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This Holiday’s Movie: “Transformers”

July 5, 2007

 

“Before time began there was The Cube…”

Uh-oh.

Yet this opening voiceover was but the latest evidence that Transformers the movie and anything associated with it is simply bad, wrong, and possibly evil. Others include the Transformers logo bumper stickers that grown men have begun affixing to their cars, the chat room arguments that the robots in the movie lack the depth of personality present in the cartoon series of the mid-‘80s, and the fact that GM—a once-mighty American corporation—is using this movie to hawk their cars the way McDonalds uses Shrek to sell green milkshakes.


Much of my antipathy stems from the fact that I never got Transformers. An avid fanboy, I was powerless before the siren song of Star Wars, GI Joe, Masters of the Universe, assorted superheroes, Star Trek, Doctor Who…well, you get the idea. My childhood was never heavily rooted in reality. Yet the Transformers were lame and far-fetched even for me. So robots turn into vehicles. Why? And more importantly, why should I be excited about that? A massive, sentient AI travels to Earth from outer space and rather than attack Tokyo or something cool like that, it turns itself into a semi. What for? So it could blend with all the rigs parked in front of the 24-hour porno shops along I-95? Maybe my attachment to iconic spaceships like Star Destroyers and the USS Enterprise left me with a rigid geek ontology, but it seems to me that vehicles should be vehicles and robots should be robots.

In retrospect, it’s surprising that it’s taken Michael Bay this long to make a movie based on a line of toys. After all, most of his movies resemble nothing more than a hyperactive kid playing with his model planes and tanks and plastic soldiers in the backyard. This one comes with a built in story (alien robots come to Earth–Autobots good, Deceptacons bad–and they fight) and a premise that’s little more than a pretext for neato SFX and huge action set-pieces.

Bay doesn’t do much to flesh out this concept. The Secretary of Defense (played by John Voight, who seems to be trying to figure out why it is his daughter is getting Oscar-caliber roles and he’s reduced to this) and his minions try to figure out what’s going on with all the big robots. Meanwhile some military guys try and escape a helicopter/scorpion/robot that’s attacking them in Qatar. And some high school kid is befriended by his robot/Camero who needs his help finding the The Cube from the opening narration. Throw in some shameless lifting of Independence Day, and you got yourself a plot. Or at least enough of one for the purposes of this film. Okay, let’s get those robots fighting, shall we?

It comes as something other than a complete surprise that none of the characters have any personalities or notable characteristics. The military guys are stolid and heroic and talk like they’re in a 1940s war-bond seller. The women are all target-demographic fantasies—they look like Maxim magazine cover girls, dress like hookers, and like cars and computers and probably gaming and action figures too. The African Americans are all minstrelling buffoons (even one of the robots talks jive and shuffles like the love child of Huggy Bear and a pimped-out hoopty). The people pretty much serve only to give a person’s-eye view of the chaos that unfolds around them. The script doesn’t do anyone any favors, and all the characters shout their dialog over one another. After a few scenes of this, I was rooting for the bad guy robots to come in and stomp all of the characters. Or just me.

If a movie isn’t expending any energy on the dialog, then it’s too much to hope that it at least keeps the internal logic of the narrative straight. And Transformers doesn’t. The various plotlines all take place over different time frames. We spend a day with the teenager, then cut back to the special ops guys in Qatar and only a few hours seem to have passed. The stuff with SecDef might well be happening in the past, it’s hard to tell. Bay can’t even keep the tone of his movie consistent. After playing it straight for the first third of the movie, the film abruptly strikes a tone so over the top it borders on parody, and the movie vacillates between these poles for the rest of its duration.

Michael Bay catches a lot of flak for making very expensive, very dumb action movies. This is unfair, because there are any number of directors making very cheap, but equally dumb movies. They just haven’t been stupid in the right place at the right time to get noticed yet. What surprised me as I watched Transformers is how inept a director he is. Bay isn’t a triumph of style over substance, as much as a triumph of misdirection from his sheer inability to do even the basic stuff right. He places the camera in weird locations. Characters act into the camera in group scenes, leaving the viewer to wonder who the hell the guy onscreen is talking to. The death of one fairly significant (robot) character is shot from a distance and during one of Bay’s trademark camera swoops, leaving it feeling tossed-off and inconsequential. The first transformation of the kid’s Camero (and all of the attendant awe and magic) happens offscreen.

