Friday, April 25, 2008

One More Reason I Miss the 1970s...

Johnny Byrne Thought of the Week (#6)

"If the same thing had happened on Alpha, would you have chosen differently?"

-Alan Carter asks Commander John Koenig a question in Space:1999's "Mission of the Darians," by Johnny Byrne.

I've written here before about Space:1999 and how the 1970s outer space series dramatized a universe of limited resources and "limited options for survival" (as critic Dick Adler put it). One of the best episodes in terms of dealing with this struggle for survival in a galaxy lacking plenty is the 22nd episode of Year One, Johnny Byrne's "Mission of the Darians."

In this story, Moonbase Alpha encounters a vast wrecked ship called the Daria, which - 900 years earlier - faced a Three Mile Island-type accident that killed off most of the population and rendered vast swaths of the giant space ark uninhabitable. There is little food, fewer resources on this roaming vessel, and now, the ship 's population lives under a bizarre class stratification. Primitive barbarians inhabit Level 7 and deliver unto their god, Neman, "perfect" beings. Angels (actually men in space suits), come to pick them up and take them back to a Heaven of sorts, another deck. By contrast, imperfect beings...are fed into a booth that is actually a disintegrator. Imperfections are classified as any body deformity or abnormality resulting from the lingering radiation.

What these barbarians (who "cling" to religion, to coin a phrase...) don't know, however, is that Neman is just an invented God doing the bidding of an invisible upper class. And so that upper class of Darians (dwelling in another part of the spaceship) is manipulating the barbarians. The perfect people they find are actually used for body-part replacement surgery so the pure-breed Darians can be immortal. And those "imperfect" people put in the disintegrator? They are actually the food supply for the pure breed Darians. Thus, the upper-class lives in wealth, health and plenty on their deck, while exploiting the lower class.

At the end of the episode, after the Alphans barely survive disintegration, surgical carving and other horrors, Captain Alan Carter asks Koenig the question posed above. If there had been an accident of that magnitude on Moonbase Alpha, would Koenig have resorted to deceit and guile to keep some Alphans alive at the expense of others?

Koenig's response is a political brush-off: "Remind me to tell you some time."

And that's quite the non-answer, isn't it? I had the opportunity to ask Johnny Byrne about this on one of our many occasions, and he said that Koenig did avoid answering the question, because the answer was obviously...affirmative. To keep his people, his Alphans, alive, he would have done the same thing.

That unspoken reality reminds me of another Space:1999 quote, (from Christopher Penfold's "Dorzak"): "Philosophy doesn't win space for people to live. It is the struggle for survival that makes monsters of us all."

This is such a fine and under-examined element of Space:1999; this discussion of the universe as essentially Darwinian, wherein sometimes you have to choose between two bad options, find the lesser-of-two evils. Again, and I don't mean to come off as rabidly Anti-Trek, because I love the original Star Trek so much, I think the comparison is worthwhile. This is where Voyager utterly failed to capitalize on a good idea.

The Starfleet personnel aboard that ship never had to do without anything; they continued to play happy adventures on their holodeck, they continued to manufacture new shuttles (like the Delta Flyer). They continued to materialize food and material wealth out of nowhere (via replicators). All of this "plenty" is - at its core - in diametric conflict with the very premise of Voyager; that it is a ship alone in an alien part of the galaxy. I like the cast of Voyager very much (I often say it is the finest cast of all Star Treks, save for the original), yet I think this failure to capitalize on the premise is what turned me off the program after a season or two. Here - finally - was a chance to see "noble" 24th century man without his wealth, without his riches, without his toys. Would he live up to the values of Star Fleet when he was poor and impoverished? Do grand ideals hold out when the stomach is empty?

That's what Voyager should have been about; and in fact what Space:1999 was about. As Johnny always said to me, it was fascinating to work on a series that operated from the premise that man in space didn't have what he needed to survive, rather then he already had it all. When I look back at Alan Carter's question, and then Koenig's evasive answer in "Mission of the Darians," I see how precarious the Alphan situation is. We don't always make noble choices when we're hungry, or we don't have a home, or when we're desperate. I remember the criticism of Space:1999 by Star Trek fans during the 1970s was that it wasn't optimistic enough; that the characters were too ready to draw guns or confront aliens with violence.

