Piling on the Transformers series would make me the Transformers series of pop culture commentators. There's no reason to be the billionth person to dive on that pile, and if I decide to do it anyway, I'll be met with the standard rebuttal: "This isn't meant to be Shakespeare, old man! Climb down out of your ivory tower and allow yourself to enjoy some simple, dumb fun, Poindexter!"
But you have to hear me out, here. Transformers 3 (aka Transformers: Dark of the Moon) was 2011's Movie of the Year. Not the best movie, but certainly the most important.
You have to understand that if you're in the business of selling entertainment, the one thing you hate is being held hostage by erratic, egotistical creative types. You don't want the success of your movie to hinge on whether Will Smith is willing to star, or on some writer sobering up long enough to write you a groundbreaking script. No, you want to be able to turn out movies without those people, to assemble and distribute them as reliably as manufacturing toasters.
So the logical goal is to build a movie-making process that renders moot the actors and writers and the volatile process of birthing original ideas, replacing it all with an assembly line of already-established properties can be made and remade endlessly, even swapping out the stars without skipping a beat. The only flaw in that system is that it's expensive -- it costs money to buy the rights to a superhero or a toy line, pile on CGI and fill the producer's swimming pool with cocaine. But you can offset the budget with product placement and snack food tie-in promotions and merchandising dollars.
Transformers 3 is the result of that assembly line working to perfection: Each film in the series makes more money than the last (the first film made $709 million worldwide; the second made $836 million; the third, $1.12 billion). Hollywood has, with this franchise, finally punched in an Infinite Money cheat code. Hooray! And all they had to do was combine everything you've been complaining about in movies for the last 10 years!
Let's run it down:
A. Forget about unoriginality; this bastard is the sequel of a sequel based on a cartoon based on an American toy line based on a different Japanese toy line;
B. It's full of gleaming, detailed, yet supremely artificial CGI effects that are dazzling but that do not for one millisecond look like a real world that you could immerse yourself in;
C. It has a slapdash, zero-effort screenplay that abandons logic and story structure in favor of an action sequence delivery system;
D. It has a huge budget;
E. It's not just full of product placement, but seems to exist only as a vessel for it (the series builds parts of the plot around which car brands were willing to pay the most);
F. It doesn't have any kind of charismatic star at its core -- the lead could have been replaced with the most handsome member of your high school drama class and not a single ticket sale would have been lost. The CGI robots are the stars.
This was the logical end point, what the system had been evolving toward for the last 100 years. They'll eventually get to where they can eliminate all of the risk that creativity brings to the process by simply drawing from the same pool of characters and franchises that have been pre-approved by audiences and giving them a new CGI polish. Then it's just sequel, sequel, sequel, reboot, an automated system that will stamp them out every couple of months.
I have never seen one full episode of this show. And I can't stop talking about it.
Specifically, I can't stop talking about how I don't watch it and joking about how shitty the show is, and how shitty the cast members are and how shitty their fans must be. When I went home for Christmas last year, we spent hours around the table talking about Jersey Shore. I bet that, combined, the people at the table hadn't seen three episodes total.
I edit Cracked articles for a living. In the past two years I have edited probably three dozen Jersey Shore jokes and deleted another hundred from article drafts. I'm guessing very few of those writers watch the show, either.
That is, of course, the point of Jersey Shore. We need Snooki, and the Situation, and Stinky, and Fat Joey (OK, I only know two of their names) to perfectly define for us in stark detail exactly what kind of humans we don't want to be: shallow, stupid, promiscuous, arrogant, lazy, devoid of useful skills. "Look at them! Go stand in the spotlight, Snooki, so everybody can see how much you suck. No, stay there, we're going to talk endlessly about your suckiness as if we're the only ones who have figured it out."
A society dies without villains -- we think of our life as a story, and a story doesn't make sense without a bad guy. The Jersey Shore cast members are the highest grade of villain -- the kind who are objectively repulsive, yet have enormous popular support from ... somebody. Enough that the Situation made $5 million last year and Snooki became a New York Times best-selling author. So we get to first revel in how much better we are than the shrieking, drunken Snooki, and then congratulate ourselves a second time for being better than the millions of adoring, approving fans that we imagine Snooki must have (but that we have never actually met).
