In Defense of Bad Movies (or) Five Reasons Why “Battleship” is Actually a Great Flick
In fact, most people read for the same reason we go to the movies, right? Sure, we all talk about how important certain films are (hint: the important ones are always “films”, never “movies”). We pride ourselves in supporting independent movies, and foreign documentaries, and long, painful biographies about obscure figures. And why do we pretend to like these terrible, boring, tedious movies? Why do we not watch the stuff that we really want to watch?
Simple: peer pressure. With our Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritics and Twit-this and FaceSpace-that, we all have virtually no time to consider some preposterously escapist new movie before the cultural opinion machine kicks into gear and tells us only a tool would go see a movie with such “wooden dialogue”, or “poor character development”, or “boilerplate CG effects”, or “entire cast of female midgets”.
And we all nod knowledgeably and scoff and congratulate ourselves on what fine consumers of media we are, how enlightened we are not to be sucked into consuming such banal Hollywood junk food whilst on our way to doze through another myopic biopic.
But deep down– so deep a lot of us aren’t even consciously aware of it- we miss that junk food. We lust for it. We want to jump into a giant barrel of cinematic french fries and swim around in it, cackling through mouthfuls of greasy, salty awfulness.
It’s an analogy. Just play along.
Lately, I’ve been catching up on my movie-watching. I’ve been doing it alone, after the kids are in bed, and this has allowed me an interesting state of freedom to watch whatever I want, and damn the media opinion machine. It’s been an enlightening experience. I bake up some tater tots, pop open a beer, and settle in to watch stuff that’s… well, stuff that’s often just horrible. At least by the popular standards. And here’s what I’ve decided: the cultural opinion machine is made up of FUDDY-DUDDIES. STICKS IN THE MUD! They’ve become such astute connoisseurs of snark and irony that they’ve totally forgotten that movies are supposed to be fun.
For instance, they liked The Amazing Spider-man. I watched it. It took me three days. I WAS BORED.
“Please, please, don’t make me take the CG lizard guy seriously.”
This is a movie that should have been ridiculous, exuberant, bright, a laugh, with some explosions and bad-guy-punching and eye-popping effects. Instead, the makers tried so hard to appease the modern monocle class that it became the cinematic equivalent of cardboard– flavorless, beige, and a lot of work to chew through. Peter Parker was so forgettable, the bad guy was so tortured, I forgot who I was supposed to root for. Watching them fight was like watching a soccer match on Uni-vision– I knew somebody was supposed to win, but I really didn’t understand why, or frankly care.
And then, behold, I watched Battleship.
I won’t beat around the bush. I expected it to be awful. Because like it or not, I am also a denizen of the Internet, and I knew all the reasons that it was going to be stupid– bad dialogue, a dumb premise, based on a board game, loaded with glitzy CG effects– but I still wanted to watch it, and now I know why. Because deep down the little kid in me– the kid we’ve all forgotten about, but who still really likes to watch movies– that kid knew that those things aren’t the recipe for a bad movie. They are, in fact, the recipe for the rockingest, awesomest movie of all.
And dammit if that little kid in me wasn’t bang-on right. Battleship is a totally, irrepressibly, obliviously great movie.
And here are the five reasons why.
1) It’s ridiculous.
Battleship is completely, seamlessly, wall-to-wall shag carpeting ridiculous. And we’ve forgotten that for a certain kind of movie that is a good thing!
The only thing this needs is exclamation points: BATTLESHIP!!!!!!!
It isn’t that the modern entertainment consumer has totally rejected absurdity as film device. We love us some absurdity in comedy, for example (otherwise there’d be no Monty Python or Airplane). We accept absurdity as an avant garde vehicle in artsy-indie movies that no one understands (even the filmmaker).
But when it comes to straight narrative movies, we’ve decided that absurdity is somehow off-limits. “Sure!” we say, “Give us more angst-ridden experimental flicks about the secret lives of kumquats or terribly depressing Blues Brothers sequels, but absurdity in drama!?? You, sir, have crossed the line!”
But the fact is, ridiculous dramas work in exactly the same way as ridiculous comedies– by suspending all the rules so we can get right down to the business of pure story. Sometimes that means a knight who keeps blithely living even though all his limbs have been cartoonishly lopped off (“Tis but a flesh wound!”), and sometimes it means aliens with the technology to streak through the unimaginable distances of space, dodging asteroids, comets and planetoids, who then manage to crash head-first into a communications satellite a few miles above the earth. Why? Because it makes the story work!
