The summer of 2012 was a time of many milestones. Some remember it as the summer Michael Phelps became the winningest Olympic medalist of all time, others as the year Marvel released the first record-breaking Avengers movie, foreshadowing a box-office dominance that we are still being subjected to ten years later. But if you’re like me (and at least three of my friends), the summer of 2012 is tattooed into your brain as the time Taylor Kitsch tried—and failed—to become a movie star. The year after Kitsch wrapped his star turn as Friday Night Lights’ Tim “33” Riggins, he had a run of three films come out between March and July—Disney sci-fi adventure John Carter; FNL producer Peter Berg’s board game–inspired extravaganza, Battleship; and Oliver Stone’s weed-trafficking thriller, Savages. They were supposed to be Kistch’s springboard from Dillon, Texas, to the Hollywood A-list, but it was one flop after another, both critically and commercially. That decade-ago summer was rough for those of us still rooting for the man who gave us “Texas Forever.” And listen, the films aren’t great. John Carter is all right, if you like bloated, family-friendly sci-fi. Savages is so male gaze–heavy one feels the need to apologize to Kitsch’s costar, Blake Lively, who simply called working for Oliver Stone “an experience.” But I genuinely love Battleship, a silly, patriotic ensemble action flick that wishes it were Independence Day. Battleship is good, actually. Battleship deserves a second chance.
I can admit that the premise of Battleship is absurd. It is a movie based on a board game—yes, that boring, characterless board game—adapted for the screen to include an alien-invasion story line. But a film about humans fighting aliens at sea is no more ridiculous than a film about superhuman beings fighting alien cyborgs in New York City, and the latter was the plot of the top-grossing movie of that year. A stupid, childish story is clearly not enough reason to avoid a film. Plus, Battleship is not as dumb as it sounds on paper. No character at any point says the phrase “You sunk my battleship,” which you know an executive at Hasbro (in partnership with Universal Studios) definitely suggested at some point. The filmmakers relegated the Battleship™ references to a brief overnight scene in which the good guys lose radar detection and have to fire at alien warships using data displayed on a big grid, just like in the board game. This results in Rihanna, who plays a weapons specialist, being told to fire missiles at “E8” and “F11.”
The film is full of moments like this, snapshots in time that our current sarcastic, lusty internet could meme into oblivion. Taylor Kitsch and Alexander Skarsgård play brothers, which means those two incredibly attractive actors say “I love you” to each other within the first ten minutes. Kitsch stars as Navy lieutenant Alex Hopper, a talented but unreliable bad boy with a heart of gold, someone who is yelled at by more than one character for not living up to his potential. He’s a sweet bro with all the tools for success who nonetheless cannot stop sabotaging himself. He makes unsound decisions either out of drunkenness or because he can’t deal with his intense emotions. Do you see what I’m getting at? This is Tim Riggins in dress whites.
Rounding out the cast are Liam Neeson as a stern admiral; model and Austinite Brooklyn Decker as the admiral’s daughter, who also happens to be Hopper’s love interest; broadway veteran Hamish Linklater as a slightly unhinged science nerd; and Japanese movie star Tadanobu Asano as the nemesis with whom Kitsch must learn to see eye to eye. But the two real stars of the film are Academy Award nominee Jesse Plemons and the one and only Robyn Rihanna Fenty in her first-ever acting role. Berg cast Rihanna after seeing her do a bit on Saturday Night Live and realizing she could act. The jury’s still out on whether or not the latter is really true, but she’s not terrible. She has a strong presence, and just like with the Met Gala and Late Night With Seth Meyers, Rihanna’s mere presence automatically makes Battleship more entertaining.
