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Outliers: ‘Battleship’

Outliers: 'Battleship'

Outliers are statistical anomalies, results that deviate wildly from the rest of a data set (they’re also a Malcolm Gladwell book, but that’s really not relevant right now).  In film criticism terms, outliers are the few brave souls who fall on the opposite side of a massive critical consensus.  These are their stories.

In yet another indicator of American exceptionlism’s sad decline, this summer’s big board game adaptation “Battleship” premiered overseas last week, more than a month ahead of its U.S. premiere. That meant a whole mess of reviews hit the web early too, though you could only find them by typing a random web address and waiting for Google to tell you whether it was a hit or a miss. With over 40 precincts reporting, “Battleship”‘s Rotten Tomatoes approval rating currently hovers, like an alien spacecraft that’s been designed to look like a Transformer in a craven attempt to replicate one Hasbro property’s cinematic success by attaching heretofore unconnected alien tropes to a popular naval attack board game, around 40%. Critics called it “a product, not art” and a “preposterously lunkheaded salute to American naval machismo” and “the first truly bad film of the year” — and those were some of the nicer reviews.

I’m cracking jokes here, but I don’t take any pleasure in “Battleship”‘s waterlogged reception. Okay, I take a little pleasure, but not much; barely more than one gets from a round of “Battleship” (in orders words: not much at all). Despite its questionable creative origins, I was kind of curious about this board game turned big budget spectacle.  The film is directed by Peter Berg, who made the wonderful actioner “The Rundown” and later created “Friday Night Lights,” one of the best network television series in years. I crossed my fingers that that Peter Berg would show up here; the fact that he brought along “FNL” stars like Taylor Kitsch and Jesse Plemons got me crossing my toes, too.

Even the few reviews that praised “Battleship” called it mindless fun, and their approach to critiquing the film was equally (and I suppose appropriately) without thought. The one uncharacteristically deliberate interpretation came from Tim Hayes at Critic’s Notebook, who examined “Battleship” as a product and as an (attempted) work of art, as an example of mainstream American filmmaking circa 2012, and as one piece in Berg’s larger oeuvre. Perhaps most promisingly, he suggested “Battleship”‘s Sex Wax-like gloss masks quirky details clinging like hungry barnacles below the film’s surface .

“Weird, subversive stuff keeps bubbling up in ‘Battleship.’ Restaging ‘Top Gun”s preening volleyball match as a soccer game to set up the film’s matched American and Japanese beefcake is one thing. Subsequently arranging for Taylor Kitsch and Tadanobu Asano to stand together on the vertical stern of a sinking ship like Kate and Leo and stop just a whisker short of holding hands; that takes a sense of humor way beyond the strict needs of the form.”

Yes, the belief I had in “Battleship” is shaken. Most of my tentatie optimism has already curdled into fretful anticipation; since I was the guy who always stood up for “Battleship” in conversations with friends (“Peter Berg!  ‘Friday Night Lights!'”), I’m going to be the guy they mock when everyone hates it. And maybe I’ll hate it too. But Hayes’ piece gives me a sliver of hope. At least for now, my heart will go on.

Read more of Tim Hayes’ “Yes, You Can Put Your Mind At Ease.”

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