[Published 26 June 2009; Updated 28th October 2009]
One of my favourite ever film reviews was in Photoplay. I forget who the critic was (I was about twelve), but it was for Friday XIII Part V. It read: “Not since Citizen Kane has there been a film so … just kidding.” And that was it. Puerile, dismissive, haughty and daft, but there’s something delicious about bad film reviews. I have no intention of seeing Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Filler; I don’t want to be judgmental about a film I haven’t seen, but having spent valuable time on his other films and been infuriated every time, I feel confident that I’ll be better off gving this one a miss. It’s time to stop blithely accepting this crud as “just a bit of fun”. I know, it’s not supposed to be Bergman. But it might at least aspire to being Simon West. I’ve spent a good portion of what passes for my academic career defending spectacular cinema from charges of simplistic numbskullery. Spectacle has an important cultural role to play in exercising the physical, visceral aspects of spectatorship. But the wow factor is always multiplied when it’s packaged in a thought-provoking way. Whatever you think of the Matrix films, you can see how their visual effects compliment the themes and philosophical issues they want you to mull over, probably on a repeat viewing. Glorious eye candy sweetens the bitter pill of even the grimmest dystopia or challenges preconceptions of what it means to be a human in a human body. Or it can make big robots hit each other.
Transformers was the film that tipped me over the edge. I didn’t muster up any hatred for it (it was quite clear in its intentions, at least), but I didn’t get it visually. I couldn’t figure out which robot was which, or why I should care about them fighting, and I couldn’t really make sense of the fast cutting and frenetic action. It finally made me feel out of step with mainstream cinema, like that moment when you first notice that BBC Radio 1 is not playing any music you understand and that lightweight news-based quiz programme on Radio 4 is probably more your speed (sorry to non-Brits for the culturally specific reference…).
Having just written a couple of posts about King Kong punching things, I probably need to fend off some charges of hypocrisy: what makes Japanese monster movies charming, while Transformers is dismissed as an amoebically stupid, poop-dumb military masturbation fantasy? Both of them were thin concepts pegged to merchandising and toys. Well, one has grown old enough to acquire some kitsch value. The other is Transformers. One of them didn’t cost $200,000,000 to make. The other is Transformers. One of them built lovely miniature sets by hand using age-old crafts of engineering, carpentry and modelwork. The other is Transformers. All of my prejudices are old-fashioned, for sure. Transformers gives movies about giant robots thumping other giant robots a bad name. But the real sin of Michael Bay’s films is their numbingly cynical repetitiveness, and their underestimation of the intelligence of cinemagoers.
Anyway, the main thing is that I’m having fun reading some of the insults being hurled at the film from all quarters, which will no doubt be as effective against its box office shell as the gunfire that always glances off Godzilla’s rubbery skin.
This from Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian:
Bay has a great love of flashy effects, stroboscopic editing and loud crashes; he famously calls his cinematic technique “fucking the frame”. That phrase might be brutal, but it’s accurate. And there’s no doubt about it: he really has given the frame a right old seeing-to this time. Bay has turned up at the frame’s flat with some unguent massage oils, scented candles and a hundredweight of Viagra. It isn’t long before the headboard of the frame’s bed is crashing repeatedly against the wall, while the frame gazes up at the ceiling … and I think the frame is faking it.
According to Roger Ebert:
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is a horrible experience of unbearable length, briefly punctuated by three or four amusing moments. One of these involves a dog-like robot humping the leg of the heroine. Such are the meager joys. If you want to save yourself the ticket price, go into the kitchen, cue up a male choir singing the music of hell, and get a kid to start banging pots and pans together. Then close your eyes and use your imagination.
From Anthony Quinn in The Independent:
Fourteen-year-old boys will get their money’s worth. This boring, preposterous nonsense is stretched to an agonising two-and-a-half hours, the last battle scene alone – where the pyramids of Egypt crumble (thanks guys!) – seeming to last longer than the whole of The Iliad. That at least was poetry. This is just machinery.
