battleship-dvdLast year’s  movie “Battleship” seems to attract an unhealthy dose of ire from pretty much everyone I mention it to. It appears to fall into that strange category of art that people love to hate, even when they haven’t seen it, or taken the time to try to make sense of it. Most people can’t seem to get past one of these things:

  • It’s based on a boardgame.
  • It’s trying to be a Michael Bay movie – an empty summer blockbuster, devoid of imagination
  • Everyone says its crap.
  • It uses eye candy like Brooklyn Decker, Alexander Skarsgaard, Rihanna and Taylor Kitsch to put asses in seats, rather than engaging acting and drama.

Well, I’d heard all of these things and even grew fearful of what they might mean for a film before I’ve seen it, yet I walked away from the movie rather surprised and quite happy I’d seen it.

Now, this article isn’t about how I’m going to try to change the minds that are already predisposed against it, prejudiced or not, or trying to point out the redeeming qualities of a piece of art that balances on the threshold between mediocre escapism and dreck, or claiming that it is a misunderstood wonder of modern film-making because of x, y and z, but rather an examination, if not a thought experiment, about how it might make sense in terms of world-building. To try and suggests reasons for this and that – to put some science behind the fiction, as it were, or the missing piece to the puzzle.  SPOILERS ahead, in case you actually want to see the movie.

One of the things that interested me as a (video)game designer was how the filmmakers were going to base their product – a two hour or so piece of cinema that depends on content, story and drama for engagement – on a game which really has none of these things, outside of that created by the mechanism of playing the game.  Their solution was quite simple really: they didn’t, and instead created their own and worked elements of the game into it.  Most criticism of the movie seems to ignore this aspect altogether. The beauty of Battleship as a franchise is that it could be worked into any number of scenarios, even ancient world versions with ships from Rome and Greece and still be “accurate” to the game concept.

The game concept, for those that have never played, either the paper version or the boardgame version, its pretty simple. The board is a grid and each player has a “fleet” of ships, each of a distinct size or shape of grid units, and these must be placed on the grid, anywhere they like. The game starts and each player, turn by turn, calls out a grid co-ordinate and the opposing player says whether its a hit or miss. If every square on a ship is called out, then it is sunk. The game continues until one fleet is completely destroyed.

So, the movie, what’s it about? Well, its a hard thing to swallow, for sure. A flotilla of alien ships intent on invading Earth end up in the Pacific ocean just off Hawaii and faces off against a fleet of ships  on wargame exercises. The human (American and Japanese) fleet is relatively unarmed and contains an ancient WW2 battleship (hence the title… yeah.. anyway).  Simple set up, nothing to see here really.

No, I’m not going to explain why the aliens have crossed the many light years of space to visit our backward planet and lay the boots to us, but I’m not sure I actually need to. Aliens are, and should be, alien to us. They have alien needs and desires, requirements for life, perspectives on existence and their place in the universe. Its unlikely they could be summarized and understood in the time-frame covered by the movie.  We shouldn’t even be able to try to figure out why they felt the need to be here, or what they want, only that they arrived and wanted to kick some human batootey. As filmmakers, the desire to point out what characters want or need is usually very high on the list, so it usually comes down to water (heh), gold, women, uranium, human flesh, places to live, breathable air and whatever is selected usually has very little to do with the actual story. Anyway, the makers of Battleship really didn’t bother to explain why either and I feel it was a good decision.

Setting the board, I mean scene…

The first little piece of genius (to me) was the force-field the aliens put up, blocking communications, sensors and physical interference from outside. This a nice little nod to the fact that the boardgame has a limited play area and the game can be ruined by onlookers observing both sides of the match, or even informing the players of ship positions. The gameplay, however, is only ever between the two players and so the force-field of the movie creates this separation. Its fleet on fleet, alien vs. human.

battleship peg

An alien Battle-peg on its terminal trajectory

The alien’s ship-to-ship weapons are designed to look like the pegs of the game that are placed onto ship pieces to signify damage. I thought these were an interesting device, not just for their relevance to the game, but also for how they might be “realistic weapons.” That is, what sort of military reason might a species engineer such a thing to be used in combat. Looking back at our own military history, there are lots of oddities that arose and were employed on the battlefield which to the uninformed observer seem ludicrous, even silly: brightly coloured uniforms and marching slowly to an enemy position, armour and longswords in the age of cannons, pigeons and dogs carrying messages when radio and telegraph was an established communications medium, etc.  In the movie, the aliens demonstrate extremely advanced technology – translight capable starships, variable-geometry submersible-water vessels that can levitate for short periods of time, project strong forcefields over several kilometers – and yet use what appear to be unguided, volley launched munitions.  They appear to have some mechanism to enable them to land “point first” burying themselves in the target, before they tunnel downward into it and detonate.


