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Robots Are Disappointing Me

May 8, 2009

Last night, in a fit of misguided hope, I OnDemanded the movie Transformers for an hour or so before bed. I’d never seen it before. What I saw of it, though, was hilarious. Literally within the first 30 seconds Michael Bay deploys no fewer than six cliches about American military men: There’s one guy who speaks Spanish (everyone reprimands him, “English!”) and talks fondly about his mother’s cooking; another who says all he wants to do “is hold my baby girl for the first time”; and another who waxes rhapsodic, in a you’ve-gotta-be-kidding-me Boston accent, about a ballgame at Fenway, “a cold hot dog and a flat beer.” At any rate, it’s kind of hilarious how rapidly the movie hurls its stereotypes and cliches; it’s like a kid gorging on candy because he’s afraid some adult is seconds away from taking it from him. So I turned it off and went to bed.

This summer, like every summer, is a big one for big, dumb movies. Some are dumb and fun, but most are dumb and insulting, and make you feel sad and disappointed for even hoping against hope that maybe a summer movie could live up to its firecracker hype, maybe make you feel how seeing Independence Day at the dome theater that one summer in Little Rock made you feel: frisson, sexy, excited; cordite on the air, rolled-down windows, wind whipping, girls.

Mostly they are not like that. There are reasons why. Guess who knows them: David Foster Wallace (I know, I know). Here’s the first two paragraphs from his excellent dissection of James Cameron’s T2, which is apropos given the imminent arrival of the fourth Terminator movie:

1990s moviegoers who have sat clutching their heads in both awe and disappointment at movies like “Twister” and “Volcano” and “The Lost World” can thank James Cameron’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” for inaugurating what’s become this decade’s special new genre of big-budget film: Special Effects Porn. “Porn” because, if you substitute F/X for intercourse, the parallels between the two genres become so obvious they’re eerie. Just like hard-core cheapies, movies like “Terminator 2” and “Jurassic Park” aren’t really “movies” in the standard sense at all. What they really are is half a dozen or so isolated, spectacular scenes — scenes comprising maybe twenty or thirty minutes of riveting, sensuous payoff — strung together via another sixty to ninety minutes of flat, dead, and often hilariously insipid narrative.

“T2,” one of the highest-grossing movies in history, opened six years ago. Think of the scenes we all still remember. That incredible chase and explosion in the L.A. sluiceway and then the liquid metal T-1000 Terminator walking out of the explosion’s flames and morphing seamlessly into his Martin-Milner-as-Possessed-by-Hannibal-Lecter corporeal form. The T-1000 rising hideously up out of that checkerboard floor, the T-1000 melting headfirst through the windshield of that helicopter, the T-1000 freezing in liquid nitrogen and then collapsing fractally apart. These were truly spectacular images, and they represented exponential advances in digital F/X technology. But there were at most maybe eight of these incredible sequences, and they were the movie’s heart and point; the rest of “T2” is empty and derivative, pure mimetic polycelluloid.

Here’s the link to the full thing. You’ll need to be prepared if you plan to plunk down $12 (that’s New York City prices) to see the new Transformers or Terminator FXtravaganzas this summer.

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