POSTED ON MAY 23, 2012:
Clearly, Something's Wrong
Two films explore opposite sides of imbecility
Outside of some Coke Zero product placement and Hasbro's desire to make boatloads (ahem) of cash from of 50-year-old board game whose rules are based as much on luck as an obtuse process of elimination, the big screen port (yes, I could do this all day) of Battleship amazes solely in how it seems to have not one original bone in its big, stupid, pointlessly jingoistic body.
Alex Hopper is a dipshit. The young and dumb lady-killer (as portrayed by Taylor Kitsch) is having a conversation about this fatal character flaw with older brother, and Naval officer, Stone Hopper (Alexander Skarsgård) when Alex spies the very blonde, very hot, Samantha Shane (Brooklyn Decker). She has the refined tastes of someone who comes to a dive bar for a microwaved chicken burrito. Cruelly, she is denied so Alex breaks into the adjacent convenience store to steal one and deliver it to the object of his newfound desire, because, you know, that would happen. A few tasers later and Alex's brother is reading him the riot act about being a moronic, jobless bum who will now be joining him in the Navy.
Of course, Alex winds up on a ship serving under Samantha's father, Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson) who loves and respects his daughter but has no idea what she sees in the undisciplined Alex. When a joint, international Naval exercise called RIMPAC brings a bunch of seadogs together, Alex comes to blows with a Japanese captain (Kakihara himself, Todanobu Asano--Ichi the Killer fans will know his name). The hardnosed Admiral brings that hammer down on Alex, crushing his hopes of asking for permission to marry Samantha.
Luckily, an experiment to communicate with possible life on a distant, Earth-like world bears fruit when an armada of alien ships splash lands in the waters outside of Hawaii, turns on a huge energy field that cuts off the islands from the outside world, and sets about trying to take over the planet. Alex Hopper gets to prove his quality.
Dull and unoriginal, Battleship suffers from a particular type of tedium so familiar it almost feels comforting. Characters are paper-thin archetypes, even when cast with capable actors. The plotting is entirely predictable and on the nose -- only the buoy-targeting sequence offers anything resembling excitement. Tension is neither present nor accounted for.
Typically, the alien invaders have an overly obvious weakness that wouldn't probably matter if they invaded in vast numbers, but no. Apparently, intergalactic assholes always think they can take over the entirety of Earth with like 20 dudes and gear they borrowed from the Decepticons. Also typical, their super-advanced technology is really not that great or advanced. You can traverse the gulfs of space, but you can't come up with some kind of death ray that melts everyone's arteries all at once? Go home.
Battleship's baldly derivative set pieces are matched by designs that mine familiarity from franchises like Transformers to Halo, and innumerable properties between. Even the score, when not laden with fist-pumping rock, seems to have plagiarized Daft Punk's score for TRON: Legacy. It's almost amazing how many ways this movie has been seen and heard before.
Peter Berg's direction is workman-like as usual, though he keeps the chaos coherent at least, and seems to realize he's making a film that feels like a combination of Red Dawn and The Final Countdown. I would mention the script by one-word title scribes Erich and Jon Hober (Red, Whiteout), but it's clearly retarded.
The FX themselves are actually pretty serviceable. Nothing looks really bad, and Berg ably crafts some cool-looking shots. Less so does he cull any really good performances, though Skarsgård and Todanobu Asano are stand outs. It's still kind of blowing my mind that the guy who played one of Takashi Miike's most memorable villains could easily be mistaken for Ken Watanabe now.
But Battleship is -- weirdly -- a family movie. Kind of like a board game with heroism, love and camaraderie, a whopping dose of respect for old soldiers and an almost nerdy, childlike deification of the technology that embodies American might set against The Other. That's comforting and convenient because Battleship wants so much to make us feel so good about ourselves.
It's easy to make Sacha Baron Cohen the focus of his films, since he's their visible star, as opposed to Larry Charles.
The one-time Seinfeld writer (and inspiration for Kramer) is a social critic who happens to be a wicked satirist. His predilection for being a sharp comedy director also makes him the Second Beatle to Cohen, whose run-and-gun, somewhat-reality films Boart: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakstan and Bruno were directed by, and benefitted from the cynical, somewhat brave director.
Well, really Cohen was the brave one -- singing that Kazak National Anthem at a rodeo in Borat probably invited bodily harm -- but Larry Charles helped conceive and capture it all; two movies that inspired lawsuits and Ron Paul's confusion with their sometimes unfair but always funny gotcha takes on American culture.
But the Candid Camera aesthetic of Borat and Bruno could not last. Too many people began to recognize Cohen, no matter how he dressed or what accent he effected. So the pair has shifted gears towards not-quite-fiction with The Dictator.
Cohen plays Admiral General Hafez Aladeen, the stupid, lovelorn and narcissistic despot of Wadiya, a fictional North African country. He's so senseless and self-involved that he changes words in his native language to his own name if he doesn't understand them.
Aladeen delights in hiring celebrities to sleep with him --because he's rich and lonely -- while developing nuclear weapons to destroy Israel. When his lead scientist designs a missile that doesn't have a pointy tip like in the cartoons, Aladeen has him assassinated; because he orders assassinations with the brevity of a fart. He's convinced the citizenry really likes being oppressed by him because that's totally normal.
Unfortunately, aside from the unrecognized contempt of his people, Aladeen's second in command, Tamir (Ben Kingsley), also has plans for his leader and the vast oil reserves of Wadiya. The U.S. is rattling their sabre at Aladeen for his nuclear ambitions, so Tamir aspires to use the international tension to have his firstie assassinated and replaced with a body double before Aladeen is forced to go before the U.N. to answer for his aggression. The plan goes awry and the still living, legitimate Aledeen must fend for himself on the streets of New York.
Of course, he wants nothing more than to regain his power and not sell his oil, and so is forced to acclimate to everything he hates (Jews, Sub-Saharans, America and women) in order to get it all back.
Not-quite-fiction is a good way to describe it. The Dictator is fairly bright in its satire of tyrants that enable our uniquely American overreaction of Middle-Eastern regimes, feeding our collectively ignorant paranoia (the helicopter scene is golden) regardless of how inept the next boogeyman may be at delivering on their threats to the Homeland. We're a country that enjoys more military funding than every other nation on earth combined. What do we have to worry about? I'd love to see Larry Charles do a mockumentary about gun laws in Oklahoma, a lens for our patriarchal and nativist fears, and how reactionary our entire country has become.
Beyond that, The Dictator is funny; sometimes brutally so. Cohen is in top form, playing a more entitled version of Borat (upon learning of a pregnancy he asks if it "will be a boy or an abortion?") while Anna Faris plays his suitably ditzy, liberal, vegan, unshaved love interest with characteristic aplomb. Parcel to most Cohen adventures, really hilarious people (Bobby Lee, Fred Armisen, Kevin Corrigan, John C. Reilly and Chris Elliott, among others) make welcome cameos.
Sacha Baron Cohen and Larry Charles wind up with an answer to Team America: World Police -- an answer that skewers American Liberalism as much as it does the reactionary nihilism of the American Right. Two sides of the same coin (though only one film has animated puppets and a song called, "America, Fuck Yeah!") that are equally uncompromising and unique takes on what is wrong with us.
Because there is, clearly, something wrong with us.
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