Getting the point? Many critics are using metaphors of head trauma, skull-beatings and physical violence to describe the experience of watching this thing. Here’s some more:
Matt Bochenski at Little White Lies takes pertinent swipes at the film’s conservative politics, but it’s funnier when he’s attacking its director:
However blinding the film’s bright spots, there’s simply no getting past Bay’s reductive disinterest in the mechanics of filmmaking. Indeed, in one cheeky scene, he makes it clear exactly what he thinks of all those brainiacs who complain about how, well, fucking stupid his films are by blowing the shit out of a library. But the point remains: Bay is an awful storyteller who’ll sacrifice any element of logic or reason to serve the greater goal of aesthetics. The film raises all sorts of questions that it doesn’t stop to consider: why, if Transformers have been around for millennia, do they all look like late-twentieth-century model cars? Why, if they have the special new technology seen in Sam’s college, do they not make more use of it? Why did the Decepticons not notice that an entire US battle fleet was parked above the spot where they sank Megatron? Why, if the US has a special naval doomsday gun, do they not just shoot all the bad guys with it? Why is Michael Bay such a shit director? Stuff like that.
Peter Travers in Rolling Stone digs deep into his reserves of contempt:
Disguised as a human director, Bay is actually a destroyer of dreams. When Hasbro invented those Transformers toys, the intention was for kids to use their imagination about what those bots would morph into. Bay crushes that imagination with his own crude interpretations that seem untouched by human hands and spirit. I know there are still 17 months to go, but I’m thinking Transformers 2 has a shot at the title Worst Movie of the Decade.
Mike Ward questions the wisdom of some of the film’s dramatic choices:
Toward the end, when Shia almost dies, he “sees the light” and spends a few minutes in Transformer heaven hanging out at the the pearly, errrr, silicon chip gates and chattin’ with the spirits of dead Autobots. The robot spirits instruct him to return to earth and make another “Transformers” sequel so their robot grandchildren can reap merchandise rewards and go to college – and aren’t forced to get their CDLs and slum it hauling Chinese carnival prizes coast to coast. OK, I only made up that last part. The rest is all true.
By now, I think the reviews are getting as repetitive as a Michael Bay film. Could it be that the film is just too dull to inspire any real venom? This from Russ Fischer at Slashfilm:
Transformers is dull, ponderous and overlong, packed to the gills with glamor shots of busy robot designs and Megan Fox , flashes of idiocy (a small robot humping the leg of Fox, who smiles at it fondly) and endless examples of Bay’s increasingly tedious military porn. If summer entertainment is meant to be diverting and imaginative, Revenge of the Fallen succeeds only in that it drove me into periods of catatonic daydreaming, where I imagined watching anything else.
Mary Ann Johanson whips out the hyperbole, which seems appropriate in this case:
I’m certain that someday it will be acknowledged that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is like the most totally awesome artifact ever of the end of the American empire. It’s so us, a preposterously perfect reflection of who we are: loud, obnoxious, sexist, racist, juvenile, unthinking, visceral, and violent… and in love with ourselves for it. And Michael Bay is the high priest of our self-engrossment. It’s not enough that we like blowing shit up: the blowing shit up must be transubstantiated into something religious by having, say, a ridiculously gorgeous girl humping a motorcycle, her face aglow in the golden hour of sunset as she watches the shit get blown up, her glossy lips parted just a little in orgasmic joy.
How shit is Transformers 2? Without having seen it, I can’t say for certain. But it has a score by Hans Zimmer and Linkin Park. What more do you need to know?
If you know of any more choice reviews that eloquently slag off les films de Michael Bay, let me know and I’ll add them to my collection. EDIT: I recognise (as I noted above) that these reviews are one-note rants, the point where critics have stopped having fun and despaired of this stuff, but if you can find a positive article about Bay, one that makes constructive sense, I would be genuinely interested to read it; in the past, I’ve changed my mind about Roland Emmerich (except in relation to Godzilla, which stinks in every respect), so anything is possible.
