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At the Movies

Battleship
Directed by Peter Berg
Reviewed by Malcolm Maclachlan and Tony Sheppard

Malcolm: If you were looking for a summer blockbuster idea, you could do a lot worse than “Tim Riggins versus the Aliens.” If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Riggins is the character that made “Battleship” star Taylor Kitsch famous, and who was also one of the main reasons “Friday Night Lights” was one of the most underrated shows (formerly) on television. As the brooding fullback with daddy issues, he lurched back and forth between self-destruction and acts of great moral courage. He was both brawler and dreamer, bully and mentor, and a ladies man who behaved with surprising honor at times. I used to joke that someone should make a “What Would Riggins Do (WWRD)” t-shirt—and then someone did (http://shop.cafepress.com/what-would-tim-riggins-do_).

In other words, he’s a quintessentially American hero, at least as we see ourselves—a bundle of glossed-over contradictions who pulls it all together when the challenge is finally big enough. The reason I bring this up is that Kitsch’s Alex Hopper here IS Tim Riggins, down to his DNA (as to a lesser extent was “John Carter,” in the actually quite entertaining movie of the same name).

Tony: Let’s not revisit “John Carter” – most people didn’t even visit once.  That was a fundamentally flawed movie with appalling marketing and a villain we weren’t ever introduced to – saved, apparently, for a sequel that will never be made. If not for the disastrous “LOL” starring Miley Cyrus, it would probably be the worst performing major release of the year.

Malcolm: Meanwhile “Battleship” is such a FNL rip-off that they also brought is Jessie Plemons to reprise wisecracking placekicker Landry Clarke as boatswain Jimmy Ord. Rihanna in to play Ord’s comic foil, a non-sexual version of Clarke’s interracial relationship that was a major plot point in season four of FNL. If Admiral Liam Neeson had just ended a speech with “Full hearts, clear minds, can’t lose,” the stars and stripes zeitgeist would have come full circle onto the watery gridiron.

Tony: I saw it as more of a “Pearl Harbor” with a side helping of “Predator” combo plate – which is to say that is has all of the shortcomings of “Pearl Harbor” and at least some of the coolness of “Predator.” Consider the fact that we find ourselves in the middle of a human versus alien battle, with destruction and death being rained down on all sides and the most carnage we ever see is somebody with a bloody face. It might actually be more sterile in its appearance than “Pearl Harbor” which is quite an accomplishment.

Malcolm: However, “Battleship” is a ton of fun and feels great. Toss in a U.S. versus Japan rivalry with a “the enemy of my enemy is actually a really cool dude” subplot and a heroic amputee veteran, and pretty soon all you’re missing is a pickup truck, some steelworkers and a side of fries. They even acknowledge that any Hasbro “Battleship” movie (yes, it really is) should have been about WWII by making it about WWII by the end, complete with some old salty dogs getting one last go.  

Tony: I would agree that it’s fun, despite its obviousness and shallow nature.  It’s also actually set in and around Hawaii with that America versus Japan rivalry you mentioned taking place in the real Pearl Harbor, albeit on a soccer field. And the Hasbro connection to the simple game of the same name is, sticking to toy analogies, a Stretch of Armstrong proportions.

Malcolm: Of course, like many movies in this genre, you could argue that America beats the aliens because the aliens are stupid. They can travel all the way here in four years in ships that can survive hitting the ocean at thousands of miles an hour (and where were the tsunamis?), but these same ships seems rather brittle when involved in actual combat. They have horrific weapons, but seem to lack the basics of guided missile technology. Despite the fact that they’re evil galactic marauders who treat us “like we treated the Indians,” they seem quite willing to let non-combatants live—even when the “noncombatants” are passively-for-now sitting on a fully-armed destroyer. Seems like they’d want to just exterminate everything in their zone of operations…never mind.

Tony: Yes – these ships can withstand atmospheric re-entry but they have tinted glass windshields that can be taken out with a well-placed bullet. They’re also aliens who are so remarkably humanesque that one assumes some kind of parallel evolutionary backstory, yet they have ships that bounce around on the surface of the ocean like a giant robotic mudskipper with poor motor controls. And that “like we treated the Indians” concept is the same idea that was completely buried in “Cowboys and Aliens,” where that movie failed to capitalize on the obvious fact that the cowboys were angry at the aliens for doing exactly what they themselves had done to the native population.