I wonder, however, if they didn't just miss the boat (or moonbase) with that criticism. Voyager, I submit, sort of proves just how ridiculous optimism is in that particular situation. Voyager didn't have the courage to live up to its premise. Space:1999 did.

GO APE! (with Marvel)

Thursday, April 24, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: Cloverfield (2008)

A radical and highly-entertaining re-invention of an old genre, Cloverfield is a twenty-first century "monster movie" (think Godzilla...) shot from street level. The film's central conceit is that Manhattan is attacked one lovely May evening by a giant monster from the sea (!) and that a cadre of twenty-something party goers - who happen to have a video camera on hand - "document" the attack and their escape attempts as best they can, while simultaneously recording their own hysteria and panic.

Thus the entire film is lensed from the ostensibly "on the fly" point-of-view of the video camera; a player in the events as much as the characters. So...if you've ever wondered what it must be like to live in Tokyo when Rodan or Godzilla make landfall and begin to stomp citizenry and destroy property, this movie is for you. No giant monster movie before has been vetted in this fashion, and this flashy, highly-imaginative perspective is actually more than enough to ignite new interest in the genre. The film certainly captured my fancy. It grabs a hold of you at the start and doesn't let go. Even when it's over, it lingers in the mind.

I adore and respect the Godzilla films (and Kong films, and Gamera films...) of old, but I also realize two things about these predominantly Japanese films. One: I'm from a generation that demanded less "effects" realism in my entertainment. And two: the trend in cinema history is irrevocably away from artificiality/theatricality towards naturalism/realism. The inherent fakeness of the monster suits in old Godzilla or Gamera films never bothered me a lick. In fact...I loved the costumes. They represent an artistry all their own, even if they weren't "realistic" in the purest sense. Plus, I always felt those films offered powerful and artistic sub-text (about the atomic age, about pollution, etc.). So their historical and aesthetic value, in my book, remains undisputed. Not everyone, however, feels that way. Those who didn't grow up with these monster mashes will look at them and laugh. You know you are.
You either "get" War of the Gargantuas, or you don't.

But - and at the risk of offending the purists - it is fair to state that Cloverfield corrects at least one aspect of the "old" monster movie that has always made it a widely ridiculed and under-appreciated form. And that aspect is this: the camera (third person camera, not first-person camera, as here...) is often positioned relatively high in the Toho films, so that as Godzilla (just for example) stomps through a gorgeous, carefully constructed miniature of Tokyo, our eyes correct and synthesize the image in terms of our human scope: we realize the buildings are miniatures (even if glorious miniatures...) and that the monster is a man waddling about in a suit. Of course, there are also low-angle shots to be found in Japanese monster films, but by an abundance, we're right there at torso level with the monster and that's the reason (not bad suits...) we don't quite believe what we're seeing. It's not so much the fault of anything so much as how our "eye" reads and sees these images.

I love the Godzilla vs. Other Monster smack downs - don't get me wrong - but what I'm trying to say is that there's a mental adjustment you must be willing to make to take them seriously. (It's akin to watching old Doctor Who or Blakes 7 - great stories, great actors - but you have to look past the fact you are looking at cardboard sets and floppy monsters...). Again, some viewers have practice with this increasingly lost skill; some don't.

Again - this commentary isn't meant to bash the "old," I'm a huge fan. Only to establish that Cloverfield, with its immediacy-provoking, first-person shaky cam and "street level" perspective, removes the remaining impediments to believing - with your own eyes - in a giant monster. Here, we catch glimpses of the monster from a distance, from street level (and from a helicopter aerial view). All of these shots - I might add - are rather impressive. The monster isn't merely huge, it's actually terrifying. The inevitable result: this is a scary movie. I hasten to add, I believe that this is what the giant monster movie has always strove for, but rarely achieved. I can think of two occasions, perhaps, where terror was achieved: King Kong (1933) when stop-motion animation was a new and unfamiliar form, and Godzilla: King of Monsters (1956), which in searing, atomic-laced, stark, black-and-white felt like a burning, grim testament to the real possibility of apocalypse.

