Last month, I introduced a new feature here at Lost in Translation, the Adaptation Fix-It Shop, where I try to salvage works that so missed the mark that audiences start wondering what was really being adapted. This month, I bring Battleship into drydock.
Battleship had major problems from the outset. The movie was a victim of the Save the Cat approach to scripts that the check boxes were visible onscreen. The director did make some attempts to link the movie to the game with the alien shells given the shape of the pegs used and the grid calling. The core problem with the movie starts with the script*. There are several good ideas in the movie that just get pushed aside because studios either can’t or won’t take the risk of a film that doesn’t follow Save the Cat.
In a discussion with other Crossroads Alpha contributors, a couple of ideas came up on how to adapt Battleship, the game. The first was to go the route of The LEGO Movie. The movie would look like a dumb version of a war movie, with the ships looking the way they do in the game. The reveal in the last third of the movie is that everything up to that point was a game between two brothers, older and younger. The tactics of one side, being blatant and wrong, is just the kid brother not having the experience that the older one has with the game.
The second Battleship idea built on top of the above. Instead of two brothers playing, it would be a game between a navy vet and his young grandson. As the vet tells his stories of service, the young boy imagines them in terms of the game and other toys. The movie would be about how the characters bond over the game and how a young child uses what he knows, in this case, the game and his other toys, to try to understand the grown-up world.
Both of the above ideas make use of the game as the basis of the adaptation. In the first, the game is in the background, hinted at until the reveal. The second uses the game first as a narrative frame and then as the action. Both ideas could still use the pegs as the shells fired by the ships’ guns and as torpedoes. The resulting movie would be far ahead of what was made and could easily be done using Battleship‘s $200 million budget.
With the concept of adapting the game of Battleship not just possible but capable of thriving, what do we do with what was released? Tossing away $200 million, even in a hypothetical situation, is never a good idea. Is there anything in the movie that can be salvaged before we scupper the film and turn it into a coral reef?
There were several great ideas lost in Battleship. Let’s start with the premise of the film as released – an alien invasion needs to be stopped and the only ship capable of doing so is a World War II era battleship, either due to the older technology or having guns powerful enough to penetrate the alien hulls. Ignoring that I’ve just described the Battlestar Galactica remake**, the idea of a veteran being brought out of retirement for one last mission is a common theme in fiction. In this case, it’s possible to keep the designated screw-up, as required by Save the Cat in the story, but the USS Missouri needs to be brought in far sooner than the last quarter of the movie. The titular ship should not be treated as a Chekhov’s 16″ gun. There’s enough potential drama having the Missouri‘s crew teaching the young screw-up about naval tactics and a cat-and-mouse hunt in the Pacific that introducing and then killing off the screw-up’s older brother/mentor is unnecessary. If the new movie is to continue to be an adaptation of the game, have the battleship take command of a small fleet of survivors that include a small patrol or torpedo boat, a destroyer or frigate, a submarine, and an aircraft carrier. The extra ships don’t need to be that involved, but the aircraft carrier could send out planes for reconnaissance.
The alien invasion in Battleship showed signs of being thought out by scriptwriters. There seemed to be at least one invader working against his fellows, helping the humans. There was a colour difference, red instead of purple, and the alien looked directly at scientist Cal Zapata, played by Hamish Linklater, but did nothing to stop him. This may have been the remnant of a plotline butchered by a Save the Cat rewrite. The problem is that a movie doesn’t have enough time available to flesh out this subplot. Battleship spends little time on the aliens, something that kept the invaders as a menace. Having intra-invader conflict, though, becomes opaque; the audience doesn’t have enough information to go on because of how little time is spent with the aliens. Rectifying the problem means changing to a format that supports a longer narrative arc, such as television or comics. Combining this plot arc with the bringing from retirement arc described above does a disservice to both. The focus of a Battleship adaptation should be on the battleship. Switching over to the aliens draws attention away from where it should be. Thus, for the alien invasion with internal conflict, the story should be its own, with humanity fighting and working to make allies with the opposing alien faction.
