Review: Battleship (2012)

Battleship posterSome films are so astoundingly silly that, against your better judgement, you can’t help but have fun. Such is the case with Battleship, the latest movie to be based on a Hasbro franchise (there are no toys or games any more, just brands and franchises). Given the enormous financial success of the Transformers franchise, it’s only slightly surprising that a two-hour plus movie based on a simple, wet-summer-holidays strategy game has emerged as a special effects-crammed, self-appointed blockbuster.

In tone and look, Battleship does feel like a spin-off from one of Michael Bay’s ultra-loud slices of robotic mayhem; it’s certainly in love with the military hardware and mass destruction on display, and is unabashedly patriotic. This is a film that would blow the word ‘subtle’ out of the water if it dared to sail within firing range. Explosions pile on top of more explosions as an outnumbered and outgunned American naval crew try to outwit a technologically superior alien invasion force who have decided to invade our planet (best not to ask why they have chosen to do so, or how the crew find out why). Naturally they pick Hawaii as a starting point. Well, wouldn’t you?

On the surface it’s a simple jingoistic exercise in machismo and CGI: clean shaven Americans blow up evil aliens, the end. All well and good of course (assuming it’s done well), though the suggestion that those wacky scientists are to blame for bringing this threat to us by attempting to send a signal to a nearby exo-planet grates somewhat. Never mind the highly questionable science – what annoys is the oh-so-tired suggestion that science will bring about Earth’s doom, and the military will naturally have to step in to save the world. Er, is it the 1950s again?

Even more laughable than the back-of-a-fag-packet plot is its barking mad cast. Taylor Kitsch and Rihanna decked out in military uniforms couldn’t look more out of place if they were running for parliament. Kitsch once again looks all at sea (I-thank-you) in a big budget sci-fi spectacle, after last month’s otherwise OK John Carter.  His singular lack of charisma and expression recalls that other one-dimensional Hollywood star, Paul Walker; line them up side by side and you could start building a fence. Rihanna’s anaemic performance suggests she should probably stick to the singing. Brooklyn Decker as Kitsch’s girlfriend was clearly only cast for two reasons, though to be fair they both offer strong competition to the beautiful mountainous scenery she finds herself stranded in. Thank God then for Liam Neeson, who injects some much-needed presence to his role as Admiral Shane, though the plot relegates him to the sidelines in little more than a cameo (or maybe that’s what attracted him to the largely Hawaiian-set production – who knows?). Occasionally he looks as if he can’t quite believe he actually signed up for this nonsense. Audiences will probably be thinking the same.

Almost single-handedly stopping the whole thing from sinking under the weight of its own preposterousness is director Peter Berg’s occasional hints of tongue-in-cheek. I particularly enjoyed the bit where Kitsch and his Japanese buddy ran up the deck of a sinking ship just to jump off the stern, rather than leap off the side like everyone else. Clearly that route just wasn’t quite spectacular enough. It’s moments like these when the ridiculousness of it all shines through that you can’t help but smile, and I have to admit I smiled quite a few times. The mid-film sequence where the crew play Battleship for real with the aliens (after radar has been rendered useless) is also quite amusing, though you do end up wishing you could just go home and play the game instead. But I guess that was Hasbro’s mission all along; there’s certainly no doubt which of the two will have a longer shelf life.

[xrr rating=2/5]

Baying for Blood: why Transformers deserves better than Michael

So Michael Bay has signed on to direct Transformers 4. For the love of God, this has to stop.

Michael Bay
Michael Bay illustrating the size of his last paycheck

Those of you familiar with my older blog stuff will know that I was, and still am, quite a big fan of The Transformers. It was the all-consuming passion of my childhood: I bought the toys, watched the cartoons, collected the Marvel comics. For fans, the prospect of a live-action movie adaptation was an outlandish pipe dream, doomed never to see the light of day after the 1980s craze for the Robots in Disguise inevitably burnt itself out.

Then a funny thing happened: Hollywood went and made one. With the big studios increasingly turning to established properties and brand names in their search for bankable hits, and with special effects technology having matured to the point where it was both technically and economically viable, it was only a matter of time before Optimus Prime and company conquered the multiplex, having already succeeded on so many other media platforms. Even better, Steven Spielberg himself signed on to executive produce. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, in two words: Michael Bay. Actually, to be fair, I did enjoy the first movie. No, it wasn’t the epic experience I had been dreaming about for twenty years, but it captured something of the spirit of the early comics and cartoons, and certainly had plenty of action and spectacle to dazzle the eyeballs. Crucially, it also had a human dimension on which to hang the tale of warring robots – a necessary entry point for newcomers as well as old timers like myself. As Spielberg himself pitched it, it was the story of a boy and his car. You could quibble about the casting, the changes to established Transformers mythology, or the flimsy plot, but to me it was a satisfying experience; and there was plenty of scope for future installments to build upon its foundations whilst delving deeper in to the franchise’s rich history.

