The slow painful death rattle that is October’s crawl through Netflix’s basement has finally come to an end. Rounding out the month is a movie like no other, unless you’ve seen Battleship or The Final Countdown. Yes it’s American Warships, a direct to DVD affair which blatantly attempts to cash in on some of Battleship’s fame conceptual recognition. Herein, writer-director Thunder (His name is actually Thunder) Levin, who has previously directed such cinematic masterpieces as Mutant Vampire Zombies from the ‘Hood and the 1992 classic Soulmates, tries very hard to convince the audience his movie isn’t set aboard a stationary floating museum in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Although I haven’t seen Battleship, I think it’s safe to say American Warships sets a different course in its Navy versus Aliens story telling. Why would I say such a thing? Because this movie is about five chrome toasters and one sexy blonde in a slinky dress away from being Battlestar Galactica, at least in techno-babble gimmickry.
Mario Van Peebles stars as Captain James Winston, skipper of the USS Iowa, a still-in-service World War Two era battleship. Winston, in the autumn of his career, is ferrying the Iowa from Korea (no idea why it was there) back to America where his ship will be turned into a museum. This will allow him to take up the quiet life of banging his intelligence officer, who looks to be about twenty five years his junior. The relationship is as contrived as it is creepy, but it doesn’t really come up until the third act. Even then, it’s more a hilarious non-starter for tension than an actual sub-plot.
Just as the Iowa is getting under way, the contemporary USS Enterprise and its carrier group come under attack from unknown assailants. It is a special sort of attack with the ability to shut down any piece of technology with integrated circuitry. The assault then escalates to bombardments of South Korean cities and coastal military installations, thus drawing America and China into a cold war via their respective Asian proxies. As seemingly the only Joint Chief in Washington, Predator and Arrested Development alumni Carl Weathers comes into play during these scenes as Lt. General Hugh McKraken. Wait, Seriously? Hugh McKraken? Not Phil McKraken? McKraken’s only function in this movie is to remind the audience about the consequences of high stakes brinksmanship. I can only assume Weathers was drawn to such a robust role because the producers let him take home all of the craft services leftovers.
Anyway, without extensive integrated circuitry, the Iowa is free to give chase to what it thinks is a North Korean stealth ship, which actually turns out to be an alien ship intent on using regional instability to provoke a nuclear war which will then allow the aliens to easily conquer the Earth.
Despite some shameless lifting from BSG’s playbook, I’ll admit that the concept behind the movie isn’t terrible. Nor is the acting uniquely objectionable. I’d say about 75% of the cast are trying really hard where 23% are trying a little too hard. The remaining 2% encompasses Carl Weathers, who in each of his scenes projects the subtle undertones of a man just roused from a nap after eating a big bowl of soup. What ruins American Warships, rendering it fit for the MST3K treatment, is the execution.
As much as I respect ambition in movie making, this film takes a grand scope to a place of absurdity. Case in point, long and wide shots of generic naval ships at sea combined with stock footage from various air shows do nothing mitigate the fact that the movie is principally filmed aboard a floating museum. Whenever the Iowa engages the alien “stealth ship” it primarily does so by firing its port side 5 inch guns, albeit with some bad CG overlaying the actual guns to simulate turret movement. Why not the starboard side batteries? Because there is no way to show them without breaking the “illusion” of a ship at sea. Though said “illusion” is hardly appreciable given the numerous shots which make it painfully obvious that the Iowa, which is actually the USS North Carolina, is docked during the entire film. Nowhere is this reality better seen than when the alien ship pulls an Enemy Below, jettisoning its garbage to simulate being sunk. The very next scene shows three sailors standing on a dock. The Iowa is supposed to be in the South Pacific, so where the hell are they going to find a dock?
While we’re on the subject of imaginary things, there’s nothing more hilarious than watching a bunch of actors crawl along the “hull” of an “invisible” ship. At one point the captain sends half of his SEAL team to try and take over the stealth ship, which can hide itself but not its wake. Picture this: a green screened sea background, blurred water spray effect in the foreground to hide the green boxes the actors are crawling on in lieu of actually building a set, and a bunch of guys doing bad mime in the middle. MIME! I understand the need to cut corners here and there, but of all the bad movies I’ve watched in my life I can’t remember one where the actors had to resort to mime because there was no budget for sets nor special effects.
If this movie had a bankroll beyond whatever tax credits the State of North Carolina confers for film production, I honestly think there could have been something to it. Granted, it needed an actual military historian as a consultant to fix a few glaring miscarriages against their spirit of faux-authenticity. One of the actors plays a history PhD in charge of the Iowa’s conversion to a museum, yet she doesn’t know the main guns of a battleship need 2000 pound crane loaded propellant cartridges to fire one of their shells. So I won’t claim there is a good movie amid the cat vomit that is American Warships, but I suspect an average one is waiting in the wings.
Should you fancy producing a homemade riff track with some friends, then American Warships is a prime target. Bad special effects, shameless over acting, and ample cheapo production gimmicks provide more than enough fodder for even the most inexperienced sarcastic robot wanna-be. Otherwise, this Battleship send-up is simply not worth anybody’s time.
Written and Directed by Thunder Levin
Starring: Mario Van Peebles, Carl Weathers, and Johanna Watts