Dr. Daniel Binns is a writer and producer based in Sydney. He has worked on film projects with Fox Sports, National Geographic, NEHTA, Toyota, and Sportstec. He is associate/transmedia producer on the international documentary series Riviera Reverie (2014-15), and is developing two feature films for production in 2015 and 2016. Dan holds a PhD in film and media studies, and teaches across these areas at tertiary level. His research focus is on high structuralist analyses of film – particularly Hollywood films from 1960 to the present – and transmedia relationships between film and other media, particularly literature and videogames.

Abstract:

 

The high-budget, visual-effects-laden Hollywood blockbuster film is among the most popular entertainments of the modern era. While viewing practices continue to change and evolve, the major studios still push out some twenty or thirty films each year with budgets exceeding US$10 million. The blockbuster film is often pushed to the boundaries of film studies as populist escapism. This paper seeks to position the blockbuster film as the ideal indicator of cinematic trends, demonstrating that these films are changing the very nature of narrative.

A preliminary discussion observes evolving trends in popular cinematic storytelling, and its relationship to other media, including videogames. The paper takes as its central case study the 2012 film Battleship, and examines the adaptation process as a catalyst for the representation of key plot points. The only precedent for a board game adaptation is 1985’s Clue. This paper examines the earlier film in terms of what is kept, what is left out, and what is added to the board game’s dynamics. Aarseth’s work on digital games is leveraged against adaptation theory to arrive at some understanding of the ‘narrative’ of the board game experience.

A structural analysis of key scenes in Battleship determines that rather than obscure or obfuscate the narrative, CGI-heavy sequences are central to the progression of that very narrative. This paper looks at plot progression in contemporary Hollywood blockbusters, identifying a crossover between story and spectacle that will be useful for film scholars and filmmakers alike.

Key words: cinema, Hollywood, blockbuster, high-concept, narrative, board games, scriptwriting, CGI, digital cinema

 

The high-budget, visual-effects-laden Hollywood blockbuster film is among the most popular entertainments of the modern era. While viewing practices continue to change and evolve, the major studios still push out some twenty or thirty films each year with budgets exceeding US$15 million (MPAA, 2012). The blockbuster film is often pushed to the boundaries of film studies as populist escapism. This paper seeks to position the blockbuster film as the ideal indicator of cinematic trends, in particular, the evolution of narrative.

 

The big-budget blockbuster is a mainstay of film, insofar as it remains the most popular style of storytelling in the cinema and certainly one of its highest earners. High concept American cinema – as the blockbuster might somewhat less hyperbolically be called – emerged in the mid 1970s, and was three things to the Hollywood New Wave: a response, an evolution, and the death knell. The New Wave, beginning with 1969’s Easy Rider, saw new models of film production emerge, which revolutionised film production and signaled the end of the Hollywood studio system as it existed from the 1930s. Filmmakers of the 1960s and 1970s took issue with a studio-centric model, and it was not long before a new mode of production emerged: one that elevated the director from little more than a shoot day dialogue facilitator to a driving creative visionary. The New Wave directors took the lead from their French counterparts, in particular Francois Truffaut. In his explosive article ‘A certain tendency of the French cinema,’ Truffaut dismantles the institution of French cinema as it had been seen for many years: a stagnant, unimaginative amalgam of period dramas and literary adaptations. Writing of two contemporary industry practitioners, Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, Truffaut is uncompromising:

 

‘Today, no one is ignorant any longer of the fact that Aurenche and Bost rehabilitated adaptation by upsetting old preconceptions of being faithful to the letter and substituting for it the contrary idea of being faithful to the spirit – to the point that this audacious aphorism has been written: “An honest adaptation is a betrayal” (Carlo Rim, “Traveling and Sex-Appeal”).’ (Truffaut, 1954)

 

The mode of production that Truffaut recognised is one of faithfulness to a given source, and the exploitation of talent. With regard to the former, Truffaut declares: ‘What annoys me about this famous process of equivalence [read: faithfulness of adaptation] is that I’m not at all certain that a novel contains unfilmable scenes, and even less certain that these scenes, decreed unfilmable, would be so for everyone.’ Truffaut somewhat admiringly deems these formulaic films as belonging to a ‘Tradition of Quality.’ What he recognises, though, is that these standardised productions allow little room for cinematic experimentation and innovation. Furthermore, he suggests that this prescriptive model of narrative and film production diverges from what all artists aspire to: psychological realism. The ‘talent’ Truffaut refers to is the choice of director for a given film, and this was a model that the Americans adopted, from the mid-1960s onwards.

