Battleship is a movie that surprisingly very few people will see in theaters, having had the misfortune of coming out so soon after The Avengers titanic success. So this probably sounds crazy, but in my estimation it bests The Avengers in every category but fan-service: more action, genuinely fascinating antagonists, minimalist world-building in service of mystery, actual emotional arcs for characters, and a plot that actually coheres for more than five minutes at a time. I was very worried going in—enough to get drunk beforehand with two friends—but exited the movie genuinely elated at how good it had been.
One of the things Battleship does strangely well—better than any other film of its kind—is capture how essentially inscrutable first contact would be. After the very opening skirmish, there’s a strange détente, neither side willing to move against the other as they try and guess their motives and plan out their next goals. Berg even shows us glimpses of their faces through the helmets, imbuing them with just enough difference to be alien, but enough humanity to make us constantly search their faces for clues of emotion. It’s like they’re warring against an enemy barely on the good side of the uncanny valley, and it weirdly works.
And that’s the thing: we never really get any solid clues that the bad guys are really all that bad! They zap in from space, lose a ship because we have tons of space junk, almost immediately get fired at, try to set up a shield to keep shit from getting too crazy, and try to call home so that someone can come and pick them up. They even have IFF-systems more advanced and discriminating than any of our drone weaponry can claim, which the movie takes care to visually show you all the time.
But at the same time, the movie uses all the typical language of action films to set you in the usual moral stance: disaster striking cities and suburbs, rallying around shared convictions of honor and duty, elision of the atrocities in previous wars, even a damsel in distress. It is so serious and incidentally self-parodying that it’s hard to tell how far the director meant for it to go.
(I’m inclined to give Berg more credit than most because he directed the aggressively genre-breaking Hancock who most would at least agree had a fairly great premise and first act. In Battleship, in addition to liberal zooming around in space, he also pulls from a popular YouTube video. It all feels like a more thoughful, controlled, and deliberately-unpredictable version of the dominant Michael Bay aesthetic that you see shoveled into most action films.)
It’s hard to talk much more about it without spoiling the film—and delight at how strange the movie allows itself to become adds to the fantastic first-watch experience—but the film manges to brush up against a bunch of topics that you’d never expect to see in an alien-invasion film like this. For example, one of the main characters is a double-amputee veteran who is an odd reminder for a genre who tends to uncritically advocate solving problems militarily.
For another example that’s more of a reach, they start the movie engaged in exercises between over a dozen nations—principally among them the US and Japan—but end it deploying the same WWII weaponry against this entirely novel foe. It adds to the unease of casually deploying this hardware against an enemy they barely understand, when you step back to consider that the Allies did some deeply fucked-up shit during WWII (like firebombing hundreds of Japanese cities, and eventually dropping two nuclear weapons). The movie deftly sidesteps an overt raising of the issue by having the main character and his Japanese counterpart in a bro-partnership for most of the film, but it’s still weirdly there.
Some of these you can certainly disagree with, but there are a lot of examples—the unease with and ultimate uselessness of technology, alien technology that’s read The Power Broker and regards military bases and major freeways as the only dangers worth destroying in Hawaii, etc. All of these point to a deeper subtext to the film than there’s any right to be, and a subtext that’s more interesting and respected than The Avengers casual acceptance of a surveillance state manned by individuals of unparalleled power, and simple dismissal of trying to repliate that same sort of power under an institution more amenable to democracy.
And on top of all that, the scene where they essentially play the game Battleship against the aliens is one of the most gripping and effective scenes in the entire film. What’s not to like about that?