Reflections on Thanksgiving Day cinema

The traditional family Thanksgiving obligations took place on Saturday and Sunday, and the mistress of the house had to work on Monday, leaving me a big block of time to contemplate wasting.  I had some movies sitting on the AppleTV and DVR that I hadn’t yet watched, so I decided to struggle through at least one of them.

TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN (2009)

Shia LaBeouf goes to Robot Heaven.

Shia LaBeouf goes to Robot Heaven.

I am not a fan of Michael Bay, nor any of his movies, past, present or future.  The man does not know the meaning of subtlety.  If there is a moment of raw emotion, it must be pull-your-hair-out, scream-at-the-top-of-your-lungs emotion.  If there is a moment of sadness, it must be all is lost, nothing-will-ever-be-the-same sorrow beyond comprehension.  If there is a moment of heroism, it must be charging into hell’s fury, storm clouds parting to emit a single ray of divine light illuminating the hero.  Bay means well, I am sure, but his repertoire contains nothing but bombast.  And he—like every other Hollywood writer, director and producer—rides the short bus when it comes to depicting the realistic employment and tactical doctrine of military forces.

In The Rock, for example—considered by some to be Michael Bay’s magnum opus—Navy SEALs are assigned to sneak into the Alcatraz prison facility.  Instead of the SEALs using their scuba gear and underwater SEAL Delivery Vehicles (SDVs) to traverse the entire distance from the beach to Alcatraz, their “covert” insertion to the prison is done via helicopter, thereby alerting the bad guys to their presence.  Shameful.  The Marine officers leading the rogue element in the prison wear black berets, never a part of the USMC uniform.  As a ‘hoo-ah’ moment to buck up his CO, one of the Marine captains says “be all you can be” to main bad guy General Hummel—which is the Army’s slogan, not that of the Marines.  The US Air Force is tasked with taking out Alcatraz, and they do it —with F/A-18s.  Navy fighters.  Bay makes these sorts of amateurish mistakes in all of his films, constantly.  It is part of why I generally loathe them.  But enough about the failings of Michael Bay and his militarily-illiterate brethren.

I had in fact planned to avoid watching the Transformers sequel entirely, but a retired USAF battle manager (one of the guys that rides in the back of the E-3C Sentry) of my acquaintance told me that the C-17 Globemaster III, one of my favourite aircraft, plays a “pivotal” role in this film.  It sort of does, and it certainly gets a lot of cameos sitting on the ramps of various bases.  I was pleasantly surprised by one thing, though; I actually enjoyed this second Transformers movie more than the first one.  I attribute this to three factors (and be warned, SPOILERS LIE AHEAD).

In the first movie we find out that these super-intelligent transforming machines are fighting an interstellar war on our turf, and instead of doing the logical thing like seeking allies amongst our political and military elites, they get the help of a high-school-aged boy.  Hate to break it to you fellas, but high school kids have problems beating homework, laziness and entropy, let alone killing machines from another planet.  Whereas in the second movie, we find out that the Autobots have signed an actual security treaty with the United States and friendly allies, and have partnered with their military forces to create a quick-reaction-force that responds to Decepticon activity around the world.  This makes more sense, and is what they ought to have done the first time around.

Second, the John Turturro character in the first movie really bugged the hell out of me.  He was a walking cliché, a bumbling special agent for a shadowy government organisation that technically did not exist, yadda yadda.  In the first movie, he had a not-inconsiderable amount of authority and operated with a high degree of functional incompetence that would have had him drummed out of whatever military service he supposedly worked for the very first time he had to pass a rating or efficiency report.  In the second flick he’s been dumped from his job, defrocked of his security clearances and lives a much more humble existence as a sort of butcher-turned-conspiracy freak.  Much more low-key and tolerable.  There are still moments where you will want to smack Tuturro’s character in the face with a shovel, but at least we can all rest easy knowing that the government is now aware of his incompetence and is not prepared to have him supervise top-secret facilities.

