As a Black woman in America, overeducated in the ways that visual culture functions and malfunctions in its representation of folks at the margins of social constructivist power, I often find myself at odds with movies and TV that are hostile to me and full of stereotypes. In an extra cruel twist of fate, I am also the atypical "chick" in that I love me some college football (and the Steelers, for reasons of marriage), college basketball (and the Knicks/Celtics for reasons of Anthony and Rondo respectively), and action movies full of explosions and fights and strong staple characters of American cinema. I am probably the only woman who was ecstatic that her husband bought her the boxed set of Bruce Willis' Die Hard films - yippy kay yay!
All this means that I love my summer-blow 'em up-blockbusters as much as Cary Fukunaga's stunning update to Jane Eyre (2011) and the equally challenging and beautiful work of Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust (1991). However, my Summer Blockbusters do not always love me, and the Transformers flicks are a key example. This is not a review of those films, but in summary, whenever I happen upon Michael Bay's frenzied creepy robots, I am left feeling not just alienated but assaulted. See, when I see a movie, you don't always have to absolutely be speaking to a diverse audience and trying to make sure I'm excited to see it, but please don't slap me around while I'm paying you approximately $16-$20 and have to sit in seats with gum on the bottom and sticky soda on the armrests!!
As brief summary, the first and especially the second Transformers films not only take a huge dump on people of other races and ethnicities - see character's talking about John Tuturo's "jew 'fro," the whiny, cowardly hispanic roommate, and comments made by Dargis at the NYTimes - they also hate women. Women get the shaft via the main character's mom portrayed as whiny, bothersome, and silly/stupid in disturbing ways, and Megan Fox's exposed skin and comments to the press about Bay's objectification of her body. And none of this mentions the fact that Bay introduces two robot/car characters in the second film that have voices with obvious African American cadence and tone, they are bumbling fools, like a modern day minstrel show, and at one particularly low point for the entire history of cinema, they admit that they cannot help the humans with some technology related to their home-world because They Cannot Read! This is not to suggest that overt pandering is an expected or desired guiding impulse, but at least an effort Not to make a movie with hundreds of entries listed at TVTropes.org is definitely welcome.
I include this lengthy introduction and comment because of my very low expectations going into seeing Battleship (2012), and because of so many reviewers insistance on comparing the two films and two directors in a way I find both unfair and without reflection on the ways in which they differ. Even the review over at Moira, where I often refer to check out his thoughts on Sci-Fi flicks, gets it wrong because, unlike Transformers 2 (2009), Berg's film did not leave me feeling dirty and pissed off about hours in my life I will never have back again. This is because Peter Berg's Battleship, rather than being a shoddy imitation of Transformers or Transformers on water, is instead what Transformers should have been had Michael Bay not been the dreadful filmmaker that Trey Stone and Matt Parker take so much delight in skewering! Berg's film makes an effort to be inclusive and appealing to a broad range of people without dulling the action and cheesy fun.
The film bears little resemblance to the board game, and instead features your standard, obligatory, and typical summer movie characters and plot of aliens fighting a rag tag group of underdog humans who somehow triumph over their superior technological and strength capacities to save planet Earth. Set in Hawaii, the beautiful location no doubt at least offers many viewers a surrogate-vacation, albeit one full of angry aliens and people dying after being run over by giant sentient bocce balls. There are the standard scenes of guy/girl-meet-cute, alien/human-meet-scary, the death of characters to give other characters perspective, comic relief characters, and people running around stating what they are doing and projecting their ideas onto the audience so we know what we are supposed to think and feel at all times.
I haven't included a true plot summary because it's not really necessary. I am Not arguing that Battleship is a fabulous film or even a staple of anyone's DVD collection. It is a goofy, fun movie full of plot holes, missing motivations, and stupid actions. (For example, why isn't the first action taken by those left inside the impenetrable bubble to destroy the thing creating the bubble?!!! Aim Only for the giant bubble creating platforms people!!) However, Battleship presents us with differences from Bay's dreck that are worth noting. As noted by Ebert, in one of the more balanced reviews of the film, the co-captain of humanity's salvation is Japanese due to plot contrivance and probable market-research about capturing Asian markets. But this casting of one of Thor's right hand men also allows for a dissolution of lingering nasty feelings about Pearl Harbor associated with the Japanese attack. Instead of fighting each other, here Japan and America redirect the hostilities into fighting the aliens.
