Credit Stephen Hawking with helping transform Battleship the board game into Battleship the movie.
Or blame him. Opinions fall sharply on this one.
Nearly 70 years after becoming a board game, so story- and character-less that it has a pencils-and-paper version, Battleship arrives in U.S. theaters Friday with millions of international dollars in its pocket — and a massive target on its back.
Those firing the harshest shots come from U.S. shores: Bloggers, columnists, even talk show hosts are already lampooning the film, which they say is emblematic of Hollywood's hunger to turn any brand name into a buck.
But the acrimony remains a mystery for director Peter Berg, who says he "got his mind around" a concept for the movie after watching a documentary on extra-terrestrial life featuring Hawking, a theoretical physicist.
"I just wanted to do a movie about the Navy. I've always wanted that," says Berg, director of Friday Night Lights and Hancock and the son of a Marine.
"Yeah, it's simple," he says of the board game, released by Milton Bradley in 1943 as a coordinates-guessing game. "But five ships hunting and fighting five ships: Those are elements that lend themselves to the beginning of a movie."
And Hollywood's largest gamble of summer. Complete with high-tech sea battles and marauding aliens (again, credit or curse Hawking), the $170 million movie marks one of the few pictures whose stakes are higher if it succeeds than if it fails.
If it's torpedoed at the box office, Battleship joins the ranks of big-studio duds like Land of the Lost,Wild Wild West and Inspector Gadget.
But should Battleship's aim be true, analysts say, the door swings wide for any board-game adaptation. Bloggers are already composing and swapping fake posters for a Hungry Hungry Hippos action film and suggesting titles such as Chutes & Ladders: The Beginning.
Just as important, analysts note: The film has been out for weeks overseas, collecting $216 million and some needed momentum. If the movie continues to do well internationally, the USA may be waiting months for movies behind nations such as Croatia, where Battleship opened April 19.
"There could be some annoyed fanboys if they have to wait months for their superhero," says Jeff Bock of industry tracker Exhibitor Relations.
For now, moviegoers are more perplexed than impatient, even the people who do well with odd adaptations.
"I love Pete. He's a friend and a great director," says Jonah Hill, star of March's TV adaptation 21 Jump Street, which collected $135 million. "But when I heard they were making a Battleship movie, I was like, 'What the (expletive).' "
People are flummoxed
Universal Pictures, which is launching Battleship, recognizes how choppy American waters have been.
At last month's convention of theater owners, Universal chief Adam Fogelson began a reel of footage by quoting skeptics of the movie.
One screen was emblazoned with a shot quoting an astounded blogger, who echoed Hill's reaction: "WTF?" the screen read.
Another quoted talk show host Stephen Colbert, who mused, "Who will they get to play the plastic peg?"
"That one was my favorite," Fogelson says. "The good side of the equation is that movies that have been similarly tarred and feathered —Transformers, Titanic— did pretty well."
Of course, those properties had built-in characters and story lines. Berg concedes he was flummoxed about a plot until he watched a documentary in which Hawking warned that sending messages into space may be welcoming trouble.
"Humans fighting humans would be too bloody for a summer popcorn movie," Berg says of the story, which centers on an international fleet coming upon an aggressive alien armada. The film stars Taylor Kitsch, Brooklyn Decker and singer Rihanna, whose lack of silver-screen experience made almost as many headlines as the movie's board-game roots.
"I know it raised eyebrows," Berg says of the casting decisions. "We just want to make a fun summer movie. And look: We're stuck between Avengers, Men in Black 3 (May 25), Spider-Man (The Amazing Spider-Man, July 3) and Batman (The Dark Knight Rises, July 20). But the film 'intelligentsia' seems like they want to rip us apart."
Which made the international reception critical. The movie opened overseas April 11 in countries including England, Thailand and Norway and in Hong Kong. While movies routinely open early overseas —The Avengers opened April 25 in several international markets — a month-long lag to arrive in the USA is unprecedented. And inevitable, Bock says.
"This marks where we're headed, and you can't necessarily blame Hollywood," he says. "Particularly Battleship. If you're not being welcomed here, why not there and try to build good word of mouth?"
Indeed, the international welcome was a relief, says producer Scott Stuber.
"The vitriol took me aback," he says. "I expected skepticism, but this was rough. People forget that the idea in (the game) is good: a big sea battle."
Berg had wanted to do one for years. He tried to make films on the battle of Midway and the sinking of the Indianapolis, but considered Battleship impossible — until Hawking showed him the way.
"It just clicked," Berg says. "It was a way to make it fun, but still do it seriously. We could make it work."
Audiences, though, could sink this Battleship, at least on American soil. While the movie will likely be profitable, its image is as important as its revenues, Bock says. The movie will face a challenge in The Avengers, which has collected more than $1 billion worldwide, including $103 million domestically in its second weekend, a record.
"You can't (make a debut) in second place as a summer movie," Bock says. "That usually means you disappear quickly."
The film's stars say that when moviegoers realize that Battleship is more of a roller coaster than a board game in 3-D, the snark will fade.
'Building characters, stories'
"Really, we never had a full conversation about the board game," says Kitsch, who plays an American lieutenant who leads the resistance. "We talked about building characters and stories to not make ourselves too associated with anything."
Decker, who plays a commanding officer's daughter caught in the crossfire, says she, too, was skeptical about the adaptation.
"The first thing I thought was, 'How are they going to do that?' " Decker recalls. "But when they said it was more a military-action-war-sci-fi movie, I knew it was going to be fun. Pete has a kid's imagination."
And a bit of defiance. Berg says that he has been impatient to bring it to the USA, skeptics and all — who also scoffed at making a movie based on a theme park ride.
"They made fun of Pirates of the Caribbean," Berg says. "I think people will have fun.
"And we're not backing down. We're based on a board game, we cast Rihanna and we're for real."