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Reaching Critical Mess
As Blockbuster, 'Transformers' Spotlights Chasm Between Rabid Audience and Savage Reviewers

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The critics spoke last Friday. "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" is a Hindenberg of a movie.

The audience responded: So freakin' what? They forked over $215 million (and counting) to see the widely panned sequel about shape-shifting robots. It became only the second movie after last year's "The Dark Knight" to make that much in its first five days. "Transformers 2" was director Michael Bay's worst-reviewed movie -- worse than 2001's "Pearl Harbor."

"A horrible experience of unbearable length," wrote Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times.

"Striking, shrieking incoherence," wrote Peter Travers in Rolling Stone.

"I think they reviewed the wrong movie," Bay told the Los Angeles Times. Critics "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."

Not that it matters, though. For decades, summer blockbusters have vacuumed up people's money in spite of how bad the reviews are.

"Critics don't affect the box office," says Brandon Gray, president of Box Office Mojo. "The bottom line is it's about the premise of the movies and how they're marketed. 'Transformers' is assembled in a way to appeal to as many people as possible. It has all the scenes and plot devices -- well, not plot, actually -- that worked in the past."

But there's something astounding about the gap between "Transformers' " voluminous receipts and excoriating reviews.

"It's not a gap -- it's a chasm. It's interplanetary space," says Joe Morgenstern, film critic for the Wall Street Journal, who called the sequel "appalling." "The truth is, most summer movies these days are made to be critic-proof."

After reading Morgenstern's review, one online commenter provided further context: "I want to see things blowing up, alien robots battling each other, and . . . of course, Megan Fox." (She's the pornstarrific eye-candy amid all the whirling gadgetry.)

Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman gave the film one of its few positive reviews, likening its appeal to that of a giant-monster movie like "Godzilla." He says Michael Bay has become the official whipping boy for critics -- unfairly held up as everything that's wrong with Hollywood. The reviews of "Transformers 2," he says, are as guilty of excess as the movie itself.

"I don't defend it as a piece of storytelling, but I think it's a lot more fun than a lot of weak stories I've seen."

Yesterday, at the Regal Gallery Place multiplex on Seventh Street NW, Nathan Laliberte and two friends waited for a 3:10 p.m. showing to begin.

Had they read the reviews?

"Yes," said Laliberte, 24.

Then . . . why are they here?

They liked the first one, they said. And they had the Transformers toys when they were kids.

"I find that reviewers have a different take than I do," Laliberte says, though "the bar is pretty low right now." With such lowered expectations, the friends agree, they might actually be pleasantly surprised by the movie.

All thanks to the critics.

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