I have not seen the new Transformers movie because I really don’t think Michael Bay should get my money. I really don’t want to encourage him to make more movies so I’m voting with my wallet and staying away from his stuff. Yes, it would probably be hilarious to rip the new movie apart but I just did not feel like it this time. I read the reviews and it seems that it actually was marginally better than the previous one, but that does not really mean anything. It’s like saying that stepping in shit is better than stepping in shit while wearing brand new shoes. You could argue that there is a difference, but the smell is the same in both cases.
That said, the Transformers season came and went and I had to listen to hordes of excited fanbois and fangirls yapping about it for weeks. I am getting really sick of people defending Michael Bay’s cinematic abortions. It saddens me that Michael Bay’s barbaric editing style, inept storytelling, lack of regard for aesthetics and composition, rampant anti-intellectualism, objectification of women, cultural insensitivity peppered with overt racist overtones and baseless taste managed to somehow steal the hearts of the movie goers far and wide. What makes his work so attractive? How do you take everything that is shameful and horrible about Hollywood movie making, and channel it into an endless stream of revenue? I just don’t get it.
So I started asking people about it. Whenever I meet someone who is enamored by his movies I give them these 3 simple questions:
- What in particular made the movie so entertaining?
- What particular scene really stayed with you?
- What was that made the characters in the movie and their journey especially compelling?
The funny thing is, most people can’t give me straight answers. People I talked to were extremely vague on the details and freely admitted that what they liked the most was the eye candy: explosions, cgi, etc. But… Special effects are nothing special these days. Every movie has them, and they get better every year. So if all you look for in a movie are the special effects, you will like every single new summer blockbuster. What I’m really trying to see is what people like about a particular production. What sets it apart from dozen other releases that came out around the same time.
When asked about the scenes, people tend to ignore set pieces such as battles or romantic subplots and point at things and sound bytes instead. I had several people tell me they loved the transformation sounds (while trying to imitate them their mouths) and how awesome was to hear the voice of Optimums Prime for the first time (because it sounded just like the cartoon or something). Incidentally, neither of these things has much to do with Michael Bay. The sounds were mostly borrowed from the source material and jazzed up for the big screen. This is nothing but nostalgia, and not genuine appreciation of Mr. Bay’s work.
I had several people tell me they liked the cars. Which, I guess is a fair if you happen to be a car person. There is a copious amount of product placement in Transformers so I can understand the appeal it may hold for auto-buffs. Still, we are talking about eye candy.
When asked about characters, most people would just pick Optimus Prime (mostly because of nostalgia) or the “the twins” from the second movie (probably because they got more screen time than any other robot and people found them amusing for some inexplicable reason). Some people would also would wax poetic about Meghan Fox’s specific body parts.
By far the most common reaction to my questions is this:
“Dude, you are looking way too much into this. Sometimes you have to like turn-off your brain, and just enjoy the show. Not every movie has to be, like, intellectual and shit.”
You know what? That’s fine. Maybe this statement is correct. But why don’t you chew on, and spit out the word intellectual as if it was an obscenity some more. Overt anti-intellectualism is just so embarrassingly stupid. But I digress.
I am willing to concede that not every movie needs to have an award winning plot and a well written store. Sometimes a movie can be enjoyable even if it is derivative and formulaic.
My point is that Michael Bay movies remain bad, even if you ignore their plot holes, and the terrible writing. There is just nothing there. Memorable quotes? Nope. Powerful and awesome scenes? Nope. Gripping drama? Nope. Interesting, colorful characters? Nope. Nope. Nope. A quintessential Bay movie is an entirely forgettable mishmash of action-explosions populated by generic, gruff military dudes doing generic military things, painted up dolls striking sexy poses and stereotyped token minority sidekicks doing whatever it is that passes as comic relief these days. Most people don’t have favorite scenes or characters because there is just nothing there to hold on to. It’s all colorful, flashy blur of nothingness.
