February 27, 2022

The Battleship Review

Unlike most of the other movies that have gotten a full-post review, I have seen Battleship before. It was while I was in LA, volunteering on the Iowa, and to avoid burying the lede, I rather liked it. I'm not saying it was a good movie (because it's pretty much what you would expect from a movie that's an attempt to capture a piece of the audience from the Transformers series, based on a board game) but it's silly enough that it's fun. Plus, there's a strong element of wish fulfillment in the climax for me.

Which isn't to say I don't have gripes. WHY ON EARTH WOULD YOU USE LANDSAT 7 AS A TRANSMITTER FOR TALKING TO ALIENS? Landsat 7 is a remote sensing platform, very useful if you're trying to map out flood damage to crops, but almost literally the least suitable satellite for the mission in question. (Why yes, I have used Landsat 7 data in college. Why do you ask?) And the satellite they use on-screen looks nothing like it. Also, as per my usual policy, I will ignore the romantic subplot.

Something that was a gripe when I first watched it but mostly isn't any more is how someone like Alex Hopper (the main character), who is clearly a screwup, could have managed to have a naval career. I'm still baffled how he managed to get into the Navy in the first place (you don't get in just because your brother tells you to), but he clearly spent all of his career between then and the start of the movie in the 7th Fleet. It turns out that the screenwriters knew things the rest of us wouldn't for another five years, although I wish they'd been more explicit.

OK. The sports scene is less hilarious than the one in Top Gun, even if we do get to see Alex Hopper being a particular type of idiot. At the very least, it won't result in the surface navy being mocked for decades. Also, there's lots of pretty warship shots, including plenty of a ship tied for second as the most beautiful ever built, even if it isn't "the greatest fighting ship in American Naval History" despite what Liam Neeson says. I can think of several measures, and by most of them, Enterprise comes out on top. (Or Parche, although that requires a rather unusual definition of "fighting".) I'm also surprised at the antipathy between Hopper and the Japanese Captain, given that he must have spent the majority of his career there. Fighting in the head? Really? (That probably also explains how Hopper hasn't been dumped by his girlfriend. They must have been long distance while he was with the Seventh Fleet.)

And now we're onto the exercises. I am confused as to why they're launching Hornets after being given the command for ASW exercises. And we again see Hopper's poor leadership skills. While I can understand that from a realism perspective, it's hard to understand from the viewpoint of story. He's the hero, and should be at least a bit sympathetic. Also, I don't think you usually helicopter people between ships for private chats, even if they are about to be (rightly) kicked out of the Navy. Also, at one point, they use footage of the USS Benfold and label it as John Paul Jones, then use actual footage of the Jones. This isn't Pearl Harbor bad (they're at least the same class), but does make me ask why.

And then we have more terrible space stuff. Space is really big, and the aliens shouldn't have to get anywhere close to Saturn. Also, how did they detect them? Alien spaceships are not a thing that most astronomers look for, although who picks it up first is an open question. In any case, if you can travel between stars, you should be competent enough not to run into big things in space. And the result of said collision definitely shouldn't hit Hong Kong. Hong Kong is small and Earth is large, and also, they were coming in very fast, which limits any deflection. To say nothing of "other places were also affected, Scotland, Germany, France, even Iowa". I'm going to give you an F in basic physics, and also an F in not being extremely obvious when building in sequel hooks. And how do you build a spaceship out of Lawrencium? The longest-lived isotope has a half-life of 10 hours.

But most of the aliens land near the RIMPAC exercise, and the destroyers are sent to take a look. Hopper goes aboard and somehow pushes the "make a giant energy dome" button, which is on the outside. As an engineer, if I ever develop the capability to make a 750-mile radius energy dome, I will definitely have it controlled from outside my warship, without even caging the button. (This sort of stuff makes beating the invasion seem rather less heroic. My current theory is that Earth was a nature reserve, and the whole thing was a fraternity prank or just someone being really drunk.) But yeah, at this point, we have a total breakdown of spatial continuity, given that the destroyers are at the center of the bubble, and the rest of the RIMPAC group is trapped outside.

My theory that this isn't a proper invasion continues to gain support when the aliens actually attack. Why do they have a weapon that throws projectiles at a speed slow enough they can embed a little ways into the plating on a Burke? If you're an alien force who has any idea what Earth is like, you're going to bring hypersonic missiles that Phalanx can't mostly shoot down, instead of something that looks suspiciously like a peg from everyone's favorite naval board game. And why did Hopper and Rihanna decide that a small-caliber gatling gun was a good weapon to use against the giant space ship? And while I've been quite positive on Hopper's brother (who generally has come off as competent), from the scenes after his ship is hit and before it blows up, it looks like he didn't set General Quarters, because that's way too much flooding for a hit that far forward. Didn't even look like it went much below the waterline.

