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Here's a rather despairing e-mail I received this week:
"I am of the opinion that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is proof of the total demise of the art form known as 'cinema.' Tell me I'm wrong. Also, tell me how a movie based on toys actually qualifies as science fiction."
In the interest of disclosure, I've not yet seen Revenge of the Fallen. But will this stop me from giving an opinion? Hell, no.
Second question first: Sure, it's science fiction. It's got giant robots from space. We put robots into space, but giant robots from space? That's not something you see in the real world, much less giant robots from space who can fold themselves into GM products. Thus: Science fiction. I think the question here is really whether Transformers would qualify as good science fiction, and the answer is, I very much doubt it. Independent of any other qualities the movie might or might not have, as science fiction it's based on a line of toys, and the filmmakers have to work backwards to try to make any sort of realistic sense of their existence. Geeks call this "retconning," which is, shall we say, hard work.
- Transformers 2 TrailerA sneak peek of Revenge of the Fallen
- Transformers ReviewSciFi Scanner says it's not much more than meets the CGI
- Alternate ReviewAMC Filmcritic thinks it's a heavy metal demolition derby
- Transformers TournamentAutobots battle Decepticons, and you decide the winner
- Transformers vs. TerminatorsWhich 'bot kills the competition?
- Michael Bay Fan QuizHow much do you know about the Transformers director?
So the question becomes whether the filmmakers are interested in doing that hard work, which anyone who has seen the first Transformers will know they are not. Screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci are good at snark and humor, but their acquaintance with actual science is iffy at best (see: The latest Star Trek, which is fun but has wincingly awful science). As for director Michael Bay, he has yet to direct a movie that can be described as anything but deeply and arrogantly dumb. It's mildly terrifying, in fact, that the first Transformers is likely the most clever movie he's ever made (hat tip to Kurtzman and Orci here).
Now, it's entirely possible that Bay, Kurtzman and Orci (and Ehren Kruger, who is added on as a screenwriter), have actually managed to get the science and the logic of this latest Transformers movie to the point that it's reasonable science fiction. Given their various track records, however, it seems highly doubtful.
And, of course, why should they? The first Transformers made over $700 million worldwide, Michael Bay has been outrageously successful making one profoundly stupid movie after another, and Kurtzman and Orci's complete disregard of logic and science certainly hasn't stopped them from writing highly successful science fiction. For these filmmakers there is no downside to writing and directing bad scifi (well, except for The Island).The audience for Transformers doesn't actually care if the science tracks; they're there for the spectacle.
Which gets us to the first point. I understand my correspondent's despair that the studio that once released The Godfather is reduced to highlighting a movie based on children's toys as its highest achievement for the year. But let's also point out that while The Godfather was the highest grossing movie of 1972, making it both a critical and commercial smash, the number two flick that year was The Poseidon Adventure, which was the sort of brain-free, effects-laden popcorn shoveler that the Transformers movies are today. Also in the twenty top grossing movies of 1972: The Getaway (arguably Sam Peckinpah's worst), The Valachi Papers (an uninspired Charles Bronson action flick), The Cowboys (one of John Wayne's later and lesser movies), Skyjacked (another disaster picture starring Charlton Heston) and... Deep Throat. Yes, the porno.
So while not excusing the Transformers filmmakers for very likely making a loud and dumb flick, it should be noted that "loud and dumb" -- i.e., spectacle -- has been packing theaters for as long as there's been cinema with sound. Trust me, if someone could have made exploding CGI robots in the '30s, '50s or '70s, they certainly would have. And while today's movie distribution dynamic privileges loud and dumb flicks over quiet and thoughtful ones, it's also worth noting that filmmakers are nevertheless managing to make smart and spectacular movies, too: see The Dark Knight and WALL-E from last year. Which is to say smart filmmakers adapt to the market that exists and manage to make good pictures regardless.
So, no: Transformers is not the end of cinema as we know it. Going to see it may kill off a few brain cells, but it won't kill off filmmaking. Promise.
Winner of the Hugo Award and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies and the novels Old Man's War and Zoe's Tale. He's also Creative Consultant for the upcoming Stargate: Universe television series. His column appears every Thursday.