 

The Hollywood New Wave saw the rise of the director as the main creative force on a production. Film was always a major collaborative endeavour, but the director was usually seen as little more than a facilitator of dialogue on set, providing line readings for the actors and aiding with blocking. This changed in the late 1960s and 1970s, with the old studio system re-structuring to allow for greater directorial power (Biskind, 1998, p. 35-6). These monumental shifts allowed for the production of such films as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Easy Rider (1969), and The Last Picture Show (1971). While sometimes drawing from history and literature, these films were imbued with their own sense of innovation and daring. Often melancholic, introspective, quiet films, they had the mark of their directors from top to bottom. The quiet of these films is also punctuated with spectacular moments that startle the audience from their reverie and remind them of the directors’ power. Take the final shoot-out scene in Bonnie and Clyde, for example, where the protagonists are ruthlessly gunned down, bullets plunging into their flesh over and over again. The death of the main characters in Easy Rider, too, is a shock: a largely pointless waste of bullets from an uncaring stranger. The Last Picture Show, while based on a novel, takes the source material and changes it – making the film less a coming-of-age tale than a psycho-sexual exploration of small-town America, with characters too mature for their own good clashing and falling. These are ‘events’ as per Badiou’s philosophy: in using them, these films become monumental, their narratives weaving and ducking through social expectation and barriers to creative innovation (Badiou, 2005, p. 178-9).

 

Despite the best efforts of Truffaut and his auteurs, and the radical filmmakers of the Hollywood New Wave, the public’s taste for literary adaptations and historical dramas has not diminished. What has changed, however, is the breadth of material and platforms from which film producers draw their inspiration, and their stories. It seems very little is off-limits with regards to being optioned for a film adaptation. In terms of book-to-film adaptations alone, 2012 saw the release of the screen versions of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Literary adaptations are but the tip of the iceberg. In the same year, Marvel Studios released The Avengers, the culmination of some five years of lead-up and introduction films adapted from almost eighty years of Marvel comic book and graphic novel series. Also with its origins in comics, and also released in 2012, was Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, the final chapter in his Batman trilogy. This year also saw the re-boot of the Spiderman film franchise, with the release of The Amazing Spider-Man. The above summary is not including the equal, if not much greater, amount of films released outside America and Great Britain based on books, comics, and manga. 2012, though, saw the revival of a source of inspiration little seen since the 1980’s: the board game. While films and television series based on toys have been released for some decades – Transformers, Pokémon and G.I. Joe, for example – the board game has proven a well from which producers seem reluctant to drink, with one notable exception.

 

1985’s Clue was a major release that flopped in the cinemas, but has since attained something of a cult status (Vary, 2013). British writer Jonathan Lynn (creator of the immensely popular satire Yes Minister) took the helm of the project after John Landis – of Blues Brothers fame – departed to direct Spies Like Us. Landis stayed on as executive producer, and Lynn converted his screwball script into a snappy, dialogue-driven whodunit full of red herrings and non-sequiturs. The key features of the board game are all there: the character names (Mrs. White, Miss Scarlet, Professor Plum, et. al.), the murder weapons (candlestick, rope, lead piping, etc.), and the large mansion with its requisite study, kitchen, billiard room, and the rest. What is most notable about the film is that is has not one, but three endings. In this way, Vary argues, the film was far ahead of its time, being almost engineered for a DVD version (ibid.). In each of the three endings, a different perpetrator is unmasked.

 

Murray (2008) recognises the stagnation of adaptation theory into ‘a seemingly endless stream of comparative case-studies of print and screen versions of individual texts’ (p. 4). ‘[S]uch studies,’ she writes, ‘routinely produce conclusions that provide in fact no conclusion at all’ (ibid.). The findings of these comparative studies are simply ‘that there are similarities between the two mediums, but also differences’ (ibid.). Murray determines that the problem is primarily with the unwillingness of adaptation scholars to situate the process of adaptation within any kind of social, cultural, economic or industrial context (ibid., p. 5). Raitt (2010) provides suggestions for new ways of appreciating adapted texts in terms of an active, rather than passive, receiver, which he dubs the ‘reader/viewer.’ When discussing adaptations, Raitt recalls the ‘intersection,’ a subset of adaptation first described by Dudley Andrew:

 

‘An “intersection” connotes a degree of selection and foregrounding of the original text, and cinematic creativity, which allows the film to stand as a work of art not repeatable by other filmmakers.’ (Raitt, p. 48)

 