Finally, the greatest waste in the move Battleship was the subplot featuring Lt. Colonel Mick Canales, played by Colonel Gregory D. Gadson. Col. Gadson is on active duty with the US Army, having served in several wars, including Operation Desert Storm, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He lost both legs below the knee in 2007 when a roadside bomb exploded in Baghdad. Lt. Col. Canales’ character arc involved getting used to having lost his legs. When the alien invasion begins, Canales takes two civilians with him to obtain needed gear. The idea of an injured war vet returning to duty despite his injuries deserves its own film. This time, instead of being a supporting subplot, the wounded vet takes charge of a resistance cell, becoming the focus. The idea could work both as a movie and as a longer format, again, like television. If a TV series, the show could combine this element with the alien in-fighting element above without losing focus on either. The cell could and should discover that the aliens aren’t monolithic and do have a weakness.
From one leaking scrap heap of a movie, five potential great stories can be made. If there’s a lesson, it’s this: Even the most disappointing release can have nuggets that can form the core of something great.
* Not necessarily the scriptwriter. Writers are seeing more and more changes done to their work to the point where the final product is nothing like the original script, but, due to Writers Guild regulations, they can’t have their names removed.
** The movie’s USS Missouri had a few things in common with the Galactica at the beginning of the remake mini-series, including being a museum crewed by her original crew and having technology that wasn’t hackable by modern methods. If the game had been called Carrier and the movie featured the USS Hornet, Universal could have grounds for a lawsuit against itself.
The game Battleship is a venerable one, dating back to a pad-and-paper release by Milton Bradley in 1931, and even that game may have just been a codification of a game that existed before then. Milton Bradley released Battleship again in 1967, this time as a board game with plastic representation of ships and pegs to track hits and misses. The game was simple enough, hide your ships well enough on your board while still trying to find your opponent’s vessel. Last person to still have an un-sunk ship won. Nice, simple, not even a backstory involved. Just two evenly matched fleets, each with a battleship, aircraft carrier, destroyer, submarine, and patrol boat, trading shots.
In 1984, Hasbro bought out Milton Bradley and maintained it as its own subsidiary. This gave Hasbro access to a large number of popular games, such as Battleship. Hasbro has also been developing live-action movies of various toy lines over the past few years. Naturally, Battleship would be turned into a movie.
The movie Battleship had some problems. It had a $200 million budget, but, unlike Thor, the money wasn’t spent well. Actors were wasted in roles. The script had several eye-rolling errors, including an alien ship with materials “not found on the periodic table of elements”.* The movie plays out as a by-the-numbers action movie, with the lead character being such a screw up that his family still takes care of him in his mid-twenties, a love interest whose father is in charge of the screw up, a sacrificial family member, a rival the screw up has to work with for the greater good. The plot is telegraphed; twists are seen coming.
A judicious editor should have had a go at the script before it reached the filming stage. The first half hour sets up subplots and could have been done better and shorter. There are elements of the game poking in and out of the movie, but the titular battleship (played by the USS Missouri) is a Chekov’s gun and not the main stage. The board game’s grid appears after radar is useless to track the alien vessels; tsunami trackers allow the heroes to detect the aliens’ movements. The shots are even called the same way – “G-4”.
Obviously, an entire movie of grid-calling would get tedious. At the same time, that same grid-calling is the essence of Battleship. Games tend to abstract details; in real naval battles, ships keep moving so that they’re harder to hit, and the movie reflects that. There are several shots of five-ship groupings, and there’s an attempt at getting the game’s ships in, with the aircraft carrier, the battleship, and the destroyer.** The aliens’ shells even look like the pegs from the game.
With all that, though, the movie really can’t do much more with the Battleship title. It would be a far better movie under a different name. Stunt casting didn’t help. Liam Neeson is wasted with what little screen time he has. Rhianna didn’t bring much to her role, though she also didn’t take away from it; an experienced actor could have done more with the role of Raikes, the weapons specialist.*** With the addition of invaders from space, the movie was really Battleship in name only and another, a video game, would’ve fit the plot better.
