Friday, July 12, 2013
Building a better Transformers movie
Most people I know have been pretty excited about the release of Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim. With some of those people, "excited" is an understatement.
For those who haven't been excited, though, it usually comes down to this:
"It looks like just another Transformers movie."
I can see their point. The essence of Pacific Rim and of a Transformers movie are the same thing: giant robots fighting each other and causing lots of property damage.
Oh yeah, the robots in Transformers turn into cars and trucks and planes and microwave ovens. The robots in Pacific Rim presumably don't do that. But that's not really an essential part of what the Transformers are. In fact, you could almost say that we look past the parts where they're driving around or flying or cooking a TV dinner in two minutes, because we've seen that stuff before. It's the robots leveling buildings that we paid for.
Which means not only is Pacific Rim like a Transformers movie, they are both really like a Godzilla movie. In fact, since Pacific Rim features large reptilian aliens as its villains, you might say it's a bit like a mashup of a Transformers movie and a Godzilla movie. As ever, there's nothing new under the sun.
The thing is, even though the Transformers movies have been phenomenally successful, and Michael Bay is making at least one more, they have exactly zero artistic credibility. That kind of thing won't stand for a genuine artist like del Toro, who made such innovative genre movies as Mimic and Hellboy II: The Golden Army, and is even capable of exquisite Oscar bait like Pan's Labyrinth. It won't stand even though he has to answer to "the money guys," who aren't going to give him the funds to do something like this unless he can promise a commercially successful movie. (Promises, promises.)
So, having considered the ways Pacific Rim is like a Transformers movie, here are five ways that I hope and expect it to be different:
1) No stultifying jingoism. It very much helps that del Toro is a Mexican, not an American like Bay, meaning there's a much lower chance of the rah-rah patriotism that suffocates the Transformers movies. Even if he thought it was a good idea for the story, del Toro's nationality would likely preclude including such nonsense. My guess is that the battles between robots and aliens will be fought equally on the soils of many different countries ... and most of the characters will just happen to speak English.
2) Fight scenes you can actually follow. The most deafening regular criticism of the Transformers movies is that you can't tell what the hell is going on. The fight scenes are shot/animated in such a way that they come off as indistinct masses of whirring metal grinding up against each other. Bay has tried to address those criticisms within his movies -- I actually thought the fight scenes were significantly clearer in Revenge of the Fallen -- but that criticism has still dogged the franchise throughout. You can bet del Toro is not going to give anyone the chance to say the same thing about Pacific Rim.
3) No ridiculously beautiful actresses who stink at acting. One of the other regular criticisms of Bay in the Transformers franchise is the way his camera hungrily takes in the curves of his female stars. Ever since he photographed Megan Fox's motor oil-smudged body leaning over a car engine in the first Transformers, we've known just what Bay thought of putting eye candy on screen. When he and Fox had a falling out (that has since been patched up), he cast an even more blatantly hot replacement, model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, for the third movie. (Fox is hotter, but at least she technically already had an acting career, whereas Huntington-Whiteley didn't.) Rinko Kikuchi and Heather Doerksen are both attractive women, but 10-to-1 you're not going to see them sprawling their glistening bodies over any kind of engine in Pacific Rim.
4) A lot less comic relief. I'm not going to say that Guillermo del Toro has no sense of humor, but I can almost guarantee you that no part of Pacific Rim will feature John Turturro in thong underwear.
5) The music won't be all up in your face. One of the most distracting things I noticed in the execrable Transformers: Dark of the Moon was how much Bay's music choices were getting all up in my grill. Whether we're talking about grating pop songs, uplifting orchestration or shallowly melancholy guitar riffs, Bay infuses all of his music choices with his singular Bay-ness. There will be music in Pacific Rim, I'm sure, but it will surely blend more seamlessly into the fabric of the movie than Bay's choices.
Because of these five factors and maybe a sixth or seventh (Charlie Hunnam is a significantly less famous lead than Shia LaBeouf), I also expect Pacific Rim not to do as well at the box office as a Transformers movie. Sad but true.
My hope is that it will at least do well enough to give other visionary directors the chance to put their own distinct spin on other familiar genres or movie types. Only this way can we continue to keep future Transformers movies, or the equivalent thereof, at bay -- so to speak.