"I think they reviewed the wrong movie. They just don't understand the movie and its audience. It's silly fun. I am convinced that they are born with the anti-fun gene. The reviews are just so vicious. A lot of them are more personal than anything else."
So said director Michael Bay last month, just as his new film Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen opened to massive box office and blistering reviews, many of them nasty. When Roger Ebert says that viewing your film was "a horrible experience," you can understand Bay's reaction.
I'll be upfront—I've got mixed feelings about Bay's work. I liked Bad Boys and admired The Rock and found myself engaged by The Island. I enjoyed the first Transformers. Armageddon, not so much. Beyond responding to the work alone, I've had acquaintances who have been part of Bay's films ... less than enjoyably.
And yet, he is the master of a specific style of film-making, often known as the Popcorn movie ... colorful, action-oriented, heavy on big action sequences while light on plausibility and character... and LOUD. I know a little about this process, and I'm continually impressed by Bay's managerial skills, if nothing else. (With some sci-fi movies and television, the miracle isn't that they're good ... the miracle is that they're finished.)
And anyone who can claim directorship of the "Got Milk: Aaron Burr" commercial ... well, that director has talent.
The quote suggests that Bay is baffled and stung.
Given the staggering financial return for Fallen, why would Bay care about reviews? Because he's human and he works in a field that is entirely subjective. If anyone thinks that Fallen had a guaranteed box office because of its title or big robot battle moments or Megan Fox, I refer them to Watchmen or Land of the Lost ... two highly-touted sci-fi projects that, shall we say, failed to live up to expectations.
You don't have to bite it at the box office to be stung by harsh words.
One common school of thought is that no one is allowed to criticize a film, a television episode, a novel or a building, unless one has directed, produced, written or designed same.
Certainly this is the first response of any director, producer, writer or architect on the receiving end of a bad review. Because all of us want our work to not only make money and be seen by all of humanity, we want it to be loved.
There are some lucky artists who have combined commercial and critical success. Look at Michael Chabon's best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay. Slightly closer to the heart of sci-fi there is Dan Simmons Hyperion Cantos, or almost any work by Neil Gaiman.
There are others who will be acclaimed, but never best-selling, hoping for that brief moment of notice, as witness the recent New York Times Magazine article on the wonderful, unknown-outside-the-sci-fi world author Jack Vance.
Most of us will fall into a third category ... undersold, little seen, never acclaimed.
The one thing all classes have in common is that we blame reviewers.
They are handy targets, after all.
Candidates don't have to pass a board to qualify as a reviewer in some formal way, any more than you have to hold an advanced cinema degree to qualify as a film-maker: you only have to convince someone to hire you ... once. And perform sufficiently to convince someone to keep hiring you.
And once hired ... once a reviewer has a platform, whether it's a national magazine or a television show or a well-known blog ... the fun begins.
The reviewer screens a new film or episode, or reads a book in galleys, and publishes a response in close to real time. His or her primary task is to tell you, the potential customer, whether or not this new piece of sci-fi is worth your time and money.
Reviewers can make a project. Recent examples from mainstream film-making include Slumdog Millionaire and Little Miss Sunshine.
Reviewers can destroy a project.
Now, this power isn't ultimate. Some projects are reviewer-proof. Bad notices could not and did not keep people from standing in line to see Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. (They certainly didn't keep me away.)
And naturally there are worthy-yet-obscure projects touted by reviewers that simply fail to connect with audiences. It was a long time ago, but I have clear memories that Bladerunner was considered a box office failure in spite of a ton of admiring reviews.)
A reviewer's power fades over time. Word of mouth ultimately triumphs. For example, Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land was published in 1961 to a couple of nasty reviews in major publications—this at a time when a genre sci-fi personality like Heinlein would rarely be noticed by the New York Times ... and when a bad NYT review could kill your book dead.
Stranger was, in fact, wounded. It sold poorly in hardcover, and slowly in paperback for several years, until word of mouth rendered the permanent review.
Nevertheless, reviewers set the tone, open the argument. (Reviewers are different from critics, who take a long view ... and more time. They are more concerned with issues such as relevance, hidden meaning. A critical appreciation—or lack thereof—of the Michael Bay oevre is still some years off.)
In looking at a film-maker like Bay, and a popcorn project like Revenge of the Fallen, they must be strongly tempted to take on the big dog, to proclaim their independence ...by being negative, and sometimes mean.
This is not a plea for sympathy for Michael Bay. The one lesson any writer, director, producer needs to learn is that you can't change reviews by complaining about them. (It's also possible that Bay was engaged in a bit of public relations theater, but one would have to be truly cynical to believe that.)
To hammer Revenge of the Fallen for being light on character and plausibility and the other attributes of "serious" film-making is like slamming a ride like Space Mountain for its lack of astronomical data.
To be rude is just unnecessary.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is a terrific Popcorn Project. Does anyone care that at one point Indiana Jones is seen on the exterior of a submerging submarine ... and later goes safely ashore an untold distance away? How did he survive? Did we care?
I'm not saying reviewers should go easy on Popcorn Projects. They should just remember what makes popcorn tasty ... or stale.
Michael Cassutt has been known to criticize, but most of his working life is devoted to composing short fiction (for Asimov's SF), articles (for Air & Space magazine), television scripts (The Dead Zone), novels (Missing Man) and even video games (Singularity). He has suffered some nasty reviews and hopes to get over them one of these years.