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A look back: “Transformers”

July 1, 2014

[Since the latest in the Transformers, ah, trilogy? Series? Purgatory? Whatever. The latest Transformers movie just came out, so I figured I’d repost my original reviews…]

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“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.

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