I cannot begin to describe to you how much I loathed Transformers, but I shall attempt to find the words.
But first a confession. I hate Michael Bay's films (Bad Boys, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, The Island). Still, I badly wanted to like Transformers. I hoped against hope that it would be good. I made a concerted effort to wipe away all vestiges of my knee-jerk repugnance to Bay's oeuvre. After all, I thought, the usual reasons I detest Bay's films—they're big and loud, with skimpy plots, showy car chases, massive explosions, testosterone-fueled action, etc.—might actually be just the things Transformers requires.
Yes, I am one of those 30-somethings who grew up playing with the original Hasbro toys. And yes, I used to love to watch the fantastic animated TV series in the '80s. While the animation certainly doesn't hold up 20 years later, Transformers' spirit is unchanged. They were cool then and they're cool now. All to say, I came to this film as a legit fan.
Bay and his team go to great lengths (and time) to make Transformers a human story first. The everyman at the center of this story is Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), an average 11th-grader eyeing his first car and using it to impress girls. What Sam doesn't know is that there is much more than meets the eye about the beat-up old Camaro he drives off the used car lot. Sam doesn't realize how right he is when he comments that the car seems to have a mind of its own. In fact, it does. The car is actually the Autobot Bumblebee, a vanguard sent to protect the young man who unwittingly holds the secret (within a conceit far too ridiculous and silly to even try to explain here) to an eons-old galactic civil war—the AllSpark cube, a monolith of extraordinary power that crash-landed on Earth a century earlier. Exactly what the AllSpark is and what it does is never really explained, other than that it animates anything electronic into malevolent killing machines.
But Bumblebee isn't the only robot in disguise looking for Sam. The Decepticons have found him too, and soon he is caught in a tug of war between the Autobots and Decepticons. Before it is all over, the war will spill out onto the streets of Los Angeles, and Optimus Prime will be pitted against his nemesis Megatron in a titanic battle of good and evil that will decide the fate of the entire planet.
Transformers begins strong. The voice of Peter Cullen, aka Optimus Prime from the '80s cartoon series, opens the film—a spine-tingling moment for fans of the cartoon series. Unfortunately, it is the last such moment. Everything begins to unravel the second the Autobots reveal themselves to Sam and begin speaking. They are jaunty and playful, speaking in jive and hipster speech that, they tell us, they learned from trolling the Web. They come off as parodies of their original cartoon selves, incompetent clowns who bumble around like ridiculous circus performers.
Even gallant Optimus Prime is reduced to mouthing ridiculous one-liners. "My bad," he says sheepishly when stepping on a piece of Sam's father's landscaping decor. While this clownish behavior would seem ridiculous coming from any of the titanium behemoths, it is especially troubling to see that even Prime does not escape unscathed. Are we seriously supposed to believe these are the same all-powerful beings who are here to save our world? Bay sacrifices whatever sort of credibility the film might have, substituting cheap laughs for substantive characterization. The film never recovers.
Prime has always been the ultimate father figure. For a generation growing up during the '80s, he represented a leader of stalwart bravery and impeccable wisdom. His moral clarity was inspirational to young boys desperately looking for role models. When Prime sacrificed himself in Transformers: The Movie, it was both tragic and valiant. Even as a child, I recognized the obvious parallels between Christ and the Autobot mission. Coming from a distant place, the Autobots arrived on Earth to save us from an unspeakable evil, even if the only way to achieve that was self-sacrifice.
That's a storyline with some weight, but it never takes hold here, mainly because of the film's singular inability to even pretend to take itself seriously. While a certain amount of self-deprecation is healthy (and can be found in the cartoon series), Bay takes it to such protracted lengths that it has no chance of being anything but a caricature.
Another subplot—dealing with Section Seven, a shadowy government organization established to protect the AllSpark cube—runs afoul of believability when front man John Turturro arrives in a role so ridiculously over-the-top and lampooned that his preposterousness is topped only by the comic antics of a ridiculous Decepticon named Frenzy who coverts into a beatbox.
Did I expect too much? Did I expect the film to treat the original story as sacrosanct? No. But why can't Transformers take itself seriously? On their face The Lord of the Rings and The Matrix (among so many examples) are preposterous. The reason they work so well is because the filmmakers behind them tackled their subject matter with utter sincerity and absolute seriousness. There was no winking at the audience. They treated their subject matter as if the world they were creating was completely believable—and since they believed in it, so did we.
Bay has no such interest. He is incapable of making a film without his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. Some people find that sort of filmmaking fun and accessible. I find it exasperating, cheap and disrespectful of his viewers. He is out to have a good time at the expense of his material. He cares more about theatrics than substance, more about cheap laughs than genuine humor, more about splashy effects than the heartbeat of a genuine story.
Not that the actors don't try within the constraints they are given. LaBeouf is one of the finest actors of his generation, and while this is the sort of film that hardly allows him to stretch his wings, it is a nice venue for him to enjoy showing off his comic dexterity and rapid-fire motor mouth. As his love interest, Megan Fox, like the film's CGI, is little more than eye candy—but her skimpy attire and sometimes sexualized body language could lead some teen boys (not to mention grown men) to impure thoughts. Additionally, there's a brief subplot about LaBeouf's character possibly struggling with masturbation.
But the actors here are mere props for Industrial Light & Magic's spectacular CGI, which represents a new high water mark. The robots are so phenomenally detailed that it took supercomputers 38 hours to render just one frame of movement! They move with impressive grace and fluidity, always convincing in terms of weight and proportion. Their metamorphoses are staggeringly complex and, according to the digital artist that created them, done with complete accuracy.
While the effects are extraordinary, at some point it just becomes an overwhelming and indistinguishable deluge of flying wreckage, sporadic explosions, and gnarled heaps of metal. It is all sound and fury, signifying nothing. The film's climax ends too suddenly, resolving itself in a sort of techno-babble conceit that would have us believe that it makes sense merely because that's the way the alien technology works.
Transformers is dumbed-down movie-making. Bay has said the film was crafted to appeal to 9-to-15-year-olds. At the screening I attended, the audience erupted into applause as the closing credits rolled; maybe they were merely getting in touch with their inner children. Just when I felt totally alone in the universe, a man behind me stood, screamed Michael Bay's name, and unleashed a string of profanities. But no matter what the critics say, the film will still be a hit, with Bay laughing all the way to the bank.Discussion starters
- In what ways is Optimus Prime a Christ figure? Why is the "Christ figure" such a reoccurring, dominant theme in movies?
- One of the film's themes is whether humanity is worth saving. Is humanity worth saving? Does our goodness outweigh our propensity for evil? What does the Bible say?
- Transformers examines the premise of man's inability to control his mechanical creations, and if we are not careful, our technology will overtake our ability to understand or manage it. What examples of this do you see in our lives?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Transformers is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action violence, brief sexual humor and language. The violence is explosive and intense, but usually along the line of cartoon or comic-book esthetics; there's not much blood shown, but people are killed in all sorts of violent manners. Also of concern is the language and sexuality. There are more profanities (including several uses of God's name in vain) than in many PG-13 films. The female lead character is usually in skimpy attire, showing lots of midriff and cleavage, and sometimes using highly sexualized body language. Meanwhile, there's a brief subplot about the male lead character's possible struggles with masturbation. Additionally, a robot urinates on a human. All to say, use discretion and discernment.
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