Monday, July 20, 2009

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

The shape of things breaks open, cracks like a glass bottle and only light comes out, light and the awful sound of voices, distorted beyond recognition into guttural howls. An explosion crackles in my ear and the light flickers, that supple and mysterious light that bends with the sound into the shape of a spectrogram of one long scream. Something is becoming, but it remains formless, only light and screams and that crackling in my ear. I look, but I see nothing.

Oh my god, I think, I’ve gone blind.

It’s an hour into Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and I’ve gone blind. I’m staring at the screen, but I can’t see anything. Everything has descended into chaos, and even though my brain is gamely trying to process the visual incoherence of two giant walking scrap-yards smashing into each other, my eyes have given up. I panic.

I’m sure this all sounds like melodrama for the purposes of taking cheap shots at Michael Bay’s latest monstrosity, but I assure you the panic was real. I’ve never walked out of a movie before, but I came perilously close in this case, if only because I was momentarily terrified at the thought of exposing myself to another hour and a half of a movie that my body seemed to be physically rejecting.

Never before have I been so grateful for Bay’s grating comic sensibility as I was here. Those prattling, obnoxious scenes of forced wackiness and sitcom one-liners are as soothing to the ear as a dentist drill to your back molars, but visually they refresh like eye drops when compared to the onslaught of the action sequences. At the very least, they allowed my eyes to come back into focus and let me brace myself for the next wave of optic insanity. Whoever coined the phrase “Non-stop thrill ride!” should be shot out of a cannon. Into a burning building. While the sun explodes. This is the world you, anonymous jackass, have wrought.

How do you write sensibly about a movie that lays siege to your very senses? How do you critically review a punch to your own face? How does one assess, without resorting to hyperbole or hysterics, a movie that instead of offering us a new way of seeing the world rather provides a new way of going blind? The movie’s style is so pulverizing (and the content so incoherent) that you can really only appreciate it on the most basic sensory level as two and a half hours of varying shades of colour and alternations between loud and louder. This is stimulation that will leave you numb, a movie to end all movies. You’ll become so wearied with constant excitement that you'll be left bored. Um, two thumbs down for the bright boom-boom?

If it seems like I’m ignoring the plot, I assure you that would be quite impossible, as one can no more ignore the plot of Transformers: ROTF than you can ignore God, Sasquatch, and other mythical creatures. Allow me a quick summary for the curious and the damned: a bunch of things are blown up on a computer somewhere in California while Megan Fox runs in slow motion in a tank top and Michael Bay lights a cigar with a hundred dollar bill. The end.

The more elaborate summary—the one addresses the heart of the film, such as it is—requires a bit more of a straight face, so let’s see if I can do this without being too snide. Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is about to go off to college. His impossibly dumb parents are struggling with the prospect of an empty nest, his mother weeping all over the place while his dad puts on a brave face and acts tough. Sam makes plans to maintain a long-distance relationship with his impossibly hot girlfriend Mikaela (Megan Fox), while his just plain impossible alien robot car is undergoing a bit of separation anxiety because Sam has sent it scampering back to its own kind like a wayward dog. Meanwhile, good alien robots fight bad alien robots, a perfectly fine pyramid is wrecked, and for good measure, there’s an attempt to destroy the sun.

The great unwitting joke of the film is that Transformers: ROTF is actually a tender coming-of-age story about Sam becoming a man—no, really—but this ostensible human foundation for the robotic carnage is largely forgotten amidst the explosions and aforementioned slo-mo shots of Megan Fox, to say nothing of the inordinate amounts of time spent on a dog-humping motif and the unpleasant (and now infamous) sambobots. Indeed, one could go on and on about the various incidental stupidities that dust the movie like little turd sprinkles on a big shit cake. When the long-buried emotional arc suddenly resurfaces during the climactic battle in Egypt, it’s hard not to laugh out loud at the movie’s self-deluding conception of itself. You mean this isn’t about tits and explosions, after all? I reiterate: two thumbs down for the bright boom-boom.

But of course it’s laughable that Bay's absurd demolition zone of a movie could actually be a plausible coming-of-age story. How could any movie that aims no higher than the sensibility of a fifteen-year-old boy really say anything about maturity or responsibility? And why does it even try? One of the most puzzling things about Michael Bay is how he makes such unrelentingly shallow movies while still attempting to add moments of emotional uplift amidst the sterile CGI carnage. Unfortunately, with such uniformly obnoxious, unlikable characters, any attempt to create touching or inspirational moments feels like cruel mockery. Good things do happen to shallow jerks like these people. As for the rest of us, we get Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Empire of the Sun

And, once again, Steven Spielberg blows it. Based on a novel by J.G. Ballard, Empire of the Sun shows China during World War II from the perspective of an adolescent—by which I mean Jim, the young protagonist of the film, although Spielberg’s outlook is scarcely more mature than the boy’s.

Ballard’s novel is a fascinating piece of work: a thinly fictionalized analysis of the author’s actual childhood experiences, it uses a detached third-person narrative voice to describe the often horrific experiences of Jim as he loses his parents in the chaos of the Japanese attack on Shanghai and spends the bulk of the war in prison camps. It’s a harrowing story, and one made all the more powerful by Ballard’s clear-eyed depiction of it. There are plenty of obviously maudlin notes that could be played in the story of a child enduring such suffering, but Ballard never stoops to that level.

Ah, but that’s precisely the sort of song Spielberg likes to sing. Where Ballard refuses to tell his audience what to feel or think, Spielberg is all too happy to jump into the breach and lead us along to all of the facile sentiment that lays buried in the novel. The score by John Williams is particularly oppressive in this regard, and it fairly molests the audience—the swelling strings and angelic choir paw viewers in advance of every predictable grab for the heartstrings. If you treat the score as an alarm and fast-forward whenever it kicks in, you might actually have a more enjoyable experience of the film than I did. At the very least, you won’t feel so cheap and used.

Spielberg is actually reasonably faithful to Ballard’s basic story, although many details are altered, sometimes with little obvious justification. Character names, for example, are changed seemingly at random, with Ransome and Vincent in the novel becoming Rawlins and Victor in the film (I hate to quibble over small things, but the fact that someone felt such innocuous details needed to be changed in the first place makes me wonder if some studio head or marketing flunky felt audiences would be more sympathetic to someone named Mrs. Victor instead of Mrs. Vincent. Given the film’s many pandering moments, it only makes sense that the filmmakers’ condescension towards their audience would extend towards the choice of character names).

But the film’s main sin in alteration lies in showing Jim’s reunion with his parents, which the novel smartly avoids. The moment is too overloaded with emotion for Ballard’s restrained rendition of his story, and he actually pushes Jim’s parents into the background after the war in order to suggest the great distance between Jim and his childhood after his wartime experiences. “For all their affection for him,” Ballard writes, “they seemed older and far away.” The loss of childhood is depicted ambiguously in the novel, as Ballard surely knows we all grow up sometime, albeit rarely in such dire situations as he experienced.

But in Spielberg’s world, the threatened loss of childhood is merely a bit of dramatic conflict to set up a joyful third-act resolution, and the ending is a retreat from the darkness of the story—a retreat that applies on both a personal and a political level. In a telling departure from the novel, the word “Communist” is never uttered once during the film. The civil war between the Kuomintang and the Communists that arose from the ashes of WWII in China is completely cut out of Spielberg’s version of the story. Instead, we are left with Jim safe and secure in his mother's arms as he returns to a childhood innocence thought lost, while the film cheerfully embraces its own holiday from history.