Hmm. It looks like everyone on the John Paul Jones, which Hopper was assigned to, came from 7th Fleet. He may be next most senior with the CO and XO dead from the one alien hit (not sure why they were in the same place, but that's a different issue) , but one advantage of naval protocol is that it's pretty clear who is in charge, and someone would have taken over instead of everyone just sitting around. He also wouldn't have to ask who was in charge if he was next most senior. Then there's his odd grasp of tactics. Ramming is a bad plan, even if you are really mad that they killed your brother.

More evidence that this isn't a proper invasion comes from the choice of weird rolly ball things to destroy MCAS Kanoe Bay, instead of just using missiles. If I was an advanced alien poacher or something, building something like that might be easier than designing my own missiles. Although given the hatred the rolly things have for concrete, maybe the invasion is by some sort of radical ecoterrorist group.

Of human-sized bipedal aliens with faces that look vaguely human. Why do they look like that? This movie clearly didn't have a small CG budget, and you could have spent a bit of it on an alien that was more, well, alien. Give it tentacles or something! Oh, and then the aliens rescue their buddy from the Jones and don't just destroy it. And why is Hopper leading the party for the aliens that are still onboard? Did he learn Captaining from Star Trek? At least nobody is wearing red. At least the interior shots of the destroyer are nice. Also, bonus points for the stairs deforming under the alien. That's a drum I've been beating for a long time. Then we go into the hand-to-hand fight with the armored alien, which is extremely silly on many levels. I do like ending it with the 5", although Hopper is way too close to the muzzle to not end up in quite bad shape himself from the blast. If the shell had actually gone off, he'd be dead, but that couldn't happen because it wouldn't have armed yet.

There's also the subplot with Sam (Hopper's girlfriend) and the guy who lost his legs to the IED, which weirdly sees some of the better acting, even though Brooklyn Decker (Sam) was mostly a model before, and the guy who lost his legs actually lost his legs in Iraq. There's also scientist guy, who at least isn't completely implausible.

So it turns out that the one that crashed into Hong Kong was the communications ship, and the whole thing is a plot to get the transmitter. Why didn't they bring a backup? Or just not crash in the first place? More support for my ecoterrorist theory. And if everyone is so worried about them calling home, they should just shut down Landsat 7 (which is still not a deep-space satellite). Also, what's with it only coming into range once every 24 hours? It would have to be very far into deep space for that to happen, in which case, it's going to be run out of the Deep Space Network, which is not in Hawaii.

And now we go to another reference to the board game. They're attempting to shoot based on a grid of tsunami warning buoys (which have names like E11), which are sensitive enough to detect passing ships somehow. There are many problems with this, most notably that there's no way you'd get data precise enough to actually fire anything short of a strategic nuclear weapon. Also, patterns of water displacement is another word for "sonar", and they already have that, so why are they messing around with these buoys? No way something splashing around as much as the aliens isn't going to show up on passive sonar, and I really doubt their stealth included active sonar. Also also, you can't fire Tomahawks that way, and it's no surprise that they missed. Try VLASROC, which has an anti-surface mode. At least Hopper realizes that the ballistic attack can be dodged, although they show the screws reversing instead of changing pitch like they should. Also, Tomahawks aren't rocket-powered for most of their flight, and shouldn't be leaving that kind of trail.

And then there's Hopper's plan to blind the aliens, because one of the crew realized their eyes wouldn't do well in sunlight. Leaving aside the space-bending nature of the attack and the fact that there's neither reason nor need to go that close ashore (unless that's standard procedure in the 7th Fleet or he's trying to get kicked out for every reason at once), I do have to ask why they shatter the glass with .50 cals and not the 5". But they then make up for it by using the torpedoes. So they blow up another alien ship, then get attacked by the rolly things, which are immune to CIWS fire, but slowed down by destroyer hull plating. Many things are confusing here, not least how Jones manages to sink bow-down. I didn't think the water was deep enough for that. At least now we have the destroyer out of the way, and can go to the real star of the show.

Let me start by saying that everything about taking the Missouri to sea is completely implausible and ridiculous. I cannot even begin to list the problems with it, and won't try. But there is a large piece of me which dreams of seeing a battleship go to sea again, and that part will buy it. What I find annoying is that the old crew all look like they served aboard at some point. THERE ARE YOUNGER VOLUNTEERS! YOU ARE ERASING ME AND MY FRIENDS! Also, don't insult the fire control system. There's also some nice bits of the ship being readied, and Missouri still has her conning tower. Firing up all 8 boilers seems a bit superfluous, given that they have an extremely scratch crew. And there are some differences in detail from Iowa around the bridge, which are really obvious to me because of how much time I spent there.