An F-105G Wild Weasel Thunderchief on a mission over Vietnam. Art by Mark Karvon

There are advantages to using “dumb” munitions and they are common today. The biggest one, militarily, is that they don’t rely on sensors. Electronics can be easily spoofed, jammed or baited. They also require no communication or guidance from their source, and so this cannot be used against the firer, as a tracking mechanism or as an offensive means. There is a real world example of this. Wild Weasel missions during Vietnam used pairs of F-105G Thunderchiefs (and later F-4G Phantoms) outfitted with High Speed Anti-Radiation Missiles (HARM) – one aircraft would bait an enemy Surface to Air missile battery, while the second would use its missiles to home in on the SAM’s active radar emissions; in order to get a kill, the SAM would need to keep its radar emissions going, yet this provided an active target for the HARM missiles. Cat and mouse, with deadly stakes.

Hide and Seek, in plain Sight

Since Vietnam, the role of electronic warfare has increased dramatically to the point where it is integrated into almost all levels of the modern military. If a technologically advanced race were to develop weapon systems that are highly reliant on electronic guidance or active sensors such as radar, then having unguided weapons might be a definite advantage. Another thought is that the environment which they are most used to is electrostatically unstable – lots of lightning or bad weather (which may explain their submersible capable warcraft, taking to the seas to avoid it), might make electronically guided weapons unreliable. The alien war-vessels in the movie have extensive stealth capabilities – the attacking human ships mention that their radar and targeting systems cannot get a lock on them, so perhaps the aliens are jamming them, or their ships have radio/microwave interfering, blocking, redirecting or absorption properties. All this seems to support the idea of a culture that had to defend against electronically guided weapons.  Similarly, if their homeworld was such that electronic sensors and guidance systems had been largely abandoned due to their unreliability, then perhaps they are equally as blind and useless in our environment and against our vessels. Missiles and craft in use today expect to go up against vehicles of a similar function. Airplanes have radars and heat emissions, and so weapons such as Air-to-Air missiles have sensors designed to target them. They are largely useless against say, gliders, or low-powered vehicles such as a small-prop driven aircraft like a Cessna or an ultralight.  The aliens, then, might have abandoned simple systems such as radar for tracking targets and use something that isn’t quite as effective on Earth;  sonar perhaps, which if we accept their warcraft as submersibles, then perhaps they rely on sonic pulses for detection. The first “shot” they employed might not even have been a shot at all, but a sonar pulse to detect nearby targets.


A Phalanx Close-In Weapon System, designed to shoot down incoming missiles

With this in mind, the peg weapons matches up with the human level defense systems, notably the Phalanx CIWS demonstrated in the movie. These weapons use radar to target fast moving and relatively predictably moving targets such as missiles. They are really designed for small numbers of incoming targets, so perhaps they could be overwhelmed by extremely large volleys, but I have no data on this. The largest volley in the movie appears to be 42 (21 per each of the alien ship’s 2 batteries) shells, of which the Phalanx takes out 5-10, at a guess, although the first of the volley that hit may very well have destroyed the Phalanx system, allowing the others to strike.

With their unguided (outside of their firing solution at launch) weapons, the aliens had no real technological advantage in the sea-battle. They might have used their buzz-saw style ball weapons to attack the ships, but these were used for soft-targets, rather than armoured adversaries, and appeared to require a flat surface to accelerate along and maneuver upon, so unless the targets were aircraft carriers, so perhaps the alien commander didn’t think their use appropriate.

The alien vessels were capable of short hops which mainly appeared to be defensive maneuvers used to avoid torpedoes or slow flying weapons, or adjustments to position. It appeared they it might have been effective against an enemy employing weapons similar to the ones they did, so they were not able to avoid ship-to-ship missiles used by the human fleet. Their hopping motions also appeared like they might have been “house rules” from a variant of the boardgame – hopping one grid co-ordinate as a defensive move. There are quite a lot of variations on Battleship, but most of these are in the form of numbers of shots per turn (salvo firing), or vessel (carriers get 2 shots).


Alien Tourist on safari. We come in peace… arrghhhhh!

“Rangers lead the way…”

The aliens also possessed exo-skeletal armour (or powered armour, battle-suits, exo-armour, pick your term of preference) which ultimately seemed to be more utilitarian than military, used for analysis of environment, threat and protection of the wearer, both from the atmosphere and radiation – specifically avoidance of sunlight. A character surmises that the aliens are lizard analogs, requiring additional oxygen and moisture and avoiding bright light. This partially supports the “dark, thick, unstable” atmosphere I postulated earlier.

