Thursday, July 12, 2012

The sinking of Battleship

Peter Berg's alien invasion film Battleship is arguably the biggest failure of the 2012 summer movie season. As I write this, the film, which cost in excess of $200 million to produce, has grossed a paltry $65 million in the United States after having been in release for nearly two months. (A discussion of box office receipts is perhaps the only time I'll unironically use the word "paltry" when referring to tens of millions of dollars.) The overall critical reaction to the film was unsurprisingly savage, as it represents nearly everything serious film critics despise: it's big, it's dumb, it's loud and it's derivative. But let's be honest; critics rarely influence the moviegoing public, and I expected the film to do at least somewhat better business than it has. What I have found surprising is the largely ambivalent, even negative reaction to the film among moviegoers and internet commentators. Clearly, based on its box office returns, a lot of people simply chose not to see Battleship, and after reading a lot of what's been written about it, you would expect it to be one of the worst films ever made. But it isn't, not by a long shot. I saw it in a theater, and I have to say, it's not that bad. I thought it was perfectly enjoyable, and I certainly didn't walk out of the theater regretting having seen the film. (It may have helped matters somewhat that we saw it for free by using a gift card.) Although the plot was ridiculous to say the least, the acting was reasonably competent, the special effects were spectacularly well-done, and overall, I was honestly entertained more than I expected to be. I'm not going to expend any more words trying to defend the film (at least not in this paragraph), because on a certain level, it's indefensible. An obscene amount of money was spent to produce this film, but that's nothing out of the ordinary in today's Hollywood; it only becomes an issue when that money isn't recouped. The bottom line is, either you'll have fun with Battleship or you won't, but frankly, I'm mystified as to why it bombed so thoroughly, and I'd like to try and figure out why.

I'll bet they're feeling a bit inadequate

First of all, the argument that it tanked because it's a dumb movie is invalid. It's not like stupid movies haven't cleaned up at the box office in the past; just look at Michael Bay's Transformers series, which Battleship actually has a lot in common with. Both were developed by the toy company Hasbro based on their products, both feature robotic alien machinery that can reconfigure itself into different objects, and both are, well, stupid. That's where the similarities end, however. The three Transformers films (of which, full disclosure here, I've only seen the first), have grossed well over a billion dollars in the US alone. On the Rotten Tomatoes website, which tracks a film's popularity among both critics and audiences, Battleship receives a dismal 34% score from critics and doesn't fare much better with audiences, who score it at 56%. By contrast, the first Transformers movie scored 57% with critics and 89% with audiences. Why the huge difference? Is Transformers really a better movie? If you asked me, I'd say no. While I enjoyed the first film to a certain degree, it clearly didn't make me want to rush out and see the other two films upon their release. I haven't even bothered to rent them yet. Transformers is deafening, obnoxious and infantile to a much greater degree than Battleship, and personally, I find the star of the series, Shia LaBoeuf, to be irritating, much more so than Battleship star Taylor Kitsch. Speaking of Kitsch, he was also the lead in another huge 2012 flop, John Carter, leading some people to hypothesize that he's somehow box office poison. I think it's just bad luck on his part. No, despite the recent, massive success of a truly intelligent and thought-provoking sci-fi/action film like Christopher Nolan's Inception (or for that matter, his Batman films), the fact remains that dumb movies are as popular as ever (Twilight, anyone?).

"Get to the choppa! Wait, get away from the choppa!"

I suspect the fact that Battleship's lowly origin - it is, in fact, based on a board game - has a lot to do with its negative perception. Like a lot of people, I groaned inwardly when I first heard about it. Hollywood's well of inspiration has been pretty dry as of late; they've gone from remakes of foreign films to "reboots" of their own properties to movies based on TV shows and video games. Basing a film on a board game would seem to be the absolute nadir of creativity, and to a certain extent, it is. Countless jokes along the lines of, "What's next, Chutes and Ladders: The Movie?" were made when Battleship was first announced, and I laughed along with them. Speculation ran high as to whether or not someone in the film would utter the famous line, "You sank my battleship!" in a petulant tone, as seen in the TV commercials for the game. The fact is, however, that Battleship the movie has next to nothing to do with Battleship the game. This rather tenuous connection was nothing more than an attempt to align the film with a familiar and beloved product to boost its visibility, and in this case, it backfired horribly. When you strip all that away, however, what you're left with is an alien invasion flick that has far more in common with other films of its ilk, such as Independence Day and War of the Worlds, than with any game. If Battleship had been called something else entirely and had not been promoted as an adaptation of a board game, it might have done better. This also might explain why it's done reasonably well outside the United States, pulling in over $200 million overseas. The connection with the game may have gone over the heads of non-US viewers who aren't familiar with it and therefore it avoided the negative connotations associated with that relationship.

A snazzy suit of alien armor
Ultimately, though, I think Battleship's failure was mainly the result of unfortunate timing. To see what I mean, you only have to go back two weeks in time from its opening date (May 18) and look at which movie premiered on that date: The Avengers. This admittedly superior film became an unstoppable box office juggernaut that simply left no room for an also-ran like Battleship. The Avengers has grossed nearly ten times as much as Battleship has. It's a better film, yes, but is it ten times better? With all due respect to Joss Whedon and crew, of course not, but that's not really a valid comparison anyway. Any sci-fi/action film that went head to head with The Avengers would have had its work cut out for it, and Battleship just wasn't up to the task. What I don't quite understand is why Battleship didn't benefit more from spill-over business from The Avengers. I'm sure a lot of people who wanted to see The Avengers were turned away due to sold out shows, and I would have expected a healthy percentage of those people to have elected to see Battleship as an alternative. I guess they either walked away or bought tickets to a later showing of The Avengers instead. Of course, it's also possible that Battleship only made as much money as it did because of the patronage of those disappointed moviegoers. I suppose the studio could have played up the patriotic aspect of the film a bit more (it features real-life war veterans in both small and leading roles), seeing as how it opened around Memorial Day, but that probably wouldn't have helped much. In retrospect, if they had waited until July 4th to release the film, things might have worked out slightly better, although they would still have been competing with The Amazing Spiderman and then, two weeks later, The Dark Knight Rises.

Someone just read the reviews to Liam Neeson

We may never really know why Battleship failed so resoundingly. It's worth noting that the film does have its supporters (or at the very least, its apologists). I looked up Roger Ebert's review; while he dutifully points out all of the film's faults, he gives it two and a half stars, and he and I are on the same page about it being better than Transformers (yes, I just compared myself to Roger Ebert). Nick Pinkerton's amusingly witty review in The Village Voice is what ultimately made me decide to see the film; in particular, the last line of the review, which reads, "And when the F-14s came out for a triumphant flyover, I looked around the room to find the moron who was applauding only to realize that it was me." Finally, while searching the web for photos to accompany this post, I stumbled upon another blog post whose rather high-profile author saw Battleship back-to-back with The Avengers and ultimately found Battleship to be more satisfying. The blogger? Oliver Stone. It will be interesting to see if the film develops any sort of second life on home video (at the very least, as the subject of some sort of drinking game). I definitely think it's worth a repeat viewing, especially if you have a decent home theater system that can approximate the room-shaking quality of the theatrical experience, and it's highly likely that I'll rent it, or even buy it on Blu-ray, if the price is right (say, ten bucks or less). While I've found most of director Peter Berg's other films to be instantly forgettable, for once, he made one that I'd like to see again, and it bombed. I feel his pain.

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