This kind of adaptation is to be differentiated, Raitt iterates, from a ‘translation’ or ‘inter-semiotic transposition,’ which might adhere much more rigorously to the beats or structure of the source material (ibid.). The film Clue, then, works in part as an ‘intersection,’ as it maintains the dynamic and spirit of the board game, but also because it adheres to the murder mystery genre and adds its own cinematic take thereon. The story is oriented around the dynamic of the board game, and any creative flourishes – for example, Wadsworth the butler and Yvette the maid – only further allow the narrative to progress according to the game’s mandate. Take as an example Yvette, the archetypal seductive, buxom French maid. Her charms seem, predictably, to settle on and influence the male characters. But it is only in her murder that her role in the plot becomes clear, depending on which of the three endings the audience believes. In one ending, it is revealed that Yvette was formerly an escort in the employ of Miss Scarlet, a noted Washington madam. Miss Scarlet committed the murders to maintain the blackmail database she had obtained through the exploitation of her clients. In another ending, it is revealed that Yvette had an affair with Mrs. White’s husband, motivating the older woman to murder them both.

 

The three endings are key to the adaptation from board game to film. When playing the game, each of the players very quickly becomes aware that any of the characters could be the killer, and any of the weapons could have been used to carry out the deed. The randomness of the game is mitigated only by the later certainty of who murdered whom, with what, and where. With these details, revealed only at the very end of the game, the ‘plot’ suddenly becomes clear, and the players are left to speculate – if they play the way this author does – about the motives and schemes of the characters after play has ended. What is notable about the transfer from the board game Cluedo to the film Clue is the necessity of the addition of a finite story, albeit with three discrete endings.

 

Peter Berg’s Battleship (2012) centres its story around international naval war games that are interrupted when aliens decide to invade. The protagonist, Alex Hopper, is a dropout who, on encouragement from his brother, Stone, joins the navy. Seven years later, he has risen through the ranks to Lieutenant, and has a girlfriend (who he desperately wants to marry), but remains idiosyncratic and rebellious. During the war games he is in charge of weapons systems on the USS John Paul Jones, while his brother Stone is commander of the USS Sampson. The aliens land on earth both near the war games and in Hong Kong – and presumably elsewhere around the world – and set up a force field, isolating the Sampson, the John Paul Jones and the Japanese naval ship Myōkō from the other fleets. The warships open fire on the alien craft, who retaliate swiftly, destroying the Myōkō and the Sampson, killing Stone Hopper in the process. The John Paul Jones’ bridge is hit, killing the commanding and executive officers. As the highest-ranking officer on the ship, Alex is now in charge. At this point in the film, only a couple of key narrative elements from the board game have been established. Firstly, there is – or at least was – a naval battle between two equally matched forces. Secondly, the opposing force can only return fire once the initial volley is fired: this sets up a turn-based battle dynamic, reinforced by the need for both forces to reload or recharge their weapons between discharges. Thirdly, the force field that isolates the three human warships also serves as a boundary for the battlefield. In this way we have three human ships and three alien craft facing each other within a roughly-defined quadrilateral area, akin to the ‘board’ or battle-space presented to each player in the Battleship boardgame. With the main battle setting established, the narrative then diverges. Outside the force field, Alex’s girlfriend Sam – soldier rehabilitation nurse and daughter of the US fleet Admiral – is on one of Hawaii’s islands, trying to sabotage the aliens’ communications so that they cannot call in reinforcements. She is aided in her efforts by one of her patients, who is played by Iraq war veteran, amputee, and, as at 2014, still-serving Colonel Gregory D. Gadson.

 

Back on the John Paul Jones, the crew is having difficulty tracking the alien ships’ movements by night. The rescued captain of the Myōkō grudgingly informs Alex of the existence of an archaic system of buoys that detect water disturbance. By adjusting the frequency of their scanners, the John Paul Jones can now see when the alien ships are moving, and target their attacks. This system is arranged in a grid, and it is up to Alex and his crew to time the attacks on the individual coordinates perfectly. After successfully taking out one of the alien craft, the John Paul Jones tricks an alien ship into facing the rising sun. Alex and a Japanese comrade then shoot out the UV-resistant screen on the ship’s bridge, blinding the aliens within. Another alien ship then severely damages the John Paul Jones, which sinks. Back in Pearl Harbour, Alex takes command of the museum ship USS Missouri – including some of its veteran crew – and takes it right into the fray, up against the alien mothership that is projecting the force field. In this latter part of the film, the game elements centre around the actual mechanics of the board game: the grid pattern, the targeting of coordinates, the hits and misses. Once the Missouri destroys the mothership and the force field is deactivated, the boundaries of the game dissolve, and the remainder of the naval fleet can come in and aid the old ship.

