Zero Dark Thirty vs. Transformers 2
The Art Of The Blockbuster
In a cinematic world filled with CGI, explosions and three-dimensional wonderlands, the aid of technology can sometimes obscure even the very basics of film, such as a working plot structure, proper cinematography, editing and other techniques, or even standard acting. Looking back at the Academy Awards’ best picture winners of the past ten years, one would only find two true, big budget blockbusters: “The Departed”, whose 90 million dollar budget was a result of the experienced, yet expensive cast, and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of The King”, which for a film of it’s graphics and length was still only financed with a paltry 94 million dollars. Once it is noted that these two “blockbusters” are really nothing more than anomalies, one idea becomes clear: the use of technology, along with its expenses, does not guarantee critical success. However, there are still many modern, technologically advanced films that are considered strong, with one of these films being “Zero Dark Thirty”, which retells the tale of the hunt for infamous terrorist, Osama Bin Laden. On the other side of the spectrum, there are a myriad of commercially successful, big budget action movies that were and still are critically destroyed in the cinema realm. “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” would fall into this category. With a historically large budget, and an almost completely negative reception, many argue that the sequel moves away from the somewhat highly regarded methods of its’ predecessor, and instead chooses to showcase explosion after explosion in wake of any intelligible or recognizable plotline. All in all, the expensive technology common in today’s cinematic world can either aid or distort a film, and “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” represent the highs and lows of this stark change, respectively.
“Zero Dark Thirty” focuses on CIA analyst Maya, and her search for arguably the world’s most notorious terrorist, Osama Bin Laden. Similar to the numerous action movies of the 1970’s, which featured the Vietnamese, and the communist takeover films of the 80’s and 90’s, “Thirty”, directed by Katherine Bigelow, feeds on the fears of it’s time period, in this case, terrorism. Although not as highly budgeted as other films, “Zero Dark Thirty” does fit the mold and identity of an action film: a main character who sometimes “bends the rules”, a common enemy that almost any viewer can root against, and, most importantly, explosions, lots and lots of explosions. However, the 2012 war thriller sets itself apart from the rest of the junk by using the technology as a means to enhance the story and to portray realism, as opposed to simply using it because it is available. Although one of the cliché pieces of an action film, one of Bigelow’s strengths in the film is her use and depiction of the classic explosion. There are many points in the movie when “things go boom”, but one of the most important moments of the film is in the Camp Chapman attack, where Maya’s dear friend and senior CIA analyst, Jessica, is killed via a suicide bombing, along with a few of her other coworkers. While one would expect a large suicide bombing rendered as loud and large on the movie screen, Bigelow essentially displays the antithesis of this common, action movie practice. After the initial explosion is viewed at about a medium shot for maybe a second, the majority of the bombing aftermath is shown at an aerial view, as seen in Figure 1. Instead of drawing the viewer into the action, the audience is actually drawn back, now looking above the blast. As well, this detonation is noticeably silent, even though action movies are typically incredibly loud, especially during an explosion like this. The film’s sound designer, Paul N. J. Ottoson, also a former Swedish militant, commented on this abstract use of sound, stating, “I’ve been around a lot of really big explosions, but the funny thing is, I don’t ever remember hearing one of them, […] When it hits you, the shockwaves travel faster than the sound. It shuts down your ears. I never thought, ‘Oh wow, what a loud explosion’; I thought, ‘Oh wow, I almost crapped my pants.’” As one can conclude, instead of doing the obvious, formulaic loud bang, Bigelow and sound designer, Ottoson, choose to portray the explosion as something more true to the way it is actually experienced, in order to enhance the experience of the audience, and to give a somber tone to an event that many movies would characterize and display as “awesome”. All in all, it is evident that “Zero Dark Thirty” uses its modern technology in order to advance the film, taking the typical, non-emotional explosion scene and turning it into a more reflective, softer presentation, the way an event like this actually felt.