Additionally, our hero Lt. Hooper's main ally in charging out to fight the aliens is none other than petty officer Raikes, played by Rihanna. The government may have only recently decided to allow women to fight in combat positions, but in Berg's world, no one is better able to assist our main man than Barbadian pop songstress (and bum--magnet) Rihanna. She is on the gun in the boat with Hooper sent out to first meet the alien vessel, and seems to be the only one other than his brother able to rag on Hooper while on duty. When a soldier is injured, Hooper sends two men to take him to the infirmary, and keeps Raikes with him to continue searching the ship for alien invaders. Whether or not her prominence and casting was a callous choice aimed at pulling in young viewers who are already into her music, the choice of placing a Black woman so prominently in battling the alien forces warmed the cockles of my heart. As did the overall multi-colored array of characters on the ship including native Hawaiians.
Now, Raikes is not perfect. Occupying a pseudo-butch role that admittedly leaves no room for understanding her 1) as often the sole woman amongst men on a U.S. navel vessel and 2) apparently the only woman good enough to join the men in the U.S. versus Japan soccer match that is part of the naval camp meeting activities, the character of Raikes nonetheless fires the key shot to wipe out the aliens before they can 'phone home.' And more than once Raikes channels Uhuru in her ability to operate the ships controls when the men cannot - for the geeky viewers among us. More should be said of Rihanna's performance, existing as it does in an often asexual and angry-black-woman zone I am inclined to be frustrated with the limits of, and I might say more in another post, but for now let us say that the filmmakers could have chosen to put someone like Hooper's love interest Sam in this role and instead they chose someone completely different than what Bay's choice would have been and that makes me happy!
Berg also differs from Bay when it comes to said love interest. Played by Sports Illustrated model Brooklyn Decker, this role does not offer her much too do, and yet what it does offer her does not require she be a virtually naked, whiny niny waiting to be saved or run next to the hero as arm candy. Unlike in Bay's claptrap, Decker's Sam is not filmed with her back arched and butt cheeks pushed toward the camera in titillating sex-object fashion. Sam first appears in a belly barring shirt, but hey, this is Hawaii after all and everyone is sweating and hot. Later, working with a Wounded Warrior as his physical therapist, she is clothed, professional, and obviously aware of being pretty but that is secondary to being active in helping the veteran get stronger while eluding/foiling alien aims. She does not whine about needing to be saved, and does not dither more than a second or two when on the line briefly with fiancee Hooper about blowing up an antenna. She does not even mention the personal and romantic connection between the two when discussing his assistance with the veteran and the scientist, and when on the phone with him it is he who calls her "baby" before they are disconnected. Moreover, and most exciting, is a key scene towards the end where, when they need a good driver to take out the alien antenna, it is Sam who is enlisted to drive the jeep over deep ruts and flying off inclines. This felt especially keen for me, a freakin' phenomenal driver who was razzed by a man last week about the fact that a man should be driving me around. Sigh.
Finally, unlike the Bay films that create worlds without much nuance and without any ideas other than his own allegedly 16year old boy's perspective, this film actively includes veterans (although in some scenes there were actors mixed in as well) and Wounded Warriors. As a film involving the navy, one might expect the nod to the old guard - even Under Siege (1996), amongst the topless woman and witty one-liners, snuck in a third act nod that Berg repeats in Battleship. However, the difference here is one of ability. The key man of the group whose job is to delay the transmission of the alien's request for help from home, is real life Iraq war vet Colonel Gregory D. Gadson who lost his legs below the knee. In the film, he navigates steep hills and battles with aliens in Iron Man suits, all while standing on/wearing prosthetic legs! Ragging on Sam that his grandmother or his dog could climb a hill they're ascending - his dog happens to be dead - Colonel Gadson brings a welcome gravity and depth to a role that could have been a throwaway. Combined with an early montage of veterans with prosthetic limbs, Berg has gone out of his way to highlight the payments made in flesh and blood by real life vets while celebrating the fictional glory of Navy-men battling aliens.
This review may perhaps be the most computer "ink" spilled in analyzing a film that most critics and viewers despised, but it is necessary. Transformers 1, 2... movies have done a world of harm to many of the people Bay would like to entice to see them (even as Transformers' creators give us a prime example of the pot calling the kettle black by firing Megan Fox over the least damaging and most insipid of her statements about the film making process). And people they want to see their movies include those like me who adore all forms of film, will pay for the big screen and communally charged environment that a theatre creates, and if I enjoy it, I will encourage others to go see a movie. Peter Berg was clearly inspired by Hasbro's Transformers films, but whether it was working on Friday Night Lights or appearing in The Last Seduction (1994) or one of the other projects he has worked on in between, with Battleship, Berg as done something better and different than Bay.
I did not pay to see Battleship in theaters, but I did pay to see both Transformers 1 & 2. I even stayed all the way through the second film - although a friend said she, her husband, and her 10 year old nephew left after about an hour because of how deeply offensive it was. But if I could go back in time, I would gladly pay the cost of both of those films to see Battleship instead.