Burn, Bay, Burn

August 04, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

So Michael Bay's The Island is a box office disaster of Heaven's Gate proportions. Even with overseas sales and DVD proceeds figured in, this movie looks set to lose a ton of money. In the normal course of things, this wouldn't be a big deal for director Michael Bay. All filmmakers, even "can't miss" ones like Steven Spielberg (remember 1941?), have duds. Considering the schlock he peddles, Bay was overdue. But there are extenuating circumstances.

In the first place, rumor has it that the failure of The Island may bring down its financing studio, Dreamworks (much as Heaven's Gate is credited with bankrupting United Artists). It's likely that Dreamworks will soon be co-opted by Universal Pictures, either to be retired or used as a branding label. The way things work in Hollywood, Bay will become known as the man who ruined Dreamworks. That kind of reputation is tough to overcome. Michael Cimino never did. Although he made a number of films after Heaven's Gate, most were small-budget and obscure.

Additionally, Bay's chosen genre, the "blow things up" action movie, is undergoing a financial fade. The Island isn't the only popcorn flick to underperform this year, and Hollywood is re-evaluating the market. The poor performances of Sahara, Stealth, and The Island is making studio heads wonder whether big budget action films have become dinosaurs. They are expensive, unwieldy, and only worthwhile if audiences arrive in large numbers. This is Bay's playground, and it's in danger of being razed.

I don't mean to imply that Bay will never work again. But it's likely that in the future, he will lack the total "creative freedom" he has thus far enjoyed. And his time as the Golden Child is over. Meanwhile, Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson should emerge unscathed. Both are more comfortable working in a smaller arena. In Johansson's case, being in The Island raised her profile. She could probably appear in another major motion picture if she wanted, but, at the moment, she is content to star in low-budget movies and function as Woody Allen's latest muse.

This summer's box office has baffled analysts in Hollywood, because trends have been difficult to dissect. Straightforward action films have bombed. Superhero movies have performed admirably, but none have blown the roofs off multiplexes. Revenge of the Sith is triumphant, but that's a dead-end street, since the big-screen Star Wars saga is over. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has been a hit, but how much of its appeal is related to nostalgia associated with the Gene Wilder version? Wedding Crashers is a powerhouse; expect it to spawn clones in much the same way that American Pie did. Kingdom of Heaven may have put the final nail in the coffin of big-budget historical epics. It's the fourth one in two years to tank, following Troy, King Arthur, and Stone's Heaven's Gate, Alexander. Adam Sandler's appeal is on the wane - witness the performance of The Longest Yard. (Since 2000, he has had only two bona fide hits: Anger Management and 50 First Dates.) Lastly, maybe now we'll see a rush of movies with penguins as leading characters. (They have appeared in two successful summer movies: Madagascar and March of the Penguins.)