Don’t get me wrong – I am not against mindless entertainment and kitschy movies that don’t take themselves too seriously. When done right, you still end up with a memorable fun experience. Yes, there are fairly silly movies that I enjoy. You want examples? Fine, how about Luc Besson’s Fifth Element?
Yep, Fifth Element is way better than all Michael Bay Transformers movies put together. Not necessarily plot wise though. It’s plot is derivative, formulaic and barely coherent. The story exists primarily as vehicle for showing the funky set and costume design, situational gags, gratuitous nudity and over the top action scenes. And yet, it works. In fact, it remains one of my all time favorite movies. It is one of these guilty pleasure films I can watch, over and over again.
It is quite dumb though – there is just no two ways about it. The entire plot revolves around a big McGuffin chase, the romantic subplot is silly, the big bad is a gigantic ball of condensed evil that does absolutely nothing interesting for 90% of the movie and the ending is an exercise in cringe worthy ridiculousness.
No, seriously – I mean it. The tension in the last few minutes of the movie is derived from Leeloo pondering whether the life in the universe is actually worth saving. Why is she pondering? Because she read about war in her pictionary. Why does she decide to save the universe? Because of love. Love of a man she knew for merely few hours. Love of a man who she never actually had a real conversation with. A man who has literally every reason in the universe to lie to her about his feelings at that particular moment. Love saves the day! Why love? Why not courage? Why not ingenuity? Why not science? Why not altruism and selflessness exhibited by our species that could counterbalance the evil of war? I don’t know… Because there has to be a romantic subplot in every movie? Because of Captain Planet (you know, four basic elements and “heart”)? Because “fuck it, we’re doing it live”? I really don’t know, but it makes me cringe every time. And if that wasn’t enough then there is the awkward sex in the Bacta tank directly afterwards.
But, does all of this make Fifth Element a bad movie? No. I still love it, despite its flaws. I would go as far as say it is very decent. How so?
Well, let’s ask the same questions I mentioned at the beginning of this post. Lets use the same yardstick to measure Transformers and Fifth Element, so you can’t say I’m biased. Sure, thematically they are very different but in practice they fall in to the same niche: humorous action driven sci-fi blockbuster. They target the same demographic, and use similar gimmicks to draw audience: special effects, explosions and pretty girls wearing next to nothing in the trailers. In fact, Fifth Element is at a disadvantage here because it is older, and had a much smaller budget than even the first Transformers movie.
So let’s see how they stack up. First question is easy. I did not like anything about the first two transformers movies. They were all just a big mess with little to no redeeming qualities.
I love Fifth Element because of it’s unique visuals, it’s ironic fucked-up future setting, its humor and it’s campy style. The movie is well put together (I like the way Besson splices the action, runs it in parallel interleaved threads and puts the characters on collision courses only to have them miss each other by few seconds), the dialogs are well written and witty most of the time. It is a gold mine of quotations, and memes.
Next question. Let’s talk about memorable scenes.
Transformers: I got nothing. I think Optimus Prime died in the second movie, but for the life of me I can’t actually remember anything about it. In fact, I can’t even tell you if Shia Labeouf executed the dramatic “Nooooo!” at the time or not. It just wasn’t that interesting because Optimus was never really developed as a character. His death was weightless.
Fifth Element: Oh, boy… Where do I begin. There are oodles of them. Oodles!
For example, everybody – and I mean everybody remembers the “Multipas” scene. It is a such a small thing, but it somehow became a part of a popular culture. In fact, I have never actually met anyone who did not know about Multipas (excluding maybe my Grandma). Somehow everyone I have ever met IRL have seen Fifth Element and remembered this scene. It was a meme before memes were a thing yet. This is a perfect example of a very awesome scene that has no gravitas and yet becomes embedded in your mind forever. Its just fun.
How about one of the best character entrances ever? I’m of course talking about Christ Tucker’s over-the-top introduction as the crazy radio personality Ruby Rhod – complete with outlandish costume, crazy ass monologue, situational comedy, fawning groupies and sycophantic assistants. Silly? Sure. Pointles? Yep. Memorable? Very much so.
But by the most memorable thing about Fifth Element by far is the absolutely epic aria scene, which combines pop-techno-opera fusion with a fun martial arts sequence. It is unique. Transformers movies have dozens full-on battle scenes interspersed throughout the narrative, but they are just bland. Random army guys shooting faceless robots, things exploding, etc. It’s generic. The aria on the other hand is a really original music number, interleaved with a choreographed fight scene in which The Woobie has her Crowning Moment of Awesome.
But there is more.
- There is the bizarre opening (“Aziz, light!”) with an inexplicable cameo by Luke Perry.
- There is the Chinese take out guy selling food out of a dirigible gondola.
- There is the shoe-box sized apartment in which Burce Willis manages to stash few dozen people. (“Autowash.”)
- There is the police raid scene (“Negative, I am a meat popsicle”).
- Also, pretty much every scene with Gary Oldman’s Zorg, who is such a fun villain.
These scenes are unique – they are memorable, and they stay with you for one reason or another. Some are just good – they have emotional impact, personal investment, etc. Others have immense memetic potential. None of Michael Bay movies has anything like it. There are no Transformers born memes. The only thing that Bay has contributed to our collective pop-culture consciousness is that Youtube montage of Shia Labeouf yammering “No, no, no, no” like a jackass for solid 15 minutes.
But let’s move on. Let’s talk about characters.
As simplistic and silly as it is, Fifth Element features a cast of rather interesting characters. Let’s play what I call the Plinkett game, because I saw this done in a Red Letter Media review of Phantom Menace. I think it is a great little gimmick that helps to determine whether or not a character is memorable and/or interesting. It goes like this: please say a few words about each character without describing how they look, how they dress, what they do or mentioning their skills, hobbies and/or special powers. We are talking about raw personality profiles.
Korben Dallas – no-nonsense, tough guy who has seen it all. Burned out by life. Macho persona masking a lot of emotional baggage (failed marriage, failed career, stranded relationship with an overbearing mother, financial problems). Deep inside a romantic still holding out for true love. He is a good example of a likable protagonist – we can relate to him because he has problems, hopes and dreams that are not unlike ours. Also he is an insufferable bad-ass but that’s just par for the course in action movies.
Ruby Rhod – flamboyant, fast talking, charismatic guy with a powerful stage presence. Vain, needy and whiny. He is probably the only character in the movie that actually gets some development. He starts as this overly confident self assured, smug asshole and then gets completely torn down. He has this life changing experience that teaches him a thing or two about humility and courage.
Leeloo – sensitive innocent, inexperienced, sheltered and full of child like wonder. She starts as a bit of a Woobie but later gets to kick some ass. Her personality is a mixture of fish out of water cuteness juxtaposed against pride, commitment assertiveness and courage.
Zorg – cunning, ruthless, calculating. Probably lawful evil by D&D standards (one of his monologues reveals he is not as much motivated by greed as by the twisted belief that destruction and discord actually benefit the civilization by stimulating and strengthening it). Smug, stuck up, thinks highly of himself, but at the same time plays a toady to the big bad.
I could go on, but as you can see I was able to come up with a range of identifying personality traits for most of the main characters. Can you do something similar for Transformers?
What can you say about the dozen soldiers who took so much screen time in the first movie? Can you even tell them apart?
What can you say about Meghan Fox’s character who is the fucking female lead? I’m trying but I can’t think of anything to say about her. “Good with cars” does not count, because that’s something she does and not an inherent trait of her personality. But that’s all there is to her. That and her appearance.
Hell, what about Labeouf’s character? What is his personality? I mean, he is a spastic motor-mouth, and he wants to bone the hot girl but what else? What motivates him? What makes him tick? He is basically just a generic teenager instance created from a standard awkward teenager template.