That’s the frustrating thing about being a TF fan. Too often they are dismissed as a cheap toy series for kids whose convoluted backstory is childish nonsense and whose carcass has provided rich pickings for Hollywood. Sorry, but this just isn’t true. It was the UK Marvel comics (populated by a talented and enthusiastic bunch of artists and writers, led by the brilliant Simon Furman) that treated these characters with real respect and developed a series of gripping, intriguing, and thought-provoking stories told on an epic scale which fired the imagination.

Grimlock
Grimlock - Michael Heseltine in disguise?

Bringing together a variety of different genres – not just adventure and science fiction, but also fantasy, horror, comedy, even noir – the best of these tales were real page-turners for boys (and maybe girls too) of a certain age. There was even politics on offer. One long-running storyline concerned the prolonged absence of an elected Autobot leader following the death of Optimus Prime and the potential candidates in the running to take over. I like to think this was a political commentary on the state of the Conservative Party at the time (the aggressive Grimlock/Michael Heseltine (delete as appropriate) vies for the post as soon as it is vacant, without a great deal of internal support).

Incredible as it may sound, these robotic characters were vividly brought to life with distinctive personalities and relationships. Of course there were a few duds, as with any comic (usually they were the imported American strips…), but there was a genuine consistency in its quality of output. So good was his standard of storytelling that Furman was put in charge of the US Marvel TF comic, and he’s been writing TF comic scripts on and off ever since.

I know that these characters are interesting and I’ve seen great stories told with them. So it was sad to see what Michael Bay did with his first sequel, Revenge of the Fallen. The plot had tantalising possibilities as it indeed reached back in to its own version of Transformers lore, but the least satisfying parts of the first film were this time promoted to the front line: the tedious humour was made longer and even less funny, the characters became sillier, the action noisier and more confusing. It became clear that Bay had no real interest in the Transformers themselves beyond grabbing them like a five-year old and smashing them together for the sake of instant gratification. All he saw was cool action scenes involving giant robots. Hey, we all want cool action scenes with giant robots; of course we do. But we also want strong characters and a good story – things that seem to elude him, or he is content to ignore.

The third film, Dark of the Moon, promised to fix the problems in the second and return the series to the tone of the first, with even more impressive action. We got the impressive action, but everything else about the threequel was a dismal failure. The worst entry in the series yet, it was a loud, obnoxious bore, content to deafen us with ever larger scenes of mass destruction, intermittently broken up with ogling shots of the new female lead. It left a nasty taste in the mouth, and the closing scenes confirmed that Bay now appeared to view the Transformers with utter contempt. Unfortunately, it was also staggeringly successful at the box office.

Now comes news that the director has signed on for part four. This means two things: that enough truckloads of cash were dumped on Bay’s front porch to make him sign on the dotted line, and we’ll be getting more of Bay’s own “interpretation” of The Transformers. Which is nothing short of a disaster. PR guff about how the next film will deliver “a whole new re-imagining of Transformers” do little to assuage one’s fears, despite the fact that he has apparently been developing an idea with Spielberg in recent months.

Spielberg’s diminishing influence on the series is all too apparent; a shame, as it is probably only he who could take the series away from Bay and place it in the hands of someone with a greater understanding of the franchise’s potential. The best thing they could do is start from scratch: hire a director who appreciates the material, leaf through some of the classic comics and adapt one of the great stories (like Target: 2006 for example, or Wanted: Galvatron – Dead or Alive). My dearest wish is to see Death’s Head on the big screen – but not if Michael Bay is calling the shots.

More than a guilty pleasure?

The irony of being a movie fan is that no-one dares buys you any dvds (surely the most obvious of presents for any film geek), in case you already own them. This being the case, I like to take steps to ensure that, come the 25th of December, there will be one or two shiny discs for me under the Christmas tree. A small list of suggestions in the appropriate email inbox usually does the trick, I find.

This year, at the top of the aforementioned list were a couple of items: one was the Blade Runner 5-disc set, a film which impresses more with every viewing (and there will be plenty more viewings this year, I am certain);  and Transformers, something which will not come as a surprise to anyone who has read any of my earlier posts. I saw it twice at the cinema, and now a third time on my brand new dvd, and all I can say is: here is another film that just gets better with every viewing.

