Transformers: Age of Extinction* is going to be 165 minutes long. That puts it a comfortable 10 minutes ahead of the previous movie, and over 20 minutes longer than the first one. Its runtime will literally match The Bridge on the River Kwai.
I have problems with this.
There’s a lot that I might talk about here — the rampant “more is more” disease that plagues action movies, or the emphasis on trailer shots and marketing images in lieu of storytelling and character, but mainly I just don’t get it.
It’s not why these things are bad that’s confusing. I get (but don’t like) that what we call “Hollywood” is a business first, and thus less concerned with story than with assets like marketability or brand recognition. What I don’t get, is why the most crassly commercial movies are so often the ones with such offensively bloated runtimes.
In a big-budget movie, time is literally money. It costs money to render each frame of all those fancy computer graphics, it costs money to set up and demolish sets and block off downtown streets, it costs money to design and generate all the different assets you need in a high-concept science fiction adventure.
There’s no one-to-one formula for saying a movie of x length will cost y amount of dollars, but it’s pretty fair to say that the more wild shit you’re putting onscreen, the more you have to pay to get it there. And if most of your budget on a movie is ultimately geared around what kind of shit you’re throwing up on that screen, and how much of that shit you can afford, you’d think a crucial factor in determining what goes in that movie would be what gets the most bang for your buck.
In other words, you’d want to give audiences enough of whatever kind of movie you’re selling to justify their attendance, without overspending and putting millions of dollars of movie onscreen that amounts to little more than useless filler. Because that would be totally pointless.
Oh, whoa, what is this doing here?
So why do so many of these movies break the 2:20 barrier? I’m not talking about Batman Begins, which actually has a lot of methodical, detailed story stuff work. Movies like Battleship, or Man of Steel, or the newer Spider-man flicks run short on story but so damn long on runtime. How is bringing these things in under the 2:00 – 2:10 mark not basically a requirement?
It just seems pointlessly wasteful, to me. Something that blew me away with Pacific Rim was the way Guillermo del Toro justified its superb VFX, given it’s semi-kinda-lower-than-normal budget. Basically, it cost like fifty million dollars less than Man of Steel but still featured gonzo high-concept visuals from beginning to end.
How did they afford them? They, uh… well, first of all, they didn’t waste time on pointless action scenes. made decisions ahead of time and stuck to the script. Apparently a lot of what runs up the budget on these huge, effects-driven movies is the way that sequences will be scrapped or reconfigured on the fly (“Eh, let’s actually give this alien monster six arms instead of four”), and del Toro basically promised ILM that he would be decisive before spending the millions of dollars on VFX instead of after.
More typically, take The Avengers, where a number of elements were put through production before the script was completed, simply to keep things on schedule. The bad news for folks who aren’t as talented as Joss Whedon (most of them) is that now matter how hard it is to make a movie; it become much harder with all phases of production happening at once.
What’s crazy is not that del Toro could stick to his guns, but that he’s an anomaly for doing so. Especially since not only is making a movie in the right order going to keep costs down (generally), it makes the actual MOVIE better as well (again, generally). Which, for an industry that makes movies, oughta figure into the business plan at least at some point.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a movie that few were particularly looking forward to. It had a relatively modest budget (under $100 million). It only had one major VFX sequence to speak of. Its sequel comes out in a couple of weeks; somehow it resonated with audiences despite costing less than half the price tag of The Amazing Spider-man 2.
And wouldn’t you know it, but that movie — which shows its full-CG main character kidnapped, orphaned, rescued, growing up, learning, lashing out, in prison, proving himself, starting a revolution, and just generally going through a whole lot of change and development — clocks in noticeably UNDER two hours.
Not coincidentally, it’s considered one of the smarter, better-written tentpoles to hit theatres in recent years. (By the way, the second one better be good, or else the distant screaming you hear will be mine.) Money can’t buy story, but story can buy an audience.**
There has to be a reason that someone like Steven Spielberg consistently brings his movies in at a surprisingly modest price tag. Even high-concept action flicks like Minority Report or War of the Worlds came in for tens of millions of dollars LESS than their genre peers. Why? Because when you know story and character and craft like that guy, you just don’t need the light show to keep us interested.
Why does this site love Dredd so much? Because it’s one of the few mid-budget genre movies that made its name off tight construction and story work, instead of the typical blunt force trauma of endless effects sequences.
Heck, I honestly considered checking out Maleficent — despite it being an affront to basically everything I love about movies — simply because it had a runtime that indicated someone in the production pipeline realized they weren’t remaking The Sound of Music.
But the main thing is I just don’t get why Transformers 4 is going to take more time to tell its story than… well, than Nolan needed to tell the story of The Dark Knight.
*By the way, I need a really, really good explanation for why this isn’t called “Trans4mers.”
**Notice how Game of Thrones spends less for ten hours of epic fantasy than any major tentpole spends on two, and is still absolutely THE program you have to watch these days? Yeah.
***Orphaned Footnote: I know I’m oversimplifying the process by which this stuff gets made to some degree, but at a certain point I just want to look at the forest instead of the trees and vent about how this is both bad business and bad art and I’m just tired of it.