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 the band by the rockumentary’s fictional director Marty DiBergi (played by Reiner), is for their album Shark Sandwich and consists of just two words: “Shit sandwich.”
With this in mind, a carefully considered review of Peter Berg’s latest directorial effort, Battleship, writes itself: “Battleshit.” 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 stain, but also to take it to task for the vile propaganda it is. This might seem like disproportionately harsh language for what many will defend as a “harmless popcorn movie,” but the point is, while Battleship may be popcorn fodder, its underlying purpose is to make cannon fodder of film-goers—quite literally. Battleship is an aggressively jingoistic, fear-mongering Pentagon-backed military recruitment campaign that shamelessly targets the most disillusioned of America’s youth while it revels in fetishizing the hardware of war.
In December 2011, Berg, a talented actor and occasionally inspired director (film and TV versions of Friday Night Lights), shared with journalists in Santa Monica the details of Battleship’s elaborate cinematic conception: “I went and talked to the guys at Hasbro,” he said. “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 this two-hundred-million-dollar movie got greenlit. 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?
Technically, Battleship does have something resembling a plot, albeit one so weak that the word “plot” must, out of respect for real plots everywhere, remain in quotes throughout this review. The opening moments of the movie are set in 2005 when NASA—represented here by a smug, weaselly British scientist and a more attractive, wisecracking American one—transmit a signal to a nearby star system referred to only as Gliese in the hope of contacting intelligent extraterrestrial life. The signal is sent and NASA gives itself a hearty pat on the back.
Meanwhile, in a nondescript, grimy 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 U.S. Navy. Can Stone help his brother realize his true potential, win the heart of his dream girl and become a worthy American citizen? You bet your Top Gun shades he can! “It’s time for a new course of action!” Stone hollers into 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 Lieutenant Alex Hopper (obviously a quick learner) 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 in a long-term relationship with the burrito girl, Samantha (Brooklyn Decker, who also co-stars in another disappointing release this weekend, What to Expect When You’re Expecting), 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).
Before Alex has a chance to seek the admiral’s approval, 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 destroyers Sampson and John Paul Jones promptly break off from international war games to investigate. How the rest of the “plot” unfolds is entirely predictable, not to mention dubious: Maritime battle mayhem ensues within the confines of a large force-field that was erected by the aliens to protect their craft from human attack, but actually seals inside it the aforementioned destroyers, as well as the Japanese vessel, Myōkō. Although Sampson and Myōkō are obliterated by the aliens, slacker-turned-hero Alex Hopper and 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—and here I feel obligated to issue a spoiler alert for those actually following the “plot”—a mustachioed troupe of crusty WWII veterans hobbles in to save the day with their trusty battleship to serve their country once more in its hour of need.
It is important to note here that Battleship was produced with the full support of the Navy, which allowed the onscreen use of its coolest, shiniest hardware in exchange for the Department of Defense (DOD) being granted contractual power to significantly influence the content and marketing of the movie. The DOD has done this sort of thing before, lending cooperation to Hollywood for more than sixty years 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 sanitized version of U.S. 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; or when it excised a joke about “losing Vietnam” in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies (1997); or when it cut images of 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.)
The fingerprints of Pentagon staffers can be found on almost every page of Battleship’s thin 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 the film’s run-time, the process of combat, from preparation of weaponry and selection of targets, to the devastation the Navy inflicts upon its enemy, is techno-fetishized by Peter Berg’s leering direction. 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 Reagan is either a comic genius or the real life Stan Smith from Seth MacFarlane’s American Dad.
The film even perverts the process of physical rehabilitation. 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 might even get fitted with awesome, Terminator-style prosthetic legs (all the better for kicking alien ass!) and learn to use them on guided strolls through the stunning Hawaiian countryside with your very own attractive female physician (Decker)!
In addition to DOD cooperation, Battleship also received support from the Science & Entertainment Exchange, a program of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), whose goal, according to its website, is “to use the vehicle of popular entertainment media to deliver sometimes subtle, but nevertheless powerful, messages about science.” If the NAS’s subtle 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 goal of bringing accurate science to filmed entertainment, 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 and cumbersome flying “machine-bombs” to wage war. So, although in real life the U.S. 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, apparently the aliens of Battleship never 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 (this actually happens in the movie repeatedly).
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 realizes the aliens are even more sensitive to its big-ass guns. 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 into the breach. For what better way to project American power than to inflict military might on a new species while flying the stars and stripes on the international stage?
I’ll abandon ship now with a last, desperate appeal: Please, Hollywood, shining beacon of creativity and wonder that you are, end your relationship with the military—creativity and annihilation do not a good marriage make. And while you’re at it, abandon your sordid affair with the toy companies. 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…
This review originally appeared on the Silver Screen Saucers website.