Now let’s be clear on this. I am in no way comparing Michael Bay’s Transformers to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. The latter is a masterpeice of cinema and a brilliant work of science-fiction; it treats its audience with intelligence; it dazzles, intrigues, and absorbs. It is a film that MUST be seen more than once to be properly appreciated. Transformers, on the other hand, is a commerical product designed purely to make money, based on toys and a cartoon series that were also products designed purely to make money. But the joy of seeing my childhood heroes come to life on the big screen earlier in the year meant that it was Transformers I was keenest to watch post-Xmas present opening. (In my defence, I had caught Blade Runner: The Final Cut at the cinema a few weeks earlier, so I had no urgent desire to watch it straight away again.)

So is this post going to be another act of worship at the altar of Cybertron’s finest? Well, possibly. What struck me was that, despite the obvious reduction in screen size, Michael Bay’s film worked just as well at home as it did in the multiplex. In fact, in some ways it worked better: the action is now easier to watch, it’s more intelligible. And because the script concentrated more on the human characters than the robots, the story was ultimately more involving. My original problem with the film was that the Transformers themselves were not the focus of the story, which meant there was precious little characterisation of them. In hindsight though, I think this was the correct decision: it opened the film up to a much wider audience, introducing this new world of TF to fans and newcomers alike. It allowed the audience to share the ‘Wow’ factor that Shia LaBoeuf’s character experienced. And that’s what Tranformers was all about for us kids in the 80s – how ‘Wow’ it all was. It was only later, through the comics and cartoons, that we came to know the characters of the Transformers themselves more intimately, and my hope is that the in-development sequel will shift the focus to them.

Of course Michael Bay’s film is no masterpiece: it’s too silly to be that. Bay’s direction can still ellicit snorts of derision when he pays too much attention to how wonderful US military hardware looks at sunset. But after three viewings, I think there is genuinely a case to be made that the film is more than a guilty pleasure. It is Fun with a capital F, because, aside from some phenomenal special effects, it has some heart to it – probably the first Bay film to do so. My gut feeling is that Steven Speilberg’s influence as Executive Producer has much to do with that, but I feel nevertheless a little credit should go Bay’s way. Having said that, my dream choice for the director’s chair of the sequel would be James Cameron, who is surely the best action director in Hollywood (except he hasn’t directed anything for 10 years), but I suspect he has bigger fish to fry these days – all-singing, all-dancing, 3-D fish by the sounds of it (the in-production Avatar).

So anyway, ramble over. I’m a Transformers fan, and I liked the new Transformers movie. Call me nuts if you like, but I’ll take it over the noisy, senseless, migraine-inducing 80s cartoon movie any day. Loved it when I was 10; watching it again a few months ago, I was appalled at how badly it had dated. It might have a certain nostalgic value of course, but in no other way can it compete with the new version. Except some of the Transformers looked cooler in animated form, maybe. Maybe.

Bitter Reality of Life (or Why I Should Never Have Watched Superman IV)

A friend was telling me the other day how he distinctly remembers, as a child, the very first time he came out of the cinema disappointed with what he had seen. This is an extremely unusual experience for a kid; they seem to happily enjoy anything they’re taken to see at the flicks. But this was an exception. It was the 1980s, and the film was Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.

If, like me, you remember pestering your parents to take you see the latest Hollywood blockbuster at the local fleapit (no shiny new multiplexes in those days, thank you very much), then you probably also remember being told: ‘No’. How cruel it seemed at the time. Why on earth would they not want to go and see that amazing new film being advertised everywhere? It’s clearly going to be the most amazing thing ever! Maybe it was because there was no time to be spared on trivial things like cinema, or maybe it was just too expensive to do on a regular basis. Or maybe, just maybe, they were trying to protect us (and themselves) from the whiff of a cinematic stinker.

Now I got taken to some pretty cool things in my youth: E.T., Return of the Jedi, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I was even taken to see the original Transformers movie, God bless my father – what a wretched waste of time and space that must have seemed to him. Even I must acknowledge that what seemed great then is now revealed to be a pretty lousy and cheap piece of animation. But as I have described in earlier posts, I lived and breathed Transformers. I begged and begged at the time to go and see it, and I actually got my wish.

The following year, I begged and begged to go and see Superman IV: the Quest for Peace. I loved Superman back then – they showed the films pretty frequently on tv. The original still stands today as the very model of a comic-book adaptation. And now there was a brand new one being advertised in the papers, with the familiar 3D logo emblazened on the cinema listings in the local paper. Fantastic! But try as I might, there was no persuading the holders of the purse-strings. I was doomed to grudging disappointment.

