Tech Sergeant Epps and Captain Lennox quickly worked out in 2007′s Transformers that their conventional ammunition wasn't going to cut it when it came to bringing down a Decepticon. Instead, they needed to use Rapier rounds (or something) because they burn at a higher temperature (or something). What neither of them knew then, what none of us could have known then, is that the franchise as a whole would evolve to become entirely bullet-proof within four short years.
For the most part, Transformers (2007) was well-received. Of course it was not everyone's cup of tea and it was loud and silly, but the special effects were outstanding and the action sequences breath-taking, with a fairly arch and knowing script touching the right bases on its way from A to B. 2009′s sequel, Revenge of the Fallen, very much eschewed the "less is more" ethos in favour of "a lot more is a lot more". We had lots more Decepticons, we didn't really know who they were or what they were doing, Megan Fox gratuitously spread herself over a motorbike in order to keep teenage boys (and middle-aged fathers) happy, pyramids got trashed, outrageous racial stereotypes were perpetuated, we were treated to a giant swinging set of Decepticon testicles and Michael Bay just kept turning up the volume. As a film it had moments of fun and entertainment, but it fell way short of the first in terms of quality, coherence and cohesion and yet, here's the thing; it made $836m to the $708m of the first instalment.
Clearly these films were becoming increasingly critic-proof, as Revenge of the Fallen was roundly lambasted by film journalists. Two stars seemed to be the order of the day (for whatever that is worth) and Mark Kermode in particular savaged the film as misogynistic, crass and racist. A year down the line, Bay himself confessed that ROTF had fallen short of expectations in terms of quality and that the next film, which by then was underway would correct its shortcomings as a way of making things up to the audience, who he acknowledged deserved better. This was quite an admission and heightened expectations that Dark of the Moon (as it came to be known) would be more akin to the 2007 in terms of quality.
But consider those box office numbers again for a moment. No doubt Michael Bay has no desire to be known as some sort of hack who gets good box office but remains dismissed by the critics fraternity. He plays to his strengths (great set-pieces, high-quality action direction, lots of explosions), but he won't be wholly indifferent to his critical reputation. Having said that, Paramount would have taken a long, hard look at those figures and, one would assume, leaned towards Bay's ear to whisper, "if it ain't broke...". What they clearly had on their hands here was a combination of product and director with alchemic qualities, able to produce pure gold out of base components. It didn't make any difference whether the critics liked it or not, audiences were pouring in, fortunes were made and all of a sudden the franchise became boxed in.
So here we are in 2011 and Dark of the Moon is now with us. It is every bit the bullet-proof juggernaut that its' predecessor was. In excess of $400m in its first week, worldwide. This despite some unbelievably vitriolic reviews. Film Freak Central says:-
Transformers: Asshole holds the distinction of being the first movie this year I'm actually ashamed of. In it, I recognize every failing of we the people, paraded before us as though they were virtues.Roger Ebert says:-
a visually ugly film with an incoherent plot, wooden characters and inane dialog. It provided me with one of the more unpleasant experiences I've had at the movies.Mark Kermode had nothing nice to say at all, dismissing it as soft-core porn, crass, leering and obscene. Reviews were, in the interests of fairness and balance, more positive elsewhere, but certainly no-one hailed it as a masterpiece. Empire Magazine captured the inevitable outcome best with their summary:-
An improvement on Transformers 2, but then what isn't? To paraphrase the Bard, it's a tale, full of sound and fury and extremely stupid dialogue and nonsensical plotting and preposterous stunts and robots punching each other's heads off, signifying nothing. Needless to say, it's going to be huge.
Exactly. It didn't matter what anyone thought of the film, it didn't matter whether it was better or worse than the previous films, it didn't matter whether Bay learned his lessons and gave us the Transformers film we deserved. It was bigger, louder, longer, more exciting, better-rendered and most importantly, in 3D. Yes, you get to wear uncomfortable shades for 160 minutes as well. To be honest, I quite enjoyed a lot of it, though Bay insistence on salivating over Rosie Huntington-Whiteley's body every five minutes was dreary and unpleasant. But, IT DOESN'T MATTER. This franchise has become indestructible, death proof. The critics have turned on the film and it has made no difference at all.
Bear in mind that this isn't the first critically-mauled, effects-heavy film to reach the cinema recently. Skyline performed wretchedly and Green Lantern has fared far worse than hoped by the studio. Neither of these could escape from the impact of negative reviews and ambivalent audience reactions. But where they stumbled and fell, Dark of the Moon has shrugged and carried on pounding. The difference must be that, regardless of what it says about our taste in films, regardless of whether we should like it or not, Bay is giving the audience what they want and we are lapping it up. No-one is going to be able to convince Bay or Paramount that a wrong turn has been taken and that the franchise needs to be scaled back, rebooted and the quality improved (as seems to be happening now with Spider-Man). Successive franchise entries have been louder, longer and less refined and the money just keeps pouring in ever more abundantly.
I'm not sure what if anything can stop this juggernaut. Unless the studio decides to grasp some higher ideal of not sacrificing quality and artistic integrity on the altar of commercial success, we will surely just get more of the same. For these sorts of projects, money talks. It took the unmitigated failure of Batman & Robin to wrestle the franchise away from Schumacher and entrust it to Nolan, which has resulted in The Dark Knight, Oscar success and greater box office returns than any other entry in the franchise. Unless and until we stop watching these films, they won't change. Why would they? Why should they? We have only ourselves to blame.
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