On Feb. 14, 2020, Paramount Pictures dumped Sonic the Hedgehog into theaters, a movie-product it handled for Sega, the video game company that developed Sonic in the early ‘90s. After an elongated marketing campaign highlighted by the character’s horrifying initial design, the correction of which pushed the movie back four months but ironically raised its profile, Sonic opened at just over $70 million in a nice, cushy Presidents’ Day weekend release slot, and a sequel was inevitable. The movie’s domestic box office climbed up to $140.5 million by March, but then something terrible happened.
As the coronavirus swept across the globe, infamous director/producer Michael Bay was one of many who had his production plans canceled. “God damn it,” he said to his agent, “I just want to get out and shoot something fast. I’m tired of being locked up at home.” Within a few months, the agent found somebody who’d let Bay play with their drones, and an entire feature-length movie popped out.
Last weekend, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 debuted at $72.1 million, while Ambulance pulled in just $8.7 million. There weren’t a lot of showtimes that lined up properly that Thursday, so finding a place I could see both of them was something I’d put effort into, I wasn’t at my usual theater and the irony was on my mind.
Actually, what I specifically kept thinking about was how much worse these Sonic movies are than Bay’s infamous Transformers franchise.
“Sonic the Hedgehog” is a video game first, and its existence as a movie is completely secondary to that. Sega even stuck mostly to in-house talent, with director Jeff Fowler and screenwriters Pat Casey and Josh Miller having both gotten their starts working on Sonic video games, and employed Marza Animation Planet and Blur Studio, the same animation houses that produce cutscenes for Sonic games.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2, like its predecessor, is a fully post-box office movie. Paramount and Sega weren’t concerned with revenue from ticket sales as much as from merchandise, the associated streaming service and product placement, as well as the financial value of getting this movie-as-advertisement in front of people. The movies are just platforms to collect more money from existing customers and maybe reach new ones, the way a restaurant would use Instagram. It is a feature-length business transaction, and you can sense that as you’re watching. It looks like the onscreen version of a bust-out, like there’s some mafia boss holding a gun to the movie’s head and forcing it to do the full-minute Olive Garden ad breaks because the movie itself doesn’t matter. Once they’ve bought the ticket, it’s all profit.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is oriented toward viewers under 10 and prioritizes fast shifts between fun, inoffensive set pieces alongside tons of silly references to try and keep adult viewers engaged. It’s a hard movie to focus on because it’s designed for viewers with very short attention spans, and it’s also hard to try to ignore it because it’s so overstimulating, and it’s also hard to half-watch because, even with the sharper character design, these movies are still horribly ugly.
The creepy integration between animation and live-action is by far the worst part of these movies, especially in the sequel, where it’s clear the live actors don’t have any idea where the animated elements are in the scene. Functionally, these are full cartoons, with the significant live-action work serving as a time-saving measure – if you get most of the frame photographically, you only have to animate part of it, so you build a set for the mushroom planet and put a Hawaiian vacation for the B unit on Paramount’s credit card, just do whatever’s easiest. Nobody cares about how this movie-product looks.
Ambulance opens on what might be the most dramatically over-shot phone call in film history, with shots flying around Will Sharp (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) in his messy, yellow living room, pausing only to withdraw magnificent fonts of lens flair from around the back of his head with lusty relish. Cutaways linger on his family photographs, badges and proofs of valor and other loaded American symbols, all shining in the permanent golden hour of Bay’s Los Angeles.
This is nice. It’s nice to return to Bay’s world of crazy over-lighting, over-saturated colors and over-the-top mayhem. Bay’s movies don’t have digital skybeams at their climax because that’s what all the movies have these days, they have explosions, real ones with bomb crews on-set and gasoline for dramatic flair, the whole nine yards, because Bay personally likes explosions and enjoys putting them in his movies. It’s great to see an action blockbuster made by someone who really, really cares about how it looks.
The film itself is disappointing, of course. The main selling point of Ambulance is Bay getting to play with drones, but he doesn’t seem to know what to do with them. The character drama and all the main actors are confined to the ambulance itself – this is part of why the movie was greenlit in the pandemic, the principal talent spends most of its time confined to one small, cheap set – so the drones are for the chase scenes, but he doesn’t shoot the chase scenes with them. The drone shots are limited to scene breaks, and he only does a couple of different moves with them. The chase scenes are shot from ground-level, rendering them confusing and indistinct and hampering the movie’s potential.
For better compared to corporate movie-products and for worse compared to better movies, Ambulance is irretrievably Bay, but that’s something great about real movies – they take on the personality of the people who make them, the way art is supposed to. That old hatred of his characters comes out in ugly ways. The pauses for comedy never work because the tone never shifts. The movie has to stay as fast and hectic as possible, so when characters stop to joke around, the movie doesn’t, so it feels less like a comic relief break and more like they’re not paying attention at the staff meeting and always like a waste of time in 136-minute movie about a crisis that should have a limited span.
Like many of his movies, Ambulance is drenched in Bay’s intense feelings about first responders and authority figures, which are contradictory and seemingly ever-changing from film to film, sometimes admiring the lone-wolves in power, other times supporting bureaucracy and the rule of law and always in deep admiration of men and women in any kind of uniform, with little regard for how they interact with those same authority figures. It isn’t smart, but it is revealing.
I’m watching Sonic the Hedgehog 2 in house 5 of AMC Grapevine Mills Mall. A few months ago, I took my mother to see The French Dispatch here right across the hall in house 6. In house 6, a finely crafted Wes Anderson masterpiece that I was seeing for the fourth time in theaters because it was worth it. In house 5, Sonic the Hedgehog 2.
It’s a long walk across the lobby to my screening of Ambulance from the dine-in wing of the theater to the dilapidated older half, which wasn’t retrofitted for the luxury cinema wave in the mid-‘10s and still has those old-school, pack-em-in theater chairs, and I’m rushing because the showtimes didn’t quite line up, but it’s still long enough to think about the fundamental difference between what I’d just watched and what I was about to see.
It’s not just that the cartoons coming out lately have been terrible, it’s that they look incomplete. Sonic and Uncharted and Morbius all look or feel half-finished, like the deadline was more important than the product. Bay is known primarily for his Transformers movies, most of which are uniform and shockingly bad, but all clearly intentional. Just like Sonic, these are movies about action figures that have been composited together in post-production, and while they are visually confusing because Bay prefers them that way, they never look unfinished. Great attention to detail is put into integrating the transformers with real cars, effects that can be quite beautiful in isolation.
After Sonic the Hedgehog 2, it was just really exciting to watch a movie with a photographer behind the camera.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.