So kudos to Cloverfield for updating the genre so well that it makes the idea of a giant monster pummeling New York not ludicrous, but frightening and seemingly immediate. You never "don't believe" in this movie, and that's actually a remarkable achievement. I do contrast this with the approach of Transformers, wherein characters didn't react consistently with the menace they were facing (giant robots). I mean, what's the difference between Cloverfield and the final assault of Transformers? In both situations - if you were an observer on the street - you would be terrified that giant things were knocking buildings down all around you. But where Transformers went for cheekiness and shmaltz, Cloverfield wallows in the Apocalypse mentality we all live with now, on a regular basis. Don't mistake it for hipster post/911-ism. I mean, this is the age not just of 9/11, but of Hurricane Katrina, and global warming. We're see the specter of food shortages, water shortages, and oil shortages all around. Greenland is melting, political candidates want to "totally obliterate" our enemies and stay in Iraq for "a 100 years." We're indisputably in one of those "end of day" modes usually reserved for the end of a millennium, not the beginning. Cloverfield strongly taps into this Zeitgeist by dramatizing how - in a heartbeat - normality can be shattered.

Visually, the film constantly reminds us of this idea (normalcy destroyed) with a brilliant technique: flash cuts and brief interludes of "old" footage that has been taped over to make room for events of the monster stomp. This taped-over footage, which we see glimpses of only periodically, shows us two lovers (Rob and Beth) waking up early one morning and frolicking, and later taking a trip together to Coney Island, riding the Ferris Wheel. The video of the monster - of the horror - then "overwrites" this more pleasant reality, just as the present always overwrites the past. Yet it is this conceit that makes the film more than just a chase through New York with monsters nipping at young adults' heels. This old "home movie" footage, in pointed contrast to the monster footage, is the human connection we need to the main characters. It is also - once more - the kind of thing that was wholly lacking in Transformers. The timing and events of a crisis (monster attacks...) doesn't exactly leave time for a whole lot of character development and meaningful conversation, but these periodic flashes of a life now lost resonate because they show us that these people are just like us. We understand what they stand to lose (and do lose.)

Matt Reeves, the film's director has done something rather amazing here: he's found a difficult but inventive conceit for a tired genre (the first-person camera perspective) and utilized it throughout the film without cheating. Not once. There's no movie bullshit, no jump-cuts - nothing - to compromise the vision, the belief that this is being recorded by a video camera. And in that framework - with the taped-over footage peeking into the monstrous present - he's even been able to add resonant layers to his would-be-shallow dramatis personae. It's a fine achievement, and Cloverfield is a very, very good genre film.

However, Cloverfield is not a great, deeply-layered horror classic the way that The Blair Witch Project is. I know that many fans will quibble with this assessment, but the biggest complaint I always hear about The Blair Witch Project from horror fans is that "you don't see anything," "you don't see the witch." Indeed. In The Blair Witch Project, the medium IS the message, and the film concerns three students who chase their tails, literally and metaphorically, and we never even know if they are facing a witch or a monster or their imaginations. They possess all these "devices" (camcorders, old-school film cameras) to see, and yet they are lost and see absolutely nothing. Then, they hide behind their comfortable camera viewfinders when they are too scared of "reality." By contrast, Cloverfield is a mass entertainment, and it obligingly provides audiences with the money shots everybody wants: you see the monsters in all their glory. You are not denied the pleasure of "seeing" the Evil Beasties and thus knowing "this is all real." I rather prefer the imaginative, artistic ambiguity of The Blair Witch Project in which you get no respite, no closure, no sense of "certainty." I believe with all my heart that The Blair Witch Project is much scarier, and much closer to the real human experience (in that we are often denied answers about the things which frighten us.)