Fast forward to 2007 – twenty years later. I have just purchased the Chistopher Reeve Superman dvd boxset, and, having enjoyed the wonderful first two films, and the patchy (I’m feeling charitable) third one, it was time to finally see what Superman IV was really like. Somehow I had managed to avoid the various tv showings over the years, though I had became aware of the critical drubbing it constantly received in all quarters. Surely it can’t be all that bad, I thought – just expect a disappointing film, not a bad one.

Oh boy – there’s no getting around it, the film is a travesty. A complete travesty. From the terrible opening credits to the dire storyline to the abysmal special effects, the film is barely better than a school’s end-of-year play production. Christopher Reeve of course rises above the mess as always, proving to be the definitive Superman. But even he can’t save this stinker.

So my parents were right after all – they did me a favour all those years ago. A childhood dream may finally have been realised, but then again, perhaps some dreams are better off forgotten.

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be – except in Hollywood

This summer has been a bizarrely regressive experience for me so far. It began in a small way, seeing Spidey take on Venom in Spider-Man 3 at the start of the blockbuster season, bringing back memories of reading comics in the 80s. Then along came Die Hard 4.0 which, whilst in no way resembling its predecessors, recalled some more fond memories. But then nostalgia overload really took off when Transformers arrived at the multiplex.

This was a film that I had only ever dreamt about in the dim and distant past, but never imagined in a million years would actually happen. Growing up, I lived Transformers. Bought the toys, collected the comics, annuals and books, watched the cartoons, stuck the stickers, pinned up the posters… you name it. When dear old mum gave away my toy collection to a charity shop after I had outgrown them, without my knowledge,  I was mortified (only on the inside of course).

When I was at university in the mid-90s, and the internet began to take off in a big way, my first few surfings uncovered rumours of a live-action spectacle. Back then of course, there were rumours of anything and everything. Movie gossip sites like Ain’t It Cool and (the now defunct) Corona’s Coming Attractions regularly reported utter nonsense, and had nothing like the credibility they do today. “Transformers?” I thought, “That would be amazing, but are they even still going? Who would pay to see a movie based on an 80s fad that no-one remembers anymore, apart from me?”

It turns out – quite a few. Flash forward a few years, and Hollywood is snapping up any reasonably well-established franchise they can lay their grubby little hands on. Their calculation was: well known brand name = ready-made market. Having churned out comic book adaptations for the last few years, with varying degrees of success, it was inevitable the toy market would also benefit from this frenzy for guaranteed money-earning properties. And Transformers had everything: a rich history of money-making via a variety of media, not to mention a fanbase of several years standing (numerous versions came and went after the initial craze died away; Beast Wars for example). I can just see their line of thinking: “Suckers like me who remember the original toys and stories would surely pay to see this film, plus they might even bring along their kids who can get hooked on all the new marketing gimmicks – sorry, tie-ins – we put out. Eeeeeasy money.”

Sorry if this all sounds quite cynical; I was over the moon when they officially announced it. Even the hiring of Michael ‘Armageddon’ Bay couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm that much. I can’t say I prefer the new look Transformers to the old ones, but I guess some changes were inevitable. When I finally saw the movie, I really liked it. My jaw dropped on several occasions – no mean feat in these days of CGI. But the main thrill was finally to see the Transformers come to life on the big screen. And it really did feel like a Transformers story: maybe it was Steven Speilberg’s influence as executive producer, but the story had a very 80s vibe to it, being told from a kid’s perspective. I had niggles of course, like any fanboy: the action was occasionally confusing, we saw far too little of Cybertron, and Optimus Prime had a touch too much humour for my liking (why is “My bad” so prevalent in scripts at the moment?). But it got far more right that it got wrong, and as an introduction to a new universe, it worked great. And with over $300m in the bank in the U.S. alone, it worked financially too.

Now, when I walk down the high street, I see Transformers merchandise everywhere. It’s suddenly cool to like them again. I can’t explain why it is both weird and fantastic to see little ‘uns pointing up at toys of Optimus Prime, desperate for their mum to buy it. Maybe I feel vindicated in some perculiar way. Is this the way all hardcore geeks feel when their beloved property of choice gets the Hollywood treatment?

Anyway, who cares? Thanks to Hollywood’s creatively bankrupt commercial sensibilities, which often come under fire for producing brain-dead entertainment (and rightly so of course), I actually got to see my dream up on the big screen. Let’s hope a sequel is on the way. Thank you Hollywood!