It’s spring and that means big-budget action season is here. Tom Ellen visits the set of Battleship to discover how a board game became a blockbuster
The story starts with a square-jawed young man who has a marked aversion to playing by the rules. There is untapped potential lurking beneath his rough exterior, but few can really get close to him — his inner circle is limited to an attractive lady friend and a trusty best mate, who is loyal but nowhere near as instinctive, or angular of chin.
Just as our hero seems destined for a life of fruitless rebellion, something terrible happens. We’re not talking ‘misplaced travel card’ terrible; we’re talking ‘buildings toppling, humanity cowering’ terrible. Ultimately, with no one else willing to take on the job, our protagonist shrugs off his surly attitude and finds
it within himself to save the day.
Cue earth-shaking explosions, a showcase of US military might plus a generous helping of ridiculous stunts and you have yourself the blockbuster blueprint.
But we’re not being derisive here; far from it. We’re just as content chomping popcorn in front of bright colours and loud bangs as we are stroking our chins to bleak, avant-garde melodrama.
Which is precisely why we jumped at the chance to visit Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to witness director Peter Berg and his cast — Liam Neeson, Alexander Skarsgard, Taylor Kitsch and, bizarrely, Rihanna — put together the first unashamedly ludicrous film of 2012.
“We’re for real and we’re coming at you,” says the indefatigable Berg, as he welcomes us into the gargantuan aircraft-style hangar that houses the set. “This isn’t a movie about two kids moving pegs around a board saying, ‘B5 miss, B6 hit.’ It’s a wild, adventurous, totally unique action film.”
To the cynical observer, Battleship would appear to be little more than Hasbro re-hashing its ‘adapt-a-kids’-toy-for-the-big-screen-and-watch-the-cash-roll-in’ tactic that proved so monumentally successful with Transformers. What’s more, in an apparent attempt to add fuel to the critical fire, the film even features an alien invasion. More attentive readers will recall that heavily armed extra-terrestrials did not appear in the original game.
However, any potential scepticism surrounding the film’s concept is clearly not troubling the Battleship crew. Their job, as they see it, is simply to entertain. Battleship’s naval expert, Captain Rick Hoffman — employed to ensure everything from the set design to the script is, quite literally, ship-shape — confirms this. “This isn’t Saving Private Ryan,” he reminds us, sternly. “It’s a big, fun blockbuster.”
Hoffman has been charged with giving ShortList the grand tour of the film’s cavernous set and, in between swapping salutes with motion-capture ‘aliens’ (men in grey jumpsuits with tiny white dots painted on their faces), he leads us through the kind of bombastic scenery that forms the bedrock of any self-respecting “big, fun blockbuster”.
We tiptoe among the alarmingly realistic debris of a warship’s shattered hull. The damage, Hoffman informs us, is the work of a nightmarishly savage alien weapon called a ‘Shredder’ — a razor-sharp metallic sphere which, at first glance, resembles a large, angry Ferrero Rocher.
But it’s not just the wide-eyed likes of us who are overwhelmed by the sheer size of the film. Even the actors confess they were occasionally left gobsmacked during production.
“It was insane,” says Skarsgard (True Blood), who plays Commanding Officer Stone Hopper, the sober, reasonable yin to Kitsch’s (Friday Night Lights) hot-headed yang. “One day I was in a small town in Sweden, shooting an art-house film [Lars von Trier’s Melancholia]. The next, I’m on a gigantic aircraft carrier in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, with guns going off all around me. It blew my mind.”
Of course, it’s not the just the sets and stunts on blockbusters that leave the brain reeling; the plots are equally confounding. Despite what conspiracy theorists may attest, the chances of alien ships docking in the Pacific Ocean to swap gunfire with the US Navy are slim, to say the least. So, why do these preposterous stories still have (usually) rational-minded film-goers queuing around the block to see them? “Blockbusters offer all the things that cinema is arguably best at,” explains Empire’s Helen O’Hara. “There’s excitement, explosions, adventure and maybe touches of romance or humour. It’s harder to argue that ‘You’ll wait for the DVD’ with these films because you definitely lose something on the small screen.”
Plus, apart from the impressive stunts and pyrotechnics, it’s an opportunity for us to live outside our lives, if only for two hours. “There’s an element of escapism,” says O’Hara. “Blockbusters provide the cathartic release of seeing characters act the way we perhaps wish we could — dispatching their enemies with a quip or a punch, getting the girl, saving the world and just generally doing something important.”
And in the true spirit of a box-office smash, Berg had to navigate a tricky filming schedule and the threat of an escalating budget.
Prior to setting up camp in Baton Rouge, the Battleship cast shot the bulk of the action sequences on US warships off the coast of Hawaii. Filming on water is notoriously problematic, but Berg admits they “did well at sea”, thanks largely to a bizarre — and entirely unsolicited — consultation with a certain Hollywood A-lister.“A month before we started shooting, I got a call from Kevin Costner,” Berg explains. “I don’t know Kevin, but obviously he was involved in Waterworld, which had legendary production difficulties. He said to me, ‘I know you’re doing Battleship and you can tell me to f*ck off if you want, but I’d love to share with you the lessons I’ve learned.’ I was like, ‘God, please do!’ He said the problems he encountered were down to not planning for the inevitable f*ck-ups that come with working on water, so we made sure we went into production ready for anything that could go wrong.”
THE PERFECT FORMULA
The final piece of the action equation is a captivating cast. If you don’t care about the characters then, as Kitsch neatly puts it, “You’re not accomplishing anything but blowing sh*t up.”
For Battleship, Berg has assembled every essential element in the action film equation. Kitsch provides the square-jawed, leading-man brawn, former Victoria’s Secret model Brooklyn Decker is on eye-candy duty as his fiancée and Liam Neeson adds gravitas as his eternally disapproving boss.
Plus, for sheer, tabloid-baiting quirkiness, Rihanna makes her big-screen debut as feisty petty officer, Cora Raikes.
“Raikes is a badass,” she tells ShortList during a brief break between takes. “I didn’t know if I’d be any good at first, though. I still get butterflies in my stomach every time they shout ‘Action!’ I’m putting in a lot of work to make sure I don’t look like an idiot.”
Berg has a tad more confidence in the singer’s acting abilities: “She reminds me of Will Smith — she has the same tremendous work ethic and she loves pushing herself. She’s going to have a great film career and I’m going to look like a genius [for putting her in a film first]!”
For O’Hara, Berg’s casting decisions take their cues from some of cinema’s greatest action flicks. “Battleship’s team has come straight out of the blockbuster playbook,” she says. “You’ve got the little-known lead, solid supporting cast, the hot girl. Plus, [Neeson provides] that recognisable support to add legitimacy, like Alec Guinness in Star Wars or Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen standing behind then-newbie Hugh Jackman in X-Men.”
Canny casting, spectacular scenery and mind-bending stunts; surely even the most unforgiving critic would agree that blockbusters such as Battleship may be over-the-top, but as pure cinema they’re utterly irresistible.
Battleship is at cinemas nationwide from 11 April