August 30, 2011


How to make an intelligent blockbuster and not alienate people: In this highly charged polemic, the Observer film writer and 5 Live critic tackles the big-budget producers for their cynical rejection of intelligent movies - and contempt for the ordinary cinemagoers who fill their pockets (Mark Kermode, 8/28/11, The Observer)

How did they get here? The short answer is: Michael Bay. The long answer is: Michael Bay; Kevin Costner's gills; Cleopatra on home video; and the inability of modern blockbusters to lose money in the long run, provided they boast star names, lavish spectacle and "event" status expense. Oh, and they don't try to be funny...

If you don't believe me, ask yourself this question: "Was Pearl Harbor a hit?" The answer, obviously, ought to be a resounding "No". For, as even the lowliest of amoebic life forms can tell you, that film was shockingly poor in ways it is almost painful to imagine. For one thing, it is "un film de Michael Bay", the reigning deity of all that is loathsome, putrid and soul-destroying about modern-day blockbuster entertainment.

"There are tons of people who hate me," admits Bay, who turned an innocuous TV-and-toys franchise into puerile pop pornography with his headache-inducing Transformers movies. "They said that I wrecked cinema. But hey, my movies have made a lot of money around the world." If you want kids' movies in which cameras crawl up young women's skirts while CGI robots hit each other over the head, interspersed with jokes about masturbation and borderline-racist sub-minstrelsy stereotyping, then Bay is your go-to guy. He is also, shockingly, one of the most commercially successful directors working in Hollywood today, a hit-maker who proudly describes his visual style as "fucking the frame" and whose movies appear to have been put together by people who have just snorted two tonnes of weapons-grade plutonium. Don't get me wrong - he's not stupid; he publicly admitted that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was below even his own poor par (his exact words were "When I look back at it, that was crap"), after leading man and charisma vacuum Shia LaBeouf declared that he "wasn't impressed with what we did". But somehow Bay's awareness of his own films' awfulness simply makes matters worse. At least Ed Wood, director of Plan 9 from Outer Space, thought the trash he was making was good. Bay seems to know better and, if he does, that knowledge merely compounds his guilt. Down in the deepest bowels of the abyss there is a 10th circle of hell in which Bay's movies play for all eternity, waiting for their creator to arrive, his soul tortured by the realisation that he knew what he was doing...

But I digress. Back to Pearl Harbor. In early 2001, Pearl Harbor was the most eagerly awaited blockbuster of the summer season. The script was by Randall Wallace, whose previous piece of historical balderdash was the Oscar-winning Braveheart, a movie that allegedly advanced the cause of Scottish nationalism with its shots of lochs, thistles, and men in kilts and blue woad eating haggis to the sound of bagpipes (although most of it was actually shot in Ireland after someone cut a canny deal with the government to use the An Fórsa Cosanta Áitiúil as extras - Viva William Wallace!). As a writer who appears to have a flimsy grasp of history, and who would have us believe that it is possible for men to deliver defiant speeches whilst having their intestines removed on a rack, Wallace was the perfect choice to pen a movie about the worst military disaster in US history in which "America wins!" The fact that Pearl Harbor (the movie) would attempt this revisionist coup de grâce in the same year that America suffered its worst attack on home soil since Pearl Harbor (the real disaster, rather than the movie) could not have been predicted by the film-makers.

But the fact that they were making one of the worst pieces of crap to grace movie theatres in living memory should have been horribly apparent to anyone who had read that bloody awful screenplay. Bad writing is one thing - bad reading is unforgivable. Wallace may be a rotten screenwriter (he writes lines that even Ben Affleck looks embarrassed to deliver), but it was Michael Bay and Pirates of the Caribbean producer Jerry Bruckheimer who gave him the go-ahead, and who must therefore shoulder the blame.

Anyway, the film got made and released, with the full support of the US navy who gave the film-makers access to their military hardware and staged a premiere party by a graveyard (the eponymous harbour) to the shock and awe of relatives of the dead. Hey ho. The reviews were terrible, though I was personally guilty of the most atrociously contrary humbug by attempting to claim that the movie really wasn't as utterly awful as everyone was saying. What the hell was I thinking? Looking back on it now, I shudder to remember just how lenient I had been - how I had claimed that the film offered a brainless spectacle in the now time-honoured tradition of summer blockbusters, about which I had recently written a stupidly enthusiastic article for some glossy publication from whom I was frankly flattered to receive a commission. It was a shameful misjudgment, which I will carry with me to my grave, and I fully expect to be joining Mr Bay in that multiplex in hell, racked by the guilty knowledge that I just stood by and allowed this horror to happen.

Never trust a critic.

Especially this critic.

Others, however, were more forthright and correctly identified Pearl Harbor for the cack that it so clearly was. Audiences were in agreement - the vast majority of the emailed comments that Simon Mayo and I received at our BBC 5 Live radio show from people who had shelled out good money to watch Pearl Harbor were roundly condemnatory, and many were genuinely flabbergasted by just how boring the movie had been.

So, the film was a flop, right?


Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.


During production, there was much trade-press tooth-sucking about the fact that Pearl Harbor's "authorised starting budget" was $135m, a record-breaking sum back then. Bay and Bruckheimer had originally wanted $208m, and the director was widely reported to have "walked" on several occasions as arguments about how much money the movie should cost continued. As the story of the budget grew, Bay and Bruckheimer very publicly agreed to take $4m salary cuts (in return for a percentage of the profits - clever) to "keep the budget down", thereby giving the impression that every cent spent would be up there on screen. The final cost of the film was somewhere between $140m and $160m, figures gleefully quoted by negative reviewers who spied a massive flop ahoy and predicted chastening financial losses. Yet in Variety's annual roundup of the biggest grossing movies of 2001, Pearl Harbor came in at number six, having taken just shy of $200m in the US alone. By the time the film had finished its worldwide theatrical run, this abomination had raked in a staggering $450m, helping to push Buena Vista International's takings over the $1bn mark for the seventh consecutive year. No matter that almost everyone who saw the film found it a crushing disappointment - as far as the dollars were concerned, Pearl Harbor was an unconditional hit.

It gets worse.

Posted by at August 30, 2011 7:30 AM

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