Finally, the robots themselves manage to be their own worst enemies. They’ve been redesigned for the big screen, but their new incarnations are busy and complicated. They have nothing close to clean, simple lines. The consequence of this is that during the robot fights scenes it’s hard to tell who is doing what to whom. It’s equally hard to tell most of them apart. A few are helpfully color-coded, but most of the time I sat through the fight scenes trying to figure out if it was the robot/helicopter that punched the robot/Hummer or the robot/tank.

The climactic fights end with a plot gimmick that the director and screen writers must be really hoping audiences don’t realize that it could have ended the movie a solid hour and half sooner, but as I’ve inventoried this is really the least of the movie’s problems.

 

So I went into Transformers with relatively low expectations and it didn’t disappoint. On a side note, I heard that there were many inside jokes pitched to fans of the cartoon. These are the same people complaining that the movie gave Optimus Prime robotic lips. I can’t speak to either issue. There are some places in geekdom even I won’t go.

3 comments

  1. Was it The Rubik’s Cube? Because that might have been funny.

    The only Michael Bay films I’ve seen are Armageddon and Pearl Harbor, the first of which made me fall asleep (Huh. This is a surprisingly A-list cast for the second movie this year in which a giant asteroid is going to destroy the… zzzzzz), and the second of which, um, made me fall asleep (Wow, Kate Beckinsale looks really good! I wonder if she’s had work done. Ben Affleck has a bizarrely large head. Why do I not give a crap that the Kamikazes are on their way to… zzzzzz).

    Needless to say, The Transformers is not one of my priorities this blockbuster season.

    Besides, I also never got the whole Transformers thing, either, the first time it came around, even though I was a big fan of Japanese robot shows. It was hard to get excited about that particular battle between good and evil. I just had no inbuilt prejudice against… planes. Plus. I never got past why an ancient alien culture populated by AIs would have evolved to be either anthropomorphic or… forms of transportation for human beings. It was also ridiculous that a semi would pose any kind of a challenge to a Tomcat.

    Of course, I was 12 or so when the show began, which may have had a lot to do with why it just never took with me. My brother was a huge fan, but he is five years my junior. I don’t know what excuse men currently in their mid-30s have for keeping the flames of their boycrush on Optimus Prime burning.


  2. What I didn’t know about the movie was that it had very heavy military involvement–with actual military personnel playing the roles of the soliders in the movie. I find the following quotes funny, considering it’s a movie about giant alien transforming robots. I’ve taken a few editorial liberties, which are marked by brackets.

    “The movie was fantastic,” said Chief Master Sgt. Mike Gasparetto stationed at the Pentagon. “The special effects were amazing and there was even a good plot to go with it. The movie accurately depicted life in the military and I think is a great recruiting tool [for wars against giant alien transforming robots]. The movie did a great job of putting a face on what we do as Airmen and as servicemembers [against giant alien transforming robots], which I think is important for the general public to see so they understand better our job in protecting them [against giant alien transforming robots].”

    “Military people will get a lot out of this movie because of how realistic they depicted the way it is in the field [against giant alien transforming robots], the way we all work together [against giant alien transforming robots], and the equipment we use [against giant alien transforming robots],” said Army Sgt. Charles Eggleston, a Walter Reed patient. “The whole thing was action packed and I loved seeing the A-10 ‘bringing the rain’ [to the giant alien transforming robots] the way they always came to help us out while I was in Iraq. Some of my fellow Soldiers and I were talking about it’s funny that with all the movies out there, it took a movie about alien robots invading the planet to get the military stuff right.”

    So apparently, military guys really are “stolid and heroic and talk like they’re in a 1940s war-bond seller”.

    http://www.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123059424


  3. Ugh. For the record, the Air Force isn’t REALLY part of the rest of the military…yikes.

    I have noticed, however, that the oath has changed. I’ve raised my right hand and “solemnly sworn” a few times now. Around 1997, after “…all enemies, foreign and domestic” they added “and extraterrestrial.” But they whisper that part. I think it was driven by “Independence Day” more than anyhting else, because who wants to be taken away from your stripper-girlfriend on a long weekend unless you’ve sworn an oath to do so? A man’s got to have a plan after all.



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