And make no mistake; everyone involved knows exactly what they're doing. MTV knows, the producers know, the cast knows. That's why they're always trying to top themselves ("OMG, this time Snooki TOOK OFF HER PANTIES AT THE DANCE and then VOMITED ON HER PANTIES!").I mean, you know this isn't a hidden camera situation, right? When Snooki danced and passed out and showed everyone her vagina, she did it in front of a camera crew, and a sound guy, and a director, and other people holding equipment. She knows she's the star of a TV show, and that the only thing standing between her and having to get a real job is acting in a way that society finds shockingly inappropriate. Ann Coulter knows the same thing. So does Charlie Sheen. So do the Kardashians.
To this day, I can't tell if the public in general knows this and just pretends not to know it (because, like a placebo, the benefit derived from a Snooki vanishes as soon as we understand it) or if it's one of those shared fictions that keeps society from imploding, the way we don't think about the work conditions at the factory where they made our iPhone. I guess it doesn't matter. All I know is that in periods of tremendous economic, political and social upheaval, we depend on our Snookis more than ever. They are the real heroes.
The following is horrifying, if you think about it: A poll this year showed that one in four teenage girls thinks she'll be famous when she grows up.
Let's do the math. There were about 15 million teenage girls in the USA at the moment they answered that question. Within that group is a minority, let's say 20 percent, who have enough talent to earn encouragement and compliments from friends, family and strangers. Each of them has grown up believing her talent is "one in a million," rather than "one in five." Then you have another 5 percent who have no talent and are just delusional.
Among those 3.75 million girls is a tiny handful who actually have the unique combination of talent, charisma and physical beauty to become a celebrity in some capacity. A tiny handful of others will achieve fame in the purely accidental reality TV Snooki way. All told, my scientific calculations show that for every one teenage girl who goes on to become famous, there are 100,000 who fully thought they would be, but will have their hopes dashed.
This terrifyingly unrealistic view of fame has created a whole new class of public figure, the "Let's make fun of this laughably untalented person because she had the audacity to think she deserved fame" celebrity. These are random members of the untalented 100,000 who we will drag in front of the spotlight and humiliate in front of millions -- the hilariously bad contestants in the early stages of American Idol are the most prominent examples of this.
And then you have Rebecca Black.
It turns out there are companies now that cater to the aspiring fame monsters of the world and their parents. Rebecca Black's mother, for instance, paid $4,000 to Ark Music Factory to make a pop video starring her 13-year-old. This probably happens every day, and YouTube is full of bland and generic performances from autotuned teens, most stuck at fewer than 1,000 views.
But whatever paint-by-numbers process this label uses to produce these songs has somehow, in the case of Rebecca Black, created something amazing. And profoundly terrifying.
To call the lyrics of "Friday" shallow or mindless would miss the point -- most pop music can be described that way. No, hearing this child enthusiastically celebrate in song the choice of which car seat she will occupy for the five-minute commute to school ... it's something different. Something dark and cruel and knowing.
"Friday" digs in its claws and rips the top off your skull like an ape pulling apart an orange, exposing your tender mind to the cold truth of the universe: that all of our life decisions are exactly this vapid and meaningless, a tragically oblivious tune we all hum on our way to the grave. "Friday" is nothing more than death holding up a mirror and saying, "This is you, as viewed through the eyes of eternity. Do you see?"
"DO YOU SEE?"
We watched that video 166 million times on YouTube (eventually a dispute between Black and Ark Music would result in her getting it taken down -- the version above was uploaded to her channel later). That's more views than any but a few of the biggest hits from pop superstars. In other words, the Internet found the act of pointing and laughing at this middle school kid more compelling than the entire collective body of music made by all of mankind's geniuses throughout history.
None of this is Black's fault, obviously. She was 13. She didn't write the song. She was told by everyone around her she was really good at singing and so she did the ambitious thing: she recorded a tune. She took what she thought was an opportunity to get a career started. For her efforts she would get interviewed on TV shows and get death threats and eventually drop out of school.
We hope you learn your lesson, Rebecca Black. And when you do, let us know what that lesson is, because we have no fucking idea.
Hey, video game industry, what are you going to do when you can't make any more meaningful advances in graphics? I've been asking you this for like seven years now, because we're pretty much there. The next generation of game hardware will be all about taking us through that last 1 percent of photorealism, and I have to tell you, it's a gap that's not worth filling.