Another funny review, from io9, which dubs ROTF (coincidence that the film’s title is the acronym for “Rolling on the Floor”? I think not…) “a brilliant art movie about the illusory nature of plot”. Relax, it’s ironic:
You have a movie that tries to reassure men that they can actually be masters of their reality — but then turns around and says that actually, reality is not real. There’s no such thing as the “real world,” and the only thing that’s left for men to dominate is a nebulous domain of blurred shapes, which occasionally blurt nonsensical swear-words and slang from ethnic groups that have never existed. If you’re drowning in an Olympic swimming pool full of hot chewing gum fondue, do you still care if Megan Fox likes you? So yes, ROTF approaches the sublime, and then just keeps rocketing. Next stop: total anarchy. In a sense, it’s the first war movie ever to convey a real sense of the fog of war, the confusion that comes with battle. Somewhere around hour nine, you will understand why friendly fire happens in wartime.
Drew McWeeny begins his review at Motion/Captured thus:
I have never felt more like a third nipple than I did, as a screenwriter, while watching Michael Bay’s new movie, Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen.
I would have left at that myself, but he continues, veering towards a stalwart defence of the film:
In some ways, I think “Transformers: Revenge of The Fallen” is the movie that fanboys have been slowly but surely placing down payments on for the last 20 years of pop cinema. When I hear people complain that it’s overstuffed and indulgent and excessive, I am sort of amazed that they feel the need to point that out. OF COURSE IT IS. That’s what Hollywood believes you want. Thanks to the way we’ve rewarded the lowest common denominator wrapped in the shiniest package, summer after summer after summer, and the way we seem to constantly demand that sequels turn everything up louder, make everything longer, and fill the frame with moremoreMORE, Michael Bay stands astride Hollywood like the perfectly evolved Modern Action Director.
So, the film is not evil, it’s just the natural outgrowth of the economic state of the film culture? But then, it all gets a bit more objectionable:
Politically, this movie couldn’t be more out-of-step with the so-called “liberal media.” I actually found that subtext far more squirm-worthy than the racial stuff. Optimus Prime is, sorry to say, a genocidal creep, and his zeal for pulling the heads and spines off the Decepticons is more disturbing than heroic. Realizing just how little I have in common with the mindset of the film, I disconnected emotionally from it completely, and maybe that’s why the spectacle of it all worked for me.
Does that mean that the film is using spectacle to mask some dodgy ethical positions, or that those positions are naturally insinuated with a love of head-thumping special effects? This may be why the film can’t just be shrugged off as light entertainment – contained within the “just for fun” disclaimers is an injunction not to look away while the subtexts are administered: focus on the giant robot, do not look away from the giant robot…
28th October 2009:
I still haven’t seen Transformers 2. Never really had the chance or the inclination, and my reasons for not making the effort are hopefully clear from the first section of this post. But maybe I will have to sit down and watch it at some point. As an academic, it won’t be the first or the last time I’ve had to sit through something that doesn’t appeal to me, giving it a fair crack as a bit of history or cultural production. This post has been amongst the most visited of everything I’ve posted at Spectacular Attractions, perhaps because some passing traffic gets pulled in by the picture of Meagan Fox (thus implicating me in the cycle of objectification from which I end up benefiting), or perhaps because plenty of people were interested in responses to the film; sometimes more interesting than our own experience of a film is the process of comparing our thoughts with others or defending our interpretation. Despite starting the post that produced a number of interesting responses in the comments section, I can’t fully participate in the discussion of a film I haven’t seen, yet I’m loathe to give my money/vote to this film – whatever my academic endeavours require of me, I’m still participating in a commercial exchange, which is always an ethical choice.