 

Aarseth (2003) has contributed a great deal to the study of game aesthetics, specifically with regard to video games. He suggests that particularly for video games, the term “games in digital environments” might be more apt, and may remove some problems of typology that have affected games researchers for some time (p. 2). Within this new field he places such games as Tetris and EverQuest, and proceeds to present three elements of every game that might be analysed. These are:

 

–          Gameplay (the players’ actions, strategies and motives)

–          Game-structure (the rules of the game, including the simulation rules)

–          Game-world (fictional content, topology/level design, textures etc.) (ibid.)

 

‘Almost any game,’ Aarseth writes, ‘from football to chess, can be described by this tripartite model’ (ibid.). Aarseth does not providing a specific methodology for games research, instead suggesting that researchers ‘present a well-argued analysis that commands previous scholarship and breaks new analytical ground’ (ibid., p. 6-7). For the purposes of this research, Aarseth’s three points are of considerable interest in tracing the translation of Battleship from board to screen[1]. The gameplay of Battleship comprises three stages: ship placement, combat, and victory. The first stage, ship placement, is when players setting ships into the game board. The second, combat, sees one player calling out coordinates – for example, B-7 – and the other player checking their board, to see if that coordinate is a hit on one of their placed ships, or a miss. The players then swap the role of attacker and defender. Victory occurs when one player sinks all five of their opponents’ ships[2]. The rules of the game, or the game-structure, are reasonably simple. The ships can only be placed horizontally or vertically, and players can call only one set of coordinates per turn. Beyond this, the game continues apace until one players’ fleet is decimated. The only other condition of the game is an unusual one: honesty. One players’ victory is determined by the other player owning up to being hit. While I have been lucky enough to play only against honest opponents, the research possibilities for analysing the psychology of Battleship are intriguing. What is of particular relevance for the adaptation of Battleship from board game to film, however, is the topology – how the various elements of the game’s design fit together. Aarseth calls this the game-world, but perhaps the ‘experience’ of the game might be a more apt term. The experience of the game translates loosely into the game’s narrative: the elements of the game come together to form a story. Every time you play, the story changes slightly, but the plot points will inevitably be oriented around the game-structure, and tempered by the gameplay. In the same way that a game of Cluedo will always be a whodunit murder mystery, a round of Battleship will always be a battle fought at sea between rival fleets of naval vessels. What changes with each game is the amount of strategy employed by each player, and their motives. A loss will fuel hunger for a win in the next round, a win will feed a desire to maintain a streak. Elsewhere, Aarseth (2012) has problematised the comprehension of games as stories, suggesting rather that they be seen as a narrativised, interactive experience (p. 130). However, even writers who entirely dismiss a ‘narrative’ approach to games see some relevance in tracing the game’s progress in terms of what is, by any other name, a story. Walther (2011) calls these progressions ‘interaction patterns’ that ‘define the actual path through the game and specify the topography of human-computer (or player v. rule) dynamics’ (p. 136). Aarseth’s conception of game-worlds and interactive experiences is observed in the translation from board game to film.

 

Consider the key plot points of Battleship after the preface scenes introducing the Beacon Project, the alien invasion, and the main characters:

i) The US Navy investigates the craft landed in Hawaii. Alex and crewmates approach the alien craft in a dinghy; ii) Alex touches the craft: it flings him backwards into the ocean, and erects the force field, splitting the US fleet and cordoning off the field of battle; iii) The alien fleet appears and positions itself before the human fleet; iv) The human fleet fires at the alien ships and they retaliate; v) The Sampson is utterly destroyed, killing Stone Hopper and most, if not all, of his crew; vi) The bridge of the John Paul Jones is also hit, taking out the captain; vii) Alex, as ranking officer, is now in charge. The Myōkō is also sunk, and the John Paul Jones goes to rescue the survivors, including Captain Nagata, whom Alex fought earlier. An alien being is captured, unconscious; viii) The alien awakes when startled by a photo flash, and the humans learn that the aliens’ eyes are extremely sensitive to sunlight. The alien is lured onto the deck of the John Paul Jones and taken out by a deck-mounted Mark 45 gun; ix) Nagata reveals that he has been using the Japanese tsunami buoys to track the RIMPAC competitors’ ship movements, and suggests using the system to track the alien ships. On switching frequencies, the battlefield is transformed into a grid; x) When night falls, the John Paul Jones sinks two alien ships using the buoy tracking system; a third alien craft eludes them. At dawn, the John Paul Jones lures the third alien craft close to shore; xi) As the sun rises, striking the alien ships’ bridge, Nagata and Alex take out the window, blinding the aliens within. They then unleash a barrage on the third alien ship, destroying it. They are then, however, in range of the alien mothership’s long-range weapons. The mothership attacks and the John Paul Jones is sunk. At dawn, the John Paul Jones lures the third alien craft close to shore; xii) Alex and the remainder of his crew take command of the museum ship USS Missouri, recruiting some of the veteran staff in the process. The Missouri faces off against the alien mothership, exchanging volleys. The mothership is damaged and the force field falters and fails; xiii) Alex fires on the communication array on the island, destroying the link from the aliens to their homeworld. Out of ammo, Alex waits for the US fleet to arrive. Admiral Shane scrambles ships and fighter jets to eliminate the remaining aliens, and the Missouri sails safely back into port.

