Friday, July 1, 2011

Transformers 3 begs for a box-office bomb

    Shia LaBeouf sings autographs at the Transformers 3 German premiere
    A flop? Not for these fans ... Shia LaBeouf signs autographs at the Transformers 3 German premiere. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images for Paramount
    I've perused the release schedule between now and September and there's only one thing for it: we need a bomb. A huge and awesome flop. Here in the endless summer season, with Transformers: Dark of the Moon the most obvious offender but unlikely to be the last, what cinema is crying out for is a proper box office disaster – one whose commercial performance is so calamitously out-of-whack with its vast cost that it draws a shudder from the entire film business. Let it leave behind only a smouldering, Heaven's Gate-sized crater spelling out the words: "Must Do Better." This isn't just nihilistic glee at the thought of one of the summer's gleaming, studio tent-poles crashing to Earth. It would, I think, be a much-deserved corrective, an eloquent raspberry to the movie industry's worst habits. In a week where hundreds of thousands went on strike, it would provide a sign that cinemagoers, too, can withdraw their cooperation when presented with films too lazy to give them human drama when CGI incontinence will do. It would use the only language studio heads understand. Only it's not going to happen, is it? Because in fact, there seems an increasingly unbreakable connection between the giant size of a film's budget and the cash it then rakes in. If you spend it, goes the logic, they will come. Certain blockbusters seem to have been collectively judged too big to fail, whatever grisly depths are plumbed in the process. So while in theory I may have to revisit this a week from now to dab the egg from my face, it's all but impossible to imagine a situation in which the third Transformers – so blankly atrocious it could almost pass for abstract art – doesn't end up making enough money for Michael Bay to buy another 15  death rays. It wasn't ever thus. There was a time when even the biggest films would tank, and when the smell of fear coming off the studios at the time of their release filled the air like musk. For a memory-jogger, you only need to think back as far as the 1990s and post-apocalyptic splashabout Waterworld, a film whose spiralling budget became notorious, and which did poorly enough at the box office to become an instant cautionary tale. Oddly, the twin caveats here are that even though – or perhaps, because – it gave us the sight of Kevin Costner equipped with gills and drinking his own urine, the movie wasn't actually so awful – and that in the long run, it quietly broke even. But the episode was still traumatic enough for Hollywood to mean that when the same budgetary inflation struck the production of James Cameron's Titanic a couple of years later, the world had the scent of blood in its nostrils: the project looked set to become its own punchline, with Cameron doomed to be sent back to the piranha movies. Cut to the "king of the world" brandishing his Oscar with the studio coffers stuffed with the profits from what would, until Avatar, be the highest grossing film in history. Since then, nothing like the same naked terror has reoccurred, executive nerves clearly soothed by so many record-breaking instalments of Pirates of the Caribbean. Now and then, clunkers still clunk – but almost always at the mid-level of corporate budgeting, and even then more than offset by however many grimly lucrative Ghost Riders or Clashes of the Titans. And in the big leagues where the price tags start at $150m, nothing is seemingly bad enough to stop people shelling out – not Troy, not 2012, not the last exhumation of Indiana Jones, not Tim Burton's synapse-frying Alice in Wonderland, not – of course – the first two Transformers. Even Terminator Salvation made money, and if that doesn't make you want to dig a hole and jump in it, what could? Movies with spreadsheets for souls, one and all. But somehow the mere idea they might not wind up as insanely profitable now feels unthinkable. And the stakes here are genuinely high: the movies' success ensures they will continue to be made, and in the current Hollywood climate they'll be made at the direct expense of better films. Realistically, I know it's too late to stop Transformers. All I will say is that next year there's Men in Black 3. I'll leave it with you.

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