I have to confess, when I heard they were making a movie version of Battleship, my first thought was “but…why?” Followed by, of course “…and how?” And then I wondered why no one’d gotten on a movie version of, say, Scrabble, which would obviously be way more entertaining. Just think, it could turn into a Rocky Horror-style production where audience members get to shout at the screen when the actors play words that aren’t legal.
Battleship may possibly be one of the most boring games ever, and drawing it out into two whole hours sounds like a form of torment that may possibly be illegal in several countries. But, it’s also a film coming out over a decade after the 11 September attacks, and in a climate of growing interest in patriotic films. Let’s not forget that The Avengers is dominating box offices right now and there’s been a whole slew of patriotic comic book films in recent years. People want to get their patriotism on, and Hollywood is happy to oblige.
I do love me some good explosions, which is why I have a soft spot in my heart for pretty much any film where things go boom, especially the James Bond franchise. Battleship certainly promises to deliver in that respect, even if it’s unlikely to delve more deeply into the moral implications of patriotism, nationalism, and the gradations between.
There are some seriously troubling implications with Battleship, though; I mean, let’s talk about how it’s a battle between good and evil framed as humans versus aliens, and how that reflects on current immigration rhetoric, which is incredibly dehumanising. Also telling that the battle “begins at sea,” as the promotionals tell us, which reads at least to me like a reference to interdiction of traffickers and migrants, some of whom die in the attempt to cross. Aliens become a metaphor for whatever we need to project on them, depending on the era; in 1989 it was about the Cold War with The Abyss, and in 2012 it’s pretty clearly about the perceived threat of immigration.
What’s intriguing about this new wave of patriotism is the moral complexity and ambiguity that’s coming up in a lot of these films. This is not a simplistic model where everyone runs around waving American flags and talking about how great war is; there’s an added depth of ethical conflict that isn’t very far below the surface. War is damaging and dangerous in this model. People do terrible things to each other in the name of their country. It’s emotionally challenging for viewers. Audiences can certainly attend and view it as, as Alyssa put it, “unqualified support for the members and actions of the armed forces no matter what they do,” but it’s hard to do that when the people on screen are questioning, talking about, and exploring morality.
Battleship is likely to be a garden variety nationalism fest, which is the key difference between it and films like The Avengers, which raises moral questions as well as taking viewers on a good old fashioned superhero romp. And it’s this difference that lies at the heart of the recent upswing in patriotic films.
Nationalism is about the unabashed support and promotion of military intervention, from wartime atrocities to torture at secret CIA facilities, and it’s still very much present in films where viewers are expected to view “our guys” as unambiguously good, no matter what they do. Even when their job is hard, it’s still right. Patriotism asks for something more complex from the viewer, an honest assessment of a moral situation and a fair judgment based on something other than a belief that a country can do no wrong.
A film can be patriotic without necessarily painting the United States in a flattering light, and that perhaps is what makes it most patriotic of all, because it demands that we do better. It holds viewers, and their country, to a higher standard, sometimes with intriguing thematic elements; look at how Batman uses his tremendous class clout and privilege in an attempt to bring justice to the streets of Gotham. This is what I go to the movies for, you know?
’tis the time for summer hits, which inevitably include an assortment of high-budget blockbusters with explosions galore along with a healthy side of patriotic fervor. The question for me isn’t whether there’s a rise in patriotic movies or what it means about and for this country. Rather, I’m more interested in the distinction between patriotic and nationalist film, and what it means that so many critics seem to have trouble differentiating between the two, especially given the national dialogue about war, torture, and morality, and the growing civil unrest indicative of the fact that the population is about ready to try something new. Which demons are we exorcising through our consumption of superhero movies?