I still remember watching the first Transformers movie. It was in a packed theater, one of those screenings put on by radio stations. This usually results in an audience skewed towards the station’s demographic rather than one composed of movie fans but in this instance, a quick look up and down the aisle revealed an audience packed with Transformers geeks. Optimus Prime t-shirts were in heavy evidence along with the usual geek accoutrements present at any special nerd-friendly event. And when the movie played, there was an audible reaction. They laughed at all the obscure, inside jokes. They applauded in all the right moments. The first time Optimus Prime rolled on screen there was a gasp, a ripple of emotion which seemed close to collapsing into tears as thirty year old men relived that moment when as a kid, Optimus Prime died on screen and left them there all alone.
Shortly after that screening Transformers debuted to mainstream audiences and powered by incomprehensible special effects it became huge. The film transcended any and all possible boundaries of fandom to become something loved not just by fanboys, but by everyone who likes to buy a ticket for spectacle.
Enter Transformers 2, an inferior film by any measure yet one, inexplicably loved by audiences while utterly loathed by nearly every type of film critic. It’s on it’s way to becoming the second biggest film of all time and, those who reviewed and hated it are looking for scapegoats. How to explain this impossible success? How to explain the determination of audiences to like something which is, so obviously, a pile of dreck? Never before has the divide between audience and critic been bigger, and that’s left us all looking for answers. The one landed on most frequently by pundits is this one, espoused by Roger Ebert: “It has little to no appeal for non-fanboy or female audiences.” The implication here is that the film made $60 million dollars purely on the money eagerly handed over by nerds who, of course, will watch anything featuring robots without discrimination.
I beg to differ.
Watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was a very different experience from watching Transformers. The audience, was, even before the screening started, obviously of a different kind. Missing were the Optimus Prime t-shirts, the children forced by their fathers to carry into the theater with them Hasbro toys. As the screening’s sponsors stood up before them, attempting to give out free t-shirts they were greeted with mocking and a refusal to cooperate even with the most basic tenants of pre-movie etiquette. The audience was raucus, disinterested, the theater going equivalent of out of towners who have just discovered a free, all you can eat buffet.
When the movie started their mood changed from disinterest to glassy-eyed rapture. They sat as if lost in some bad, dystopian future where they were all being brainwashed by Michael Bay’s images. There was no sound, no reaction as things on the screen exploded, not until Megan Fox appeared on screen with her bouncing bosom, at which point the man in front of me leaned over to his friend and shouted “I’d hit it!” These were not the nerds I was looking for.
Anecdotal evidence from a single screening is of course, meaningless. Or is it? Perhaps it represents this film’s real audience, the average joe schmo who comes home from a hard day at the job and wants to go do something where he won’t have to talk to his wife. And while people are walking out of theaters in droves and praising the film in large numbers, I submit that those aren’t fanboys. Just look around the blogosphere.
Real fanboys, real geeks, the real Transformers faithful are as against the film as virulently as the much admired Roger Ebert. Geek poster boy Harry Knowles called the film, “hurtful and repugnant”, “an insult”. A review posted on the comic fan website Comic Book Movie calls it “60% crap”. James O’Ehley of the SciFi Movie Page says the action is “emotionally uninvolving” and as so many have calls the special effects “noise”. And then of course there’s me, a geek, a nerd, a dork, and a Transformers fan since my 80s-fed childhood. I, who gave the first Transformers a 4.5/5 and declared it one of the best films of the year, alongside movies like The Namesake and No Country For Old Men. What of Revenge of the Fallen? Please don’t make me watch it again. I’m not sure I could take it.
Even among the most hardcore fans Revenge of the Fallen is being recognized for what it is. On TFW resides, arguably the most devoted group of transformers supporters in existence. If you’re going to find the blinded fanboy Ebert referenced, then you’ll find him here. Or maybe not. An attempt by the website to organize fans in some sort of campaign against the aforementioned Roger Ebert’s scathing review of the film instead quickly devolved into a fight in which at least half of their readers professed a dislike of ROTF and support for Ebert, while the other half stood back and shouted at them using large fonts. When even the most ferocious fanboys can’t come together and agree to defend the movie, it’s status as beloved bread and circuses is clearly not their doing.
Sometimes there’s a disconnect between the old guard critics and the geek, nerd, blogger world. When that happens it’s usually self-evident in the review scores. For instance geeks and online bloggers seemed to embrace Watchmen while traditional film critics panned. The fanboys praised it while critics trashed it. It happens. In this case, I submit that this disconnect doesn’t exist. We’re all in this together Roger. The snobs, the nerds, the film experts and the movie bloggers. Seriously we all get it. Transformer 2 sucks.
Yet the movie’s box office numbers persist, as does its overwhelming popularity in polls conducted on websites all around the web. Who are these defenders? These threateners? I don’t know, but I know they’re not geeks, they’re not nerds, and they’re mostly not really Transformers fans. Blame us for the Star Wars prequels. Blame us for what’s happened to X-Men. But this one, this one’s not on us.