Earlier this week, the staffers at Grantland used the occasion of Peter Berg's feature film adaptation of Battleship to collect some classic TV ads for board games. There is no gainsaying their selections, which include the ads for Operation—watch it at your peril; the song will be in your head all day—and Connect Four, which gave us the useful catchphrase “pretty sneaky, sis.” But there was a curious omission from Grantland’s list: the 1980s advertisement for Battleship itself, a staple of my weekday afternoon Scooby-Doo jags and an excellent example of the board game ad at its mid-80s peak.
The clever conceit is that the ad is actually a documentary about great naval battles, of the type that used to air on the History Channel back in the days before Ice Road Truckers. A gravelly-voiced narrator takes us back to Sept. 9, 1985, when a fateful shot by young Robbie Grant sank his brother Michael’s destroyer. The towheaded Robbie marches out of Michael’s room in triumph, but his victory comes at a cost. As the narrator intones: “This day is remembered as the last time Robbie was allowed in Michael’s room.”
This idea that a pair of siblings were riven for life by Milton Bradley’s essentially skill-free game grabbed me: I’d imagine the brothers on the morning Michael left for college, or the day Robbie’s wife gave birth to their first child, or on the sad occasion of their mother’s death after a long bout with leukemia, greeting each other coolly, Michael still unable to forgive Robbie the affront of that strike on “B1” that sent his destroyer to its watery grave.
There’s a pair of brothers at the heart of Berg’s new film—a nod, perhaps, to the classic ad—but for all their talent, Taylor Kitsch and Alexander Skarsgård can’t muster the same emotional impact as the tragic tale of Michael and Robbie Grant, the brothers whose fraternal bonds were rent by a plastic torpedo.