Thursday, July 16, 2009

Less than meets the Eye: A critique of the reviews of Transformers 2

Transformers...more than meets the eyes...Transformers...robots in disguise!...Transformers...

First off, I'd like to scold and chastise Messrs Bay and Bruckheimer (henceforth to be referred to as BayBruck) for having a 2 hour and 30 minute Transformers film that didn't have the original theme music.

Next I'd like to commend BayBruck for sticking to what they know. They could have very easily taken a cue from Nolan and The Dark Knight or Favreau and Iron Man and try to ground this movie about "Robots that Transform!" into something contemporary and thought-provoking. They could have tried that and they would have failed, monumentally. Transformers is a movie based on a cartoon based on a comic book based on a line of toys from Hasbro. The opening card of "Transformers: Rise of the Fallen" (TROF) reads "Dreamworks and Paramount Pictures in association with HASBRO." Hasbro is not an avant-garde, single-named, postmodern writer. Hasbro is a toy company. So I ask the question: did Hasbro develop Transformers to examine issues of man's uneasy relationship with technology and artificial intelligence? Try again. They made Transformers to sell cheap plastic action figures to adolescent boys in the hopes of making some money and keeping them from driving their parents crazy. 20% RT rating, and its based entirely on the subject matter and the director/producer. They don't like robots in disguise and they don't like movies with the consistency of the popcorn or cotton candy they stuff in their mouths as they watch and they think one day everyone will make movies like BayBruck.

And that's fine. Those are understandable opinions and understandable fears. But it does raise an interesting question: what is the point of your movie review? I reviewed a movie called Star Trek a few weeks back that everybody loves and everybody went to see, because I had a legitimate beef with it: false advertising. I expected to see a Star Trek movie, it has Star Trek on the poster and it wasn't Star Trek. Every review for this Transformers movie, which no reviewer loved and everyone went to see, basically reduces to "BayBruck gave the audience exactly what they wanted and expected and the audience shouldn't want or expect that because it's beneath them." Well what is your review trying to convey? Are you trying to tell people what they should like? Are you trying to establish some invariant criteria for a good movie? Are you trying to make clear your preference for movies that aren't about Robots in Disguise? Or is some part supposed to anticipate the audience that's going to see the movie and speak to whether or not the director was successful in his/her goals?

What exactly were BayBruck trying to accomplish with this movie? And did they succeed?

$700 milllion later I'd say that they did. And nary a voice to acknowledge that fact. This movie was made to entertain and make money. Just like the toys that inspired the movie. And it does that, ergo, it is a movie making travesty. It's the end of the world as we know it.

My definition of a good and great movie is very simple: a good movie entertains while a great movie entertains while it informs. A great movie touches on timeless themes that tie it to stories told by generations past and generations to come and does it in an original way. But a good movie isn't exactly the easiest thing to make either, else every movie would be good. Transformers is crass and low-brow and obvious and entertaining. We have a word for things with those characteristics - populist. And Transformers 2 is populist movie-making at its shameless best. BayBruck try to appeal to an audience aged 4-40. That’s not easy to do. How badly can you review a movie that accomplishes something like that? I sat in a theatre with a child to my right no older that 8 and an adult to my left in his thirties. They laughed at the exact time at the exact same thing they were looking at on screen. And what was it you may ask? John Turturro's butt. Inelegant yes, but effective. Don’t you have to adjust your criteria of judgment considering the movie isn’t trying to impress just you alone?

When BayBruck make the claim that reviewers have the "anti-fun" gene I think there is legitimacy to that criticism - what exactly were they expecting from a movie based on a cartoon based on an action figure line? I can tell you that the vast majority of the people who spent $700 million validating BayBruck were not expecting Shakesperean themes or storytelling. They were there to see a beer commercial. And what did BayBruck give them? A beer commercial. A 150 minute beer commercial: an extended promotional for GM cars and trucks (think 3rd quarter sales) and the United States armed forces (I wonder how much recruitment ticks up after a BayBruck release...military marketers must wait around the phone for BayBruck's call) using obscenely hot women (I'm sold on Megan Fox), exotic locals, shameless butt jokes, massive setpieces and loud explosions. This movie represents the apotheosis of the BayBruck formula. It’s what you get when you make movies like Crimson Tide, The Rock, Armaggeddon, etc long enough and make enough money doing the obvious. BayBruck are masters of the obvious. And despite its formulaic predictability, who doesn't like a beer commercial?

Transformers is the "Sarah Palin" of movies: it smiles, it’s pretty, it says things you like to hear but you largely turn off your brain when it opens its mouth. I mean, appealing to the lowest denominator in us all (sex, fast cars, violence) may be intellectually offensive but that snobbery shouldn't prevents us from acknowledging that even putting the most obvious crowd-pleasing things on a screen doesn’t guarantee financial success (think Showgirls, Fast and Furious, Punisher). BayBruck made a $200 million movie that feels like it cost $250 million. That is to say, a lot of work went into making this flick as big as it is. These reviewers seem to deny any room for "big" or "popular" in moviemaking, and to my mind, what the hell else is a summer blockbuster supposed to be other than a big, loud, obnoxious, color-saturated, CGI-laden thrill ride? JJ Abrams made a big, loud, obnoxious, color-saturated, CGI-laden “thrill ride” (that’s verbatim from basically every reviewer) and called it Star Trek and its 70 percentage points higher than TROF. The difference: Star Trek is supposed to appeal to your brain, and Transformers…is a movie about robots in disguise. TROF’s plot is Sam Witwicky holds the key to the Superweapon that the Fallen plans to use to destroy mankind (who knows why) and Star Trek’s plot is Kirk has to stop Nero from using his Superweapon to destroy mankind (who knows why) and change history (incidentally Star Trek: First Contact was about Picard having to stop the Borg from changing history and destroying mankind...I know, it is a substantive difference).

That people like Star Trek, or at least what passes for Star Trek these days, and not "Robots in Disguise", doesn't seem like enough of a reason to give a movie a good or bad review (I don't like the Holocaust, so I'm going to go ahead and say that Schindler's List is shit). If BayBruck had tried to give TROF an enduring theme -- if they tried to shoehorn-in a critique of the troubled relationship between man and machine -- I would have loved to see how they reviewed that movie. "Who do BayBruck think they are trying to make a movie based on a cartoon based on an action figure line into something intelligible?" – they would have absolutely obliterated that flick. I daresay that movie might have earned BayBruck an RT of 0%.

And I hope it goes without saying that condemning a movie as a complete failure when it made so much money and entertained so many people isn't just arrogant, it’s pretty stupid.

- K

P.S. Joe Morgenstern and the comments of Ed Chiu.

P.P.S. Vagueland blog


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