Battleship (2012)

You Sank My Battleship!

I went to Battleship (Peter Berg, 2012) for one reason only, to see how a board game could be adapted into a successful action movie. As an adaptation critic, the translation of one object into something completely different has fascinated me my entire academic life. I once listened to a paper on adaptation in which my colleague Tom Leitch lamented that there were only a hundred films based on poems, while thousands based on toys. While I like poetry films quite a lot, I remember wondering why toy films, beyond the predispositions of English professors, would be a priori of lesser value. I am delighted to report that Battleship might be the Shakespearean sonnet of toy films.

I am most interested in questions of narrative theory. Having just completed teaching a course on short cinema, in which I instructed my students to be aware that all feature-length Hollywood films are merely a series of scene sequences (that is, short films) strung together. Battleship demonstrates this quite beautifully. The film begins with a pre-credits commercial in which a ne’er-do-well, Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) tries to pick up a beautiful woman (Samantha Shane, played by Brooklyn Decker) in a bar. When she indicates that she’d really like a chicken burrito, he finds that the kitchen is closed. He runs across the street to the convenience mart, only to have the door slammed in his face. Out of desperation, he breaks into the store via the roof, falling to the floor, setting off the alarm. As he runs with a freshly microwaved burrito, the police chase him, tasering him twice as he struggles to hand the fast food to his beloved. The sequence is immensely suspenseful, fun, and engaging, as befits its design, which would work both as a student festival film or a commercial for an actual brand of burrito.

The most fascinating adaptational scene sequence comes in the middle of Battleship, as the Navy attempts to seek and destroy the ships of alien invaders in the Pacific Ocean. In this brief five-minute stretch of the film, the simple game of Battleship is directly adapted. Using weather buoys, a U.S. warship must fire its missiles blind, hoping that the data on water displacement will allow them to intuit where the aliens are. As the seaman call out “E11,” the battle is engaged. It is an elegant sequence that takes a very dull game (from World War II, in 1943, a pencil and paper game, “Broadsides, a Game of Naval Strategy” to a 1967 Milton-Bradley board game, using white and red plastic pegs) into a riveting Hollywood action sequence featuring missiles and explosions.

The historicity of the game is, I think, the allegorical key to the film’s overall project. Once it has dispensed with adapting the board game, it engages in a reconstruction of American film politics to link 1943, the beginning of victory in the Pacific, to 1967, the beginning of the end in Vietnam. Battleship seems to rely on conventional political clichés: the scientists who summon the aliens via their telescopes almost doom the planet to destruction with their naiveté while the military figures are lionized to the point of hagiography.

But here’s where it gets interesting: since the U.S. Navy no longer uses battleships, the only naval vessel capable of combating the aliens is the mothballed U.S.S. Missouri. It happens that the surviving World War II veterans have been assembled to reunite on the ship. They thus join the current sailors in one last battle to save the U.S. from the newest threat. Joined by the Japanese navy, present because of friendly war games in the Pacific, this triumvirate unites to defeat the aliens. The film thus uses the frame of World War II, the last good war, fueled by the greatest generation, to rescue the present.

The film adapts the tropes of American cinema to use 1943 to skip across the devastation of 1967, to celebrate in the present a triumph of U.S. dominance. The film’s fantasy, thus, has less to do with aliens than it has to do with the fading glory of the United States, falsely blamed on Obama and socialism, rather than the true culprit, the collapse of the oil-based, Cold War economy.

This ideological work, as offensive as it may be politically, is truly engaging to watch. Adaptations of shorter works tend to suffer from desperate ploys to extend the material into a Hollywood feature. This has struck the Dr. Seuss movies most devastatingly: In How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the simple elegance of Geisel’s story is expanded into a dreadful Oedipalized back story in which the Grinch, in love with a Who, is traumatized shaving, and thus retreats from civilization to become the Christmas hater that we all know and love.

Battleship, instead, builds its allegorical history of the board game around the one brief sequence. In setting sail for the waters of 1950s science fiction, it is able to engage with larger questions of American history. The fact that the film proposes answers that resemble jingoistic movies such as Signs and Armageddon is of very little interest to me. I’d rather have the film give me something to think about amidst its explosions and action sequences. On that account, Battleship scores a direct hit.

– Walter Metz