by Patrick Bromley
Many of us can agree that it's been a good summer at the movies. Yes, thing got off to a rough start with Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Transformers: Age of Extinction is still the highest-grossing movie of the season, but let's not judge Summer 2014 by its worst examples. We've had a number of smaller independent movies that worked (Chef, Life Itself, They Came Together) and a couple of great films (Snowpiercer, Boyhood) we'll be talking about for years to come. The majority of the blockbusters we've gotten this year have ranged from good (X-Men: Days of Future Past, 22 Jump Street, Hercules) to really good (Edge of Tomorrow, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Guardians of the Galaxy). Even Gareth Edwards' Godzilla, a movie I didn't love, took some chances and tried to be something different than what we've come to expect from summer entertainment. We've been spoiled by good movies these last few months.
This new Turtles comes to us from the bastion of artistic integrity that is Michael Bay's Platinum Dunes, the studio that never met a property it didn't want to remake into something much, much worse. It stars Megan Fox as April O'Neil, a reporter covering the jumping-on-trampolines beat who is frustrated by the fact that her face is frozen in a single expression. She desperately wants a big break and finds it when she is witness to a group of vigilantes fighting back against the shadowy Foot clan that is plaguing New York. Unfortunately, no one believes her. I think this upsets her. Or makes her happy? I couldn't tell. Her face won't move.
Eventually, April discovers that the vigilantes are the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, presented here as 6-foot tall dickheads (their faces look like penises) who were created in a laboratory by April's dad and his partner, millionaire Eric Sacks (William Fichtner). In fact, they were April's pets! And she rescued them from a lab fire and put them into the sewers! Because it's better when everything is tied together and blow your fucking head off this movie.
Exactly what brand Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is trying to sell, I'm not totally sure. Obviously, it's selling Ninja Turtles -- toys, merchandising, Pizza Hut tie-ins, all the stuff you expect goes along with a property like this. But what this new "brand" means makes no sense. It appears to be a movie for kids, because it's based on a franchise that's best known for being a cartoon and line of toys. The humor is juvenile and pitched at 8-year olds. The movie is PG-13, however, making it a movie for no one. The turtles are bulked up and everything is made to feel grittier and edgier than past Turtles incarnations, because that's how we treat reboots these days -- what Mark Ahn calls "creeping Nolanism."
Director Jonathan Liebesman, who has yet to make a movie I like, directs Ninja Turtles like he's making a "greatest hits" of blockbuster tropes that movie geeks complain about. Hate Kurtzman/Orci's magic blood? It's here. Hate J.J. Abrams' lens flares? This movie is full of them. Hate Zack Snyder's speed ramping? It's all over this thing. If I didn't know better, I would suggest that this new Ninja Turtles is some sort of secret meta commentary on the state of popular cinema right now, and that Liebesman has created a movie that's slick and generic and shitty on purpose to prove a greater point.
Both the updated look of the Turtles and the movie's action scenes are overly designed and too busy by half. Because everything has been created in a computer (as opposed to the practical suits worn by actors in the first series, all designed by the Jim Henson shop), Liebesman uses his license to pack too much into the frame just because he can. The camera is never tethered to anything, giving the action no sense of weight. The movie's main set piece -- a long chase down a snow-covered mountain -- is rendered incomprehensible by too much CGI business. Even the action in this movie sucks.
What's left to recommend? Nothing. I'm not ready to call Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles one of the worst movies of the year, but it is one of the best/worst examples this summer of a bigger problem in big-budget studio movies these days. The movie is soulless and cynical enough that it burned me out on summer movies in the span of less than two hours -- watching this movie made me feel like I was watching every shitty movie of the last few years all at once. The bad news is that it sucks. The worse news is that the movie was a huge hit and that a sequel has already been greenlit. There's yet another way this thing perfectly fits the bill of franchise filmmaking. Who knows? Maybe they'll get it right next time. I won't be around to find out.