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.