 

 

This prolonged conflict sequence comprises the middle eighty- to ninety-percent of the film. What is first observed about each of these major plot points is that they have some basis or origin in the rules of the board game. Number (vii) replicates the placement of the fleets by each player; number (viii) echoes the early calls of coordinates by each player as they test various areas of the playing field; numbers (ix) through (xiv) read like a dramatised version of a prolonged period of play, with some ships being damaged, others destroyed, and some shots missing entirely. What can we draw, then, from this? How can we quantify the film adaptation of the board game? Livingston (2010) states that a true adaptation hinges most often on the awareness of the filmmakers, i.e. if the producers are aware of the existence of the source material, then the film they create can be classed an adaptation. Further, he writes, ‘a work’s status as an adaptation is a relational property of the audio-visual display, where the relations in question involve contextual and historical factors, including the intentions and beliefs of the filmmakers’ (p. 105). On judging the quality of an adaptation, or at least its connection to the source material, Livingston states that the new work must retain the majority of elements – major characters, setting, title, and so on – of the source. What he notes, however, is that the adaptation ‘must also be intentionally made to diverge from the source in crucial respects, and their purpose is not to function as a mere surrogate or stand-in for the source’ (ibid.). Livingston then provides two conditions, or ‘truisms’ about the appreciation of adaptations. First, that a viewer should hold some knowledge or understanding of the source material. The second truism states that a true appreciation, or in-depth analysis, of an adaptation must compare some elements of source and adaptation.

 

‘This is the case because the appreciator who is oblivious to the source and can draw no such comparison manifests a blind spot pertaining to artistically essential features of the adaptation. More specifically, such an appreciator cannot evaluate the adaptation as an adaptation, where adaptations are understood as entailing the intentional imitation of artistic features of the source.’ (ibid., p. 106)

 

While the translation of game elements from board game to film has been examined above, the ‘artistic features’ of the film have been overlooked thus far. Critical reaction to the Battleship movie was mixed, skewed towards negative. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times calls it ‘an earnest, two-hour infomercial that should do wonders for naval recruiting if not civilian entertainment’ (Turan, 2012). The Chicago Reader called the film a ‘chore’ (Sachs, 2012), USA Today found it ‘noisy, overlong, and numbing’ (Puig, 2012), and the New York Times likened the film’s plot to ‘a macaroni dinner, familiar and easy to eat and not particularly nutritious’ (Genzlinger, 2012). More sympathetic reviewers focused on the spectacle: Urban Cinefile deemed the climax of the film ‘superbly written, choreographed and directed’ (Urban, 2012); Variety criticised the script but suggested audiences would be won over by the ‘boyish, eager-to-please razzle-dazzle’ (Lodge, 2012); and the Washington Post called it ‘an invigorating blast of cinematic adrenaline’ (O’Sullivan, 2012). Detractors, thus, tended to focus on the film in terms of traditional cinematic – and critical – expectations of story and plot, where those critics that engaged found gems in the special effects and the overall excitement of visual over-stimulation. These critics’ comments lead me to my second observation on the above list of plot points, and that which is most important for the central proposition of the research: at each story point – the beats of the film that constitute the narrative as a whole – there are a multitude of computer-generated imagery (CGI) shots.

 

The notion of the ‘spectacle’ has been explored previously by writers such as Guy Debord and Slavoj Žižek. First published in 1967, Debord’s (1983) Society of the Spectacle is renowned as the first ever deep thought about the effects of mass media. Debord began a clear philosophical delineation between the real, lived experience, and the layer of mediated communication dispersed by print, television and radio.

 

‘The spectacle obliterates the boundaries between self and world by crushing the self besieged by the presence-absence of the world and it obliterates the boundaries between true and false by driving all lived truth below the real presence of fraud ensured by the organization of appearance.’ (p. 219).

