Samstag, 22. November 2014

TRANSFORMERS vs. PACIFIC RIM - why they are NOT the same!

 Hello there puny humans,
today I want to talk to you about something that has been bugging me for quite some time. When I watched Pacific Rim I had an amazing time and it became one of my favourite films. Nevertheless, I understand that this is a movie that is targeted to a specific audience, so not everyone might enjoy it the way I did. What I can't accept, however, is the phrase: "Well, it's just the same shit as Transformers".
It isn't. Sure, it has giant robots/aliens fighting each other, but that is as big of a similarity as the one between the Spielberg-classic Jaws and the god-awful Shark Attack-franchise. So let me enlighten you with the following article, where I will examine a few elements of these films and highlight their differences:

1. The Right Direction
Granted, this is not the best argument, as almost every director has hits and misses, but just look at the filmmakers who conceived these projects: In one corner, there is Guillermo del Toro. A man, whom you will most likely associate with the dark fantasy drama Pan's Labyrinth, which was nominated for 6 Oscars and won 3. During his career del Toro himself has earned a total of 27 different film awards and has also published three novels that then spawned comic books and a TV series.
In the other corner is Michael Bay. A nine-time Golden Raspberry Nominee, who actually won the infamous award twice: Worst Director and Worst Film, both in 2009. Further, this guy's directing style has gotten its own nickname in Hollywood, "Bayhem", which is obviously a wordplay on  "mayhem", a term that literally means chaos or confusion. I mean, we are talking about the person that wanted to turn the Ninja Turtles into aliens...

2. Less Is More
Of course, these films are not intellectual cinema. They simply want to entertain in a spectacular fashion. Pacific Rim understands that. Sure, the whole two-pilots-for-a-jaeger thing was a tiny bit complicated, but otherwise the story is very simple and straightforward: Huge Aliens attack our cities, so we fight back with huge robots. There isn't much more to it. But exactly that is perfect, because we don't need more.
The Transformers movies on the other hand shoehorne too many unnecessary subplots and too much mythological non-sense into their story-line. With all that overflow, you'll need a few seconds to realize that at the end of the first movie, they defeat the bad guy by giving him "the cube", so the thing they tried to hide from him during the entire rest of the film. Ultimately, this means that if our "heroes" hadn't been there to "help", a whole city would have been saved from destruction... awesome! -_-
I won't even start to rant about the second film, which was such a clusterfuck that even its director admitted it in an interview with the Empire: "The real fault with [Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen] is that it ran into a mystical world. When I look back at it, that was crap."

3. Shooting Action - or: "What the fuck is happening?"
Now, as previously stated, the action is the one big thing both of these films really are about. But here too, the movies have little in common. I talked about Bayhem before and I am going to explain it further:
Action Scene from Transformers 2
 Michael Bay tries to make his shots as epic as possible, which is a commendable plan, but as always he goes too far over the top. Most of the time, his action sequences have multiple layers to achieve depth, and at least two of those layers contain objects that move in different directions to make the shot more dynamic. Additionally, the camera usually moves yet another way. If used correctly, this kind of technique can look awesome, as seen in the amazing tracking shot in The Avengers. Bay, however, does a few mistakes: Firstly, the different movements happen way too fast and often he edits his scenes with quick cuts. This makes the picture very agitated and restless. Secondly, he uses this style almost exclusively instead of highlighting certain events. As a result, it either becomes less special or even exhausting for the audience's eyes. On top of all that, Bay throws tons of explosions and flying debris in the mix, creating images that are extremly overcrowded, and especially when you are working with robots, it gets hard to tell where top or bottom is. If you want to find out more about Michael Bays convoluted style of directing I recommend Tony Zhou's youtube video on the matter.
Action Scene from Pacific Rim
Now, Pacific Rim on the other hand has a much more calm and epileptic-friendly way of creating awe-inspiring pictures. Instead of cramming a large number of things in the frame to demonstrate their variation in size, del Toro makes his creatures look big by using three certain techniques: The first one (and to be fair, Bay does this too) is using very low camera angles. By making the audience look far up at his creatures, they immediately appear to be humongous. Moreover, this effect is also achieved by showing only parts of their bodies in the frame, implying that they are simply to huge to be filmed in a full body shot, and leaving their actual size to the imagination of the viewer. Lastly, del Toro chooses the perfect settings for these fights. For example, knowing that the battle you are witnessing takes place in an ocean, but simultaneously seeing that the water is only knee-deep for these robots is, in all its simplicity, extremely powerful.

