Gregory D. Gadson plays Lieutenant Colonel Mick Canales, Sam’s current patient.

Battleship

Brooklyn Decker and Gregory Gadson make themselves reasonably useful in a concurrent storyline.

It’d be overstating it to say anyone gives a “great” performance, but part of an action movie like Battleship is knowing how and when to make a mark amid expensive special effects. The whole cast navigates the minefield, allowing the characters to be distinct, and their intertwining story arcs carry the film along nicely.

At a full-house screening of Cowboys and Aliens—a movie where cowboys fight aliens, mind you—the first teaser for Battleship received one of the most incredulous reactions I’ve ever heard, a mixture of howling laughter, stunned silence and angry jeers. I was among those howling, but having seen the movie, it’s more of a shame that Universal’s marketing didn’t (or couldn’t) find a way to embrace that reaction.

Berg doesn’t shy away from the silliness of the film’s premise, using it to help fuel the film’s popcorn movie sense of fun. The aliens’ missiles are shaped like the board game’s famous pegs, slamming into the decks of ships and sticking just like the “real” thing. The film’s primary sequences in which Hopper’s ship is firing blind is actually funny and exciting, finding the right tone for characters yelling out numbers on a grid. Because Berg wisely never condescends to the audience by trying to make a mountain out of a molehill, it’s easy to embrace the vibe Battleship aims for. The one serious sentiment Berg injects into the movie is his respect for the military, but even this is filtered through the film’s ludicrous premise.

Battleship

Yes, those are the alien missiles. Yes, they are the pegs from the board game. Yes, it’s supposed to be funny.

The film’s primary miscalculations are mostly minor, such as the dumb-looking alien design, but one stands out above the others. Alex is a hothead, often acting on impulse and struggling to respect authority. It’s a classic character type, but Alex’s big lesson comes in the form of the first attack on the aliens, which is disastrous. It would be one thing if Alex’s poor judgment led to some casualties on his own ship, but one of his decisions forces the Japanese ship to respond, resulting in the ship being destroyed and most of its crew killed. Even leaving aside the questionable decision to kill Japanese soldiers to motivate the film’s white hero, the mere fact that Alex’s poor choices have an indirect result on an unrelated ship feels like a tonal misstep.

The audience I was a member of that flipped out seeing Battleship‘s teaser trailer was, unfortunately for Universal, a preview of the film’s American box office performance, where it crawled to a paltry $65 million (less than the opening weekends of Bay’s first three Transformers films). Overseas, it did much better, bringing its total gross to a less painful $303 million, but that total still lines up poorly with the film’s $209 million production budget (plus an untold number of marketing dollars).

Battleship

Sorry to say that, although there is a reference, nobody, including Tadanobu Asano, says, “You sunk my battleship.”

Somewhat ironically, the big financial success for the studio arrived in fulfilling their deal with Berg: the $40m concession picture Lone Survivor grossed $125m for Universal—one of the biggest sleeper hits of 2013. It’s a shame, because all things considered, Battleship is about as successful at doing what it sets out to do as one could reasonably expect from a film based on a board game—Clue all over again.




There are 27 comments

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  1. kate86

    I thought that Battleship was actually surprisingly good for what little plot the game provided! Ha. As for the Clue movie, I remember seeing that at a young age and being bored by it. I think maybe part of what made it bomb is that it was a little too advanced for its age group.

    • Tyler F.

      I’d actually say the age group for Clue is more 13-15-ish. The PG-13 rating was still in its infancy and applied to movies with more overt content, so the film is rated PG, but the casting of Tim Curry, Michael McKean, Christopher Lloyd, and Madeline Kahn translates as “hip” to me — reaching for the adult audience of Rocky Horror, Spinal Tap, “Taxi”, and Mel Brooks.

  2. blithespirit42

    Good or bad, I still need to watch this movie for two major reasons- my old stage combat teacher plays Neeson’s character’s assistant and I feel a need to support movies made in Hawaii. This the first time I’ve seen the movie compared to Clue, which I love, which tells me the kind of mindset I need to be in to watch it.

    • Tyler F.

      Oh, I don’t think the film is very similar to Clue stylistically or tonally. I mention it just as a film that relates to the history of board games as movies, and in that I don’t think it or Battleship were appreciated by the audiences at the time they were released.

  3. Drellius

    Battleship? I’ve never actually played it, but I’m aware of what the objective of the game is, and even though my knowledge is lacking, you guys managed to explain it quite thoroughly in just a couple of sentences. As for the movie, the idea seems a bit silly to me, but it’s still nice to see that the producer actually implemented some comedic value into it with the entire peg thing and all.

  4. zararian

    I am familiar with the Batteship movie but have not watched it. I think I would prefer to watch the movies than play the given games on here. I think I have played before the version using the pen and paper. 😀

  5. inkyuboz

    I only watched the Battleship movie because of Rihanna. Yes, that’s a bad reason for watching, but I was just curious as to how she will “act” in a movie about a boardgame. Sadly, this was not at all related to actual Battleship as it was a “Transformers” type of movie. I completely agree, CLUE is still *the* best boardgame movie tie-in EVER.

  6. Athertle

    Yep! Personally I really enjoyed the Battleship movie. It was one of those movies that had me thinking about it for a while. I actually like the Battleship board game myself! 🙂

  7. Colebra

    The Battleship movie is too painful to watch. The only good adaption of a game to cinema that I can recall was that new Lego movie…

  8. mercantile519

    I couldn’t imagine watching the battleship movie. I might have to do it one night when I’m really bored, just to say that I’ve seen it

  9. GoodReplays

    I felt like watching this movie before reading this article, but now I feel that I must watch this movie to see if it lives up to these standards. However, it may be tough since people in today’s society want to watch a different type of movie, usually one with all adrenaline rushes but no concrete plot or structure. Thanks for the info!

  10. JoeSomebody2

    The more I hear/see people talking about this film, the more I wonder if I should give it a shot. I’m a man of principle with films, and try to “vote” upon them with my dollars. Why I saw Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, but much good that did in the long run. Battleship isn’t the type off film I want to see, but popcorn films have their place, and this gives proper perspective to the point Battleship could still be potentially entertaining. Just like Transformers, though I try not to mention it in public too much. 😛

    Also, Canndyland and Stretch Armstrong? I am amused by this, though I don’t know if that means if I want to see the potential movie or not. And live action? I know they already made an animated straight to DVD film of Candyland, but live action? I’m having a hard time wondering how to conceive that. Then again, same with Battleship, but they managed to work it out: just make Transformers with an emphasis on naval battles. 😀

  11. Louriko

    Seems like a strange thing to turn into a movie, but hey, maybe there is money in it. Companies will try to sell anything. Interesting little snippets in the article. I think i’ll have to check out some videos now just to see how ridiculous they made this out to be.

  12. rimacrob

    I know, me neither. When I first heard about it a couple years ago, I thought it was a flat out joke. I get that Hollywood isn’t always high-concept, but this has had to have been one of their worst ideas. I’m curious to see it now, but I’m strained to think of another movie with seemingly such little plot.

  13. qadassa

    Ah! I remember the game Battleship, it was such a good and fun game, but that movie was sort of disappointing for me. I watched it, read some reviews, I agreed with some of em.

  14. SaraQ

    I have not played the game battleship but I have watched the movie and it was a pain to watch. You are also right that there are quite a lot of similarities between transformers and battleship however, i definitely liked transformers a whole lot better than battleship.

  15. healthandfitness

    I never played got into the game battleship, so it really was not hard for the movie to deliver more for me than what the game ever did.

    Maybe it was me, but I never got into the board game when I was younger.


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