In order to analyze “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen”, the reboot of the classic children’s cartoon, one must first look at the numbers. Generally speaking, “Transformers” was a box office success, ranked as the top-grossing movie for two straight weeks against other successes such as “The Hangover”, “Year One”, and “The Taking of Pelham 123”. Grossing an average of 50 million dollars a week in it’s first two weeks of release, the blockbuster sequel eventually became one of the top earning movies of all time in the United States of America, coming in at number ten. With a budget of 200 million dollars, it is evident that Transformers, although expensive to make, grossed an incredible profit, earning it the title of being commercially successful. However, does this economic achievement result in critical acclaim? Not necessarily. In the coming weeks of the films release, it’s marketing campaign “leaked” the information that it’s great pyramid scene was the most expensive stunt, ever. With such a great budget, one would expect this moment to be viewed as incredible, or even iconic. Instead, the record-breaking few minutes were universally panned, and rightfully so. In the approximately four minute scene, Michael Bay, director of “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen”, displays an aerial view of the scene, seen in Figure 2, eventually zooming in closer, while introducing the audience to metal twisting and crashing, an audio similar to that of banging pots and pans, along with the almost unrecognizable sound automatic gunshots from helicopters above. Kim Newman, reviewer for acclaimed “Sight & Sound” magazine, commented on the pyramid scene with, “There’s Chariots of the Gods-esque lunacy to be had in the tearing apart of the Great Pyramid to reveal the sun-smashing machine the structure was built to bury.” Essentially, Newman notices the obvious; the much-marketed, expensive pyramid scene featured in “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” boils down to nothing more than glorified stunt mush. As a result, it is clear that the high budget, advanced technology that is “Transformers 2” did not aid in the quality of the movie, but, instead, the expenses resulted in the replacement of plot and character development with confusing, ear shattering, nonsense explosions.
“Zero Dark Thirty” and “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” essentially represent the two sides in the introduction of advanced technology to cinema. On one hand, “Transformers”, directed by the action maestro, Michael Bay, manipulates its modern graphics to simply create gladiatorial fodder, devoid of understandable plot, yet giving the people what they supposedly want, big action. “Zero Dark Thirty”, by the Oscar-winning director Katherine Bigelow, conversely, demonstrates a controlled use of technology, clearly utilizing special graphics and such, yet using such restrain that the film emotionally comes off as realistic, suspenseful, and somber. One of the typical and classic scenes in any action movie is the explosion, and, oddly enough, it is the comparison of these moments that set the two films apart. In “Thirty”, Bigelow features an aerial, further away view of a suicide bombing, whilst noticefully featuring very little sound. “Transformers”’ infamous and expensive pyramid scene, where one of the robots is shown clawing at the peak of the pyramid while being shot at by multiple armed helicopters, utilizes a close-up camera angle, and is impeded by constant, loud, and unnecessary noise. As a result of these two traits, the viewer is left with the feeling of confusion, since while so much seemed to be going on, plot wise, nothing important truly happened, just another senseless battle. Essentially, explosions are easy to create, especially with a high budget and advanced technology, yet it takes a true, talented director to transform that action into a plot-driving, emotion-filled event, witnessed in the suicide attack featured in “Zero Dark Thirty”.
The expensive technology common in today’s cinematic world can either aid or distort a film, and “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” represent the highs and lows of this stark change, respectively. Although this point can be clearly stated again and again, Ryan A. Piccirillo, a former film major who graduated from Boston University summarized it best, with saying, “Technological advancements in these areas expand the creative potential of the filmmaker. However, just because technology is more advanced does not mean that it is necessarily superior in each given application. Rather, advanced technology is advantageous in that it broadens the toolset available to the filmmaker from which he or she can discern which equipment and techniques are best suited to a given production.” After analyzing both scenes in “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen”, it is evident that while technology can have the ability to enhance the film, it is truly the film, and consequentially, the director, that enhances the technology. Big action scenes and car chases may be fun, but without a workable storyline, and proper cinematography, editing, and sound design, a film can become a glorified montage of fire and speed. Instead of falling into the same traps of “Transformers”, Kathryn Bigelow used the technology to improve upon what was already great, as opposed to using it to hide the lack of all conceivable critical film traits. All in all, the advancement in film technology is great, but without all of the other essential film characteristics, a movie may, and most likely will, fall flat, regardless of its commercial success.
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The International Student Journal. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2013. <http://www.studentpulse.com/articles/560/the-technological-evolution-of-filmmaking-and-its-relation-to-quality-in-cinema>.
Newman, Kim. “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” Sight & Sound 2009: n. pag. Print.