But the WWII analogies go further in that the aliens don’t so much appear stupid as arrogant – they seem to be more concerned with the presence of advanced machinery, in terms of being threats, than they are with the people operating said machinery. One of the downfalls of the German military was that they found it so inconceivable that anybody could ever crack their Enigma machine-generated codes that they became sloppy in their coding techniques. There’s a similar level of under-estimation here in that the aliens just don’t seem to consider the humans as being up to the task of killing them, let alone defeating them.

Malcolm: Which does bring up another highly-American subplot: they were inadvertently brought here by a SETI-type scientist using a beacon. The scientist (Hamish Linklater as Cal Zapata) does redeem himself, but it’s Riggins/Hopper as the untamed working class male who really saves the day. There’s a lot of ambivalence towards science here, as part of the plot involves our suddenly pressing need to blow up our deep space transmitters in a fit of Fortress Earth astro-isolationism.

Tony: Although this also provides an amusing “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” reference/joke as the aliens have lost their own communications ship and appear to be trying to “phone home” using the same beacons that attracted them in the first place. And it’s an interesting conundrum about the desire to contact alien civilizations as, if all we can do is send out a signal but they end up on our doorstep as a result, they’re quite obviously going to be significantly more capable than us in various ways.

Another aspect to the story has a certain “Black Hawk Down” vibe to it, in that we don’t know quite what the aliens’ original mission was but they’ve essentially crashed behind enemy lines and are trying to secure their lines of communication to arrange either retreat or reinforcement. They are also depicted with the same “no alien left behind” mindset.

Malcolm: Meanwhile, Riggins, the just-a-guy just trying to survive in the topsy-turvy economic world science has created, dips from lows of jail to highs of driving a destroyer (aren’t people going to Annapolis for the privilege of doing that?) to court martial to “Hey, I just saved the world.” At the end, my equally geeky best friend
remarked: “He redeemed himself through violence.” And how.

Tony: It really is an odd ride – for most of the movie, the combatants are trapped within a massive bubble that excludes the rest of the naval forces.  But it also excludes Liam Neeson, for example, who is almost just the straight guy in a couple of bookended scenes of comic awkwardness (he’s the Admiral of the fleet but he also happens to be the father of the screwup hero’s girlfriend). Which takes me back to “Pearl Harbor,” as “Battleship” has almost as many movie genres and references battling for a piece of the action. Ultimately, somehow, it defies all of the odds by being an escapist victory with both the hero and the film achieving a win via triumphs of low expectations.

Moviebriefs
By Tony Sheppard

“What to Expect When You’re Expecting”
Here’s a movie that tries really hard to be more than it is and then slips in its own burst water. This could have been nothing more than an airheaded romantic comedy involving multiple couple all with babies on the way – and if that’s all it was, it might have worked on that limited playing field. Instead, it tries to get serious in places by showing the riskier and uncomfortable downsides of pregnancy and childbirth – and then pulls its own punches by limiting the tragedy to fit within the boundaries of a lightweight date movie. There are certainly both funny and sad moments, but it ends up feeling like a project that undermined itself by never quite finding its own consistent tone and being too scared to plumb its own depths.

“The Dictator”
Sacha Baron Cohen looks like a one trick pony as yet another extremely foreign foreigner – this time as the brutal dictator of a small oil-rich nation that’s openly wanting to develop nuclear capabilities. That said, I actually enjoyed most of it more than his last couple of projects and it differs from them quite considerably. “The Dictator” is scripted and staged, rather than relying on awkward and improvised encounters with often unsuspecting victims and, as such, the extreme political incorrectness somehow manages to be less mean spirited. We’re laughing along with the script rather than laughing at poor saps caught in a trap of Cohen’s making. This is helped by a neat satirical script that avoids overstaying its own welcome and which appears to be poking fun at tinpot dictators but which is also pointed directly at ourselves.

“We Have a Pope”
In this odd little Italian movie, the traditional conclave of cardinals is called to select a new Pope, following the death of the last incumbent. The scenes within the conclave itself are typical of the humor within the film as a whole, with no broad comedy but rather recurring comedic circumstances – such as the cardinals sneaking peaks at each other’s picks, like geriatric schoolboys in an algebra popquiz, or their shared silent prayers (“dear god please don’t pick me”). But the basic premise revolves around the idea of what might happen if a Pope is selected and immediately fails to perform, in this case because he has a panic attack or a depressive bout of self-doubt that renders him incapable of moving forward with his duties. It’s an interesting concept that loses its way a little towards the end but which still delivers some choice moments – like the introduction of a psychoanalyst who doesn’t believe in god to a room full of cardinals who don’t believe in psychoanalysis.


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