Peter Berg wrote the part of Boatswain Mate Seaman Jimmy “Ordy” Ord (helluva character name, am I right?) specifically for Jesse Plemons. “I never thought of it as a Friday Night Lights reunion. I thought of it as protection, bringing a trusted family member in,” Berg told Collider during Battleship’s press tour. “If we have a shot in hell of elevating this material and actually making it emotional and making it a little off-beat and finding the humor and the quirk, that involves a lot of improvisation, and Jesse Plemons is as good as they get. . . . And I know that he’s really good for Taylor. He makes Taylor look better.” Plemons does what he was hired to do; he provides the required comic relief, with the same goofy, sweet, deadpan delivery that turned the guy playing Matt Saracen’s nerdy friend into arguably FNL’s most successful star. It’s clear how much Plemons relaxes the other actors as well, helping to make whatever scene he’s in funny and heartfelt. He has a few lighthearted, flirty exchanges with Rihanna. The movie is by no means a romance, but if there’s anything close to a will-they-or-won’t-they bit of tension, it’s between Kirsten Dunst’s husband and a national hero of Barbados. That’s huge, and I hate for moments like that to get lost to time simply because Battleship is categorized as an unmentionable flop.
Battleship had a fraught preproduction. It was initially announced in 2008, as one of a slate of films in a partnership between Hasbro and Universal Studios. (There was supposed to be a Candy Land movie, too, and a film in which Twilight’s Taylor Lautner played Stretch Armstrong, so we should consider ourselves very lucky that Battleship and 2014 horror film Ouija are the only two that actually made it to theaters.) Berg signed on to direct in September of the following year, agreeing to make Battleship for Universal so it would finance his passion project Lone Survivor. A month later, Universal ousted the executives that had brought in the big Hasbro deal, and the company’s new chairman, Adam Fogelson, only agreed to keep going with the film because he thought the studio would lose less money if it just made it. In the years between the film’s announcement and release, news articles with any updates usually came with some quip about how dumb, uncreative, and shamelessly capitalistic the very idea was. The phrase “rough waters” started to be overused as early as 2009. Indeed, Battleship’s premise is terrible, but I think Peter Berg and others knew that from the beginning. The filmmaker and actors actively tried to elevate the material, and honestly, they succeeded.
Battleship is not perfect. It has too much CGI and too many loud explosions, so the action sequences can be overstimulating at times. The aliens are uncomfortably humanoid, and it’s a bit awkward when the film tries to sincerely honor American naval history and also talk about aliens with a straight face. But it’s a solid action film anchored by an exceptionally charming leading man in Kitsch, made better by the ensemble cast around him. There’s a compelling B plot involving some separated characters, including Decker’s and Linklater’s, who are stranded on an Oahu mountaintop that becomes a crucial battleground in the alien fight. There’s a satisfying resolution when all eventually come together in the end. It’s high-energy, too. I recently watched the film with subtitles on (because I’m that age now), so probably the best way for me to explain the draw of Battleship is to say that whenever music started playing, the bottom of the screen just read “[ROCK].” There’s one particularly fist pump–y montage involving a handful of real-life World War II and Korean War vets and AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.” It becomes fun to root against the aliens in the same way that it’s fun to root against the Russians during the Olympics. USA! USA!
At times, the film does border on militaristic propaganda. It is a Peter Berg film, after all, and respecting the troops is sort of his whole deal. But I find it genuinely moving to see the scenes shot on the WWII-era battleship U.S.S. Missouri, or to see veterans with significant speaking roles. At one point, there is even a fistfight between a Purple Heart recipient and an alien. The Purple Heart wins. Battleship is not for everyone, but I am a sucker for any movie in which the world unites against a common enemy, however fantastical or problematic.
As a critic, it might not behoove me to admit this, but I often judge movies on the barometer of whether or not I ever want to see them again. I’ve watched films that are well made and respectable, movies that advance the craft but which I have little interest in engaging with a second time. I only want to revisit films that make me laugh, or make me scared, or make me feel something juicy about the characters or the plot. Battleship is a movie I knew immediately that I’d watch again, on a plane, at my house, or on the big screen (though it’s hard to imagine any theater would bring it out for a retrospective screening). After all, Battleship is a film in which Jesse Plemons flirts with Robyn Rihanna Fenty, and for that, at least, it should be cherished.