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'Battleship' has the makings of a summer success

An alien invader is spotted in the Pacific

An alien invader is spotted in the Pacific in "Battleship", an epic-scaled action-adventure that unfolds across the seas, in the skies and over land as our planet fights for survival against a superior force. Credit: Universal Pictures

The critical torpedoes may be racing toward their big, fat, floating $209-million target, but "Battleship" -- the Peter Berg-directed sci-fi action film, inspired by the popular Hasbro board game -- could prove to have the impenetrable armor-plating of the Summer Season Sure Thing: It already has opened overseas, amassed $170 million in ticket sales and received almost midrange reviews -- "big, dumb and fun" seems to be the conclusion. And there's nothing about that reaction that audiences here won't like.

Still, as the heroic ships of the U.S. Navy sail against an alien flotilla of unknown origin (or intent), the film itself will be caught in a kind of pincer movement: When "Battleship" sets sail May 16, the record-breaking "Avengers" will still be traveling full-steam ahead. And just a week later, the highly anticipated "Men in Black III" lands in local theaters -- and that sci-fi franchise is building expectations nicely, thanks in part to a trailer that shows how funny Josh Brolin can be when he mimics Tommy Lee Jones.

Is it strange that the discussion surrounding "Battleship" has been all about box office? Not when one considers the current strategies of Hollywood, a place where a $200-million-plus movie based on a board game seems to possess no shock value whatsoever.

But as "Battleship's" target audience might say: Whatever! Rolling out across the land, sea and sky, Berg's movie stars a boatload of attractive flesh: Taylor Kitsch (TV's "Friday Night Lights") is Lt. Alex Hopper, a naval officer aboard the USS John Paul Jones; Brooklyn Decker ("Just Go With It") is Sam Shane, Hooper's fiancee and a very physical therapist; Alexander Skarsgard ("True Blood," "Melancholia") is Hopper's older brother, Stone, commander of the USS Sampson; pop star Rihanna is Petty Officer Raikes, Hopper's crewmate and the John Paul Jones' weapons specialist. The token adult onboard is Liam Neeson as Adm. Shane, Hopper and Stone's superior officer, and Sam's father.

What does all this have to do with the game? Nothing. And what does that mean? Almost nothing.

"People said you couldn't make a good movie from a theme-park ride, and then 'Pirates of the Caribbean' blew everybody away," said The Hollywood Reporter's Tim Appelo. "I don't think even Michael Bay thought you could make a good movie about a Transformers toy until he actually did it. So maybe turning a board game into a movie is not so impossible."

Board-game movies, of course, face problems that park rides and toys do not. "Pirates" had characters and dramatic situations. Toys, as every child knows, possess their own built-in drama, Transformers, in particular. But board games are relatively faceless.

"They're about strategy, not story," Appelo said. "One reason the last big board-game movie, 1985's 'Clue,' didn't succeed was the fact that it had types instead of characters: Even though he was played by Martin Mull and his lines were written by the wit who wrote 'Yes, Minister,' Colonel Mustard was just a board-game piece, like the Scotty dog or the top hat in Monopoly."

On the other hand, the failure of "Clue" has been magnified over time: It actually outsold Terry Gilliam's "Brazil," Woody Allen's "The Purple Rose of Cairo" and "A Chorus Line" the same year. And its problem may be that they made it in three versions, with three different endings.

And before dismissing "Battleship" too quickly ("shipwreck" was the one-word prediction of Indiewire's Anne Thompson), it serves to consider how little is really going to separate "Battleship" from any other Hollywood tentpole action thriller featuring heinous enemies, models and the U.S. military. As this is written, "Top Gun II" is being prepped, with the original's Tom Cruise, director Tony Scott and producer Jerry Bruckheimer returning. "If we can find a story that we all want to do," Cruise recently told MTV, "we all want to make a film that is in the same kind of tone as the other one and shoot it in the same way as we shot 'Top Gun.' " Which means a glorified video game, especially when one considers how popular subtlety has become in Hollywood since "Top Gun" came out in 1986.

"Battleship" pays at least some tribute to its source material, in a scene where American soldiers use a grid -- like the game's -- to blindly fire at attacking alien aircraft. But any movie that includes a line like "I've got a bad feeling about this" -- as "Battleship" does -- is poking fun at its own dumbness. That dumbness, if that's indeed what it is, will need to recoup about a half-billion dollars for Universal to turn a profit, and probably far more than that for a one-off movie to be promoted to franchise. The hard question surrounding "Battleship" is "Battleship 2," and few people with their periscopes poking around in Hollywood see that happening. But at such a volatile moment at the movies -- did anyone think "The Avengers" would have the biggest opening in history? -- you can't really tell what's going to appear on the horizon.



Putting on their game face


BY JOHN ANDERSON, Special to Newsday


Universal seems to have issued an all-hands-on-deck alarm regarding its erstwhile slate of board-game movies -- several Hasbro-based projects have been dropped and the studio opened "Battleship" overseas, five weeks before it premiered here, to avoid a collision with box-office darling "The Avengers." But who can blame Universal execs for being edgy? "Clue," the last board-game movie made, met an ugly demise in 1985 (Colonel Mustard, box office, lead pipe). And "Jumanji," which was supposed to be a board game, met a similar non-reception in 1995. Still, these are on the drawing board, their creators ready to roll the dice:


MONOPOLY -- Universal decided not to pass go, but Ridley Scott and Hasbro are still in development on this screen version of the game from Parker Brothers (now a subsidiary of Hasbro). It's the game that introduces kids to the triumphs and heartbreaks of capitalism, and which grown men have been known to hurl into the air upon losing their Boardwalk hotel.

CANDY LAND -- Sony is firmly behind a movie based -- loosely -- on what may be the simplest board game ever devised, one requiring no skill, strategy or even thought, and which Adam Sandler, at last report, was planning to bring to the screen.

OUIJA -- It's not hard to foresee what will happen in this takeoff on the allegedly black magical board game, by which pajama-clad adolescents have been communicating with the dead since the 1890s. Universal execs originally had divined they were better off without this Hasbro-related film, but apparently have now come to their (sixth) senses.

RISK -- Not exactly a juggernaut -- Sony has been talking about this since 2009 -- the game originally titled The Conquest of the World by its French creator seems as good a subject as any for a big-screen extravaganza. Like Monopoly, Risk is about destroying your opponent on the board or, in this case, the box office.


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