Third, this movie actually required Megan Fox to extend her range from looking hot and looking scared, to looking hot, looking scared, and looking sad.  That’s an improvement.  By the end I was halfway convinced that maybe, a decade from now, Megan Fox might one day add “surprise” and “joy” to her repertoire too.  We can always hope.

Now Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen still contains an enormous number of military howlers.  The M-1 Abrams tanks deployed to protect infantry still do not maneuver in any way, shape or form.  Like generations of Hollywood tanks before them, they fire from static positions (and not even hull-down positions at that).  Nobody attempts any tactical movement, no attempts at surprise, enfilade, flanking or deception.  Everything is 19th century set-piece battles, with 21st century weapons.  But Transformers 2 didn’t have me looking at the clock and wishing it would just hurry up and be over, like the first one did.  And that counts for something.

Chris’ Rating: 2 Hasbro transforming mecha out of 5.

STAR WARS: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980)

This is what you get when neither your Chiefs of Staff nor your defence contractots understand the importance of firepower and maneuver in tactical doctrine.

This is what you get when neither your Chiefs of Staff nor your defence contractors understand the importance of firepower and maneuver in tactical doctrine.

Spike TV ran a marathon of the Special Edition versions of the Star Wars movies yesterday, and I decided to tune in to the second (and best) of the films.  I don’t actually own any of the Star Wars films on any media, first because I saw them about twenty times as a child and so only have the desire to watch them maybe once every five years as an adult.  Second because now that Mr. Lucas has befouled his own creation, the idea of giving any more money to an enterprise that will only desecrate them further seems like a bad idea.

I remember the first time I saw, it, or rather, did not see it.  My seven-year-old self was hauled to a drive-in featuring The Concorde: Airport ’79 and The Empire Strikes Back, both guaranteed to entertain my pre-teen mind.  I managed to stay awake through the end of Airport ’79, but started snoozing as soon as the credits rolled.  Slept through The Empire Strikes Back and ended up seeing it a theatre much later.  I didn’t like it much as a child, especially the freezing of Han and the revelation that Darth Vader may have been Luke’s father.  Seeing it as an adult, though, one can appreciate the desperate position of the Rebellion, and how hard-fought its victories had to have been.

In many ways TESB is like the third Harry Potter film (Prisoner of Azkaban), also the only one of the series I can enjoy.  In the first two films Harry gets to enjoy his juvenile wish-fulfilment away from the boring everyday Muggle world, and he seems to dispatch opponents with no particular or life-threatening difficulty.  As the creators of Superman well know, a hero with no known weakness is not much fun to watch.  But in the third film it’s apparent that golden boy Harry does have a weakness after all, and the Dementors tend to get the better of him every time.  Now there is a shadow of doubt where there was previous presumption of success.  Likewise in TESB we see that despite the destruction of the Death Star, the Empire has a lot of fight left in it.  It has many more troops and resources to throw at the Rebels; who are hunted from star system to star system with no time for rest and recuperation.  The Rebellion, in fact, is on the ropes.

One surprising aspect of the film is the dialogue.  Typical Lucasian dialogue is stilted and unnatural; here the protagonists behave a little more like three-dimensional persons.  Which is not to say they are Oscar-worthy; in the main the dialogue is still bad, but it is less obviously bad than that of the movies that came before and after.  The best one can say is that the Han Solo-Princess Leia romance does not make one roll their eyes and say “Oh puh-leeeze” in the way that one does when seeing say, Padme Amidala and Annakin Skywalker.

From a military perspective it is pretty horrible all the way around.  The AT-ATs, while iconic, are not in any way, shape or form an all-terrain vehicle, nor are they armoured.  They have no point defense weapons nor any weapons that are not forward-facing, so theoretically a platoon of modern-day M1s could zoom around behind, and sit there plonking away at the AT-AT’s rear armor until they came apart.  They are not manoeuvrable enough to prevent an enemy from getting into their rear quarter (or even underneath them) and plonking away until they die.  A single guy with a magnetic winch and grenade manages to take out an entire unit, which tells us the belly armour is extraordinarily thin.