Also, the main characters in Cloverfield are plainly and competently drawn in endearing and realistic terms (think Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween), yet the movie does paint them in a positive slant that is occasionally a bit much. They are innately and perhaps unrealistically heroic. Rob goes back to save Beth, when by all rights he should assume she is dead. Marlena saves the camera-man, Hud, from the leaping parasites in the sewers, when - again - in this situation, you might think about saving your skin. She didn't even know Hud a few hours before. This heroism is nice to see, but again, it's rather mainstream, speaking to the "finer" angels of human nature, even in catastrophes. Yet again I prefer the shades-of-gray characters in The Blair Witch Project. They got lost, had to stop to take a piss, argued, grumbled, laughed and cried and seemed more fully three-dimensional than the characters of Cloverfield. They still tried to help each other, but it wasn't "kumbaya."

Bottom line: Cloverfield is very, very good. The Blair Witch Project remains the better, more challenging, and more intriguing film of a similar type. Cloverfield is a little bit like The Blair Witch Project Made Palatable For Wide Audiences. There's nothing wrong with that, just that for all of its ingenuity, Cloverfield probably shouldn't be championed at the expense of an earlier film that pioneered the same approach and was inherently more daring and dangerous. I guess what I'm saying is that Cloverfield undeniably moves the monster movie forward a notch with its ultra-realism, but I'm not sure that it breaks any new ground in the horror genre (and there is - I submit - a distinction there). When the cinematic history of the 1990s-2000s is written, it is The Blair Witch Project that will be seen as the classic, the revolutionary; Cloverfield as a highly-accomplished and diverting footnote.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Three Years Blogging...

Tomorrow is the third anniversary of this blog! Yippee!!!

I'd like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has made this site a regular stop on their daily read, or even weekly read. I want to thank the readers who have stuck with me and my reflections on film and television through thick and thin (like last week's non-posting....sorry!) The blog has grown tremendously from 2005, and 2008 is on track to be the biggest year yet.

A lot has changed in three years. I'm a Daddy now, which I wasn't when I started. I've also written four books (and am on my fifth...) during the life of this blog. I've also produced my own no-budget drama, which began in 2006, and continues to this day. I've seen some posting categories come and go (anyone remember "guess the movie?"), but especially enjoyed the dialogues with you - the readers.

I thought I would take a stroll down memory lane today, in light of the birthday. This is how the blog began, on April 23, 2005:

Hello everybody, welcome to my blog. And to start us off, I quote the illustrious Admiral James Stockdale: "Who am I? Why am I here?" Good questions...My name is John Muir. and I'm a published author who writes under the name John Kenneth Muir, not because I'm pretentious or anything (though I am...) but because - for some reason - there are a lot of writers out there named John Muir. Specifically, there's the great American naturalist from the last century, and also a fellow who writes about fixing Volkswagens. Others too, I think. In the age of the Internet, I realized I had to distinguish myself a little for Google, Yahoo, Lycos, Ask Jeeves and other search engines, so for the record, I'm the John Muir (the John Kenneth Muir...) who writes about film and television for a living . And I know nothing about Volkswagens, so don't ask...

Looking back over the three years of the blog, the two postings that have generated the most controversy and discussion are my negative reviews of the new Battlestar Galactica (called "Making Lemonade") from June 16, 2005 and my review of a first season episode of Ghost Whisperer, from November 12, 2005. I have high hopes my recent review of Transformers will join this very select club of despised reviews. Let me remind you of some of the comments, for instance, I received on the Ghost Whisperer piece:

"What are you talking about. Ghost whisperer is the best. You are so negative. Whatever, everybody has their own opinion and yours is wrong!!!!"

"Ghost whisperer is brilliant. You dont know what you are on about and you dont know what good tv is. I know what you think you wrote about it is funny but it isnt!!!!!!"

