One of the best aspects of the ancient art of recording television on VHS tapes was the commercials that you’d incidentally gather as a byproduct. A VHS recording of an old Sifl & Olly episode or Lifetime Original Movie may have been made irrelevant by the advent of YouTube, but the much trashier, more disposable art of a television ad is for the most part lost in the process. There’s a reason websites like Everything Is Terrible go back and dig up this garbage. An advertisement can serve as a time capsule of the era in which it was made. Even something as mundane as a car commercial feels strangely foreign 20 years later. A VHS recording of a pan & scan Jurassic Park isn’t particularly useful in 2015, but if you read between the dinosaurs there’s some useful glimpses into the world that was watching it: what the people were wearing, what hacky jokes they halfheartedly chuckled at, what bullshit later haunted their attics & dumps. Advertising is a low form of art, but it’s art that can later serve as a cultural relic.
Bad movies can work the same way. Mac & Me has just as much to say about where our culture was in 1988 as Cinema Paradiso, if not more. What kind of a sense of 1959 would you get if you only watched North by Northwest & The 400 Blows and completely avoided the likes of Attack of the Giant Leeches & Plan 9 from Outer Space? An incomplete one. We are not sophisticated people at heart. Our garbage has a lot more to say about who we are than our fine art ever will. When we create fine art we transcend our true natures and achieve greatness beyond our limitations. When we create garbage we’re being honest about the ridiculous fools we are at heart. A bad movie is a mirror to our worst, most banal impulses. A great bad movie makes us love those impulses. A great bad movie makes us love being a dumb, simple people.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Michael Bay’s production of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was The Best Bad Movie of 2014. It deserves to have great longevity as a cultural relic, as it somehow captures the entire zeitgeist of our worst cinematic impulses in one ridiculous package. I’m talking lens flairs, found footage, product placement, inclusion of viral videos, over-reliance on CGI, shaky cam, action confused by quick cuts, large-scale destruction of a major city, a phony third act death crisis, and a dubstep beat for the rap song that plays over the credits. The film itself is an example our greatest, most frequent sin of recent years: the reboot. More specifically, it’s a gritty reboot, the most ludicrous gritty reboot of the post-Dark Knight era (although the peculiarly humorless I, Frankenstein certainly gave it a run for its money there). To top it all off, it boasts an above-it-all sense of irony that compels the movie to periodically point out how inherently silly its premise is. Characters poke fun at one another for “doing the Batman voice” and frequently mock the idea of talking humanoid turtles. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is the last five years of bad taste in a nutshell. Or, if you will, on a half shell.
Despite its self-aware irony, there are still glorious moments when the film loses itself in its own ridiculousness. A few action set pieces, particularly a downhill slide and a rooftop battle, are the kind of far-fetched, detached-from-physics kind of fun that you’d expect in franchises like Fast & Furious and, less effectively, Transformers. The movie’s villains, a mech soldier Shredder & a corporate prick William Fichtner, are genuinely terrifying figures worthy of the film’s dark tone. There’s a “beating up the bad guys” vibe in the way the villains are dealt with that feels more like a sincere kids-playing-with-action-figures kind of storytelling than some of the film’s more ironic detachment. The found footage sequence briefly mentioned above, however, finds the film losing itself in its own ridiculousness more than any other. In this scene investigative reporter April O’Neil is digging through her childhood camcorder recordings only to discover that she herself raised the Ninja Turtles as pets in her father’s laboratory. April O’Neil is the source of the Turtles’ affinity for Pizza Hut® pizza; she is the one who named them after Renaissance painters; she is the one that saved their lives by casting them to the sewer. It’s a highly unlikely connection that the film makes & one I greatly appreciate for its lunacy.
There’s even a sense of purpose to the film’s hideous creature design. After April saves the infant Turtles by sending them underground they go through a strange transformation. Through a brief stop-animation effect & training montage, the cute-as-a-button Turtles morph into the ugly, alien-looking things that have been derided since the movie was first advertised. It was only until actually watching the film (as opposed to the ads) that I realized their ugliness had a purpose (even if it wasn’t intentional): puberty. The “Teenage” part of the characters’ namesake is stressed heavily in this incarnation. Their awkward, not-at-all-right appearance is only the tip of the pubescent iceberg. The teenage Turtles are hormonally violent, potentially dangerous young men who dream about running away from home as soon as they’re old enough and spend way too much money on their vehicle in the meantime. They struggle with creaky voices, fart openly, listen to loud music, get coked out on high doses of adrenalin, and have to answer to an angry rodent father figure when they miss their curfew. The most off-putting detail of all is the way they constantly hit on a nonplussed April O’Neil, calling “dibs” on her & whispering “She’s so hot I can feel my shell tightening” in moments of unearned, unseemly bravado, but also excitedly freaking out when she actually responds to them, bragging “I totally talked to a girl!” The Turtles are just as much teenagers as they are ninjas in the film and it’s just as awkward & disgusting as teenagers are in real life.
There are a few other bright spots to praise, like a legitimately cool animation effect that opens & closes the film (in a look that tips its hat to the characters’ comic book roots) as well as the decision to shroud the iffy CGI in darkness, which I think always benefits the format (as opposed to brighter looks like Avatar’s). The casting also shines here. Faces like Whoopi Goldberg, Taran Killam, and Will Arnett keep the mood light as physical reminders not to take the film too seriously. Arnett’s particularly funny as the flustered butt of throwaway gags, like when a Turtle calls him a “human nerd” or when he’s cooking alone to “Careless Whisper” in his apartment. Megan Fox is serviceable, not too distracting in her portrayal of April O’Neil, but not adding much either. I like to think of her here as the human Michael Bay calling card, as if the superfluous explosions weren’t enough on their own. As mentioned above, William Fichtner’s villain is as chilling as always; it’s a performance that honestly feels like it belongs in a much better film. The movie’s tone may be self-contradictory in places, but it ultimately is successful in being both a cheap thrills type of fun at face value as well as a comprehensive cultural relic when considered in the context of its place in time.
The worst part about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is that I have so much fun watching it. I eat this garbage up. I first saw the film alone in a theater on a Friday night, drunk, and lightly surrounded exclusively by groupings of young dads & sons. I felt like a total goofball to be the only one chuckling as they watched in respectful (or bored) silence. C’mon, dads! It’s a fun movie! Tony Shalhoub totally plays a gigantic, scrotum-esque rat! C’mon kids! Shredder totally has badass knives for hands! My enthusiasm was unreciprocated long after I left the theater as well. No one was interested in even talking about the movie, much less watching it. I still can’t convince people to watch it, even for a goof. My love for 2014’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a dirty secret only because no one cares to hear it. I believe the problem is that my timing is too soon. That 1993 Chrysler commercial incidentally archived on a VHS cassette during an X-Files episode wasn’t culturally significant until at least 2000. In a few more years the gritty Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot will cease being a fresh, undistinguished wound and earn its rightful status as a precious artifact, a prime specimen of our modern blunders, a more valuable cultural marker than all of the Boyhoods & Birdmans in the world. As a shoddy product so distinctly of its time, its value will only increase as the years soldier on.