One week from today, the third entry in the gargantuan, mega-toolbox Transformers franchise, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, will open in thousands of theaters. No one in the press has seen it yet (the first official critics’ screening is this Monday night). To me, though, it seems a safe bet that the reviews, good, bad, or mediocre, will probably not be quite as hostile as the reviews were a couple of summers ago for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. I mean, seriously, with the critics, this series really has no place to go but up. I have a particular interest in the subject, because I’m one of the only critics in America who gave Revenge of the Fallen a positive review. I stand by what I wrote, but since it’s resulted, on a more or less weekly basis, in me being branded an enemy of the people (as in: “Gleiberman is an idiot, the worst critic out there. He gave Transformers 2 a B. How can you trust anyone who liked that piece of s—t?”), it will probably be impossible for me to write anything about it now without a new round of accusations calling me defensive, thin-skinned, self-scrutinizing, etc.
Nevertheless, I’m going to come right out and say: I think that the mass bashing two years ago of Transformers 2 was every bit as over-the-top as the movie was accused of being. As storytelling, the picture was often a mess, as I pretty much admitted (“Revenge of the Fallen is slovenly, bombastic, overly busy, and — at two hours and 29 minutes — far too long. The plot … suggests an awkward smelting of Bret Easton Ellis and Indiana Jones; it offers more frantic incident than it does purpose or sense”). At the same time, I tried to acknowledge that those jackknify, shape-shifting metal-chameleon machine toys were amazing, and a lot of fun to watch (“Each time the film reaches another clash of the titans, it becomes more than just a souped-up toy commercial. These toys have wizardry and grandeur.… Revenge of the Fallen may be a massive overdose of popcorn greased with motor oil. But it knows how to feed your inner 10-year-old’s appetite for destruction”). And because I dug it on that level, the vicious, take-no-prisoners hatred that the film inspired — and, more than that, the astounding uniformity of it — struck me as being about something way beyond, or maybe outside of, the noise and bluster and slipshod storytelling of the movie itself. It was about the need to punish the movie for being the quintessential arrested-development Age of CGI blockbuster. It was about the desire to brand director Michael Bay the devil and then kick him in his tin-can balls.
From the way that people wrote about it, Transformers 2 wasn’t merely the worst movie of the month, or the summer, or the year. It wasn’t just the most critically reviled film in history to gross $400 million. In essence, it was that week’s Worst Movie Ever Made. It was an example of a critically bashed motion picture that was meant to provide a catharsis — under safe cover — for the people doing the bashing. And it worked. They got their rocks off by kicking Michael Bay in his.
What I’ve noticed — and I wonder if you have too — is that this ritual of movie-bashing, where a popcorn extravaganza (usually a major hit) is picked out, by a kind of media collective, and given an unholy brickbat whipping, has become a recurrent feature of the movie-commentary landscape, with the opinions inevitably magnified by the righteously indignant echo chamber of the Internet. The result is that you have a movie like Revenge of the Fallen, which 30 to 40 million people in America lined up to see, and presumably one or two of them enjoyed, but the mythology created around it is that it’s a piece of trash that everyone hated. They were all innocent victims of marketing!
By nature, though, this a tricky business to analyze, because the line between legitimate biting criticism of a less-than-stellar movie and criticism that emerges from a kind of vengeful groupthink mentality can be razor-thin. I myself have written more than my share of scathing reviews, and I of course don’t begrudge my fellow critics the right to do the same. But when a sameness of thinking takes over, as I think it did with Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, then the scathing tone of the reviews can be less an assertion of individual temperament and opinion — which, to me, is the definition of any review that matters — than it is a kind of mutually vicious tap dance, an agreed-upon stance.
I first noticed this trend during the orgy of contempt that greeted the release of the 1998 remake of Godzilla. That movie, as I admitted, was a mixed bag, though with bits and pieces of the cheesy grandeur we want from a giant-lizard-stomps-the-city flick. Yet it was dismissed out of hand as a disaster — and if you didn’t call it a disaster, it was as if you were talking about a different movie. So striking was the entertainment-press hostility to Godzilla that the movie was written off as a bomb, even though its numbers were far more respectable than that. It was that week’s Worst Movie Ever Made, and everything had to conform to that scenario.
Frankly, I think the same thing happened with The Hangover Part II. As a comedy filmmaker, Todd Phillips has too much craft and spirit for anyone to have accused the movie of being inept. So the criticism that got repeated, in review after review (and in online comment after online comment), had a so-ancient-it’s-radical kind of novelty: The movie was accused of being “the exact same movie as the first Hangover.” You don’t say! Obviously, that description was more or less accurate — though I thought that the squalid, funky-tenderloin Bangkok setting lent the film a fresh flavor. But really: Condemning a Hollywood sequel for being, in essence, the same movie as the original? When did that become such a mighty sin? And if it is, where were those critics when it came to judging, and damning, the hundreds upon thousands of unimaginative sequels that have defined the pop moviemaking marketplace since the early 1980s? How did The Hangover Part II suddenly become the ultimate whipping boy? (The film, incidentally, has done much better at the box office than many of those critical pundits predicted; I guess the audiences were marketing dupes once again.)
It’s hard to say why any one film becomes that week’s Worst Movie Ever Made, but I think I can offer some insight into why, every so often, critics feel the need to pile on. All of us, including me, can build up a gradual residue of resentment when it comes to the often corrupt priorities of popular moviemaking. Yet critics, in recent years, have been the recipients of so much bashing themselves — pan a blockbuster and you’re certain to be called an elitist a–hole — that they live with a certain anxiety about venting that resentment and looking like curmudgeons. That’s where the week’s Worst Movie Ever Made comes in handy. As I said, it’s generally a major hit, and so panning it looks like an act of fearlessness. BUT… because everyone else in the critical collective has agreed to pan it too, you can let your vicious one-liners fly and know that you’ll be in good company.
And, of course, by giving a critical bitch slap to the week’s Worst Movie Ever Made, you’re not just writing a funny, nasty review. You’re taking a bold “stand” against The Machine. You’re standing out there like David hurling rocks at Goliath (though with all those other critics standing alongside you and hurling more or less the same rocks, you, in effect, are part of a machine too). It’s a ritual of instant cred. It’s also a way to take certain people in Hollywood down a peg — or, in some cases, for the critics themselves to let off some toxic guilty steam in reaction to their own previous overpraise of one movie or another. To me, the reviews of Godzilla were really a way of punishing director Roland Emmerich and screenwriter Dean Devlin for the jaunty-glib, neo-Reaganite Independence Day, which had gotten way too free a ride. The bashing of Hangover II was perverse payback for the overpraise of Hangover I.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was the perfect storm of a weekly Worst Movie Ever Made, because it seemed to incorporate every commercial Hollywood sin of the past three decades: messy storytelling, thin characters, too much CGI, sex-bomb heroine, a kind of free-floating toybot infantilism. And — more than that — the looming specter of the “critic-proof movie.” Revenge of the Fallen became, almost poetically, an end-of-the-movies-as-as-we-know-them apocalypse greeted by a critical apocalypse. Yet I’d argue not only that critics blinded themselves to the movie’s scattered fun, but that by pumping up their ire so intensely, they turned Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen into a scapegoat for their rage against Hollywood. In the age of the critic-proof movie, they tried to transform impotence into power.
So do you think that critics pick out certain movies to bash? And, if so, which movies? To get you started, I’ll name a few films that I think have been the target of unfair critical hatefests: Little Nicky, Catwoman, and — yes — Green Lantern.
Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman