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.
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.
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.
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 Hell, Bruno, Land of the Lost, Public Enemies and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Faced with a bunch of movies that weren’t ready to go, they took a gamble: Ouija, Candyland, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.