 

This reconception of lived experience as actual and simulated cleared a path for media theorists such as Marshall McLuhan and Jean Baudrillard, whose observations about the First Gulf War changed the global comprehension of both journalism and conflict. Slavoj Žižek (2002) went on to compare the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre to a Hollywood movie:

 

‘[W]hat happened on September 11 was that this fantasmatic screen apparition entered our reality. It is not that reality entered our image: the image entered and shattered our reality (i.e. the symbolic coordinates which determine what we experience as reality).’ (p. 16)

 

The introduction of spectacle into cinematic representation began with the death of the Hollywood New Wave discussed earlier. However, with the perpetuation of such radical conceptions of the image and reality, it is little wonder that the spectacle has survived as a staple of cinematic representation. Baudrillard’s term ‘the hyperreal’ has been used by cinema writers like King and Isaacs to observe changes in cinematic production and reception. King (2000) provides a comprehensive basis for any discussion of spectacle and cinema, strongly arguing that spectacle has not diminished narrative as many have argued, but rather has enhanced it.

 

This research takes King’s ideas one step further in saying that contemporary cinematic narrative is contingent on special effects, rather than merely embellished by them. In two key scenes, the story would not progress at all without the visual effects. The first scene is the prolonged chase sequence between the Navy personnel and the alien crewman, chosen primarily for its lack of connection to the board game; the second is the scene in which Captain Nagata reveals the buoy tracking system, and the human crew uses it to track and destroy two alien craft.

 

The alien/human chase sequence lasts approximately nine minutes, and occurs about an hour into the film. The crew of the John Paul Jones has come into possession of an alien body, fished out of the water where its transport craft crashed – at this stage it is not clear whether the being is dead or just unconscious. The sequence starts as Alex is coming to terms with the loss of his brother, Stone; Chief Petty Officer Lynch summons the new captain to the hold, where the alien lies prone. Slow-motion is employed in these early shots to lend a sense of gravitas to the proceedings: Alex is taking responsibility, and the crew is responding to his leadership. As Alex and Captain Nagata examine the body – first removing its helmet, touching the spines on its chin, and prying open its eyes – medium to medium long shots are used, always with something or someone out of focus in the foreground. The camera is handheld, and this combination of movement and obstruction recalls the films of Paul Greengrass or the earlier work of Mike Figgis. An extreme closeup shows the strange eye of the being, and when Alex shines a light into the eye, the alien erupts into consciousness. Quick editing of close-up shots brings this sequence into line with similar thrill-sequences: the early stages of a horror chase, for instance, or the moment when the antagonist discovers a prospective victim’s hiding spot. The alien’s hand covers Alex’s face, and he – and the audience – are plunged into the alien’s memories. This quick 2-3 second sequence is treated with a blue-metallic tint, before Alex’s crewmates drag the alien off away.

 

At this point the wall of the hold explodes – the audio is replaced with a single high-pitched tone, replicating the aural trauma associated with such an explosion. The crew falls back, away from the alien, who is then rescued by a squad of his own species. Alex struggles to watch, and the flashing lights and rapidly-changing focus brings the audience into his point of view. The aliens depart on a small transport, and Alex staggers onto the deck. Before he can do much, however, an announcement is piped through that men have fallen; Alex realises that one or more of the aliens are still on board. This realisation between Alex and his crewmates is presented via close-ups of the mens’ faces. The music blares as an aerial shot of the ship denotes a brief temporal cut; Alex and the team have mobilised and are now stalking through the ship looking for the alien. Long shots become medium shots and close-ups as the crew moves in and around the narrow confines of the ship’s hallways. A bluish tint is laid over every shot, and bright flares add dynamism to the constantly-moving cinematography. The camera changes from relatively smooth handheld movement to a much more agitated shaking when the alien grabs one of the crew members. The editing also changes from slow and deliberate to a slightly more rapid pace, but still steady – there is no sign of the alien, so the focus of the scene remains on the discipline and efficiency of the military unit. Once it is established that the crew member that was attacked is in need of medical attention, Alex orders two crewmates to take him to the infirmary, and he and crew member Riggs continue through the ship. We cut to the engine room, where Lynch and his team watch a door as it is pummeled from the other side. This moment, all of ten to fifteen seconds, is much slower than the rest of the scene, allowing the audience to breathe, before the alien bursts through the door. The alien’s entry to the room is slow, deliberate, and extreme close-ups show only the alien’s feet before the bulk of the creature is shown towering over Lynch and his team. The alien scans Lynch, determining him to be no threat, and moves around him to dismantle the engine. At this Lynch lunges at the creature, and is swiftly tossed away. Before the alien can continue dismantling the engine, Alex arrives, all guns blazing. The alien identifies Alex as an enemy and moves in for the kill; Riggs emerges from a corner, firing. The alien attacks Riggs; she stands up, as does Alex on the opposite side of the creature. Alex orders Riggs back to the weapons station, and then takes off, luring the alien outside, onto the deck. Alex and the alien square off as Riggs brings the enormous deck-mounted Mark 45 gun round to point blank range against the aliens’ head. The climax of the sequence is Alex hurling himself over the railing just as the gun goes off – splinters of metal and alien exploding around and above him.

