Monday, August 18, 2014

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

A few years ago, it was announced that Michael Bay's production company, Platinum Dunes would break out of its usual forte of trampling over classic horror films with mindless remakes, and would instead jump into a new original project of:  trampling over an 80s cartoon with a mindless blockbuster reboot.  It was not long until this truly creative project had its original spec script leaked out to the public.  That was a bold new document proudly... copycatting the plot of the Michael Bay Transformers movies, essentially word for word.  Just cross out "robot" and put "turtles".  The Turtles were aliens, April O'Neil and Casey Jones were in highschool, and to accommodate Bay's military fetish, Shredder was a Colonel in the US Army involved in a dark evil conspiracy.

The Internet reacted probably in the most appropriate way, by rioting furiously from the safety of their deskchairs.  Thanks to production issues and negative public reaction, that old version of this movie was thrown exactly where it belonged, in the trash.  What has our victory gotten us?  Well, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" looks nothing like a Transformers movie, or even a Michael Bay movie.  The Turtles are mutants again, as the trailers were all to proud to point out, mocking the idea of alien ninjas*.  Instead of ripping off Transformers "Ninja Turtles" is exploring new ground by ripping off "The Amazing Spider-Man".

"Ninja Turtles" is the kind of bad movie so lazy that you cannot even find a way to laugh at its incompetence.  It is a passionless project that makes even the whorish merchandising and toyetic elements of the 80s cartoon seem principled and sincere.  Nobody cared one bit about the movie they making, nobody wanted to tell a compelling story, nobody wanted to make exciting action scenes, nobody even wanted to make a tone-appropriate movie for the children.  It is a movie that nobody actually wanted to make, but made anyway because there were hundreds of millions of dollars on the table to be horded.  The only positive I can give "TMNT" is that it is not actively the worst movie of 2014 as I feared it would be.

There's a quote to put on your DVD box art:  "Not quite the worst movie of the year. -Blue Highwind".

I'm not going to hold any illusions that the Ninja Turtles are "above" this kind of movie.  Their origins might have come from a relatively respected comic series (which I've never read and is basically completely forgotten anyway) but their popularity was built on the 80s cartoon.  The Turtles were there to sell toys and Dominos Pizza three decades ago, and they're here again in 2014 to sell toys and Dominos Pizza all the same.  Those lovable Turtle personalities and screams of "cowabunga" only existed to get your parents to buy you turtle-themed crap to shove inside your turtle-themed lunchbox which would fit neatly inside your turtle-themed backpack.  These green heroes are flexible vehicles of exploitation, shilling cash from across the generations.  Most of the respect the Turtles get is from little kids who can appreciate the silliness and goofiness of the property or from nostalgic nerds now staring down at middle age who still want to be little kids.

Nickelodeon and Platinum Dunes had no small collection of Ninja Turtles stories to adapt when launching their triumphant new Turtles franchise.  Of course, all of those were completely ignored to go with the most generic and obvious plot choices.  It's an origin story, because a superhero series from the Cold War that to this day still has a popular cartoon series needs to have the story explained with agonizing detail.  The bad guy is Shredder because he's the villain that most people remember.  The main character focus is with non-mutanted non-reptilian reporter April O'Neil, for two reasons:  1) the studio seems unsure that a movie about mutant turtles can remain sympathetic, and 2) Megan Fox has boobs.  Every step in this movie's development is a cut corner, the easiest choice.

The script is an astounding collection of convenience and simplicity.  All three screenwriters (along with probably another half dozen script doctors) came to the conclusion that the best scripts are ones where every character is connected.  It is always great to have strong structure, but not to this extent where it feels like the movie has no patience for its own story.  This film has all the pacing of a trailer, speedily zooming around from moment to moment without any of those moments meaning anything.  The Turtles are actually a science experiment raised by April O'Neil when she was a child, created by her father and William Fichtner's evil industrialist Eric Sachs, who is working for Shredder**.  Just in case everything wasn't linked perfectly, the Turtles' blood also is the McGuffin key Shredder needs to make a death bomb to blow up New York.  At this point I was half-expecting Woopi Goldberg's character to be the Turtles' former kindergarten teacher, Will Arnet to be Shredder's nephew, and Darth Vader to have built C-3PO.

Basically it's "The Amazing Spider-Man" all over again, complete with hidden tapes in the main character's closet, an evil super company that rules New York, magical cure-all blood flowing through the hero's veins, and the very same shot of a huge radio tower collapsing onto the city.  Of course, this all misses everything that was good about "Spider-Man", but who needs to write good movies when you can write busy fluff?

Then the script goes about answering questions that did not need to be asked with ludicrous answers.  Why is Shredder's evil gang named the "Foot Clan"?  Because they step on the hopes and dreams of New Yorkers.  Why did the Ninja Turtles learn kung fu?  Oh, their rat father, Splinter just happened to find a Japanese book on karate.  Turns out it is just that easy to master martial arts.  Meanwhile the script cannot answer more basic questions like:  why does Shredder want to conquer New York?  And how would a billionaire who owns his own custom Manhattan skyscraper possibly gain anything from destroying the city?  I don't recall terrorism typically being a money-making venture.  How about what apocalyptic event occurred causing an alpine mountain to grow in the New York suburbs for an act 3 action sequence?