Whether it’s Monty Python or Battleship, the moment we realize that believability is not only being ignored but actively subverted, we are given a pass to turn off our inner critic and simply watch the silliness.
2) It takes itself totally seriously while allowing us to totally not.
We all have that friend who tells completely asinine stories. Maybe it’s about the time he got drunk and totally stole a police cruiser and led every cop in the tri-state area on a five-hour manhunt that ended up on an episode of “Caught on Tape: World’s Deadliest Car Chases!” Everyone knows he’s completely full of crap– if it happened at all, it was probably about a hundred times less interesting– but there’s something about the guileless sincerity of the way he tells the story that makes it so completely, delightfully hilarious. And the best part is, the harder you and your friends laugh, the more earnest and serious he gets, which of course just makes it all the funnier.
That’s Battleship. The movie knows you know it’s completely full of crap, but it simply never blinks, never cracks a grin, never gives you anything but the most guileless, wide-eyed sincerity, even as it asks you to accept Rihanna as a bad-ass sailor chick, and introduces aliens content to restrict themselves to floating death-boats instead of, you know, actual flying ships like the ones the death-boats came out of (what, maybe the aliens were just trying to fit in?) The more we giggle, snort and laugh at the absurdity of it all, the more Battleship insists “seriously guys! That’s how it really happened! And then one of the seven-foot aliens was all like ‘aw no, man, I didn’t just fly twenty-seven light years to let one of these dumb humans trick me into standing right in front of a sixteen-inch cannon while Rihanna pauses to deliver a punchy one-liner’.” And we just laugh and laugh.
“Boy, that trail of Reese’s Pieces was a life saver. Now stand right there and ignore that giant ‘aiming’ sound…”
That’s the fun of a movie like Battleship— its endless narrative sincerity coupled with our perfect knowledge that it’s totally pulling the story out of its cinematic rear end.
3) It embraces the device of visual cool factor over realism.
So why did the aliens content themselves with giant ocean-bound death-boats instead of the more typical city-sized flying motherships? Why did they lob actual hardware bombs instead of the standard issue laser beams?
Simple: it looked cooler!
The original script had them towing a bunch of alien water skiers.
Until Battleship came along we’d never seen aliens skipping around the ocean in giant armored jetskis, and until it happened, we didn’t know how much we wanted it! Lasers? Pfft! How about hundreds of alien-alloy smart bombs that pepper a ship like lawn-darts, pause dramatically for effect, and then explode? That’s what we’re talking about! Who cares if it doesn’t make a damn lick of sense! It looked totally awesome. It was a blast to watch (pun very much ‘hell-yeah!’ intended).
Battleship manages to tap into the sort of movie I would have made back when I was twelve. Observe:
Moviemakers: OK, twelve-year-old George, we need our aliens to be able to attack and destroy stuff from a distance, but fighter ships are too cliche. What do we use instead?”
12-Year-Old-Me: OK. OK. Picture this. The aliens have… like… these giant… metal… balls.
Moviemakers: (not cracking a smile) Huge metal balls. Uh-huh.
12-Year-Old-Me: Yeah! But, like, with metal teeth or gears or stuff all over ’em! And they spin in all directions, like the Tasmanian Devil, just whirring and chomping everything in sight!
Moviemakers: Love it. But how do they get around? Everything else floats on the ocean. We have a theme going here.
12-Year-Old-Me: No, no, no! The giant metal teeth-balls have to fly! They just whiz around through the air! But then when they hit the ground they have to drive around like monster tumbleweeds, but with teeth. You know? Shredding through the other boats, and roads, and people! Everything!
Moviemakers: You, twelve-year-old George, have a gift.
12-Year-Old-Me: Just make the movie! Make it! I wanna see!
They sure aren’t Weebles!
It’s as if, early in the design phase for this movie, the director said “if there’s a realistic way to show something, and an awesome way to show something, tell realistic to take a flying leap into an active volcano.”
