[27 November 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It should have been the blockbuster battle royale of 2009, a cinematic smackdown between two toy-based action adventure popcorn epics. One the one side was Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Michael Bay’s bloated expansion of everything the first film got right (or for some, wrong). Clocking in at more than two hours and twenty-nine minutes, it threatened to bludgeon the audience with its gignormous F/X overkill and fetishized shots of Megan Fox’s…face. It’s opponent - another Paramount production, this time based on the ‘80s geek reinterpretation of that real American hero, GI Joe. Subtitled The Rise of Cobra, this beached whale workout offered the king of pointless surfeit, Stephen Sommers, using every CG trick in the book, including robotic running suits and an underwater battle so pointlessly elephantine that it would make Poseidon himself pass out.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the rendering lab - Transformers turned the trick, raking in more cash per critic’s complaint than any film in the history of hack. As audiences tempered on better impressive eye candy like Star Trek, they lined up like loons to prove that the lowest common denominator sometimes equals the biggest box office returns. On the other hand, by the time Cobra’s new world order nemesis showed up, the press held back from passing judgment on its lack of charm, it could barely break $150 million. So why is it that one crappy overdone excuse for Hollywood Summer movie merchandising set the studio coffers ablaze, while the other ran out of steam before it could make back its craft services budget? If the recently released Blu-ray versions of both films are any indication, the answer is quite simple - people are dumb.
That’s right - audiences are apparently retarded. They loved ever inch of Bay’s amped up retreat, never once arguing with its “same thing, just more of it” mantra. It’s a sentiment that’s even more obvious when you re-watch the film again sans 70 foot screen surplus. For all its intricate automaton gimmickry, its empty nest parent pratfalls, and racially sketchy strategies, its one incessantly boring experience. As a matter of fact, if you took away the distractions and simply went with the narrative as presented, you’d be so bored you’d demand dozens of longing shots of Transformer testicles.
GI Joe, on the other hand, is saddled with that most oppressive of moviemaking prerequisites - the origin story. It has to spend time setting up the Joes, why they are so secret and special, and the arms dealer demagogue whose threatening the world. Granted, it’s an equally stupid premise as all that “return of the revenge of the Fallen” falderal, but at least Sommers knows how to have big goofy fun. Michael Bay just seems obsessed with more…MORE…MORE!!!
Spend some time with the commentary track for Transformers #2 and you’ll see what we mean. The director, given over to commercially coaxed delusions of grandeur, makes it very clear that his vision of this sequel was more unrestrained, more plot-riddled, more everything in every way. The script was severely trimmed, says the spectacle savant, the better to give more time to the “characters” (like the motorized minstrel show known as Mudflap and Skids, perchance?) and the chaos. While we don’t get many details on what was removed, it’s clear that a lot of the villain’s backstory was excised, motive and explanation as to goals apparently not as important as awkward moments of aged matron mugging.
GI Joe, on the other hand, knows it’s dumb. Sommers even suggests that he wanted to make a live action cartoon (in keeping with the Greed decade update of the icon and franchise). That he succeeds both in creating flat, one dimensional champions and equally inert scoundrels means he more than lived up to his goals. But the best part about this take on a Hasbro toy line is the desire to make things fluffy and fun. Unlike Bay’s Transformers, which plays it so deadly serious that it’s fatal, Sommers skips logic, realism, context and anything that would make his movie seem like part of the actual planet we live on. Oddly enough, it’s Joe that plays into preconceptions and takes on a the more recognizable appreciable edifice. While the Autobots and Decepticons are ransacking Egypt’s infamous pyramids, Cobra is targeting the Eiffel Tower with its nanotech seeking missiles.
In the battle between more = moronic then, GI Joe clearly wins. It’s a far more inventive movie, trying to turn a child’s backyard game of world domination into a computer generated excuse for printing money. Sommers has always suffered from a desire to drown his viewers in so much optical obesity that they get bad movie diabetes in the process. He knows he’s lethal, but hopes his giddy kid conceits carry him past the morgue with ease. Bay, on the other hand, is cancer. He’s insidious, sneaking into areas of your entertainment consciousness you thought were safe from disease and destruction, and then slowly sapping the life out of each and every one. By the time you’re ready to rely on said centers as a means of salvaging your enjoyment existence, Bay’s blend of wonk and waste have won. You’re spent, subservient to his craven stuntwork sickness, one foot firmly placed in the franchise grave.
More importantly, GI Joe plays better on the small screen, a reduction in imagery allowing the viewer to see what Sommers was really shooting for. Transformers Dos, on the other hand, becomes the evil emperor’s jockey shorts. What didn’t work in theaters is applied fifty fold by being miniaturized, while the obvious flaws in the basics of filmmaking show through early and often. Bay’s vision is too busy, too based on the 16x9 limitations of the video playback he (and other directors) rely on during filming to clarify their compositions. Sure, the kids who clamored for the title in theaters will definitely delight in witnessing its wanton disregard for intelligence on their own home theater set up, but Joe seems like the lesson that will be learned later, and more favorably. Sommers may not get to make the sequel suggested by the ending, but at least he did his entity proud. Bay just does it loud.
While it may seem silly to scrap over films that obviously had no ambition other than to hammer the viewer with as much synapse-snapping stuff as possible, the success of Transformers and the failure of Joe will remains one of 2009’s greatest anomalies. And when you toss in the equally swollen Terminator: Salvation, it’s clear that if the first nine years of the new millennium have taught us anything, it’s that Jerry Lewis should be shot. No, not for his crazy comic shenanigans, but for inventing the aforementioned technology that allow filmmakers to view their movie through the unnatural window of a portable on-set monitor.
For decades now, novice auteurs have misinterpreted the material they see on such tiny portals as the possible magic they’ll be bringing to the movie. In the case of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra, it’s nothing more than brain-death brought to larger than life extravagance. If less is indeed more, both of these movies have created black holes where blockbusters used to be.