Wednesday, December 30, 2009
This was supposed to be a piece for the site Natsukashi, but a number of distractions got in the road of that auspicious event ever working out. Nonetheless, I present it here, at long last.
I am forced to face the fact that I am getting old. Not, like, Supreme Court judge old, but in the sense that I’m slipping beyond 30 with the velocity of a powerless spaceship plunging into the atmosphere. Born in the neutral zone between Gens X and Y – depending on what smart-ass article you read – I get on better with the latter, but have to acknowledge, on occasions, my loyalties to the former, when the grimy chic of Pulp Fiction or Veruca Salt’s “Seether” cuts into my brain much like Unicron’s signals to Galvatron in this film, forcing me to bow down to my true masters. It only bothers me in the sense that one is confronted by slowly but inevitably shifting cultural references.
Back when Megan Fox was a mere glint in the eye of her mother’s yoga instructor, The Transformers was a venerable ‘80s toy marketing scheme provided through some sixty-odd half-hour episodes. I often wrestle with the questions that thinkers have posed for some time, about the colonisation of the imagination by
I would never pretend that Transformers was a towering work of sci-fi fantasy, but it did belong to the rich, oddly ambitious first wave of Manga to arrive outside of
Sci-fi + action + young audience = money3.
And so, Transformers. Watching
Well, not that serious. The plot: Gigantic robotic intelligence Unicron (voice of Orson Welles) scours the galaxies looking for civilisations he can eat, presumably keeping out of the way of Galactus to avoid a lawsuit. Meanwhile, the ongoing war of the Autobots and the Decepticons has entered a new, deadly phase – in 2005, young lad Spike (Corey Burton), every boy’s surrogate in the show, has grown up, and is aiding Prime (Peter Cullen) and the Autobots from their bases on the moons of Cybertron, the Transformers’ home planet. They’re planning to take back their home world. But Megatron (Frank Welker) has his own plan. He captures an Autobot shuttle, eliminates the crew, and pilots it to Earth, to make a surprise raid on the Autobots’ fortress-city there. On Earth, things are peachy – there are those glittering mountains and meadows nobody can quite do like a Japanese animator. So peachy that indolent Autobot Hot Rod (Judd Nelson) likes to go fishing with Spike’s son Daniel (David Mendenhall). Hot Rod leaps into action when the Decepticons arrive, joining fellow Autobots like Arcee (Susan Blu), the sexiest non-biological being this side of a Gossip Girl cast member, the Dinobots, like by dim stalwart Grimlock (Gregg Berger), and old-timer Griff (Lionel Stander). The Decepticons nearly batter their way into the city, but Prime arrives and proves his mettle, totalling hordes of Decepticons before getting down to a to-the-death rumble with Megatron. Which proves to be the end of both of them – Megatron shoots Optimus only because of Hot Rod’s hamfisted intervention, and Optimus delivers Megatron a crushing blow. The Decepticons make their escape, and Starscream takes the opportunity to eject Megatron and other wounded warriors. Prime expires after handing over the “Matrix of Power”, a mysterious energy source that, it is prophesised, will “light our darkest hour”, to Ultra Magnus (Robert Stack), a “simple warrior” who may or may not be up to the job.
Drifting through space, Megatron and the other wrecked Decepticons are rescued and upgraded into super-bots by Unicron, who needs the Matrix of Power to be destroyed, being the one object in the universe that threatens his supremacy. Megatron’s planet-scale ego is ruffled in being enslaved by this planet-scale entity, but he is happy enough with his new design and designation as Galvatron, and his new voice provided by Leonard Nimoy. He storms Starscream’s coronation on Cybertron and shoots his traitorous minion, who memorably disintegrates into a pile of carbon shards. Galvatron leads a new attack on the Autobot city, forcing them to flee into the depths of space. Hot Rod, Griff, and the Dinobots are separated from Magnus, Arcee, and the rest. They fight their way across a strange planet ruled by weird four-faced alien dictators who rule a race of robotic “Sharkticons” and like to feed prisoners to them after superfluous trials. They escape in a ship thanks to diminutive helpful bot Wheelie, and after Grimlock impresses the Sharkticons sufficiently to make them rebel. Meanwhile, having crashed on a junkyard planet, Ultra Magnus is killed by Galvatron, having been unable to open the Matrix, and Galvatron steals away this totem, planning to blackmail Unicron with it. The inhabitants of the junk planet, cavalier robots who all speak in the voice of Eric Idle and in a language derived from Earth advertising (a self-referential touch if ever there was one) capture the rest of the Autobots, but soon prove friendly allies.