Additionally, the AT-AT’s high leg design presents an obvious and tempting target.  Unlike a multi-wheeled IFV or AFV which can suffer a wheel loss and still keep fighting, an AT-AT losing a leg comes to a crushing halt.  There’s also no clear indication of how fast they can unload their payload (or debuss their passengers, in the lingo).  Do they kneel down?  Do the troops have to rappel down?  What about getting back up there?  Is there a winch?  How do you get back aboard if you’re wounded/incapacitated and have to evac, quickly?  Militarily AT-ATs make no sense whatsoever, but they are, nonetheless, great fun to watch.

Another thing surprised me was how eminently re-watchable this film was.  Despite having seen it all dozens of times before, knowing most of the dialogue, and being fully cognizant of how horribly laughable it is in tactical doctrine and employment, it’s still a hell of a lot of fun.  I was expecting to cringe due to Lucas’ famously wooden characterisations, or the stupidity of the weapon systems on display, but mostly I was marvelling at how much fun it is to watch this film again.

Chris’ Rating: 4.5 nostalgia-drenched stale popcorn kernels out of 5.

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4 Responses
  1. Flea says:

    A quick google reveals that which I had pseudo-remembered: Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan wrote the screenplay for Empire, hence the deLucasification of the dialogue.

    Interesting to me: Both Empire and Azkaban (if you will excuse my familiarity, I am too tired to type the full titles and yet, strangely, not this aside) are my favourites of their respective series (with the possible exception of the latest Potter flik, I am still considering it). Both have a darker, almost fairy tale quality that is both magical and sinister. The two films engender a cosmic sense of menace.

    • Chris Taylor says:

      Ah, that explains it.

      I think we are simpatico on this. I had hoped that Azkaban would herald some grand new direction for the Harry Potter movies, but when I watched its follow-up (which was kind of like Harry Potter, 90210), it seemed to me we were back to blander storytelling, sans menace.

      I think this is the great failing of the Star Wars prequels also—well, one of their many failings. By keeping the focus rather too tightly on characters whose ultimate fates are well known, the prequels are robbed of any serious tension. It would have been better to tell the story of the fall of the Republic and rise of the Empire through brand-new characters, only using the well-known figures sparingly as occasional local colour.

  2. Nathan B. says:

    I *love* TESB, and I consider it the best of all the Star Wars films also. Although I know nothing about Irvin Kershner, I’m pretty sure that he is the reason this film worked out so well. In any case, I love the character development of Luke and Han in this movie, and I always appreciated the way the almost-frozen Luke receives his message from Kenobi just as Han is riding up to save him. I found that much preferable to walking, talking ghosts. I also really enjoyed the music, which reminds me of Messiaen’s Turangalila symphony, and the juxtaposition of several scenes with each other. It’s actually a fairly deep movie in many ways, even though it doesn’t appear that way (or sound that way, in terms of the typical Star Wars dialogue).

    • Chris Taylor says:

      I think it is deep, for Star Wars. Friends can betray you; good men can, despite the best of intentions, end up serving evil; sometimes you recognise love only in the instant it is irrevocably lost.

      In TESB so much gets imparted with such economy of screen time. In the brief Dagobah cave sequence, where Luke battles himself/Vader, Lucas and the screenwriters manage to convey very simply how letting one’s emotions rule your thinking might lead an otherwise upstanding fella to an ignoble end. And yet when Lucas gets three whole prequels to make the same point, he somehow fails spectacularly. One could even say that it’s obvious, in retrospect, who the real brains behind the screenwriting were.

      Sort of like reading Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 novel series (2001, 2010, 2061, 3001) and juxtaposing them with Kubrick’s film. The later novels make it clear that Kubrick’s writing collaboration on 2001 was the real spark of genius; without his influence the successors are flat, uninteresting and uninspired.

      Now making a mental note to hunt down Messiaen’s Turangalila