While I’m wrestling with my miniature ethical dilemmas, here’s a bit more about Transformers 2, which has already given me plenty of enjoyment via hilariously scathing reviews. But there’s also a bit of banter back-and-forth by the film’s personnel. Meagan Fox opened fire with her description of director Michael Bay in Wonderland Magazine:
He’s like Napoleon and he wants to create this insane, infamous mad-man reputation. He wants to be like Hitler on his sets, and he is. So he’s a nightmare to work for but when you get him away from set, and he’s not in director mode, I kind of really enjoy his personality because he’s so awkward, so hopelessly awkward. He has no social skills at all. And it’s endearing to watch him. He’s vulnerable and fragile in real life and then on set he’s a tyrant.
Cute. But not entirely damning or nasty. You could actually see these as humanising comments about a man who most people would assume was a Poundland James Cameron, a one-note, steroidal freak. A group of crew members came to Bay’s defence, though, and their attack on Ms Fox in an open letter to the press is far more unpleasant:
When facing the press, Megan is the queen of talking trailer trash and posing like a porn star. And yes we’ve had the unbearable time of watching her try to act on set, and yes, it’s very cringe-able. So maybe, being a porn star in the future might be a good career option. But make-up beware, she has a paragraph tattooed to her backside (probably due her rotten childhood) — easily another 45 minutes in the chair!
And who is the real Megan Fox? She is very different than the academy nominee and winning actors we’ve all worked around. She’s as about ungracious a person as you can ever fathom. She shows little interest in the crew members around her. We work to make her look good in every way, but she’s absolutely never appreciative of anyone’s hard work. Never a thank you. All the crewmembers have stopped saying hi to Ms. Princess because she never says hello back. It gets tiring. Many think she just really hates the process of being an actress.
Fox seems to attract a great deal of hatred. Apparently, she’s not supposed to speak her mind. I wouldn’t have expected her to have anything much interesting to say, so I’m not sure what people are expecting, and why she deserves this kind of vitriol. Perhaps someone could explain.
For the sake of balance, here’s a positive review of Transformers 2:
This does exactly what you expect from a Bay film. Explosions, hot girls, piles of military hardware and nary a thought for plot as it hurtles recklessly toward an epic, money-shot climactic fight outside the pyramids. We get to see every penny of the CGI budget onscreen as upwards of 40 robots collide. If there isn’t a part of you that doesn’t enjoy the site of an especially massive robot called ‘Devastator’, complete with two huge wrecking balls between its legs, punching the top off the Sphinx, I pity you.
Crazed, hyperactive and nonsensical. It’s also curiously lovable and a true multiplex movie. Roll out and see it now.
Again, I find it interesting that the film’s stupidity, either endearing or stultifying, is the basis of both positive and negative reviews.
I think I may have found a paean of praise to Michael Bay, and it’s almost rather touching. It comes from academic Jeanine Basinger, via Bay’s own website, and talks about his time as her student at Wesleyan University. This article comes from around the time of the release of Armageddon:
The first time I saw Michael Bay, he was a polite eighteen-year-old who stopped by my office at Wesleyan University to tell me he wanted to major in Film Studies. He also asked me if I would like to see his still photographs. As a teacher, I believe there is only one answer to that question: “Of course.” (It’s my job.) Over the years, I’ve seen a great deal of material from freshmen—short stories, novels, plays, ceramics, paintings, sculptures, prints, fashion designs, videos, computer art, movies in 8mm and 16mm, even recipe collections—but I have yet to see anything like Bay’s high school photos. They were astonishing—revealing an amazing eye for composition, an instinct for capturing movement, and an inherent understanding of implied narrative. Later, I saw this same ability in film classes. In history/theory, he listened intently, but said little, speaking mostly to ask keen questions or to deal with what he felt was nonsense from his peers. But in film production classes, he was the Road Runner, taking off on his own, needing little guidance. His senior film, Benjamin’s Birthday, won Wesleyan’s Frank Capra Prize for Best Film, and it was definitely what we now know as a “Michael Bay Film.” It was funny. It was fast. And it featured a very ritzy yellow Porsche. It told its story clearly, but in a highly nonverbal manner. Bay was ahead of his age group, but he was also ahead of his time. He still is.