Unicron devours the Cybertronian moons and all the Autobots – and Spike – upon them, before heading to Cyberton. Galvatron tries to make him back down with the Matrix, but is only eaten for his pains – the Matrix won’t work for him either. Unicron proves to be a transformer himself, changing into a gigantic demon-bot (based on Fantasia’s
It’s easy to get a laugh out of singing “The Touch”, the Stan Bush song heard first when Optimus rolls into action, and again when Hot Rod opens the Matrix. Part of that’s due to Paul Thomas Anderson’s cruel use of it in Boogie Nights, as the quintessential ‘80s pulp power-pop. One thing I had forgotten about this film is that the soundtrack is an almost ceaseless cavalcade of such music, the synthesiser beats and tenor yowls that define a window in pop-culture history. The score of Transformers: The Movie outdoes anything else for revealing how hilariously crappy that musical epoch was, and might in fact have been the first blow that started us on the path to “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. No-one could pretend it was cool again. The lyrics are peppered with ludicrous bon mots like “If it’s against the law you bet I’ll break it!” and “Look for Mr Goodbar!” Say wha? Yet it’s hard not to get a little goosepimply when Hot Rod grasps the Matrix and turns the tables on Galvatron, to Bush’s wailing strains – “The Touch” does rock in its corny fashion.
And so does the film. The Arthurian tale of callow knight rising to greatness, grasping Excalibur, and turning the tide, works some classical magic, especially through the film’s relentless pace, which has real dramatic integrity and narrative energy. It’s also the rare film spin-off from a TV show that understands the difference in each medium’s narrative demands. If TV series are built around constant refrains of familiarity, films require vigorous assaults on familiar situations. The Autobots spend the bulk of the film clinging to existence, constantly assailed by superior enemies and a hostile universe. The death of Optimus leaves them anchorless, lacking a true central authority. Even Ultra Magnus proves all too vulnerable. Presuming the fan base’s familiarity with the situation, the film leaps into new territory. It steals from the first Star Wars trilogy egregiously. The flight-and-fight move out of security into the unknown comes from The Empire Strikes Back, and the finale uses Unicron as Death Star. Who Unicron is, where he comes from, and what relationship he has with the Transformers, is never dwelt on. In fact, absolutely nothing is dwelt on. The Transformers: The Movie is eighty-three minutes of hyped-up noise and colour.
But my memory did not really mislead me. The film does rocket along enjoyably, and it has a kind of reckless, fervent joie-de-vivre that’s hard to fake. To my aging mind that accommodated itself to such ambling filmmakers as Tarvkovsky, Angelopolous, and Malick, the pacing I took for granted as a kid is, in hindsight, amazing. It doesn’t breathe, or bore. The animated robot characters are better drawn – in every sense of the word – than the humans in many blockbusters these days, if in a one-note fashion. Griff is gruff and full of war stories and shaky wisdom; Hot Rod lippy but gutsy; Arcee maternal and girly-tough; Grimlock thick but lovable. The imaginative background is often unoriginal, but it’s also dynamic. The film’s stand-out feature is the vocal cast – in addition to the series regulars like Cullen and Welker, the presence of Welles, Nimoy, Stack, Stander, and Scatman Crothers, is almost bemusing. Welles barely knew what the hell it was all about. But a sense of fun had never been Welles’ lack. Stander probably loans the film the most character, with his weathered, humorous vocal work, and the dialogue has notable smart-ass snap.
My memory chiefly betrayed me in terms of the quality of animation, which, though superior to the TV show, is still not exactly, well, Fantasia, with jerky action, and a lack of shading and detailing to figures and backgrounds. But there are some impressive visions, like when Hot Rod fights off schools of robotic piranhas, and the fantastical innards of Unicron. Logic isn’t worth bringing into the equation – the lore has breadth, but not depth. Where all these robotic whatsits came from is never explained, or why they all, regardless of planet or environment, ape earthly biological forms, or why, when away from earth, they retain the forms of our technology. And the difference between the Autobots and Decepticons is never defined beyond traits – good guys noble, brave, friendly, etc; bad guys venal, cruel, and speak in huskier voices.
Was my imagination colonised? Did I buy their toys, slurp their Coke, eat their McDonalds? Yes, I did. But eventually that influence faded, and the other meanings took their place. In fact I took to heart the messages of the films I watched then, which often completely contradicted the circumstances they arose from. The Transformers: The Movie doesn’t exactly fill me with nostalgia for a more innocent world. Actually, it’s not at all innocent, either in concept or product, but it does have a kind of driving élan associated with ‘80s culture that’s entirely missing from our current over-produced, joyless blockbusters. Whenever a PT Anderson uses “The Touch”, or a Parker and Stone compose something like the soundtrack for Team America: World Police, or whenever Ben Stiller makes a movie, they are both satirising and eulogising the glorious phoniness of the youth culture anyone under forty recognises with intuitive understanding, that ‘80s world of Bon Jovi, Marty McFly and Optimus Prime. We are forever bowing their heads to another lost
Sunday, December 27, 2009
Thursday, December 24, 2009
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Sunday, December 20, 2009
A late entry in the ‘50s creature-feature stakes features a villainous species that reveals how exhausted the repertory of potential monsters had become: are you ready for the soul-warping, intestine-wrangling terror of...giant prehistoric caterpillar-like molluscs? Yes, plural, not singular, and they really don't challenge the world so much as a few random Californians and bewildered military personnel. These blood-sucking slugs are awakened from their long sleep in the earth underneath the
A middle-aged Tim Holt, looking rather pudgy and awkward (it was his first film in five years), leads an unusually competent cast, as a Naval Intelligence officer who romances widowed mother and secretary Audrey Dalton, and Hans Conried plays the oddly fey but energetic scientist who explains the plot to his amusingly unperturbed colleagues, as if in the movie’s universe such outbreaks were a familiar occurrence. There’s the compulsory teenaged female victim who’s obviously going to be a victim because she wears one of those neck-scarves used in such films to signal a tendency to trampiness, and an ill-fated sailor named, of course, Johnson. Otherwise Monster constantly emphasises the kind of communal effort and understanding that’s so often a theme of these flicks. Everyone’s exceptionally nice to one another whilst battling man-eating molluscs, once they get to know each-other, and there’s an effective moment in which the dead girl’s mother weeps for her misunderstood child. But the film is unfortunately also cheap and terribly limited in terms of giant bug action, failing to generate any tension thanks to some diffuse story development, so that, even at 83 minutes, it proves to be the movie that challenges one’s patience.