4. The Pieces of the Puzzle
 Now, we've checked "action" and "plot" off the list, and I admit that these might be the most crucial elements to determine the quality of this kind of film. Nonetheless, I am convinced there are a lot of other little things that can define a movie. So, I'll use this abstract to mention some of those:
The aliens in Pacific Rim are called "Kaijūs", which is japanese for giant monster, but the kaijū-film is even its own genre with Godzilla as its most famous representative. Guillermo del Toro pays great homage to that. For instance, his Kaijūs' acid spit is clearly inspired by Godzilla's famous atomic breath. The only thing Michael Bay pays tribute to is either himself (by shamelessly re-using footage of his older films) or commercial brands. But he doesn't only stuff his movies with a ridiculous amount of product placement. On average, the fourth Transformers film has an American flag on screen every three and a half minutes, and of course our friends from the U.S. Army are never far either. Pacific Rim is free of such an over-patriotism. In fact, its storyline has the whole world teaming up, with the biggest players next to the U.S. being Japan, Russia and Australia. Further, the commanding officer is British, and the scientists are German. Admittedly, the movie does stereotype these nations to an extent (think of the Russian's stone-cold faces), but at least it doesn't go full-on racist like Bay, who makes the only two dumb illiterate robots speak with a mexican accent.
If we talk about racism, we have to address sexism as well. It is very easy to see that Bay chooses his "actresses" based on looks rather than talent. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy seeing attractive women as much as the next guy, but I see no reason why female characters can't be beautiful and relevant to the story at the same time. Just recently, Edge of Tomorrow had exactly that in Emily Blunt's Rita Vrataski, the most beautiful of bad-asses. But Pacific Rim has some tough chicks of its own, with the fearless russian and, of course, the highly skilled Mako Mori. They might be the only two female roles in the film, but in this particular movie feud I will count the absence of a negative (like Bay constantly writing strippers into his scripts) as a positve.

5. Listen to Others
If I really haven't convinced you yet, maybe some solid statistics are due: The website Rotten Tomatoes collects online reviews from writers who are certified members of various writing guilds or film critic associations. On this site, Pacific Rim scored a 72% rating, while the Transformers films are at an average of 32.5% (the highest score being 57% for the first one, and the lowest score for the second part with an 18%).

6. Conclusion
At this point, you might have noticed that I am not too fond of the Transformers movies and the director behind them. It's true that I could easily go on talking about the qualities of the actors or the time and effort put into sequels, but in the end I only want you to take away this:
In times like these, where it seems like a new blockbuster is produced every day, we shouldn't forget what good and what bad film making is. Aside from our personal preference of a specific topic, we must judge a movie by looking at what it is trying to be, and wether it used skill or cheap tricks to achieve that. As we are showered with countless films, it is tempting to categorize very broadly, but often that doesn't do a movie justice. Because even seemingly mindless films about giant ass-kicking robots can be very different in quality!

I hope you guys enjoyed this article and had as much fun reading it as I had writing it. For those who want to know more fun or interesting stuff about the two films, I've put together a TRANSFORMERS vs. PACIFIC RIM playlist on youtube. Let me know if you want me to do more articles like this and what your own thoughts about those movies are. So feel free to comment below!

Your Cinemartian!

"I am first and foremost a movie geek." - del Toro
"I am, like, a true American!" - Bay


  1. 4.1 Worldbuilding
    Worldbuilding is all about creating the world in which your movie is set. Sci-Fi/Fantasy movies in particular have to find a balance between plot and worldbuilding. Think of the early Harry Potter movies. There is the actual plot, revolving around Harrys first year in Hogwarts and the ultimate showdown with Voldemort, but we also get to know so much about the world he inhabits now, simply because Harry has to learn these things just as much as we do.

    The same goes for "Pacific Rim". Del Toro puts effort into the creation of a world. When we Raleigh for the first time, he is working on the giant wall that is supposed to be a barrier for the Kaiju. The wall is not important for the story, all it does is tell us something about Raleigh. But at the same time, it enriches the world the film is set in. It makes sense to build the wall, and when it proves useless, there is an actual impact made. We see that this was an important event in this world.

    Compare this to the Transformers franchise. Bay never gives us any reason to think that his world is real. For every movie, he just brings out a new MacGuffin, recycles the same storyline and the same shots. His world is full of inconsistencies. If you want to see his poorest effort at worldbuilding yet, just look at Chicago. In part three, Chicago is completely wrecked. I'm talking tumbling skyscrapers here. In Age of Extinction, an effort is made to make us think that this was an important event in this universe, which might have actually worked... at least it made for a good visual in the trailer. But when we get to actually see Chicago, nothing looks at all out of place. Skyscrapers that fell in front of our eyes in the third movie were standing again and nothing gave us any sense that a giant battle had taken place here.

    Overall, worldbuilding can enrich your film enormously, if you do it right. Bay never tried to give his world any rules except for "Everything Explodes!", which is why we are left with questions such as: If Transformers can scan any vehicle and take that form... why are they not all planes? I guess it is because they can fly anyway? At least Optimus can in Age of Extinction... That might have been useful in the first three movies from time to time...

    Del Toro however has made an effort to create a world he cares about and has even pushed through a sequel which is going to build on that world, and which, according to him, is going to be much larger in scope than the first movie. And guess what, he can do that, because the foundation for a bigger story is already there. In general Del Toro is one of the best worldbuilders working in Hollywood these days, which you can see all over his body of work. It's not for nothing that he was the first pick for the "Hobbit" trilogy.

  2. Very good point! A lot of stuff in the Transformers films doesn't work even within the laws of its universe!

    Another addition that i really had to resist making was:
    "WE ARE CANCELLING THE APOCALYPSE!"... 'nuff said... :D