When I was in film school, someone told me a great quote that went something like, "If it looks bad and sounds good, it's artsy. If it looks good and sounds bad, it's amateur." I've generally found this to be true, especially when I've sat in theaters where viewers either don't notice or don't care that the image is out of focus, or that the 95% of widescreen TVs I see in restaurants and bars are set at the wrong aspect ratio. People will adjust to visual quirks after a few minutes, but if they can't hear or understand what characters are saying, there'll be some angry demands for refunds. But as home theater and surround sound systems have gotten better and much cheaper, it's become easier to replicate the theater experience at home and immerse yourself in the world of the film.
But I don't think anything less than Doc Brown's giant amp in Back to the Future could replicate the aural assault of Battleship, which is, by a wide margin, the loudest movie I've ever seen -- and that isn't a compliment. The sound design and effects in Battleship were so punishingly loud that halfway through the film, I started plugging my ears, which were ringing by the time I left the theater. I know a lot of critics will give Battleship a pass, claiming it deserves lower expectations since it's just a big, dumb action movie, but no movie should be excused for using sound to bludgeon thoughts right out of your head. Watch my ReThink Review of Battleship below (transcript following).
I consider myself a bit of an audiophile and am very appreciative of the major but often underappreciated role of sound design in films. That said, the new film Battleship is, without a doubt, the loudest movie I've ever seen. Seriously, this movie is deafening, whether aliens are blowing up Navy destroyers or the soundtrack is blasting AC/DC. The movie got so loud that after a while, I actually started plugging my ears, which is a good metaphor for a film like Battleship, whose assaults on your senses of sound and logic eventually wear out their welcome.
Battleship mostly takes place in Hawaii, where Alex (played by Taylor Kitsch) is struggling to get his act together under the watchful eye of his disapproving Navy commander older brother (played by Alexander Skarsgård), who enlists Alex to straighten him up. But Alex's bad habits don't stop him from landing a hottie named Sam, played by Brooklyn Decker and her breasts, which deserve separate billing. Unfortunately, Sam is so hot that I immediately lost any sympathy I might've had for Alex, who's trying to drum up the courage to ask Sam's curmudgeonly admiral father (played by Liam Neeson) for his daughter's hand in marriage.
Early on, Battleship feels like it could be a pretty good Top Gun-style life-among-the-Navy sort of movie about a reckless but talented sailor who learns to be a team player and a leader. But if you've seen any of the ads for Battleship you know that aliens eventually crash the party, along with a large chunk of Hong Kong, several warships, and a naval base with what appear to be spiked rocket-powered yo-yos and humanoid aliens who look suspiciously like refugees from the shuttered Halo movie.
Alex's ship is the only one to infiltrate the protective force field surrounding the aliens' mothership, but to take them down, Alex will need the help of fellow sailors played by John Tui, an impressively capable Rihanna, Jessy Plemons (who looks like a bizarro version of Matt Damon), and a Japanese captain played by Tadanobu Asano, while back on land, Sam, a scientist (played Hamish Linklater) and a paraplegic army vet (played by Gregory D. Gadson) attempt to find out what the aliens want with a powerful hilltop antenna array.
Battleship is subtle and erudite compared to one of Michael Bay's Transformers monstrosities, but the film definitely has some groan-worthy dialogue, totally nonsensical rules regarding what the aliens will or won't attack, and nagging questions about why such technologically-advanced aliens use weaponry so antiquated that it can't hit a floating warehouse, which makes the part of the film that somewhat resembles the Battleship board game the movie is supposedly based on seem pretty silly.
A little bit of this stuff might've been tolerable, including fairly weak performances by Decker and Gadson, but after a while, it all starts to get on your nerves. And nowhere is this more true than with Battleship's truly earsplitting sound, which made me think that the real target audience for Battleship should be people who won't wake up from extremely deep comas. I'm not sure if some new technology has been invented to make this kind of audio assault possible, but if there's a louder movie in existence, I'm scared to see it, since about two thirds through Battleship, I just wanted it to end so I could give my ringing ears a rest. Battleship succeeds in being big, dumb, and extremely loud, but after The Avengers, we should all be expecting a lot more.
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