What about the robots? This movie is supposedly about them, but they are hardly in the movie at all. Optimus Prime is the leader but that’s his job description, not personality. You could probably say he is wise and experienced but even that is a stretch.
What can you say about the twins, other than that they are very unfaltering racial stereotypes?
The only character in the Transformers who actually has some characterization is John Turturro’s jaded, unappreciated, paranoid governmental agent. That said, his know-it-all attitude, and his power trips are mostly used for comic relief so it barely counts. Also a lot of this characterization is conveyed via Turturro’s performance, rather than the actual writing.
Fifth Element does happen to have a much better cast, which might be factor here. At the same time is quite ironic considering the budget gap. I mean you really can’t go wrong with casting Gary Oldman as your oddball villain and Bruce Willis as your protagonist. Both Bruce and Mila Jovovich can actually squeeze out a decent performance if directed well. Yes, Mila can act. You wouldn’t be able to tell by the way she phones in one Resident Evil sequel after another, but go check out The Messenger. She is pretty good in it. For comparison, watch Armageddon to see what happens to Bruce Willis’ acting when there is no one at the wheel.
That’s the difference folks – a little bit of character design, and a little bit of good acting goes a long way. The story is a dumb, the plot has gaping holes and sloppy mistakes (watch Brion James’ character who gets frozen in Korben’s apartment magically come back to life in the third act) but the characters are vibrant and interesting. They don’t have much development, they all stay fairly static but at least they have something to them. So does the world for that matter.
Fifth Element has a fraction of the budget of your average Michael Bay production. It was all filmed in studio using cheap decorations and green screens. And yet, I would argue it looks better. By that I mean that it’s visuals are unique. The film has a unmistakable style – a mixture of technology and post-modernist, surreal kitsch. The costumes look like the crazy, runway fashion exhibitions from Zoolander but it works. Same goes for technology – there is a lot of visual gags in there that portray future technology by either taking contemporary trends and drastically exaggerating them, or using anachronisms in an unfamiliar way. So you get cigarettes that are mostly filter with almost no tobacco, and the pneumatic pipe mail delivery system. All of it is designed with love, and attention to detail.
Michael Bay’s movies are generic mush. There is no detail to be attended too, because Bay can never keep his camera still and cuts on average every five seconds. The transformers themselves are pretty much amorphous blobs of moving parts. You can’t even take in or appreciate their design, because they never stop moving. Everything else is also a blur – boring mundane locations, blatant product placement and an orgiastic military hardware exhibition that borders on pornographic.
Fifth Element is just a better movies. Is it perfect? Not it is not. It has has a lot of problems. But it works. It has stunning visual style, great music score, great attention to detail and lots of unforgettable quotes. It has competent actors playing interesting characters who actually have personalities. Unlike Michael Bay who cuts, moves and shakes the camera for the sake of cutting, moving and shaking it, Luc Besson is actually pretty good editing skills. His interleaved dialogs, which rapidly switch between several different conversations while still maintaining internal coherence is something far above and beyond anything I have ever seen in Bay’s work. Besson’s fight scenes are almost music videos – tightly, choreographed, in sync with the audio track, and masterfully stitched together in the editing room. For comparison, Michael Bay’s idea of combat scenes is machine gun fire, filmed upside down against lens flare while Shia Labeouf goes “No, no, no, no, no!” in the background.
Besson’s story may not be perfect he tells it in a rather compelling way. Bay is too busy hurling explosions, ethnic stereotypes and military hardware at your face, to actually stop and think about storytelling. That’s the difference between mindless entertainment, and a waste of your time. It’s a matter of style and delivery.
I’m sure that I won’t be able to convince a lot of people to stop liking Michael Bay movies. After all, everyone picks their own poison. I might be more picky than the next guy. This does not mean I’m a hipster movie snob who only watches black and white foreign films with subtitles while wearing a monocle. I do like some mindless entertainment now and then. I’m just not very fond of crappy movies.