"Battleship," the new Navy vs. aliens film starring Taylor Kitsch, has a reach that goes far beyond its namesake's humble origins. It remains impressively true to the tenets of the board game; overflows with enough spectacular computer-generated imagery and gorgeous actors to make it an eye-popping spectacle; and doubles as the greatest Navy recruitment film ever made.
But while Lt. Hopper (Kitsch) and his good-looking crew (Brooklyn Decker, Rihanna) perform admirably in their fight, the film does nothing for your confidence in the event of an alien attack. This military appears flat-footed in the face of hostile extra-terrestrial visitors: Do we not have a plan in the event of an alien invasion?
It's a distressingly short answer from a man who's been covering the U.S. military for more than a decade, though he offers a measure of solace with his assessment of our Navy.
"But (the film) does raise an interesting thing—the U.S. Navy is so far ahead of any other navy in the world, that (Hollywood) actually had to pit it against alien invaders to maker the movie more dramatic."
Normal Polmar is a distinguished naval analyst and author who's acted as consultant or adviser to three Secretaries of the Navy and two Chiefs of Naval Operations. Asked about our alien preparedness, he manages to be moderately more comforting before turning fatalistic.
"Several government agencies are involved in planning for alien contact, either on Earth or in space. Remember, we have a space station—what happens if one day someone shows up on the space station who is not brought up on a Russian or a Chinese capsule? So, yes, there are plans for alien, or non-Earth contact."
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But "contact" is far different from "invasion."
"Now, when you use the word 'invasion', I seriously doubt that. In order to prepare for military action, you have to know what the potential threat is. Are these people at the same technology level we are? Or are they 20 centuries ahead of us? If they're 20 centuries ahead of us, forget it, if their attitude is one of non-benevolence. So you cannot prepare for an invasion of aliens."
One of the ironies of the film is that despite its title, the last battleship was decommissioned in 1992. Featured in the film is The Missouri, aka The Mighty Mo', where the Japanese formally surrendered to the Allied Forces at the close of World War II.
Since then, the battleship has given way to Arleigh-Burke destroyers, which are faster and lighter. Polmar says the new class of destroyers' primary advantage over the battleship is, "they have an anti-aircraft capability. They can shoot down airplanes, which a battleship can't."
And presumably, alien invaders?
"I didn’t say that. I'm not going to say that. I ain't going to even imply it and don’t you imply that I implied it," Polmar snarls with a chuckle.
For all his cynical eye-rolling about alien invaders, Schachtman was impressed by the diplomatic calculations at play in the film, as director Peter Berg was careful not to inflame any international tensions, something that would've been easy enough in a film about alien invaders striking off the coast of Hawaii.
"It's interesting because the Navy's really being targeted toward China, yet they made sure to have China get attacked in the movie so that it wasn't like U.S. vs. China. And they also didn’t want to re-ignite some U.S.-Japanese tension, because this is taking place at Pearl Harbor, there's lots of resonance there, so they made sure us and the Japanese were friends, too."
Berg and his team may have been motivated not just by geopolitical considerations, but by the fact that China is one of the fastest growing film markets in the world--there's no reason to anger the government or the movie fans.
A sound international strategy also has allowed the film to gross more than $215 million overseas so far.
In the how-real-is-this department, Berg clearly got help crafting his film from the very top of the Naval chain of command, as secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus makes a cameo as do several real-life verterans, notes Schachtman.
The issue of world-alien domination aside, the other question one has to ask about the movie is how close to the game is it?
Paper and pencil games that are the basis for modern "Battleship" games have been around since at least the early 20th century. Milton Bradley introduced the now-classic board-and-peg version in 1967. It's had several updates, but the basic premise has remained the same, and it does in the film as well.
When the aliens first come hurtling out of the sky, they do so in five ships, per the rules of the original game. Using their advanced technology, they create a barrier between themselves that renders them invisible, again just like in the board game.
Berg's commitment to the original game is so great the film even concocts a way for a Cartesian grid with coordinates like "B4!" Is it ridiculous? Sure, a little, but the buoys used to make up the grid actually exist, as part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's tsunami alert system.
Yet for all of "Battleship"'s sellling points, Schachtman remains frustrated by one glaring oversight.
"Do you realize that at no point in this film does anyone say, 'You sank my battleship'?"