The sequence in which the aliens retrieve one of their own troops is revealing about their motives, but not to helpful levels. Their mission appeared to be non-combative: the alien soldiers on board the ship didn’t have much more than an equivalent of a sidearm and a melee weapon, which extended from a cluster on its arm.They weren’t interested in killing individuals unless they presented a threat or showed intentions of violence toward them. They scanned the engines/machinery, ignoring the crew until they attacked them with crowbars, or firearms. Taking these rules of engagement to the large scale, it explains why the alien fleet haven’t pressed a full attack against the human vessels: not many of them are effective threats and so choose not to engage them. If we accept that the “sonar pulse” they emitted was an attempt to locate targets, then it was the humans who fired the first shot and the aliens merely retaliated. They may well have been on a peaceful mission, albeit rather aggressive, to reach Earth, suss it out and report back to homeworld with a report on what the locals are alike.  The submersible-warships are just for self-defence, should the locals turn out to be… well, us. Aggressive, warlike, to use the SF cliche.

Film Title: Battleship

All hands, red alert! I’ve found a plot hole…!

The alien’s undoing comes in the form of “volume displacement mapping” from buoys usually used to detect tsunami activity, an idea which I quite like. It is ideas like this that I feel science fiction honors the most, although the scenario it is presented in is largely contrived and not really adequate for the job. In my opinion, a movie is fine so long as it lives by its own rules, that is, it is internally consistent, and Battleship is. Firstly, tsunamis are  a hot topic these days and makes sense within the geology of the area. It is a Japanese sailor who suggests their use and leads the charge on locating the alien ships with it. Secondly, I feel it is a strong idea because it relates to the nature of the boardgame, which is trying to locate the rest of the enemy fleet by extrapolating on the information you have gleaned from earlier shots and the size and shapes of ships. To support this further, the sensor read out is the recognizable board from the game – a grid with the ships overlaid it.

“Let’s Drop Some Lead on these Motherf-“

The big finale of the movie comes with the resurrection of the USS Missouri as a combat vessel, and the director and editor conveniently forgetting about a timing issue. The final shots are extremely reminiscent of a heated game of Battleships, so for that it gets my two thumbs up. In the game, with each player’s fleet in ruins and most of the grid pummeled by exploratory fire, it comes down to whoever can get the last shot in the right place. At this point in the movie, both sides are lobbing their shells – the USS Missouri has no guided munitions, only seriously huge shells and the last enemy ship appears to have lost its “peg shooter”, so has to resort to the “ball launcher.” I won’t tell you who wins, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise.


BFGs to A 5.5

It really is a sort of cautionary note to the philosophy of weapons technology and not without precedent in history. Sometimes, going “medieval” is a huge advantage. During the air war in Vietnam, the USAF believed that “all future” air combat would be done with guided missiles and so specified that all of its combat airplanes would have missiles only and no guns. Guns were considered outdated and not suited to high speed aerial combat. The philosophy was to detect first from long range, identify and shoot from afar. The F-4 Phantom, then, was deemed not to have an internal machine gun. The North Vietnamese airplanes – tiny, jet powered MiG-17s and 19s were almost as fast as the F-4, but far more nimble and could outmaneuver the lumbering Phantoms and close in to short range, where the Phantom was weakest. Nor were Phantom pilots trained in dog-fighting and their casualties mounted. Many losses later the USAF reversed their doctrine and added external gun pods to the F-4s and began training their pilots in their use. By the end of the war, the US air kill:loss ratio went from 2.5: 1 to an impressive 13:1, following the creation of the Top Gun school. However, more F-4s were lost than any other US fixed-wing aircraft. The prevailing factor in this scenario was that the missile technology of the time was not reliable enough to take the place of guns and hasn’t been since: internal guns and cannon are standard on every fighter airplane today. Losses were also exacerbated by the rules of engagement which required US pilots to visually identify a target before firing, usually bringing the enemy within the minimum effective range of their weapons. Sometimes its not a matter of being able to destroy an enemy, but the willingness or need to do so, or even the political ramifications of doing so. Aliens have politics too.

So, what does all this teach us about Battleship. Well, not a whole lot. It certainly won’t fix the movies problems, nor make it that more watchable or interesting. It doesn’t save it from criticism or ridicule, but I don’t think the movie is as empty or thoughtless as people like to believe.  It isn’t solid science fiction either – most of what I’ve described in this article is an attempt to propose some kind of realistic rationale to elements of the movie that are never explained, or hinted at, but that doesn’t mean its not there – where it matters most in terms of science fiction – inside your imagination.

Yeah, you could tear it down, focusing on how it fails this or that. Or you could, you know, just switch your brain off and enjoy the cool stuff.


Battleship and all related characters and media are owned by Universal Pictures.

Thunderchief painting, “All out warrior” by Mark Karvon.