You do not pass data by saying "train all turrets to 210". That is not how the fire-control system works. And 210 is to port, not to starboard, which is the way the turrets are trained. Dropping the anchor isn't going to do what you want it to do, either. The chain or the mounting hardware would snap, and it definitely wouldn't stop the ship like it does. Also, why is someone at the anchor? That's not a function you need at GQ, particularly with a scratch crew. Given how slowly the projectiles are coming in, you can just dodge.

And seriously, how do the hits they take manage to take out Turret 3? Given the damage to the other ships, it shouldn't do more than mess up the deck around the turret. And why are the .50 cals on the Missouri still real? At least the 16" do their job, and the bubble comes down. Although that leaves the question of why Liam Neeson is standing on the deck of the Reagan instead of somewhere more sensible in a crisis.

And then we get to my least-favorite scene in the movie. After the battle with the alien ship, the only remaining round is in the magazine for Turret 3, and they need to move it to Turret 2. The Chief objects, saying "that's 500' away, and "this round weighs over a thousand pounds. How do you expect us to get it there." To which I would answer "It's almost a ton, and you should use the rail the designers thoughtfully put on Broadway for that purpose." (Yes, I know that said practice was banned in the 80s for safety reasons, but this is an emergency.) Instead, we see half a dozen guys man-handling it down a passage that isn't Broadway. (I actually thought it was the first time I watched this, but on closer inspection, it's definitely not, and I'm very baffled as to why a movie that has otherwise been quite good about spaces is doing this.) After a brief diversion for the girlfriend-amputee-scientist subplot, we're back, and this time they're actually on Broadway, and you can see the rail some of the shots. All 8 boilers work, and the transfer rail is broken? Also, at certain points it looks like Rihanna is inputting data to the Mk 38 by manipulating the dials on the top, which definitely wouldn't work. Those are display only, and they're under glass.

But as you'd expect, they get the shot off at the critical moment and stop the ecoterrorists from calling home. Rihanna squeezes the salvo warning trigger to fire it, but at least they used the stable vertical instead of something else. And just as all seems lost, the fighters from the Reagan show up and destroy the rest of the aliens. Not sure why Stone Hopper (the brother who died) gets a Navy Cross and Hopper himself only gets a Silver Star. I'd expect it to be the other way around. Also, not sure that even his actions here would be enough to disarm the command pins that he had so thoughtfully armed. And he's being invited to join the SEALs? Makes no sense, although probably another setup for the (thankfully never-made) sequel. But in the end, the Earth is saved, Hopper gets the girl, and things are good.

This turned a bit more ranty than expected, probably because the first time I watched it, I was multitasking, and not sitting down to write about it. But on the whole, it's firmly in the "silly and so bad it's good" camp. I would recommend it if you're in the mood for that. They did a decent job of portraying the military (both past and present) reasonably accurately, and it's very pretty. I just wish they'd scrap the shell scene.

Comments

  1. February 27, 2022Matt B said...

    Very good review. Its a super bad super silly movie, but that's what makes it so good and enjoyable to watch.

  2. February 27, 2022John Schilling said...

    I still say Captain Nagata should have been in command for the final scene. The Missouri is not a commissioned warship of anybody's navy, and Nagata is the senior officer of the multinational crew commandeering the vessel. Also, he's the smart one who knows how to defeat aliens. Also also, if you're sending the world's most powerful battleship out on what is almost certainly going to be a suicide mission, that's a Japanese specialty.

    Yes, putting a Japanese officer in command of the Missouri in particular would require a degree of chutzpah, but no more so than making this movie in the first place. Go big or go home.

    Thanks for the review.

  3. February 27, 2022Emilio said...

    "Did he learn Captaining from Star Trek?"

    The Jar Jar Abrams movies...

  4. February 27, 2022muddywaters said...

    Not sure what it means that there are multiple "heavily contrived situation where someone not qualified to use X has access to an X and what looks (if you don't look too closely) like a reason to use it" (*) movies where X is a battleship's main guns, and what feels like not much fiction where battleships or gun cruisers have normal battles.

    Possibly that realistic fiction prefers the age of sail so it can have fancily decorated ships and dramatically-close combat ranges??? (Those don't actually end until ~1900 but they might well not know that.) While in the contrived kind, "this isn't the kind of fire control I know how to use (if it even still works) and we have limited ammunition" is a ready-made excuse to go in close for easy hits?

    (*) Not intended to be negative: I've liked such a movie (about a different X) and would sort of like to see both of these, though not enough to have actually done that.

  5. February 28, 2022DampOctopus said...

    I am thoroughly convinced by John Schilling's reasoning.

