Out of Touch

July 15, 2009
A thought by James Berardinelli

There's a growing sentiment in some corners of the blogosphere that, because the majority of the critical community disliked Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, we are "out of touch." Really? What does that mean? As Roger Ebert noted, "It's not a critic's job to reflect box office taste." There is not, nor has there ever been, much doubt that Transformers 2 will be the biggest grossing film of 2009. (It's only real competition is likely to come from the sixth Harry Potter chapter.) The third Transformers movie will be a strong candidate for the #1 spot in 2011 or 2012. (I can't anoint it as king yet, because it could be up against a heavy-hitter like Spider-Man 4 or The Avengers or The Dark Knight Returns.) There is no correlation between cinematic quality and box office revenue. None. Zip. Nada. Those who perceive an equation there are failing to see the forest for the trees.

But if the second Transformers movie is so bad, why is it making so much money? To begin with, let's establish a few basic facts. Although there are some critics who found the movie to be tolerable, it has low consensus scores at all the major indexes (unlike last year's box office champ, The Dark Knight). It is generating a HUGE amount of repeat business from teenage boys. An acquaintance of mine who toils in a multiplex estimated that the attendees of Transformers 2 were 90% male between the ages of 10 and 18, and he observed a lot of them "theater hopping" from one screening of the movie to another. (In other words, they paid for the noon showing and, when it was over at about 2:40, they went next door to where the 2:00 showing was playing and watched the final 2/3 another time.) Finally, although Transformers will likely top the 2009 box office and may even come close to The Dark Knight's total gross,Titanic is safe. The base for Transformers 2 is big and fanatical, but not deep or wide enough to sink the sinking boat.

The question remains: Why is a movie that has been universally panned by critics achieving such success? This necessitates discussing two issues: the role and relevance of critics in an ADD society and what lies at the foundation of the movie's triumph.

Of those who would claim unconditional love for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, most are fanboys. They are, to one degree or another, blinded by an obsessive passion for the franchise. This is not a pejorative comment; it's a fact. Having once been a card-carrying Star Trek, Star Wars, and Doctor Who fanboy, I speak from a position of knowledge. Fanboys don't lose all capability for critical thought, but they are notoriously forgiving of anything that delivers an element of what they want. The fanboy sees something like Transformers 2 from an entirely different perspective than a normal movie-goer. They know the name of every robot and aren't the least bit confused by all of the metallic carnage. They bring an understanding and a passion to the theater that the rest of us lack. They are, in fact, seeing a completely different movie. That's part of the equation, but perhaps not the largest part.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was among the best marketed films of the summer. It became a "must see" spectacle. People went to see this movie the same way they would ride a roller coaster at an amusement park or brave crowds and traffic jams to see a fireworks display - because it's the thing to do. The concern is that by missing it, one will somehow be left on the outside looking in. Movies like Transformers 2 exist on a different level than other, more traditional films. They thrive in a universe of marketing and cross-promotion where the movie is in many ways the least important element of the equation. You're going to see it no matter what anyone - critic, friend, spouse, lover - says. However, just because the opinion of a critic won't alter your decision whether or not to see it, that doesn't mean you aren't interested in hearing what "the professionals" have to say. Maybe it's to shake your head in mute agreement, maybe it's to disagree with vitriol. The on-line response to reviews of Transformers 2 is louder and more voluminous than for any other movie I can remember. (Tragically, my review received only one lonely comment at RT, and it was positive. But there are other places where responses were not so favorable.)

What do people think of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen? Not surly critics or ebullient fanboys, but down-to-earth, average movie-goers? Tough to say. There's no good metric for measuring "neutral" viewer reaction. IMDb has it at 6.5. That's as good a number as I have seen since it attempts to dampen out the influence of those who are overly positive or negative. What does a 6.5 mean? Slightly below the mean, which is currently 6.8. I suspect other methods of measuring viewer satisfaction will lead to a similar result.

People to whom I have spoken generally regard the movie with a shrug of the shoulders. "It was all right," the say. Or "too long but some nice eye candy." (Not sure if they mean the explosions, the robots, or Megan Fox.) The "praise" is decidedly muted. In fact, even those who like the movie can't seem to figure out why they like it. "It was fun," said one person. What was fun about it? "I don't know."

So what does this imply? That Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen has gotten a lukewarm reception. Outside of the fanboy community, there's not much enthusiasm for it; outside of the critics' community, there's not much outright hatred for it. It's simply there: an inert, overlong, mindless summer explosion-fest that demands to be seen but does not inspire much in the way of love or even respect. It's proof that the modern blockbuster is about everything except what's on screen. And, because Transformers are first and foremost toys, this is the ultimate product placement. It's a 150-minute commercial.

Now what about the role of critics in this? It is not to senselessly validate the box office nor is it to reflect any consensus, no matter where that consensus may originate. For a critic to have value, he/she must be able to present his/her opinion without concern for whether it's a majority or minority one, and be willing to discuss and argue its merits. Since a rating is an opinion, we're not in the realm of the objective, but the difference between the view of a critic and the one of a typical movie-goer is that more thought goes into the formulation of the critic's evaluation than normally goes into that of someone who regards this as disposable entertainment.

There will be times when a critic will agree with the majority opinion and times when he/she will disagree. Critics often disagree with each other; it's almost unheard of for a title with more than 30 reviews to have a 100% or 0% (complete, across-the-board agreement) Rotten Tomatoes rating. To a degree, this reflects the simple fact that we all see a slightly different movie, shaped and informed by our life's experiences. Some movies will resonate with some critics in ways they will not resonate with others. It's the same way with non-critics.

Are critics more "picky"? Probably, but that's what happens when one sees 200-300 movies per year as opposed to 5 or 10 or 20 or 50. The more movies one sees, the less tolerance there is for repetition, sloppy writing, and lazy direction. Such things are more easily accepted by those who only occasionally see films, especially if what they're seeing has been defined as a "must see spectacle" by the marketing department of a studio. I can understand how someone could be overwhelmed by the kinetic energy and special effects "WOW" factor of Transformers 2 if that person irregularly ventures to a movie theater.

The relevance of critics lies not in their ability to mimic mass opinion but in their ability to effectively convey not only what they think of a particular title but why they think that way. If they are able to incite discussion, disagreement, and/or argument, I would posit that they have done their duty. This has happened across-the-board with Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. To me, this indicates that, although audiences may not be heeding the advice of critics about whether to see the movie, there is still much interest in what is being written about it. One does not have to agree with a critic to find him/her of value; one only has to read or listen. In the end, that's all we ask.