"So saaaaaaaadddddddddd I am late for this. The guy who wrote about it is basic, shallow, ridicolous and the type of guy who must surely have two frogos hopping inside his head. If you do not believe in ghosts or in the capacity of communicating with the dead..ok. But Please!! A little respect!!!! Well, I really do not know why to waste my time in someone like you... Surely the only series you like are Beavis and Butthead or maybe those basic and disgusting rockers from MTV."

"Even though I am a huge fan of Ghost Whisperer, I couldn't help laughing my ass off at your blog.I mean.It's so true in so many ways, yet, it's so strangly addicting."

"I just read your comments on the show Ghost Whisperer and even if I have read stupid comments before from other idiots like yourself, you have won the prize. Your are clearly the definition of a true ASS !!!"

"Ah, personal attacks from fans of Ghost Whisperer.Frankly, I'm amazed they can type, let alone figure out how to use the Internet!Keep on going, Muir!!!

"Ghost whisperer is the best. If you don't like it don't watch it."

"Touched by An Angel was one of the greatest shows ever produced for TV!! Ghost Whisperer is right up their in the same category! What wrong would you rather have our children watch people killing each other and a other such negative shows? You got it wrong and need to be a big enough person to admit it!"

"Everyone is entitled to their opinion but I don't think you gave ghost whisperer a chance. It is a really good show and I agree I would rather our children watch shows like ghost whisperer instead of all the sex, foul language and gorey shows that are on now. I think Jennifer Love Hewitt has real winner with this show."

After re-reading some of these comments, I'm not worried so much about the state of entertainment in our culture, but the state of spelling and punctuation. Note to these parents: turn off Ghost Whisperer and teach yourselves how to spell! (Was that elitist?)

A special delight for me on the blog has been how our discussions of film and television have led into discussions of bigger life issues. Who knew that a review of Veronica Mars would lead to a discussion of feminism (and post-feminism), as it did here? Or that a thought from my mentor -- the late Johnny Byrne -- on political correctness would ignite a debate on that subject (as seen here). Personally, I think this is all way too cool.

One of my favorite features on the blog came in 2007 (just about a year ago, I think) when readers submitted posts about their favorite examples of pop art. We saw those fascinating posts from readers here, here, here and here.

Some of my favorite reviews over the years aren't the ones with the most comments. Looking back, I feel especially good about my reviews for Silent Hill, Soylent Green, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Hostel, and Eyes Wide Shut. In terms of toys, I've covered 75 "retro" toys in three years. In terms of cult video efforts: 49 TV series. Much more to come on both fronts.

The blog has my name on it, but it's you -- the readers who comment and the people who visit -- who make it so much fun, even after 942 posts and thirty-six months. Thanks guys and gals. Drop me a line in the comments section below and let me know your favorite (or most infamous...) post here on the blog. Cuz you don't want two "Frogos" hopping around in my head, do you?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: Transformers (2007)

I learned something important about myself while watching this movie. I really am an elitist. And now - post Transformers - proud of it.

It is pure foolishness to go into a film like Transformers expecting art, so my expectations were relatively modest: I just wanted to have a good time, and see some exciting action scenes. That's why Michael Bay films exist in the first place, isn't it? I feel this was reasonable expectation: a little excitement, a lot of fine stunt work. No need to be a snob about it. Who doesn't enjoy a little carnage candy from time to time? And besides, respected film critics (some of whom I know personally...), -- as well as close friends of mine -- had relatively positive things to say about the film.

Which makes me suspect that either those people have temporarily lost their minds, or I seriously need a lobotomy so I can join the club. Because any way you slice it, Transformers is a two-hour insult to the intelligence and especially the genre of sci-fi.

At fifteen minutes, I wanted to turn the thing off, and watch a smarter, say, Bay's Armageddon (1998). At a half hour (a seeming eternity...), I wanted to be anywhere - doing anything - besides watching the film. By the time the movie was over at 143 minutes, I was drained, spiritually exhausted from the herculean effort of paying attention to a plot that was so flimsy, so mechanical, so utterly lacking in human value and simple entertainment that it made me yearn longingly for the next episode of Ghost Whisperer. At the end of this bloody debacle, Kathryn turned to me and said, "let me quote Howard Margolin here: that was feces."