Thus, in the very beginning of the movie, when we are introduced to a new satellite array that beams sound waves into deep space, the sound waves look like a freaking doomsday death-beam tearing the universe a new black hole! Who cares if sound is invisible? This is a movie, dammit! We need to see something!! That, from the very beginning, is what tells us this movie is going to be smacking us in the eyeball over and over with awesome, whether it makes any sense or not.
And for a guy who was once a twelve-year-old kid who promised to someday make a feature film called “SPECIAL EFFECTS: THE MOVIE”, that is completely and fabulously fine by me.
4) It has cliche heart and isn’t afraid to use it.
So the aliens blow up all the modern warships with their giant steel balls, boom-boom-boom. What’s left? Why for our heroes to paddle over to Pearl Harbor memorial and recommission the seventy year old USS Missouri, of course! And who better to show us what true American grit and moxy look like on the deck of a world war two battleship than a bunch of by-God world war two sailors! I defy you to have a drop of red, white and blue in your veins and not struggle with the urge to stand up in your living room and sing the Star Spangled Banner when that scene happens. If it doesn’t, go find a genuine world war two veteran and ask him to slap you about ten times.
There’re more cans of whoop-ass in this picture than in a thousand rap videos.
I had a grandfather who fought in the old dubya dubya eye eye, so I can’t help it. Seeing those old guys stepping behind the radar screens and manning the engines made my heart swell with a sort of misty, self conscious pride, even if I knew it was cheesy as all hell.
In a world of seamless irreverence, where sincerity is gasping a last, rattling breath, it’s refreshing to see a movie aim for the heart– and not in an ironic way! Sure, yeah, it’s cheesy. Possibly it was crass and calculating, just a bunch of cynical movie makers tugging at audience heartstrings that have long since atrophied in their own souls. But who cares? Sincere feelings can come from insincere manipulation. Why else would My Chemical Romance be so popular?
5) It’s the only modern blockbuster that’s campy without trying to be.
Campy can best be summed up by the somewhat tired concept of “it’s so bad it’s good”. Movies like Evil Dead 2 and Maximum Overdrive and Plan 9 From Outer Space fall into this category. These are movies that try so hard to be something, and fail so spectacularly, that the failure itself is fun to watch. They are the cinematic equivalent of seeing someone slip on a banana peel, then pretend they meant to do it.
The reason the concept is tired, however, is that sometime over the past few decades, movie makers began to purposely try to make so-bad-they’re-good movies. Which is sort of like watching someone point at a banana peel on the floor, theatrically pretend to slip on it, and then demand laughs.
The beauty of campy movies is that the campiness is all unintentional. The moment a director deliberately aims for campy, the best he/she is going to achieve is a sort of self-conscious self-parody. And really, nobody wants to watch that.
Battleship does not try to be campy. It’s one hundred percent summer blockbuster, with a budget to match, and honest-to-God Liam Bloody Neeson.
And oh my does it nail campy.
It’s the combination of all the above elements that gets it there. It’s so unapologetically preposterous, so geared toward visual overload, and yet so dead-eyed serious and sincere, that it hits that ultimate sweet spot of camp. Battleship plants its huge combat boot square on that yellow fruit-skin, does a full one-eighty in the air, comes down like a garbage truck full of chandeliers, and just keeps right on trucking, not missing a single beat of its preposterous premise.
It’s a glory to watch.
Unless you’re Rihanna. Then you’re just perpetually bored.
Hollywood has always been known as the dream machine. If we wanted to see reality, we’d all just go sit in our backyard, or pop some popcorn and watch our families stumble around through day-to-day life. No, we go to movies to see the preposterous, the unimaginable, the occasionally idiotic, all brought to life in day-glow color, hopefully in IMAX 3D.
Hollywood exists to provide escape from reality.
In celebration of that, we absolutely should not mock movies like Battleship. We should congratulate the people willing to make such unambiguously asinine movies, purely for the love of the big boom, the flimsy premise, the sense of suspended reality that only a ninety minute special effects distraction-fest can provide. We should reward such shameless lacks of pretension. We should totally go see these movies, laugh our way out of the theater high on adrenaline, caffeine and popcorn butter-product, and tell the online snark-mongers what they really are: the internet equivalent of a Victorian prude chastising the world for thinking fart jokes are funny.
They are sticks in the mud! And we can totally, safely stop listening to them.
Except me. Keep listening to me. You’ll thank yourself later.