Worse, there were elements in the plot that had so much more potential. The subplot of Mick****, a double amputee US Army colonel acting as an impromptu resistance against the aliens, could have been its own movie. The idea of using an older warship against an alien invasion because modern electronics are too easily hacked could have been done.***** There were bright spots throughout the movie. The aliens show tactical intelligence, wanting to get communications back up while disrupting infrastructure and military resources. They also don’t just attack in rushes to get killed; at the end of the movie, the aliens still had the higher number of kills.
Overall, the movie Battleship was disappointing. Although it had little to work from, it squandered what it brought together.
Next week, on adapting games to the big screen.
* All metals, even alloys, can be found on periodic table of elements. The table even leaves room for elements not found or created under lab conditions, just based on atomic structure.
** For all we know, there was a submarine, too, but we couldn’t see it under the water.
*** This is a risk whenever bringing in a singer as an actress; see also Kylie Minogue in Street Fighter.
**** Played by Colonel Gregory D. Gadson, who lost both legs above the knee in Iraq and is still on active duty. Sure, not much of a stretch in the role, but he knows the role well.
***** And has, though it was called a Battlestar instead.
This summer is starting to shape up to be the Summer of Adaptations*. Several movies based on old TV shows and even board games are heading to theatres already, plus sequels and even adaptation of novels.
A quick preview
First, Battleship, based on Hasbro’s game of fleet destruction. One of the trailers even points the connection out in the first words used. Aliens arrive on Earth to turn two fleets into personal weapons of war. Either the scriptwriter got meta or desperate. Sadly, the trailer didn’t include the classic line, “You sank my battleship!” The movie could be a fun popcorn outing held back by the connection to the existing property.
Next, John Carter, which is already out. Disney’s adaptation of Edgar R. Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars was released at a bizarre time for what would normally be and should have been a summer release. A shake up at Disney may have doomed John Carter, with a new exec doing everything possible to tank an out-going exec’s project. The movie deserves better, though a full review and analysis is forthcoming.
The 21 Jump Street movie continues a disturbing trend of taking a popular-in-its-day TV series and turning it into a comedy. The original 21 Jump Street starred Johnny Depp as a cop going undercover at a high school. The movie adaptation has Tatum Channing and Jonah Hill going undercover, with the movie aiming for laughs. That worked oh so well for Starsky & Hutch and Land of the Lost.
Season two of A Song of Ice and Fire is due out in April. HBO signed for a second season after one episode. The first season showed the strength of the team adapting A Game of Thrones and the difficulties that traditional broadcasters face when competing with cable stations.
The Dark Shadows adaptation by Tim Burton is being filmed. The original series was a supernatural soap opera, featuring the trials and tribulations of vampire Barnabas Collins. Tim Burton’s version, though, will turn it into a comedy. Given Burton’s past work, most likely a dark comedy. I expect the movie to be successful at the box office, even if it isn’t faithful to the original.
Wrath of the Titans is the sequel to 2010’s remake of Clash of the Titans. Both movies can be thought of remakes of Ray Harryhausen’s Clash of the Titans, which was a showcase for the best stop-motion animation. The 2010 version** turned the stop-motion into CGI, then had 3-D technology retrofitted, and was a decent action movie. Wrath will follow the heroics of Perseus and is being filmed for a 3-D presentation. I expect the movie to have a decent success, though not record setting at the box office.
The Three Stooges is probably the oddest adaptation to hit the screens this year. The original Stooges made their name through a series of shorts before getting full-length films. The adaptation will have Sean Hayes, Will Sasso, and Chris Diamantopoulos as Larry, Moe, and Curly with the setting moved to the current year. This… yeah, hard to tell how the movie will do. It will have to walk a fine line; it has to keep fans of the Three Stooges happy with the portrayal while still bringing in a modern audience. It’s a movie to keep an eye on.***
Again, I’ll toss it out to you. What adaptations are you looking forward to seeing? What ones are making you cringe?
Next week, something will be here.
* Add reverberation as needed.
** A full analysis is planned.
*** Before it starts poking.