In another sign that cinefantastique rules the summer box office, TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN made its debut at #1 despite spite of overwhelmingly negative critical reactions. Michael Bay’s explosive sequel to TRANSFORMERS earned an estimated $112-million in over 4,200 North American theatres over the three-day span from Friday through Sunday. The added revenue from Wednesday and Thursday (the film opened mid-week rather than waiting for Friday) yielded a five-day total of $201.2-million – just shy of the five-day record held by THE DARK KNIGHT.
As for holdover horror, fantasy, and science fiction films…
Up was in fourth place with $13,046,000. Five-week total: $250,218,000
Year One was in sixth place, down from fourth with $5,800,000. Two-week total: $32,207,000
Star Trek warped from #7 to #8 with $3,606,000. Eight-week total: $246,225,000
Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian petrified at ninth place, down from sixth, with $3,500,000. Six-week total: $163,248,000
11 8 Land of the Lost dropped out of the Top Ten, dropping from #8 to #11 with $1,143,000. Four-week total: $46,763,000
Terminator Salvation also left the Top Ten, going from tenth place to twelfth with $1,085,000. Six-week total: $121,922,000
Michael Bay’s TRANSFORMERS sequel is less science fiction spectacle than an excursion into abstract cinema
No other critic is going to admit it, so it falls to me to declare that director Michael Bay is an abstract artist whose work is continuously misinterpreted. The conventional wisdom is that Bay is a no-talent uber-Hollywood hack, who churns out formulaic action blockbusters in which story, characterization, and dialogue are flimsy pretexts for blowing shit up real good. What critics fail to understand is that Bay takes this approach and extends it one step further: the action and explosions are as much pretext as anything else in his films. Bay is not only eager to break with the traditions of narrative cinema; he wants to overthrow the conventions of mindless roller-coaster movies, in which a series of set-pieces deliver enough visceral entertainment to compensate for the weak storyline. Bay couldn’t care less about using camera angles and editing to orchestrate a decent suspense scene that would put you on the edge of your seat, nor is he interested in calibrating special effects, music, and sound design to deliver legitimate thrills. Viewed through his lens, all of that hardware flying around the screen, punctuated with pyrotechnics and saturated with geysers of flame and pillars of smoke, is merely raw material from which he can extract form and color. Yes, there are “actors” in his movies, along with “sets” and “props” – some of them physical, some of them crafted with computer-generated imagery – but in the end, all of them are simply blobs of light and shadow to be shot across the screen like paint spattered on a canvas by Jackson Pollack. The objects being photographed blur until they lose distinction, their form and function subservient to the aesthetics of kinetic motion, color, and composition.
What is most amazing about this achievement is that Michael Bay has presented his peculiar, idiosyncratic vision while working within the Hollywood studio system, under the guise of making movies that are perceived to be crowd-pleasing, mainstream entertainment with wide audience appeal – even while he resolutely refuses to deliver entertainment on the most basic level. In TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN, Bay has at his hands numerous resources that could have been easily marshalled by a more conventional director. Given a rising young star like Shia LaBeouf, Bay deliberately uses camera angles, movement, and editing to split the actor’s performance up into a series of jigsaw puzzle pieces that barely fit, giving only the vaguest hint of a character portrait, our attention instead directed to the size and shape of the pieces.
Even more obviously, given Megan Fox, who is probably the hottest woman on the planet (Jessica Alba notwithstanding), Bay can barely be bothered to exploit her latent sex appeal. Like Goddard, who de-sexualized Bridget Bardot in CONTEMPT by filming her bed scene in alternating primary colors that rendered her nudity in abstract terms, Bay uses his over-powering cinematic technique to reduce the leading lady to little more than a glorified extra – her denim shorts, tight clothes, and low-cut blouses registering only as small fragments of the kaleidoscopic kinetic color scheme that is the true raison d’etre of TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN.
Even the potential of the titular toys is undermined whenever possible. The fun of Hasbro’s Transformers is that they look impossible: there can’t possibly – or so it seems – be a way to unfold that car into a robot with arms, legs, and claws. And yet, it turns out to be completely possible – a challenging puzzle that engages the minds of children even as they are enjoying play-time with their toys. TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN, like TRANSFORMERS before it, is unhindered by physical reality; therefore, Bay sees no need to present transformations that have been as rigorously designed as the toy manufacturers, by necessity, had to design theirs. CGI can do anything, so anything goes. There is no need to marvel at clever construction; you need only allow your eye to be dazzled by the shifting slabs of metallic hues as the robots bend and twist like origami viewed in a fun-house mirror.
Despite his meticulous attention to craftsmanship, Michael Bay has not yet fully achieved his artistic apotheosis with his sequel to TRANSFORMERS. He does lapse into conventional cinematic forms at time, much to his detriment (it’s no accident that his biggest box office bomb, THE ISLAND, was the one that tried to tell a straight-forward story without explosions, at least for its first act). LaBeouf gets in a line or two of dialogue. John Turturro is allowed to give something resembling a performance (not a subtle one, to be sure, but it still resembles traditional acting). Here and there a close-up lingers just long enough for the viewer to realize that Megan Fox is, indeed, a fox.* An occasional joke elicits a laugh. A stunt looks like a part of the story instead of an Olympic event. A piece of shrapnel seems to threaten a character in a manner that almost makes you fear the impact rather than cheer on the beauty of motion-color artistry.
Bay’s most unforgivable lapse in TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN comes when he lets the screenplay present exposition intended to justify the action. Bay seems to realize that no one cares what the Decepticons are up to or why super-powerful Autobots need LaBeouf’s puny character for help; nevertheless, he includes these moments, perhaps out of a sense of obligation to the studios unwittingly funding his excursions into experimental cinema.