I never thought I'd say this anywhere, but this is a movie that makes the 1998 Godzilla look good by comparison. This is a film that makes Independence Day appear a paragon of intelligence, clever plotting and wit. Transformers is a movie so corrupted by blatant stupidity and fourth-grade potty humor that it makes me yearn for the subtlety and relative maturity of, for example, Lost in Space (1998). It's Underworld-bad. It's Uwe Boll bad. It's a steaming cinematic turd-pile: a stultifying, de-humanizing, seemingly-endless, self-aggrandizing paean to clanking metal and egregious product-placement (Burger King, GM, etc.) Since the whole bloody thing is based on a "product" (a popular toy line of the eighties from Hasbro), perhaps this is par for the course. But I've always preferred movies so inventive, so exciting, so imaginative that they've spawned toys, not toys that spawned movies. I guess I'm in the minority. Again, mea culpa. I'll gladly cop to that.

The biggest problem with Transformers is that - substance wise - it is actually much, much less than-"meets the eye," to coin a phrase. It throws a multitude of (bad) ideas at the screen, a sort of "kitchen sink" strategy; one no doubt carefully focus-group and poll tested, I would wager, to titillate and distract the widest possible demographic of popcorn-chomping masses. Think bread and circuses here...

The overarching strategy, I believe, is that the sheer volume and noise of all those hackneyed story elements smacking the silver screen would -- hopefully -- prevent you from thinking much about the ridiculous plot or from asking questions about the narrative. First it's a war movie set in the Middle East (topical, no?). Then it's a coming-of-age teen sex comedy (quick, get a load of Megan Fox's painted-on stripper abs while she checks under the hood of the car!) Then it's an E.T.-style schmaltzathon about a boy's friendship with a camaro-cum-robot called "Bumblebee." Then it's a hunt for a "cube," the film's McGuffin,. Then it's a conspiracy film about a secret government project, "Sector 7." And then it climaxes with platitudes about the "special" and worthwhile nature of human beings, so you can leave the theater feeling proud - proud - of yourself and your species. We're special.

Special Ed, perhaps, if the people in this film are any barometer of average human intelligence.

Never mind that you just endured over two hours of grinding metal robots and stupid, interchangeable humans killing each other, extreme destruction of property (blowed up real good!!!), offensive racial stereotypes masquerading as humor (Bernie Mac and Anthony Anderson - j'accuse), and the worst overacting from John Turturro in a Hollywood release in years. Just so long as you don't ask questions, and at the end, you feel uplifted.

Cuz that's what bread and circuses are for. This is a movie that believes - like so much of corporate Hollywood these days - more is always more, bigger is always better, and louder is always preferable. And Transformers relentlessly keeps piling on the noise and destruction, like a multi-car wreck sprawled across the highway. Eventually, you just succumb to the sheer weight piled upon your senses and give over. Kind of like a cinematic that beats you into submission and then asks you to feel good about the experience afterwards.

Here are a few questions I would like to direct at the incoherent narrative (which is so filled with plot holes you could drive Optimus Prime's truck through some of them). Why does the film's McGuffin, "the All Spark" only seem to create evil life? I thought - according to the awkward exposition - that the nature of created life would depend on who controls it. Instead, whenever the thing is "energized," it creates mean little robots. It's not a Decepticon device, is it? Secondly, how come characters (Megan Fox's character, for one) don't register shock or surprise the first time that they see a giant robot lumbering towards them? But then, later, some of the very same characters all gasp at the sight of the captured Megatron --- once they already know giant robots exist and are here on Earth?

Here's another good question: How does Megatron stay frozen under Hoover Dam when he's not in a hermetically-sealed chamber and we plainly see human scientists walking all around him? So let me get this straight:.humans (who are much smaller organisms) aren't frozen in this environment, but the giant robot is? Why, also, do the robots always feel the need to announce each other by name when they are about to engage in mortal combat. "Optimus Prime, I will destroy you!" "Megatron!" etc. Based on this facet of the film, I eagerly await the officially licensed Transformers drinking game.

