WonderCon 2012: The Battleship Panel

By Saralyn Smith | 9 years ago

The “board game adaptation” Battleship hasn’t been getting the best buzz online. The idea of a big action film based on a board game is absurd, and it doesn’t help that the trailers have made it seem like a bad rehash of Transformers territory. That makes press events like WonderCon extra important, because the studio and filmmakers have the ability to appeal directly to the fans and prove through clips that there is validity in their concept. This is exactly what director Peter Berg tried to do with his WonderCon panel and, honestly, it kind of worked.

Berg was joined at the panel by stars Alexander Skarsgard and Brooklyn Deckar, but the real focus was on Berg’s surprisingly cogent explanations for the film’s existence and the lengthy clips he brought along. Berg began with the question that is probably most on everyone’s minds: why do this film and why do it under the Battleship brand?

Berg explained that his father was a Marine and an afficianado of naval history who would drag Berg around to naval museums and embarass him by calling the docents out on their inaccuracies. Because Berg grew up with this emphasis on naval history, he always wanted to do a film about it. More specifically, he wanted to film the story of The Essex – the ship that was the inspiration for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. There is an element of cannibalism in the true story, though, so he’s never been able to get a studio interested in it.

Instead, Berg said he looked to the game Battleship, as absurd as he admits that seems. There is a wonderful balance of simplicity and merciless brutality in the game – everything is very slow-going until you get a “hit”, then you attempt to destroy each other as quickly and brutally as possible. For Berg, such a dynamic seemed to lend itself well to film.

Berg also let the audience in on “a little secret”: there are aliens in Battleship. This, too, has an explanation. Berg wanted to make a naval film that would have intense violence recalling or harking back to the brutality of naval warfare in the great wars of the twentieth century, but he also wanted it to still feel fun and be a great summer popcorn flick. While thinking on this, he happened upon the documentary Stephen Hawkings made about aliens and “Goldilocks planets” (planets we’ve identified that are in a similar enough situation to earth’s that they could potentially foster life). Hawkings thinks it’s an awful idea to send messages out to these planets broadcasting our existence, as we are actually doing. Battleship, then, is based on the idea of what would happen if these messages were answered in the form of alien ships.

There’s an adage in film and television that you should “show, not tell”, and Universal followed Berg’s comments with two lengthy clips from Battleship. They both heavily feature Taylor Kitsch’s character, who is the (initially good-for-nothing) brother of Skarsgard’s naval officer character. In the first clip from early in the film, Kitsch’s character attempts to impress a hot chick in a bar (Deckar) by procuring a chicken burrito for her from a closed minimart. It’s actually quite an amusing sequence, in which Kitsch’s physical comedy is on full display as he wreaks havoc on the minimart and gets tasered by the police.

The second clip came from later in the film, when Kitsch’s character is responsible for a naval ship that has recovered an injured or killed alien from some wreckage. It is covered in armor reminiscent of Boba Fett and Mass Effect, the helmet of which they manage to remove. The alien springs to life and grabs Kitsch for a kind of psychic communication before its compatriots blow a hole in the ship’s hull and retrieve him. One alien stays behind (presumably to disable the ship’s engine), and Kitsch and his crew tussle with it.

The character designs and effects look much better in these clips and the film sounds far more interesting the way Berg is framing it. Unfotunately, the new trailer that closed the panel is just as terrible as every other trailer that has been released to date. Even with that, though, I find it difficult to completely dismiss Battleship now. It may not be a film classic but it may well be a fun summer blockbuster if it delivers on anything Berg promised today.