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Seapower in Culture: Battleship

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Wikipedia: Creative Commons

So, a few weeks ago I saw Battleship at a Monday matinee.  Surprisingly, there were eight other people in the audience.

Plot and Execution

Ne’er do well is given reason to live by attractive woman; at brother’s advice joins Navy. Aliens invade, hijinks ensue. Battleship Missouri is put back into service in A-Team style montage, defeats aliens with assist from F/A-18 Super Hornets. All is well.

Yes, that’s more or less it. There are also some Japanese. Peter Berg directed a script written (to be generous) by Erich and Jon Hoeber. Reportedly, Berg agreed to the project in order to win studio support for Lone Survivor.

Remarkably, foor a film that culminates in a World War II era battleship engaging in combat against aliens, the least believable part involved the notion that Alexander Skarsgard and Taylor Kitsch could conceivably be brothers. Along with Liam Neeson and Rihanna, a pleasant selection of B level TV personalities filled out the cast, including Landry from Friday Night Lights (itself a Peter Berg creation) and Turtle from Entourage.

Berg isn’t a hack, and has a good sense of the history of cinema; Battleship included nods to such maritime classics as Gray Lady Down and Titanic. In terms of action, it bears mention that Berg can handle big, technically impressive action scenes with considerably greater skill than Michael Bay. At no point did I become confused as to which side was which. He certainly allowed himself to slip into Bay-esque nonsense at a few points, including the extended opening sequence and most any interaction that involved Brooklyn Decker. The alien “peg” technology was also reasonably clever, even if it made no sense whatsoever.

The appearance of USS Missouri in the finale reminded me of nothing so much as the dogfight between Zeros and Tomcats in Final Countdown. I was mildly surprised to read that Missouri could conceivably be restored to service, although I suspect it would take a good deal longer than 15-20 minutes (in an empty Pearl Harbor) to get the battleship operational. I also wonder whether 16″ shells and bags of gunpowder are regularly stored aboard ship, but then that’s nitpicking. That 16″ shell that a handful of crew moved from one end of Missouri to the other would have been fully 1900#, by the way.

Theory of Seapower

Battleship has no noticeable theory of seapower, apart from the observation that warships might be useful if aliens landed near the Hawaiian Islands and lost their communication equipment en route. Oh, and also that extremely advanced military organizations (such as those presumably maintained by aliens) should invest in elementary reconnaissance and detection technology. Here are some additional thoughts.

Broader Observations

The biggest disappointment of Battleship (which we were aware of well before the film hit the screen), was the need to craft a scenario involving combat against space aliens, rather than against a terrestrial opponent. News of this decision emerged early in the production cycle, to the derisive howls of those with an interest in maritime affairs. Battleship is, after all, a symmetrical game. Each side has an identical fleet of five ships, based broadly on the major ship types of World War II. The game would work just as well if it were titled “Jutland” and the aircraft carrier became a Super Dreadnought, the battleship a battle cruiser, and so forth. Given the expectation of symmetrical fleets, any Battleship movie would invariably abstract from both history and the game; if you want to make a movie about Midway or Philippine Sea or Jutland, you call that movie Midway or Philippine Sea or Jutland, rather than Battleship. Nevertheless, the prospect of a film depicting naval combat between the United States and China would have been considerably more interesting than another iteration in the Effects Filled Alien Invasion genre (maritime edition). To be sure, the political difficulties associated with the making of Tora Tora Tora, for example, would undoubtedly emerge in the context of trying to produce any major film about a war between the United States and China.

But Hollywood popcorn films now depend on foreign receipts for financial success. That Rocky IV or Red Dawn wouldn’t make it past the Soviet censors (and might not play well with the Soviet public in any case) was irrelevant in the 1980s. Today, it is very difficult to imagine a film with a US-China war plot that would not offend one audience or the other (not to mention the Chinese censors), and so we get such nonsense as a Red Dawn with North Korean antagonists.

Then again, films depicting direct conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union were relatively rare, even in the Cold War. In part this was surely because the cost of plausibly depicting modern combat with the cinematic technology of the second half of the twentieth century remained prohibitively high; however, there also appeared to be a degree of reticence about pitting the US and the USSR against each other, such that films like Red Dawn somehow felt like violations of a taboo. Even Top Gun relied on Soviet surrogates, as if the Libyans would be granted access to the most recent, sophisticated equipment that the USSR had to offer. To be sure, Cold War cinema relied heavily on the persistence of tension with the Soviet Union; many spy flicks used this tension to excellent effect, and the Cold War had a broader effect on how cinema depicted American life.
Conclusion

There’s just not much here. It’s a maritime film insofar as it happens to occur at sea; it was made because the studio was concerned about losing the rights (which would have been a major tragedy, given how much money the film lost). Battleship was not well suited for Hollywood. As an advertisement for seapower, it works rather less well than Final Countdown and isn’t even in the same league as Top Gun.

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