27 June 2014

The Road to a Blockbuster: That's Right. Robot Dinosaurs.

Another Summer Friday is upon us, and so it comes time once again to assess the latest big, crass, loud marketing giant that has struck our screens trying to become the next big blockbuster. As always, we are curious of not only a film's commercial potential, but its critical and most importantly, cultural potential as well. This late June weekend is particularly of note, because it usually features crazy big openers like a Pixar film or the last three Transformers films. And we've got one more of the latter this weekend, Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014).
To be fair, this is the greatest trailer money shot of all time.

There are a few things on my mind when noting the release of this beast. Okay, there are many, many things. Let's start at what's most pertinent - the fact that the Transformers movie series have become this sort of poster child for everything that's wrong with the modern blockbuster. They're an "updated" re-hash of a mildly popular but culturally significant 80s property (that was originally created mostly to sell toys), they're generally big, loud, stupid, and incomprehensible in nearly every way, from plot to the actual visuals on screen, and finally, they're so massively damn popular that Hollywood can's top cranking them out. When watching a Transformers movie it's hard to even believe that it's real sometimes. This mostly falls on Revenge of the Fallen (2009). Why would Rainn Wilson or Ramon Rodriguez's characters ever act the way they do? They're cartoons. How can the Twins can exist in a movie that came out in 2009 without anyone along the process saying "wait, stop, this is pretty racist"? Megan Fox motorcycle ass. It's astonishing that this was a $400 million meal ticket.

A lot of this typifying criticism is pretty fair - but it's also important to note how much these films get right - by being exactly what they need to be. That happens to be mass marketed 14-year old boy "TOTALLY AWESOME!!!1!!1@!!" material - but they do a spectacular job at that, which isn't necessarily an easy feat. Let's take the sorts of films that were trying to hit that demographic last year - the big loud, stupid films. Pacific Rim (2013) was a bit loud, smart film that domestically earned about a third that Transformers (2007) did. Man of Steel (2013) and Elysium (2013) were plagued by the kind of self-seriousness that Transformers movies shrug off in favor of unadulterated awesomeness, and they also didn't make the kind of money Transformers does. Man of Steel came close - but it could really be considered a cultural failure based on how poorly it was received by serious moviegoers. Now, no serious film lover loves a Transformers movie, but at least they're not really trying to be loved. After that we get into pretty rough R.I.P.D. (2013) territory and stuff, that neither took itself seriously, nor made any attempt at intelligence but failed in every sense of the word. It's not easy to make a good loud dumb movie. Mike Bay can do it.

Age of Extinction has sort of snuck under the radar, though, surprising as that may seem. It's not like it has a ton of competition - last summer in particular was grotesquely overloaded with some big movie every weekend clamouring for people to see it - as a result, things like The Lone Ranger (2013) didn't feel all that urgent and got lost in the shuffle. This year Age of Extinction has nothing in its way. What's on its heels, Think Like a Man Too (2014)? And next week is Tammy (2014)? These aren't necessarily in direct competition with a giant Robots Smash flick. But yet, the marketing has been really subdued for this one. I'm not sure I even cared that much or realized what we had on our hands until Optimus rode a fucking Dinosaur during the Super Bowl then suddenly it was "What the hell is this? THAT'S FOUR MONTHS FROM NOW?"

So, why is there this nonchalant air? Perhaps it's the nature of the "soft reboot," which is a term that I love. It's kind of insane. It's like supposing that anyone actually cared about Shia LaBeouf's story from the first trilogy. Or cared about the story at all from the first trilogy. I mean, I do. Repeatedly. But I'm an insane person. Transormers 2 was the first damn movie I ever reviewed for this site. But Age of Extinction has thrown out (presumably) a lot of the crap that came before it in favor of a slight redesign of the incoherent robots and a whole new cast.

And actually, this all looks fantastic. I mean, you upgrade Shia to Mark Wahlberg? I'm sold. Whether he does this on purpose or not, Mark actually has the perfect blend of a serious character just struggling to hide the ridiculousness of his situation through an over-the-top sincerity to the stupid. Just listen to his delivery of one of the dumber lines from the trailer. It's incredible. Michael Bay already used this talent to aplomb in Pain & Gain (2013), although I still struggle with whether or not that movie was supposed to be genuine or ironic. I just can't tell with these idiots, which makes it fun. Humans = improvement.

Now let's talk robots. Not only will this film feature the Dinobots, which look stunning and ridiculous and fantastically shooting dead-eye towards that 14-year old boy love, but the redesign of all the robots themselves actually seems a bit cleaner and more coherent. That's a huge positive for this series. It's maybe a bit cartoonier, but if it makes the action easier to follow, it's an incredible achievement. It makes me wonder why they don't just ditch elements like this that weren't working for the first three movies. So robots = improvement.

So, again - why so mild a buzz? I think it has something to do with Dark of the Moon (2011). That film could really be considered the most complete Transformers film in terms of the themes it developed, the tone being mastered, and the characters being realized. Before that appears like a trolling statement, it's not to say that it really excels in any of this stuff, but for a Transformers film, it's the most complete. Bay almost seems to have crafted it as a darker and more serious reaction to the zany hijinks of Revenge of the Fallen, even if it's still not like, Chris Nolan serious. But not only is it a pretty fun summer film, but it's got some real stakes, real drama, and some attitude. It also has this air of finality to it, which makes another victory lap, as cool as Mark Wahlberg and Dinobots are, seem unnecessary.

It's kind of the same deal as The Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011). It really has no cultural cache because no one gave a shit about it when it came out. It's like trying to jerk off more after you've already shot your load. It just chafes, man. At World's End (2007) had that same kind of finality that Dark of the Moon had - that these characters' stories were complete and our time in this world had been really satisfying. On Stranger Tides added exciting but ultimately unnecessary characters and a plot that was more a re-hash without any real significance. Pop quiz hotshot - what's the general story outlook for Age of Extinction? Who's the villain? What's at stake? Fucking aliens, I guess, that's my only answer. Despite Mark and Dinosaurs, nothing has really been communicated as a thoughtful and meaningful reason to see this film. I think it may end up like On Stranger Tides - maybe a strong international success, but even three years out, everyone's forgotten about it.

And who the fuck is this guy?
I don't really think that any of my normal predictions are difficult. How much money will this make? Probably not the crazy $400 million mark, although the road is pretty much paved in their favor for a while. Even when we get into the neck of July, if you're looking at the kind of big, loud blockbusters that Transformers complete with, you've basically got Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) and uhh...that's it. The key question is whether or not people will actually care, which I think will come from more a novelty standpoint than anything substantial. Critically, this is almost guaranteed a drubbing, or the best it can hope for: "Good...for a Michael Bay movie." Finally, what will the cultural appreciation be for this film?

This is an interesting question, especially this summer where we've suddenly gotten all these retrospectives from other legendary summers. I mean, just look at '84. The cultural density of these flicks, especially the trio of Temple of Doom, Gremlins, and Ghostbusters is palpable. Will we care about Age of Extinction in 2044? Really, think about that - it sounds so far away, 2044. Will we give a shit about Dinobots? I'm not sure why no one ever thinks about these things, or maybe you do - leave a comment! I'm going to say, though, that in 2044 we'll be more excited for the latest blockbuster, Moon Knight 3: The Moonening of Khonshu (2044) than anything produced way back in these "Obamanite Years."

Actually the third Moon Knight movie will probably come out waaay before 2044. Age of Extinction lands today. What do you think?

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