Perspectives, or Is Everyone Seeing the Same Movie?

July 15, 2007
A thought by James Berardinelli

I have gotten a lot of e-mails lately regarding my opinions of the two latest blockbusters, Transformers and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. This gives me an opportunity to address some of these comments while exploring a few "larger" issues.

Fundamentally, I don't see Transformers much differently from its many adherents. It is action oriented but character deficient with special effects trumping a storyline. The key to the film's entertainment factor rests not in the characters or the storyline or even the special effects. It's in the action. In fact, Transformers is all about action. It's there that the movie falls on its face for me. I'm not going to argue that there isn't plenty going on, but the mere presence of action doesn't equate to excitement, and that's the quality that fuels good popcorn flicks. When action generates suspense and excitement, as in Terminator 2, Aliens, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, and so forth, the films become compulsively watchable.

The key to action being more than eye candy is the presence of characters worth caring about. They don't have to be fully three-dimensional but they have to be more than pawns in a CGI chess game. If the viewer makes an emotional investment in a character, that translates into tension and excitement. It elevates the action. In Transformers, it's tough to tell Shia Lebeouf from the scenery. I don't recall the character's name and didn't care whether he lived or died. That results in all of the film's vaunted spectacle action amounting to little more than visual chicanery. It's fun to look at for a few seconds but rapidly becomes tedious.

Likewise, I see Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix pretty much the same way that its detractors do: dark, brooding, and not really for little kids. Some reviewers would lead you to believe that's a bad thing, and I suppose it is if you think the film should be targeted exclusively at an under-10 audience. For me, it's excellent news. Harry Potter and his movie series are growing up. They're putting away childish things and starting to get serious. Generally speaking, all fantasy series worth their salt involve death and darkness. After all, what gets darker than the battle between good and evil? Good may ultimately triumph but evil's going to win some battles along the way.

Harry Potter's core audience has aged with the character. Yes, there are new Harry fans in the kindergarten age range, but the bulk of die-hard Potter enthusiasts - those who signed on with J.K. Rowling at the beginning or shortly thereafter - are either in high school or college. The Harry Potter books were never just for children, and neither were the movies. But, with each new entry, there's a sense of greater maturity. Those who complain that "the magic has gone" are failing to see that it's not the "magic" that is absent but the wonder of innocence. That's what one would reasonably expect to happen in any coming-of-age story, especially when the fate of the world is at stake.

While the majority of mainstream American movie-goers have accepted Transformers and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix enthusiastically, reception among die-hards has been mixed. The reasons are similar: a lack of purity and faithfulness to the source material. Transformers fans are upset that the icons of their childhood have been changed and re-invented for this new movie. Harry Potter devotees are annoyed that favorite moments have been deleted from the screenplay in order to cut the production down to a reasonable size. To both of these groups, I provide similar advice: accept that change is inevitable. In order to widen the appeal of the robots, Michael Bay had to modernize them. One can argue about how he went about doing it, but the reality is that the Transformers of old would not have captured the kind of wide audience that these are doing. Regarding Harry Potter, it's necessary to realize that novels and films are different media. As a movie, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix stands on its own, apart from its written inspiration. Those who want "more" need only read the book. The experience is not intended to be the same. In fact, one of my criticisms of the first two Harry Potter movies is that they felt like visual regurgitations of the books. Where's the creativity in that?

I am frequently asked, as in the case of these two movies, if I saw the same thing as Critic X, who provided a review that was the polar opposite of mine. The answer is yes, but we reacted in different ways to the material. That's the bottom line. It's not that I don't like popcorn summer blockbusters, it's that I don't think Transformers works as one. At this point, I have seen all the major summer movies except one (The Bourne Ultimatum). I can applaud two with no reservations: Knocked Up and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. For pure action, the best of the bunch is the flawed Live Free or Die Hard. For some, the summer of 2007 has been a fun excursion populated with old friends and impressive special effects. Others see only overly protracted examples of filmmakers who have not yet figured out how to translate action into excitement. Too often, I fear, I'm in the latter category.