 

King writes that in some instances ‘spectacle reinforces, rather than interferes with, the narrative’ (p. 4). The above sequence drives the plot forward, and beyond being a staple action sequence, is packed with visual effects. The alien creature itself is entirely computer-generated, and much of the action, such as the crewman being grabbed from above, the door exploding inwards, and the gun destroying the alien on the deck, has been created with the aid of computers. The entire sequence, as noted, is tinted with a blue wash, punctuated in many places with bright solar flares. While some of the flares may be naturally-occurring, many will have been added in post-production. Similarly, the blue grade is a process carried out well and truly after principal photography – even after editing. Isaacs (2008) calls this newer manipulation of the image ‘metacinematic’ in that it is inherently aware of its foundation in two dimensions, and is less a dramatic break from, that an evolution of, classic cinema technique (p. 159-160).

 

There are a number of major battle sequences in Battleship, but one of the longest sees the destruction of three alien craft and culminates the sinking of the John Paul Jones (plot points xii and xiii above). This sequence is notable as it is the closest representation in the film of the actual gameplay of the board game. While the whole battle lasts some fifteen minutes of screen time, it is inter-cut with scenes on the island featuring Sam and her companions. For the purposes of this analysis, the island sequences will be ignored, and only the first half of the battle will be examined, ending with the destruction of the first two alien ships[3]. The sequence begins with an aerial shot of the John Paul Jones – established in earlier sequences as an introductory shot, or scene break – from which there is a cut to a tracking screen, featuring a digital symbol for a floating buoy (Nagata, by this stage, has informed his American companions of the Japanese tracking system). The symbol is a diamond, with a number underneath indicating distance above or below sea level; these diamonds are linked by lines, forming a grid pattern. As Alex and Nagata look on, disturbances in the buoys show the movement of the alien craft. The shots here vary between close-up and extreme close-up; the music is electronic, rhythmic, and aurally intersects with the beeping of the ship’s tracking system to create a pulsating soundscape. Nagata watches, tracing the alien crafts movements across the grid, before calling ‘Echo 1-1.’ Players of the board game would soon recognise that Nagata has just called ‘E-11.’ Riggs locks in the coordinates, and waits for Nagata’s order to fire. There are cuts from close-ups of Riggs’, Alex’s, and Nagata’s faces, to the tracking screen as the alien craft approaches the coordinates. As E-11 lights up, Nagata yells ‘Fire!’ We cut outside to see the weapons hatch opening and the missiles launch. Once the missiles are away, we cut back into the weapons room as the crew watches their trajectory. Shots vary from medium to close-up, and track inwards with the approach of the missiles to their target. As the missiles hit the coordinates, everything stops, and Alex contacts the observation deck to ask if any damage was done. The watchman radios back ‘It’s a miss.’ The tracking screen then shows the alien craft responding, heading directly towards the John Paul Jones. After a sequence on the island, we cut back to the same scene, as Alex and Nagata watch the alien ship approach. Nagata yells out ‘Foxtrot 2-4,’ another set of coordinates, they are locked in, and the missiles are launched. The missile approach sequence is almost identical in pace, but the intimacy of the camera to the characters, and the volume of the music, is greatly increased – there is much more urgency to this attack. This attack, too, is a miss; we cut back to the tracking screen, where there is revealed a second alien ship approaching. There is a cut outside, to show the second ship readying its weapons, before both alien ships fire towards the John Paul Jones. Cuts from the watchmen on deck, back to the weapons room, and even to the engine room, show the crew reacting to the attack. Alex orders ‘Engines back full,’ and a series of quick cuts shows the lever being pulled, the crew jolting forwards, and underwater where the screws stop and reverse direction.

 

Three alien missiles – heavily resembling the pins used in the board game – tumble harmlessly into the sea, and the other three are dispatched by the John Paul Jones’ counter-measures. The alien ships continue their approach – several quick cuts and zooms show the crews’ reactions. Nagata calls out two coordinates, close to the ship – the music is once again intensified, the crews’ faces fill the frame, and the beeping of the weapons and tracking systems become much more rapid, all implying that this is a last-ditch effort: their last chance to take out the alien craft before there is ship-to-ship contact. As the two coordinates turn red, Captain Nagata screams ‘Fire!’ There is a cut outside to the weapons hatch opening once again, and then an aerial shot, high above the John Paul Jones, showing the four missiles shooting up into the air. As we cut back inside, once more to the tracking screen, and then back to Alex’s and Nagata’s faces, the music remains loud, but settles into a rhythmic pulse again. There are rapid cuts between the crew, the tracking screen, the missiles shooting through the air, and the sequence repeats. There is a cut to the alien ship heaving itself from the water, before the two missiles slam into its side. The second ship is then shown, also being hit. The watchman punches the air and radios ‘Hit, sir! Hit!’ The crew celebrates, but the joy is shortlived: the battle sequence ends with the radio coming to life for the first time since the alien force field was erected.

