An ill wind is blowing. You can read it in the blogosphere, you can see it on TV, you can feel it wafting out from Studio City, CA. It's the old expectations game, and never has it been played harder or stronger than by Paramount last weekend with their G.I. Joe circus act. But really, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was the same deal. So let's get into it, the arguments the powerful use to take advantage of the easily manipulated.
What do you expect? It's based on a cartooon / toy / comic book!
There isn't another place besides the cinema this argument occurs. What did you expect from your Ford Taurus? Working anti-lock brakes? What did you expect from your fire alarm? A beeping noise before you were consumed in flame? And surely you didn't expect us to serve you a meal that didn't contain food poisoning? Sheesh, look at you with the crazy expectations over there.
I'll let you in on my idealistic method: You should ALWAYS expect a good movie. Why? Because professionals are being paid to bring you a product. This isn't the sixth grade rendering of The Fiddler on the Roof. These guys have lighting. They are given food on set. They have writers and actors and guys with giant microphones. They have a director, sometimes two, and a budget. Then, after they are done filming, they often have editing equipment. Afterward, the marketing department takes over. Here's what I'm getting at, though -- regardless of the source material you're well within your rights to expect:
1. A coherent story: Not simply loud noises and bright flashes. No, an actual narrative with twists, turns, and instances of enlightenment. This can occur regardless of the type of film.
2. Jokes OR romance OR drama: Depending on the genre, you should expect to be moved in some way. Great filmmakers evoke a reaction. Poor ones lash out and complain "this is all based upon a toy."
3. Good acting: Again, we are seeing what should be the best of the best. No one would stand for an Olympian who could only run 180 meters of the 200 meter dash. Being good at your craft should be a prerequisite to surviving in the industry, not an option if you're feeling up to it.
4. A smidge of innovation, a dollop of homage, a moment of clarity: Yes, we are owed this. Why? Because we have taken life's most precious currency, time, and life's third most precious currency, cash money, and given it over to G.I. Joe. For those two hours and 10 bucks we have placed our sacred trust in the people involved. For those same people to turn around and say ,"What did you expect?" is pure hatred. It's abuse. And you shouldn't stand for it. Because you're smarter and stronger than that. You're owed more from your entertainment, whether you use it for escape or engagement. This is not a memo. It's a mission statement. The human head weighs eight pounds. Blah, I'm rambling. Sorry, I'll get back on track.
Are we to teach our children that some special effects and girls in tight suits a movie makes? Again, I dismiss this argument. We should demand excellence, so long as we're dealing with professionals.
The truth is you can make a good to great movie out of any source material. Comic books are simply another medium that can be adapted effectively if everyone involved is held to a high standard. Same goes with toys. I don't CARE that a great story hasn't been told before involving Optimus Prime and Megatron (though, oddly, some have actually) -- it's then your job, Mr. Director, to tell it. Where would we be if this notion of "check your brain at the door and you'll be fine" pervaded other parts of our society?
Did you study hard in school? No? Oh well, no problem, people know brain surgery is hard!
Landing on the moon:
The moon is so far! Let's use waaaay less math and just fly to Japan or something instead.
Sorry bud, we're going to go with pop-up novels from here on out. People have checked their brains. Where, you ask? Oh, at the door.
My point is this. Nothing good ever came from shooting for the middle. Don't allow people to foist their low expectations on you. Great art AND great entertainment (and sure, there's a difference) can come from unlikely sources. We don't have to make excuses for the people who squander hundreds of millions of dollars to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Consider the case of Star Trek vs. G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra. Both were pulp entertainment, both were made by Paramount, but one made you care about the characters. And oh yeah, Star Trek was made for a full $25 million less. The sad fact is G.I. Joe was a bloated production, exhibiting the worst excesses of our society, and the best the defenders of the film can come up with is:
Don't take it so seriously. It's a cartoon. Who cares? Big, Dumb, Fun.
Absolute hogwash. A flim-flam scam used to temper your expectations and do nothing less than steal from you. You're owed better. Yes, the popcorn film is alive and well (Iron Man, The Hangover, Star Trek, Monsters vs. Aliens, etc., etc., etc.) -- but when a film isn't well done it deserves our derision and scorn. That's the deal. That's the price writers, filmmakers, and actors pay for living a life that many would want.
The craziest part is our expectations for people who make 1/100th of what Michael Bay and Steven Sommers do per film are sky high. Would we accept a teacher saying "What did you expect? Educating kids is too hard!" No, absolutely not, no way, no how. Yet Sommers, a man who has made good movies prior, finds it in his heart to dismiss those who would want anything resembling quality from him. Think of the gall that must take, to cash a check for millions of dollars and still believe you are above all forms of reproach.
However, it's not really a problem of specific directors, but rather a cultural divide that must be bridged. Simply put, let's quit lowering expectations. Shoot for the stars. Why not demand something better? "Something better" is the spirit nations and governments are founded upon. "Something better" is where human rights came from. "What did you expect?" is the way of cynicism and laziness ... and as Roland Emmerich is planning on ending the world soon we haven't a moment to waste on rewarding the mediocre.