It’s easy to say that the sub-par performance of Battleship at the US box office this weekend ($25M domestic) was predictable. But I wouldn’t have stepped out on that limb.
To me, there was no qualitative difference between Battleship and Transformers — or Clash of the Titans or other bombastic summer spectacles. I actually had a lot more fun watching Battleship. Which is not to say it is any kind of example of storytelling or filmmaking to emulate.
But, having already made $215M at the foreign box office, the “lesson for Hollywood” about making movies based on board games is really a lesson for our domestic critics, who have yet to awaken to the new normal where Hollywood makes movies more for worldwide audiences than for hix in the homeland stix. These are the same critics that, a few months ago, unanimously reviewed the box office performance of John Carter rather than the film itself.
The MPAA claims that the US movie industry is the only industry that maintains a positive balance of trade in every other country. If that’s true, maybe the Hollywood movie industry has a perfectly good idea of what it’s doing.
On paper, Battleship is both laughable and profitable. A movie about navy ships fighting aliens based on a name brand that people recognize is about as sure-fire as it gets in this unpredictable industry. I thought the film did a fine job of working its way toward the inevitable launching of peg-shaped missiles at a grid. Yes, it’s silly. But it’s the whole rationale for the film.
In the meantime, the movie has some enjoyable elements. There is a warm relationship between two brothers (the ham Alexander Skarsgård and hammier Taylor Kitsch), a hilarious sequence where Kitch’s suffers multiple indignities to fetch a chicken burrito for “hot chick” Brooklyn Decker’s character. There is a real double-amputee (Gregory D. Gadson) playing an embittered Army soldier and some (real?) crusty Navy veterans who also join in the fight in a silly but heart-warming way. Screenwriters the Hoeber brothers layer the story with lots of laugh lines and ‘splosions.
During a multi-country naval exercise, Kitsch’s character (Alex Hopper), provokes the ire of Japanese commander Yugi Nagata (Tadanobu Asano). A fight with Nagata seems to scotch Hopper’s chances of marrying the daughter (Decker) of Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson with a hilariously bad American accent), and perhaps his naval career. Then, in the middle of the practice military exercises, aliens land and begin a plot-convenient attact that will lead to several action sequences.
The design of the alien crafts and tech is plenty cool. There are some Katamari Damacy-like balls of destruction, and the peg-shaped missiles are not as cheesy as I expected. The aliens themselves, however, are a textbook in how not to design creatures. They are the exact shape as humans, which makes them sympathetic, and wear the suits from Halo. Their faces are lionine but with lizard eyes, and the explanation of their blindness on earth is never fully developed.
Sometimes their scanners make them want to kill people, sometimes not. Sometimes they seem to react to sound only, sometimes not. Does the international audience — so wonderfully pandered to with the world naval exercise sequence — care? It seems not.
Director Peter Berg is also an actor, so I’m surprised the level of the acting was often wooden. I assume that Gadson and some of the other minor characters are non-actors. Skarsgård and Kitsch have no excuse. Rihanna and Jesse Plemons, as fellow crewmembers on Kitsch’s destroyer, fare better in my estimation.
Again, the money for this movie was not spent on a more consistent plot or a few more takes to achieve stronger performances. It went into shots of big ships doing shit that would make Michael Bay proud.
Audiences have a right to demand better. US audiences seem to have done so. We should congratulate them, but also understand the movie from the point of view of the producers. To justify a reported $300M budget, a movie has to have mass appeal. Not every filmmaker is James Cameron, and not every blockbuster will be Avatar. But Battleship has been out one week and has made, worldwide, $240M, even facing unqualified mega-hit The Avengers). A conservative multiplier of 2.2 times opening week box office, plus $100M in DVD sales and T.V. rights leads me to suspect Battleship didn’t sink or even run aground. Despite what you may have heard from some self-appointed coast guards.