 

The reliance on, and constant cinematographic return to, the tracking system and screen in this sequence recalls Stewart’s (2009) writing on the hyper-mediation of modern war films:

 

‘Narrative agency is subsumed to technology at every level, from aerial tracking, where characters are just faceless pawns on a monitoring grid, to eye-level confrontations, where any human posture toward an encroaching violence, from suspense to panic, often feels as virtual, as permeated by mediation, as computer interactivity in some low-resolution videogame.’ (p. 45)

 

Stewart himself extends the work of Virilio (1984), who recognised the changing shape of battlefields from flat, two-dimensional ‘boards,’ to three-dimensional spaces in which missiles, mortars and planes are tossed around, to a global, orbital, informational, mediated warzone (p. 35). The role of computer-generated imagery in presenting three-dimensional warfare cannot be underestimated. Whissel (2006) notes that high-concept cinema from both America and internationally (particularly China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong) is increasingly reliant on vertically oriented action. ‘These … films create breathtaking imaginary worlds defined by extreme heights and plunging depths,’ she writes, ‘whose stark verticality becomes the referential axis of many narrative conflicts’ (p. 23). The structure of a battleship – and its destruction or sinking – is evoked in Whissel’s description of the use of verticality in various elements of cinematic expression:

 

‘Even when action returns to terra firma and ordinary horizontality, digitally enhanced mises-en-scene activate the screen’s vertical axis: pillared interiors, banners streaming down from high ceilings, drops of water falling in slow motion, and showers of brightly colored petals and bullet casings all indicate that actions and events will inevitably follow lines of ascent and descend, thereby compounding the thematic significance of vertical movement in these films.’ (p. 24)

 

Nowhere is verticality more explicitly utilised for dynamic cinema than in Battleship. This is a film so desperate to shed its two-dimensional origins that the camera constantly swoops, shifts, and rotates upward; the camera is constantly moving, even when indoors, and when it is finally released from being shackled to a small detail, or a character’s face, there is little or no restraint. This agitated cinematography is aided greatly by digital effects and enhancement – computer-controlled camera movements allow the insertion of wholly digital characters, such as the alien beings, and the sweeping, plunging shots of the missiles are almost entirely created in computers. While chaotic, disruptive, and discombobulating, these complicated, crowded shots drive the plot forward, at breakneck speed. There is a visceral, carnal quality to the speed and intensity of these sequences that encourages a bodily reaction, such as a sharp intake of breath, quickening of the heartbeat, or leaning forward in a chair. Action cinema relies heavily on this dynamic between tension and release, this filling the frame with detail, this never-ending movement. High-concept American cinema was built – from the escapism and innovation of the Hollywood New Wave – on these very cinematic principles. In a way, though, so is all cinema.

 

Narrative is not lost in this high-octane rollercoaster of cinematic spectacle: the story is along for the ride. Audiences still need protagonists, they still need goals, victories, climaxes and conflict, and they would walk out if there were not some love interest or emotional consequence. These narrative elements are not only framed by complex sequences of action and excitement: the story is encoded into these same sequences. While Battleship was heavily criticised for its story and acting, the foregoing research demonstrates that this film – more than many others – wears its heart on its sleeve. The gameplay elements of the board game are translated, adapted, into a series of plot points built in wireframe and coded in ones and zeroes. This is not the weakening or destruction of narrative – this is an evolution of narrative. What began with the high-concept cinema of the mid-1970s and 1980s has crystallised into a marketable, technically sophisticated cinema that speaks to highly information-oriented audiences. Hit or miss is down to the critics: Battleship speaks to a future of high-concept cinematic expression where narrative propulsion is inseparable from cinematic manipulation and visual effects.

 

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[1] It is worth noting that two videogame tie-ins for the 2012 film was released: a first-person shooter, and a turn-based strategy digital variant of the board game. Both were immediate flops (Venter, 2012; Barker, 2012).

[2] There are a number of variants to the game. The one I most frequently play also requires players to rescue a crewmember from an island sitting on one of the coordinates. Your crew member is placed by your opponent, and it is then up to you to call coordinates to find out where they are.

[3] It is worth noting, however, that these sequences on the island are far from bereft of computer-generated imagery.