I am going to annihilate whatever "Classic Movie" street cred I may have amassed with this column in one single sentence: I loved Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen. Loved it. Adored it. Went back and saw it again. To me it rivals 2001 and Days of Heaven for sheer cinematic bliss. It is a movie that could only be a movie. The images are essential and the plot is irrelevant. The characters on the screen aren't these deeply imagined, richly depicted living and breathing souls -- they're just another shape for extravagant composition. Just like 2001 and Days of Heaven.
For Transformers: Dark of the Moon director Michael Bay has said he's going smaller with this one, and it will be more like a Black Hawk Down kind of experience. I can tell you that's not the case. It’s not the case. It might be a bit more emotionally intimate, with some peskily believable characters, but it’s still Michael Bay. It’s still the guy who in Bat Boys turned a five-second sequence into a ten minute slow motion screamfest. Michael Bay doesn't have small in him. And well he shouldn't. He's the most aggressively visual director of his generation, and if he could use those images he creates to create some beauty below the beauty, he could be a contender.
I know, I know, I'm talking about going deep. But I'm serious. That's what great movies do. Whether you're talking about E.T. or Rambo or The Hangover or The Bicycle Thief, genuinely entertaining movies always have depth to them -- that's the only way to be thoroughly entertaining.
But can you do that with big robots? Best believe.
Look no further than 1951's The Day the Earth Stood Still.
Naturally I'm not talking about the remake with Keanu Reeves -- I'm talking about the classic version. Klaatu barada nikto? One of the most quoted lines in film history? No? Go back and watch Toy Story, it's in there, most likely dropped by Joss Whedon, one of the many great writers who had a hand in Pixar's first movie.
"Klaatu barada nikto" is the phrase the alien Klaatu tells the pretty Earth lady Helen she must repeat to the big robot Gort. Klaatu and Gort arrive in a flying saucer and it gets real obvious real quick that while Klaatu is the one who talks and asks for friendship from the Earthlings and all that, Gort's the one in charge. Seemingly. Klaatu offers his hand in friendship, while Gort atomizes tanks. And when the human race proves itself to be a bunch of shortsighted warmongers (as they always seem to do in movies like this -- a la Transformers) Gort shuts down electricity on the entire planet for thirty minutes.
So it’s more like The Thirty Minutes the Earth Stood Still, but you get the point.
Eventually the deal becomes clear: on Klaatu's planet robots like Gort are in complete control. They were developed by the people, who put all their power in these artificial overlords. Now Klaatu's people live in perfect order. They have no poverty, no war, no famine...and no power. And that’s' the choice he offers the people of Earth. Poverty, war and death or a complete lack of freedom. As soon as Earthlings developed atomic power the robots sent Gort and Klaatu over to make sure they didn't do anything stupid.
So what's the movie about?
We're talking 1951. World War II still fresh. American's feeling the weight of being the most powerful country on the planet. Hope and terror wrapped up all around atomic power. And, of course, the USSR. A country of people who have given up their power, their money, their freedom...for safety. Soviet Russia tested its first nuclear weapon in 1949. That was the year to Cold War crystallized into a battle between two countries that had the ability to annihilate one another completely and take most of the planet with them. The Cold War haunts The Day the Earth Stood Still in way that make it deeper, richer, scarier, and therefore more entertaining.
I'm not saying that every movie needs to be "meaningful" or anything like that. As I said, I love Transformers 2. All I'm saying is that if Michael Bay tried even just a little bit to say something with his pop films, they would be even better. I mean, come on, if you're going to make a movie about fighting cars in the waning days of the age of fossil fuel, it's not like you have far to go.
I'm just sayin'.