Fortunately, these lapses into conventional narrative form take up only a tiny fraction of REVENGE OF THE FALLEN’s two-hour-plus running time. Even more fortunately, when Bay gets back to the action, he shows no desire to pay his audience back for having forced them to sit through the tedium. Staying true to his unique vision, Bay insists on botching the promised throw-down between Optimus Prime and the Fallen. The thrill of victory after a hard-fought battle is almost as alien to Bay as the dramatic necessity of exposition. His is a purer form of cinema, at its best when unfettered by such quaint considerations.
We can only hope that he continues to explore this avenue, taking if further and further, until one day, perhaps, he ceases to photograph identifiable objects at all. With advances in computer-generated imagery, we look forward to the day when Bay indulges in a purely abstract phantasmagoria of sound and color, whose shapes and sizes are dictated only by the director’s imagination, not by the face and bodies of actors; their movements coordinated not according to some unnecessary “plot” but choreographed like a dance; the soundtrack score serving not to convey an illusionary sense of emotional investment in plot or character, but freed to work purely in rhythmic and melodic terms.
‘Tis a consumation devoutly to be missed, but until that glorious day arrives when Bay delivers his perfect masterpiece, we must be content with the psychadelic stylings of TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN. FOOTNOTE:
In one inexplicable close-up, Megan Fox is supposed to be expressing fear at the approach of a Decepticon, but her wide eyes and softly parted lips suggest a woman anticipating the arrival of her paramour in a romantic mood. Subsequent shots show Fox with her hand covering her mouth, as if Bay and/or his editor suddenly realized this was the only way to prevent her come-hither look from overwhelming the rest of the scene. Why the first shot was allowed to remain is a mystery – a sop to teen-age boys, perhaps? You can view the scene here.
TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN(2009). Directed by Michael Bay. Written by Ehren Kruger & Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman. Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel, Isabel Lucas, John Turturro, Tyrese Gibson, Rainn Wilson, Ramon Rodriguez, Hugo Weaving (voice of Megatron), Peter Cullen (voice of Optimus Prime).
Director Michael Bay is back with another film about those toys that turn into robots or something. The first one wasn’t any good, but it made a ton of money, indicating that Bay had finally found his true calling: making films for kids. Stars: Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel. Studio: DreamWorks SKG.
Check out the first theatrical trailer…
Well, this is a pretty dull week for home video releases. A couple of television shows are out, and a bunch of older titles reappear, mostly to take advantage of the new Blu-ray format. The 800-pound gorilla is the Two-Disc Special Edition Blu-ray disc of TRANSFORMERS – which raises an obvious question: How much bonus material can there be so that it takes two discs to contain it all? (Wasn’t one of the big advantages of Blu-ray over HD-DVD that, although both offered equal picture quality, Blu-ray had a bigger storage capacity?). Anyway, if you liked this movie, you probably already own it, so here’s your chance to buy it again, just for the pleasure of seeing that 1080p picture. Continue reading “Laserblast: Transformers & TV”→
Sci Fi Universe excerpts some comments director Michael Bay made at Rotten Tomatoes, saying he has been hard at work on a sequel to TRANSFORMERS during the writer’s strike:
“We’ve got our characters all designed […] I always write all my scripts, my movies anyway so at least I’ve got something to give the writers. It’s like a template. We have a really good outline so I worked on that.”
It might be a tad unorthodox, but Bay has high pressure demands. “We had to because I want to make my date. I’m not going to let the strike take me down.”
So, Optimus Prime and the gang are a bunch of strike-breaking scabs because Bay doesn’t want to miss a release date? And doesn’t Bay sound a bit solipsistic with his reference to not letting the strike take him down?
The strike wasn’t about him personally; it was about properly recompensing the people who are actually going to write the screenplay for his movie, so that he can go on making millions of dollars.
Given the great abundance of award worthy effects films that are released each year, one has to wonder why the Academy in all its great wisdom, continues to announce a list of seven finalists for the effects Academy Award and then insists on whittling it down to only three nominees.
Every other award category (except for make-up and sound editing) has five nominees, so to reduce the effects award to only three simply doesn’t make sense. It appears this rule is a hangover from olden days when there were often less then five films that could be considered worthy for nomination.
That was certainly the case in 1976, when the Academy’s board of governors made the startling bad judgement of giving an Oscar to KING KONG for best visual effects. That ridiculous mistake caused several prominent members of the effects branch to resign from the Academy in protest.
In any case, today the Academy announced the list of seven finalists, which will be narrowed down to three actual nominees after a vote by the effects nominating committee on Jan 16.
My own favorite effects film, SPIDER-MAN 3 didn’t even make the list, despite the excellence of effects work on display in creating the Sandman. Also missing from the list are HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX and Disney’s ENCHANTED with it’s spectacular SLEEPING BEAUTY inspired live-action dragon.
The seven effects films deemed the worthiest by the Academy this year are:
THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM (Universal)
EVAN ALMIGHTY (Universal)
THE GOLDEN COMPASS (New Line Cinema)
I AM LEGEND (Warner Bros.)
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD’S END (Disney)
300 (Warner Bros.)
While the seven finalists for best make-up are:
THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY (Miramax)
HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX (Warner Bros.)
LA VIE EN ROSE (Picturehouse)
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD’S END (Disney)
SWEENEY TODD THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET (Paramount)
300 (Warner Bros.)
Ehren Kruger (who wrote the English-langauge script for the American remake THE RING) is in negotiation to team up with Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci on a sequel to TRANSFORMERS. Kurtzman and Orci wrote this summer’s blockbuster hit, which was based on the popular toys. Sci Fi Wire speculates that adding Kruger to the team is a way of taking some of the burden off of Kurtzman and Orci, who are busy scripting the next STAR TREK film for J. J. Abrams.