Director: Len Wiseman; Cast: Jason Statham, Megan Fox, Sam Worthington, Charlie Hunnam, and repurposed clips of Daniel Day-Lewis’s voice as “Thunderbot”
A central tenet of film criticism is that a film must be evaluated on its own terms and not against the standards of other works. Oliver Stone’s cop thriller, Innocent Until Proven Dead, can’t be judged on the same scale, for instance, as Martin Scorsese’s venture into family comedy, I Dunno, Ask The Dog, regardless of the fact that both end with a Mexican stand-off in a chain restaurant.
That subjectivity is equally important in order for critics to stay relevant as the standards of filmmaking slide lower and lower. Every job has its benefits. Sometimes the job of a film critic is to engage the benefit of a doubt.
It’s with that benefit that next January’s delayed summer blockbuster, Explosions Etc., is most appreciated. There’s a popular complaint that summer movies have become bloated, convoluted, and overly-complicated with nonsensical plot contrivances. Explosions is blessedly unburdened by a bloated plot, or even a shriveled one.
At a reported budget of 500 million dollars, Explosions has an imperative to reach as many responsive humans as possible, and as such it requires a touch so broad that any specifics jeopardize its profit. This film handles that concern adeptly and with innovation, offering the creative solution to compose the film entirely of generalizations. None of the characters have names, referred to throughout as, “Man,” “Dude,” “Fella,” “Buddy,” “Tough Guy,” “Mister Tough Guy,” and occasionally, “Dum-dum.” Jason Statham plays the character most commonly referred to as, “Buddy,” though, in a subversive twist on expectations, the term is sometimes used sarcastically.
“Buddy” involves himself in a series of stream-of-consciousness set-pieces involving flying shrapnel, collapsing skyscrapers, alien invasions, swordfights, gun fights, bare-knuckle boxing matches, drag races with attractive luxury cars that are usually just computer-animated models anyway, and of course the titular explosions. Without a plot there’s no sense of escalation, making all of these action sequences equally exciting for lack of any way to distinguish them. Consistently shaky cameras capture each moment to make the audience feel as though they’re actually inside a shaking camera, offering a sense of immediacy that cleverly takes the place of actual significance. At one point, “Buddy” and his love interest “Hey, You” (Fox) leap from a fast-moving vehicle—either a small low-flying aircraft or a large car momentarily lifted off the ground—and either roll or slide down a flat or inclined surface, narrowly avoiding a toppling high-rise—or possibly a grayish-brown avalanche—in a city that resembles parts of Toronto, but at times sort of resembles the blocks of downtown Cleveland that call Atlanta to mind. It’s a stunning sequence, probably.
The dialogue, composed entirely of non-committal generalities, actually feels spontaneous and fresh. Upon discovery of a vague menace made of debris and smoke, “Buddy” warns his sort-of-friends, sort-of enemies often referred to as “Pal” and “This Guy” (Worthington and Hunnam, respectively), “Hey, we gotta get out of here or something!” Fox offers a neutral expression that provides the perfect surface for audiences to project their own emotions onto while Worthington announces, “Don’t you know all the high stakes? Have you even considered all the big questions we’re in the middle of? Just try to tell me this isn’t emotional!” The film’s lean storytelling peaked for this critic at the succinct reaction of Mr. Statham to an approaching rumbling sound: An incredibly urgent shrug followed by, “Oh no, I guess!”
The film ends at a point where it basically feels like it should, closing in a thrilling end credits sequence in which the names of the below-the-line crew grab guns and shoot at each other in 3D. Hans Zimmer supplies a familiar, plangent soundtrack incorporating brass instruments, a choir that chants syllables from no language in particular, and a deep sound that can best be described phonetically as “Bwomm.”
At a relatively breezy two hours and forty-seven minutes, Explosions Etc. comes as a relief in an insincere movie season by eschewing almost any instance of human interaction. It engages the viewer by presenting itself as a product and building upon the human tendency to anthropomorphize objects, much in the same way that people empathize with dropped phones or plush toys. The strategy pays off beautifully. Everyone at the advance press screening left in tears, moved to the point of speechlessness. Negative reviews suggest that this is a phenomenon similar to the shock astronauts feel when facing away from Earth and into the black, featureless void that stretches to infinity. This critic is quick to remind readers: When a movie is judged by its own standards, it’s all relative. More or less.
Eric Stolze writes ad copy, articles, and screenplays in Los Angeles.