Come on, give Jason X a hug.
That being said, there was still a chance, albeit small, to make a fun action movie about the Turtles.  Those chances collapse when you actually look at the Ninja Teenagers.  In easily the worst art design decision of the entire year, the Turtles have gone from simple green cartoon creatures to mammoth radioactive freaks.  Their skin is like boiled asparagus, and their faces are straight-up Cronenberg  The idea is to make them look more "realistic" but they look completely unbelievable, more obviously effects than the 1990s practical costumes and puppetry.  Plus it appears that the artist simply could not put down his pen, constantly adding extraneous details to every character:  beads, sunglasses, graffiti, eyeglasses, weird funky gadgets, and other junk.  It does make it easier to distinguish Raphael from Michelangelo - assuming you can stand to look at either of them.  The worst single decision is a horrifying idea to add noses in the middle of the faces, pushing these sickly mounds of pale green muscle right down into the Uncanny Valley.

And even then, that's not even beginning to describe the horror that is Master Splinter (Tony Shalhoub, who is trying some kind of untraceable East Asian accent), a Rat-Man who will make you puke into your popcorn bucket.

Despite all of the art design mistakes, the Turtles can be fun characters.  I say "can be" because some scenes are straight out of the 1980s, with the Turtles making fast jokes and eating pizza, exactly how the world fell in love with them.  Then there is the rest of "TMNT 2014", where they come off as oddly threatening and aggressive.  This is supposed to be a kids' movie, right?  Why are the heroes so scary?  Two of the Turtles are bitter and surely, more like angry street thugs than lovable corporate sock puppets.  Then there's Michelangelo, who is supposed to be "the funny guy" yet has exactly one sexist bestiality joke which is repeated ad infinitum:  he wants to bang Megan Fox.  Just in case you forget that Megan Fox is a disposable actress who exists only to be leered at (she's certainly not here for her acting talent) one character in this movie exists here only to remind us of that fact.

Hilariously April's only role in this movie is to be taken seriously as an actress reporter.  Fat chance.
I'm the kind of sicko who wishes the movie actually ended with April O'Neil diving face-first into turtle soup, just so that the movie could not be 100% unrelentingly generic and boring.  Yes, I was so bored by this movie that I wanted Megan Fox to bang a turtle.  It would have had something.  Something horrifying, but something.  As opposed to what this movie has now:  nothing.  What we needed was a director deranged enough for this material.  Where is James Gunn when you need him?  ...Oh yeah, making "Guardians of the Galaxy", the movie you should have seen instead of this.

What director Jonathan Liebsman actually supplies to the movie is - again - nothing.  He is a director with no sense of style and has no particular traits at all, and his movie reflects his artistic bankruptcy.  There is no sense of threat from Shedder's evil Foot Clan.  You get no understanding of culture or place from the New York City here, no clear evidence that the city is at all under siege.  April tries so hard to be a serious reporter, but you are never shown that she's very good at journalism or investigation, or even very bright.  The Turtles are meant to be heroic, but they have no relationship at all to the city they're saving.  Liebsman creates no report between his characters, there is no chemistry anywhere.  Worst of all, he can only barely stage a fight scene, failing just as often as he succeeds.  Sometimes you'll get a nice fluid martial arts moment, most of the time you'll get a sloppy jerky mess with no kinetic action or energy.  Michael Bay, for all of his sins, knows where to point the camera.

However, Liebsman does add one positive feature:  the movie is less than two hours long.  Nothing is really learned, no characters develop in any way, there is hardly a plot at all.  The terror of staring at the bloated green corpses that this movie calls Ninja Turtles is only matched by the nightmare of watching Megan Fox trying to act.  "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" is just plain bad.  Not good, not so bad it's good, not so stupid it's good, and not even awful in an original way.  There is nothing to love, and even less worth remembering.  Just an awful experience for everybody.

* Exactly the kind of minor pointless victory only a true nerd could take any pride in.  Ultimately it makes absolutely no difference, and the Turtles are just as unlikable as mutants as they would have been as aliens.  So congratulations, minutia of your sacred 80s childhood have not been ruined.  Didn't make the movie better, though.

** I distinctly remember the marketing machine for this movie announcing that Fichtner would be playing Shredder.  This is not the case at all.  His character is basically Max Shreck from "Batman Returns", only not nearly as fun.  We were definitely robbed of the plotline of Fichtner trying to turn Shredder into the Mayor of New York, I feel.


  1. Arghhh this still looks awful.
    And after reading the review makes me hate it even more.

    They changed the origin that the ooze that transformed them is no longer from friendly brain shaped aliens? Lame

    I will say though that TMNT series can be done right. For the best example check out the 2003 series which seemed to be actually done by people who had a love for the franchise and were occasionally willing to go serious and or dark as sin at times.
    The only thing that sucks is executive meddling later on kind of made the series mediocre. But in my mind its still better then the 1980s show, which people need to get off their high horses and admit it had not aged well.
    I'm a fan of transformers and even ill admit the original cartoon has not aged well . (well except for the 1986 movie, which I can not wait for your review. THE TOUCH all the way)

    Sword Of Primus

  2. So, when September starts, are you going to be doing the Look-Ahead, or are you just done with that forever?

    1. That's coming back. I'll find the time.