Film

Battle-Bomb!

Audiences, offering their instant reactions like water to a dehydrated media monster, fuel a sometimes lethal word of mouth that can sink a movie before it even has a chance to play.

While it won't help the heads that rolled back when pundits were predicting death to all those attached, the minds behind the Spring stumble known as John Carter can breathe a bit easier today. After weeks of hemming and hawing, days of defending and redefining, 2012 has another confirmed megaflop to add to its growing list of obvious underachievers. Even with its early opening in foreign markets and obvious bows to billion dollar franchises like Transformers, home studio Hasbro has hit a sand bar with its unbelievably dumb Battleship. With a mere $55 million in domestic box office and an outlook of less than $300 million worldwide, the proposed tentpole (complete with sequel-suggesting stinger) now joins the Edgar Rice Burroughs blunder as one of this mediocre movie season's strategic stumbles.

Perhaps it's the jingoistic "USA! USA!" patriotism that runs through the narrative like a ribbon of rotting fudge. Maybe it's the implausible, repetitive premise (aliens invade Earth, and a ragtag group of heroes, including a rogue desperate to go straight, single-handedly take them on) and the lack of any legitimate rooting interest, character wise. It could be the 'too close for comfort' association with Michael Bay and his Farm Film Report aesthetic of manic action and blowing stuff up..."real good!" Whatever the case, the Peter Berg popcorn epic, a project he agreed to after passing on an attempt to bring Dune back to the big screen, has earned one of the rotten reputations that come with failing to fulfill your backer's fiscal desires. From studio to producers, presidents to personal assistants, it's the kind of crash and burn that will have impact in today's micromanaged Tinseltown.

The anatomy of a bomb is never simple to fully explain. Sometimes, it's the material vs. whose making it, as when a clearly outclassed Brian DePalma tried to turn Thomas Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities into a star-studded cartoon. In other instances, it's bad ideas chasing even worst talent choices (the 3D CG horror that's Mars Needs Moms, for example). No dud is predesigned. Everyone involved in even the biggest flop approaches the project with providence and possibilities. They work hard to maneuver around potential pitfalls and put their best foot forward in almost all areas of the artform. Once made, however, marketing and manipulative executives step in, and with the perverse preview process (gauging quality by group think reaction? There's logic for you) and critical catering, what was intended can end up very, very difference once the title hits theaters.

We've all heard stories from disgruntled directors regarding work taken away from them and reconfigured by the brass. Almost every underachieving effort can pinpoint a part of the process where script changes were mandated from outside (actors - especially labeled superstars - are usually guilty) and edits were offered without their complete cooperation. In fact, almost every commercial release aimed at a mainstream audience is manufactures and manipulated to meet specific demographical and artistic requirements. In general, wannabe hits have to cater to the non-English speaking sector of the planet, play via simplistic storytelling ideals, and aim its amusements directly at the 12 to 18 year old male adolescent viewer (both in truth and in type).

On the outside, Battleship appeared to have it all. There's massive mechanical motherships shooting buzzsaw like destro-orbs around the world. These weapons reduce Hong Kong, and a Hawaiian highway, to nicely rendered F/X dust. We also have body armor wearing ETs with bad attitudes and laser guns. On the side of right is the renegade champion-in-training with his fatal flaw visible for all to see, his hot blond gal pal, her button-down military dad, and the bad boy's sainted brother who is destined to die a noble, if wholly unnecessary, death. There's action, a pop star trying for silver screen cred (still looking for it, right Rihanna?) and the added bonus of a real life war hero serving as a side subtextual attempt at authenticity. As a director, Berg is more than competent (his The Kingdom is a fine War on Terror thriller) and the acting overall is OK.

So, why did Battleship bomb? Why did a movie made specifically to fulfill the known needs of the worldwide marketplace miss the mark? Well, for one thing, the movie is bad. Not awful in the sense of Uwe Boll, or Shawn Levy. It's just dumb and derivative. In fact, don't be surprised if the movie is embraced on home video as part of some elaborate homage-oriented drinking game. Secondly, the familiarity is never cut by anything new or novel. Battle: Los Angeles had the same old hackneyed plot, but tried to trick us via a found footage, cinema veritie documentary style (it didn't work). Had Berg found a way to turn the spaceman vs. soldier angle on its head, or invent a new kind of cinematic POV, he might have beat the script's banality. As it stands, he did little except add to it.

But there is something deeper here, a cynicism that runs rampant through our present day social news networking. Opinions, learned or not, kneejerk or seasoned and well reasoned are thrown our into the marketplace of ideas in the flick of a smartphone. Audiences, offering their instant reactions like water to a dehydrated media monster, fuel a sometimes lethal word of mouth that can sink a movie before it even has a chance to play. Call it the '90s TV version of acceptance. Back a decade and a half ago, the boob tube would throw random projects at the home viewer, using technology to instantly rate a response. A couple of episodes, and the ratings would dictate an authoritarian thumbs up/thumbs down. Similarly, Facebook fills up with instantaneous reactions, rendered a work's chances of winning over an audience almost impossible.

This is what happened to John Carter. It had massive expectations (live action effort from Oscar winning Pixar pro), web geek gushing, and an out of control, elephantine budget. When initial screenings suggested success, the movie was pushed and pushed hard. When critical approval (or the lack thereof) made conclusions a bit more dicey, the last hope came at the hands of those bastions of 'likes' and comment rants - the audience. Unfortunately, they didn't like the primed pulp epic, and their rejected resulted in dismal returns and a few empty corporate offices. Like any wave, there was little that could be done to stop it, and even when some came back to re-defend the film, the result was rendered moot. Consensus was created and a flop was found.

In Battleship's case, the movie is just miserable. It's stupid and doesn't apologize for being the same. It's lack of success is clearly a question of quality, not something more complex. However, in a world which failed to embrace the far better John Carter, it becomes a companion in suggested sameness. In some ways, it's like mass hysteria. Once the idea gets out there and infects the conversation, that's all anyone can talk about. Sometime, the gossip is warranted. In this case, it's apples and badly rendered extraterrestrial oranges.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image