Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Brooklyn Decker, Liam Neeson, Alexander Skarsgård, Rihanna
Themes: Alien Invasion, Combat Action
Generally speaking, I try to go and see films like this in a theatre, where I can. This is one of the few types of films that really demands to be seen in a theatre with a huge screen, Dolby surround sound, all that good stuff, and in the company of the popcorn-munching hoi polloi. (Otherwise, how would you know when something was meant to be funny?) But for some reason I missed this last summer and just got a DVD of it the other day.
I mean, okay, let’s be clear. This is the kind of film where you walk out of the theatre, as I am wont to say, humming the special effects. The SFX are the star of this show, no question, and the actors play a decided second fiddle. Everything about this film is oriented towards building towards SFX set-pieces, displaying them dramatically, and then moving on to the next. There are entire films (Tron: Legacy comes to mind) where the film is about the SFX and wouldn’t be meaningful without them.
That being said, this film has some interesting moments. To start with, as most of you already know, it’s based on a game. Not a video-game-to-video translation like Doom or Lara Croft, but a game that you play in your home without the intermediation of a computer or a video screen. So there’s a delicate balance that goes on in a situation like this. Obviously it cannot be a transliteration of the game, with two people each trying to sink the other’s battleships. At the same time, battleships must be sunk, as it were. You need ships, sailors, and a situation that requires combat.
In order to solve this problem and bring some sort of coherent baseline to the script, the producers grafted the good old “Alien Invasion” theme in, so as to anchor everything. So there are no racial or cultural tensions (the script feebly tries to graft in a US vs. Japan element but renounces it so that the “unlikely buddies” theme becomes more prominent as “all the humans work together to defeat the soulless aliens”). But the alien invasion theme actually worked for me.
In fact, the script is quite clever, as these things go. Look at what you’re starting with — the requirement that at least once during the movie the audience should hear, “You sank my battleship!” or equivalent. There are no characters, no plot events, nothing but the requirement to have battleships firing at each other for some reason. So I have to say that the script goes to a great deal of trouble to add interesting plot events and characters. I’m not saying this is a triumph of characterization — Brooklyn Decker does a really good job at being “the girl who bounces when she runs” where Nicole Kidman would not — but it’s better than it has to be. Indeed, this is almost a good story and these are characters whom one cares about ever so slightly.
A couple of minor characters, indeed, steal the show; a red-headed ensign/sidekick who is an amusing doofus, and some sort of sailor played by Rihanna, who cusses and is tough. Both these actors deserve our praise and future attention. I honestly didn’t recognize Rihanna for a moment, until she had the benefit of some amazing lighting in a shot that looked accidentally designed to make her look gorgeous. She too is better than she has to be. I’m not saying she transcends the entire oeuvre of “semi-famous musicians who are plunked into small roles in big movies” but, frankly, she doesn’t suck. She appears to have listened to the director and has some natural acting talent — and the courage to be restrained and moderately believable, rather than wearing three feet of eyelashes and a push-em-up.
The final third of the film is devoted to the type of activity I think of as “things blow up good”, which in this case is mostly sea-going vessels. There is an amusing bit where the survivors of one sinking must commandeer a drydocked relic from WWII, complete with elderly sailors. The aliens have technology that lets them blow things up decisively and manage to kill off Alexander Skarsgard at about the midpoint of Act II, but not before he manages to remove his shirt in an early scene (this is, after all, a summer blockbuster). Taylor Kitsch survives, which is good, and does not manage to remove his shirt, which is bad. Perhaps he felt his excellent physique was too much on view in John Carter earlier in the year.
I was interested in a bit of technology run by the aliens — a kind of spinning wheel of teeth that is projected onto an enemy vessel, or land-based installation, and simply rolls around at high speed crunching whatever is in its path into splinters. It reminded me a little of Stephen King’s The Langoliers, but much more explosive. I was also curious about a small point of their tech. Numerous times during the film, alien tech looks at a screen, map or live input and puts a green line around non-threatening things and a red line around threatening ones. The aliens in person then, for instance, slap the “red lined” rifle out of the “green lined” human’s hands, disarming him without killing him. What I was wondering was, “why not just kill them? Did you have a use for them later?” And, perhaps less importantly, where did the aliens get the idea that green means safe and red means dangerous? A little bit anthropocentric, to my mind. And perhaps I am looking for logic where none need exist, because the film is perfectly enjoyable without the requirement of conscious thought. Still, it did pique me a bit.
All things considered, I was very pleasantly surprised. I felt I had received more than I’d signed up for and still had an enjoyable couple of hours. Mind you, I was expecting absolute rubbish — I mean, come on, a movie based on a child’s board game. I’m aware that cross-platforming from children’s consumer products/media into feature films doesn’t always work (Rocky & Bullwinkle, The Flintstones) and sometimes does (The Dark Knight, Watchmen). This one, based on the most slender of threads, actually worked. Go figure. I expect this will be available in various forms of television by 2013 and, if you like this sort of thing, you will certainly like this one.