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Roland Emmerich’s attempts to be the George Pal of modern blockbuster cinema here almost reach a Platonic ideal. Coming off perhaps his flattest and most utterly redundant film, 10,000 BC, Emmerich returns to his favourite framework, the end-of-the-world extravaganza, revolving around the supposed Mayan apocalypse, which is almost completely irrelevant, and thus fittingly exploitative in a Roger Corman-esque fashion, to the actual story, which involves solar flares destabilising the earth’s crust. Après nous, le Déluge. Heroic scientist Chiwetel Ejiofor, after being alerted by an Indian colleague (Jimi Mistry), alerts the world, but then tries with little success to inject a measure of humanism into a hastily contrived worldwide project to build arks to ride out the resulting colossal tsunamis, financed by the cash of rich assholes paying to save their own hides.
Ejiofor spends much of the subsequent movie combating Oliver Platt’s regulation government über-creep over who exactly to save and how, whilst the
Emmerich plunges in with such enthusiasm and splashy indulgence the film swiftly becomes a high comedy as it keeps trying to top itself. Emmerich uses the same stunts a few too many times (cars jumping expanding chasms; planes taking off and trying to fly through said chasms), but especially in the first cataclysmic LA-trashing spectacle, and in the breathless we’re-going-to-crash-into-Mt-Everest! finale, 2012 is delightful in its absurd invention. It’s easy to forget in the face of his utter lack of subtlety and piles of corn that Emmerich is actually one of the most skilled visual organisers and directors of mass chaos working Hollywood these days, and, like The Patriot and The Day After Tomorrow, 2012 is very good-looking even at its most utterly shallow. Even if, as clear progenitor Cecil B. DeMille once said of himself, the release of each of his films causes critical appreciation of the public’s intelligence to drop by half, this is a real distinguishing feature of Emmerich’s best films, as well as his ability to keep large casts of characters and converging plotlines in focus.
It helps that the cast is very good (George Segal, Thandie Newton and Stephen McHattie are in there too). Harrelson’s character, and performance, is particularly well-pitched for pure goofball entertainment, and Ejiofor and Cusack commit themselves with bewildering passion in the strangest circumstances. If Emmerich didn’t pay enough attention to the darkness inherent in the War of the Worlds scenario to make Independence Day little more than an expansive video game, his quotations of When Worlds Collide here have some archetypal force. The result, over-long and over-everything, is one of the year’s most satisfying pieces of claptrap, and will inevitably be reduced to inconsequentiality on television.
The Informant! is another ironically pedantic, deadpan comedy-drama, infused with satire on contemporary American culture, which seems to have become a kind of up-market sub-genre lately, many of which are made by Steven Soderbergh or one of his star acolytes. The Men Who Stare At Goats, for instance, is almost the same film in a different milieu. The Informant! presents a kind of pizzicato variation on the tune of Prince of the City, with Matt Damon having a good time playing Mark Whitacre, a folksy, toupee-clad executive for ADM, an Illinois-based produce company engaged in secretive price fixing with international competitors. Whitacre, at the encouragement of his loyal wife Ginger (the always welcome Melanie Lynskey, although she seems to be turning into Drew Barrymore) approaches FBI agent Mark Sheppard (an effective Scott Bakula) and wavers between glee and squirming anxiety in playing the part of whistle-blower.
But just as it looks like Paul could become the ‘white hat’ hero he so desperately wishes to be, his own fantastical nature, powered by a deceptive, manic-depressive streak a mile-wide, digs a trap for himself that only gets deeper. Damon’s fine comedic performance and a playfully retro Marvin Hamlisch score backs up one of Soderbergh’s most fluent efforts to fuse his arty and popular sides. But the material had far richer potential for clammy psychodrama, as well for making a deeper incision into a half-mad white-collar criminal’s desperate desire to play the good guy, and indeed conviction that he is one, as a vital political parable. The Informant! is, like almost all of Soderbergh’s serious films, something of a missed opportunity.