    Also, what’s with [Landsat 7] only coming into range once every 24 hours?

    That sounds ... vaguely reasonable? A satellite in a polar orbit will only be visible when the Earth rotates you under its track. Which will actually be every 12 hours, but whatever.

    the fighters from the Reagan show up and destroy the rest of the aliens

    It's worse than that: those are RAAF Hornets. So either we're in some alternative reality in which the RAAF operates from USN decks, or those Hornets have come a long way to get to Hawaii.

  6. February 28, 2022Johan Larson said...

    @bean, do you take requests? I'd be willing to send some money to your favorite nautical charity for a review of Bermuda Tentacles.

  7. February 28, 2022bean said...

    I'm also with John on Nagata being the one who should have been in command.

    @muddywaters

    There's a general dearth of good and realistic naval movies in recent years. The only ones I can think of in the last ~30 years are Hunt for Red October and Master and Commander.

    @DampOctopus

    Re Landsat 7, yes, if it had been in polar orbit it would be every 12 hours. But they clearly said 24, which is right for a deep space satellite. WHICH LANDSAT IS NOT.

    Missed the RAAF Hornets.

    @Johan

    I'll have to think about that.

  8. February 28, 2022cassander said...

    the fightingest ship in the USN is clearly either USS Johnston or Samuel B Roberts.

  9. February 28, 2022bean said...

    Or Hoel, which everyone always forgets about.

    More broadly, no matter what metric you choose, Missouri loses.

  10. February 28, 2022ike said...

    @bean

    I forget the rules. Are you even allowed to review good movies?

  11. February 28, 2022bean said...

    I am. But it's a lot harder to write 1000 words about a good movie than a bad one.

  12. March 01, 2022cwillu said...

    @bean: I know it didn't have any of russians, sails, or 15" barrels, but was Greyhound that bad?

  13. March 01, 2022bean said...

    It wasn't. But it was also surprisingly hard to write about in a way that wasn't either "plot was fine" or a term paper about ASW in the Atlantic in 1942. (I know that a lot of you would like the latter, but I didn't want to write it.)

  14. March 01, 2022beleester said...

    My current theory is that Earth was a nature reserve, and the whole thing was a fraternity prank or just someone being really drunk.

    I haven't read it, but TVTropes says the novelization of the movie says that it's basically an alien science expedition, and the reason they act the way they do is because they want to see how the humans react to their attacks. The expedition being run by drunken college students would explain a lot.

    But yeah, the alien behavior was the most frustrating part of the movie for me. They seem to be following some sort of "rules of engagement", starting with small-scale attacks and escalating in response to the human defenses, and they target humans that are carrying weapons and avoid targeting ones that aren't (aside from the bit where they tear through a highway for no reason...), and it seems like there's some mystery that's going to develop there, maybe discussing how wars can escalate inadvertently or something, but no, it just goes nowhere.

  15. March 01, 2022Dave said...

    Please please please do American Warships next! Your challenge is to remain psychologically in "so bad it's good" mode for as long as possible before giving up.

  16. March 01, 2022Jack said...

    The Mighty Mo has a special place in my heart as the first ship model I ever build. But the Big E (CV-6) is the shootiest ship in the Navy.

    Battleship is an entertaining film that you watch for the eye candy. If you expect more from it, then you'll hate it.

  17. March 02, 2022primary_username said...

    And he’s being invited to join the SEALs? Makes no sense, although probably another setup for the (thankfully never-made) sequel.

    I'm pretty sure that's an inside joke. Peter Berg's next movie was Lone Survivor, where that same actor played a SEAL.

  18. March 02, 2022The Fatherly One said...

    What a rant......

  19. March 02, 2022muddywaters said...

    If they're going for "dodging bullets is cool", that's actually more realistic with full-speed shells near their (long) maximum range, where it has actually happened, than with a slow ballistic weapon within its (short) maximum range, that would fall down before you had time to dodge.

    And to the extent that Battleship-the-game has an implied model of combat at all (which isn't much), it's "finding the enemy is the hard part, attacking does not reveal where you are", which is if anything closer to modern (aircraft and missiles attacking from a ship beyond the horizon) than to battleship-era. Though if you want actual battleships in it, that points to an 80s Cold-War-turned-hot storyline where the Iowas get slaughtered as mostly a distraction from finding the rest of the US fleet, which might not be something you'd want to watch.

  20. March 02, 2022bean said...

    I didn't mention the post-credits sequence, where some schoolboys discover an alien pod in Scotland, because it didn't fit in with the writing. It may have been a bit of an inside joke, but I think it was also so that Hopper could come back for the sequel in a role that made sense in a sequel.

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