I have tried - with patience and logic - to pin a few people down about why this movie is so good in their eyes. One answer I keep getting is that Peter Cullen did the voice of Optimus Prime in the 1980s and it's cool he got to do it again for the 2007 movie. Well sure. Okay. That is cool! Neat. Warms the cockles, really. Next?

Then they say, "the special effects were great." Yes. Indeed. The giant robots are very cool to look at. And the special effects are impressive.

For about five minutes. Again, this movie lasts 143 of 'em.

After that, I hear: "well I grew up with the Transformers in the 1980s, so it's about nostalgia." I appreciate nostalgia; one could argue, actually, that this blog is a testament to nostalgia. What baffles me, however, is that these are the self-same people who grew up with Godzilla, Planet of the Apes, Halloween, The Omen, Battlestar Galactica Scooby Doo, and other older franchises, but they don't feel nostalgia for the modern interpretations of those franchises. In fact, they give those modern adaptations no quarter, no mercy. So why fall for something as loud and empty-headed as Transformers? Shit, I'd even take Burton's Planet of the Apes over this excrement (and I despise that film with a passion).

Okay, okay. Bottom line: is this movie exciting? That was my expectation going in - an exciting time - so even if the movie was stupid, did it get my heart pumping faster?

Well, er, no. Except, perhaps, in righteous outrage. By my reckoning, cinematic excitement generates from the fact that you know and like the characters in jeopardy. So that at the moment when the car chase or the final battle arrives, you care so much about those people that you are emotionally, deeply engaged, concerned for their welfare, even when you shouldn't be because you've seen a million movies before. We all know that Luke Skywalker will win the day, that James Bond will survive for the next film and so on...but because we care about those characters and their universes, we suspend disbelief and find ourselves involved. Is there one character in Transformers we actually care about? Just one? I submit there is not.

Again, don't give me the "this is an action movie" not a character piece argument. I love the Die Hard movies...because John McClane is a personality we care about, and there is something human at stake when he goes head to head with terrorists. Ditto the amazing and inventive Bourne movies. Action movies work not merely because of the stunts, but because of the people - the personalities - fronting the stunts. Transformers' human beings are more pre-programmed, more predictable and more robotic than the titular mechanisms. The officious "government" agent. The bad girl (juvenile record) with a good heart who dresses like a pole dancer. The awkward kid with the pumping heart of a hero. The sassy comic-relief black dude. The cutesie, bickering but loving parents. Is any character in the film more than the sum of a cliche, maybe two?

And that's the most important reason why this movie is a travesty: it understands robots poorly, but it understands human beings even less so. The authors of the unfortunate screenplay, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, are doing Star Trek next. I had read a lot of interviews with them before seeing Transformers and felt very confident in their skills. Now...not so much.

If Star Trek proves to be this dumb and vapid, I shall become enormously depressed...and - honestly - may never recover. Movies - especially movies in the imaginative terrain of the sci-fi genre - carry a unique duty, in my estimation, a responsibility to show and tell us things that are challenging, different or new. They can exist in the terrain of action, but they must also speak to the human mind and the human soul (like Alien, Terminator, Planet of the Apes, The Matrix, Star Trek).

Transformers doesn't do that. It doesn't engage on any human level. It's a loud, gimmicky steam-roller that tramples over the intelligence of an audience. It's not a good action flick, it's not a good science fiction movie, and the film's clockwork, manipulative heart speaks volumes about the movie industry today. And the much ballyhooed action sequences? There isn't one in the film that matches the highway chase set-piece in The Matrix Reloaded. Not one.

is a grotesque and cynical dollar-sucker. Even if you like the TV show. Even if you like fighting robots. Even if you've never seen a movie before. Even if you're bored. Even if you have half-a-brain. Even if you watch it with one eye open. Even if you watch it on drugs. Even if you watch it in your sleep.

Feces indeed. I haven't hated a movie this much in years.