Remember, you need to keep at least a little bit of uncanny valley in your video games. I need to still feel good about shooting these dudes on the screen. I want the enemy soldiers to look like real video game people, not real people people. I don't want to look into the face of a victim and see their hopes and dreams die, the light going out of their eyes as they realize they will never again hug their wife and kids on Christmas. So, yeah, you can pretty much stop where you are.
You know this already -- that's why we're still playing our 6-year-old Xbox 360s with no end in sight, when video game consoles used to only last five years (the SNES came out in 1991 and the N64 in 1996; the PlayStation debuted in 1995, the PlayStation 2 in 2000). So what are you going to do to take things to the next level?
Well, video game industry, I want to introduce you to a little group of people I like to call writers. With Hollywood trying hard to transition to a model where movie scripts can be written by a committee involving the star, the marketing team and the special effects supervisor (even comedies are heavily improvised now), there are some great writers out there looking for work. Men and women with stories to tell, experts at pulling the strings of human emotion. Hollywood is getting out of the human emotion business; it's time for you to get in.
Let me pick a random game to demonstrate what I mean: Rage, the huge-budget, heavily promoted shooting game made by the legends who gave us Doom and Quake. Here's a screen shot of the scenery in Rage, next to a real photo of Death Valley. You tell me which one is real and which is video game:
The game is the one on the right. That is, the one that's prettier than real life. It's evident from the first moments that no expense was spared in this production -- they even hired John Goodman to be the voice of your best friend.
Yet I played it for two hours before giving up and taking it back to Blockbuster out of boredom. Why? Because the game begins with you waking up and immediately encountering Goodman's character, who says, "Go kill this entire building full of guys for me and I'll give you some items when you get back."
And that's it; that's your motivation for playing. A favor you're doing for this stranger, with no context. There is nothing pushing you forward: no promise of discovery, no sympathy with some good guys in peril or a princess who needs rescuing. Goodman's role in the game is apparently to just blandly give you instructions about your next task. Go retrieve this, go deliver this item to here, go kill these dudes. You are expected to do it, because it's a video game and that's what you do in games (and you paid hard-earned money for it). But as motivation goes, it doesn't even rise to the level of rescuing the princess from the monkey at the top of the scaffolds.
A little writing could have saved it.
I'm not demanding that games be Moby-Dick. I'm not hard to please -- even Modern Warfare's story, delivered entirely via the Sergeant shouting at me to go defend Burger Town over and over again, was enough to make me see it through to the end. There was a clear forward thrust in the narrative -- it was obvious that Burger Town was really important to him. Most games don't even manage that.
And when games attempt comedy, it almost always just makes me sad. Clips of Duke Nukem Forever and its '80s-era "guy" humor convinced me to not even rent it (but I'll let Kristi elaborate on that).
Which brings me to the Portal series. The first game introduced a great new game play mechanic that, on its own, could have made for a nice little downloadable Xbox Live Arcade title. But the writing team (including Internet comedy great Erik Wolpaw) added a flavor to the game that had every gamer in the world quoting lines from it for the next two years.
The sequel (written with the help of former Cracked editor Jay Pinkerton) built on that, introducing a simple but compelling story structure that was merged perfectly with game play. Early on, the game sends you deep into a sub-basement of the test facility. As you puzzle your way back up level after level, you pass long-abandoned areas of the structure, proceeding across time periods in a way that lets the back story unfold on the fly. Not through stiffly acted cut scenes, but through everything the player sees and interacts with -- the decor of the buildings, conversations with other characters and automated PA announcements made by the long-gone proprietor of the lab.
Writers. That's what that magic is called. Hey, did you like Batman: Arkham Asylum? With its rich library of character back stories stored in interview tapes and old man Arkham's scrawled diaries scattered around the island? That game was written by Paul Dini, who wrote for the excellent Batman: The Animated Series.
Here you go, game industry. You hate being second fiddle to Hollywood? Hate how nobody thinks your games are culturally relevant, and how you haven't yet created a game that will still be touching people's lives 75 years from now? Well, here's your opportunity. Because Hollywood is clearly moving away from a writer model, satisfied to grab characters from other properties, storyboard a bunch of action sequences and give some poor guy a couple of weeks to pound out a bunch of shit to fill in the pages in between.
Go steal their writers, and offer them the power to create games that resonate on a human level in a way that blockbuster movies don't anymore. Do it now, you'll find them at Starbucks.