So who was right, the dubious studio, the happy critics, the mass audience that rejected it, or the cult audience that embraced it? A little of each. The movie is definitely a slam-bang action blockbuster, delivering exactly the sort of all-out adrenaline-fest that draws people into Transformers movies, but with actual entertainment value added on, so it is frustrating that Transformers 4 kicked its ass at the box office.
It’s also far better (both more entertaining and smarter) than Oblivion, Elysium, Pacific Rim, After Earth, and all of the other abortive attempts at non-franchise sci-fi from the previous year. So there’s that.
But…is it actually good? As in, not just better than crap, but actually good in its own rite? The answer is: almost. Well, okay, it’s certainly good, but it’s almost very good, and that’s really frustrating.
Unlike the movies above, this situation actually makes sense (which is saying a lot, with a premise this wild) and each plot twist is a clever and exciting escalation on the last. It’s well-structured, has fun dialogue and good performances. But it has several fatal flaws, so let’s take a look at those from a storytelling point of view:
The first big problem that plagues the movie is that it tacks on a bunch of awkward satirical elements while ignoring the satire inherent in its premise. The whole first half of the movie plays like a tongue-in-cheek parody of the D-Day landing (Too soon? Actually, yes.) Then there’s a mish-mash of other war references (The young woman who suddenly rises through the ranks to lead the army is known as “the Angel of Verdun”.) These odd detail are jokey without being jokes, and they ring all hollow. Parody and satire always limit audience identification, so they’d better add something to the movie, but these don’t.
This is frustrating, because the urge to add a satirical element is actually a good one. Here’s the premise: An untrained army PR guy is forced to fight an alien invasion on the front lines, but he finds himself living the same day over and over, allowing him to get better and better as he repeats the day, until he finally figures out how to stop the invasion altogether.
Obviously, Groundhog Day has already milked most of the meaning out of this situation, so it would seem like there was nothing left to say, but the change of setting could have provided a completely different meaning.
What this movie resembles more than anything is a game of “Call of Duty”: You’re plunged into an invasion, get killed a bunch of times, go back to the beginning each time, and learn to start over as a bad-ass right from the start. This taps into two possible sources of meaning:
- It could be a commentary on the FPS-generation of couch-bound man-boys, who crow online about what badasses they are while hitting reset over and over.
- And it could also be a commentary on the increasing video-game-ization of war itself, with guys sitting in Las Vegas with joysticks blowing up actual Pakistani families as if there were just so many Koopa Troopas.
How to fix this? Let’s look at some on-the-nose solutions: Give Cruise a son by an ex-wife, then let him start the movie by having an awkward video chat with the boy, who’s ignoring him and playing an FPS instead. Or have Cruise, as PR spokesman, say that the new suits are as easy as operating a joystick.
Or make it less on-the-nose: After Cruise loses the power, have him freak out and hide until Blunt yells at him that he never would have been able to win without consequences, because we can’t really commit until we have something on the line.
Instead of critiquing video game culture, the movie just become a video game, which is a problem in more ways than one, as we’ll see next time...