Monday, July 2, 2007

Michael Bay's Transformers

As a kid I had Transformers toys, I watched the television series without fail, and collected the original Marvel Comics Transformers series (all 80 issues and those lame cross-over mini-series too!). So the fanboy in me was ecstatic when I learned that a live-action film of the comics, television show, and toys I grew up with was going to be attempted. But when I heard that Michael Bay was going to head the project I felt less than thrilled. Remember, this is from the guy who defended The Island, but I still doubted whether Bay could translate the stories of my youth to the big screen. I shouldn’t have worried because he didn’t even try. There isn’t a single recognizable moment from the Transformers of my childhood other than you’ve got robots that transform into objects and vehicles. I am deeply saddened that Bay and his writers didn’t trust the source material and the original character designs and mythology choosing instead to throw out over twenty-years of history to do it their own way. The result is less, far less, than meets the eye.

Where to begin? The movie is called Transformers but it’s a pretty misleading title as the Transformers themselves are shoved into the background. The focus, instead, is on the humans in the film.

The main storyline involves Sam (not Spike, no they couldn’t even get his name right!) Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) and his infatuation with a beautiful classmate (Megan Fox) and dealing with his parents (Kevin Dunn, Julie White) and learning about the important discovery of his ancestor (W. Morgan Sheppard) in the arctic.

There’s also the tale of an army platoon in the deserts of the Middle East which is almost completely wiped out by an large mechanical scorpion. The survivors (Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson) battle their way home. So instead of epic Autobot vs. Decepticon battles we get to watch Tad Hamilton and the guy from 2 Fast 2 Furious attempt to save the day. Joy!

The third storyline involves Defense Secretary John Keller (Jon Voight) enlisting the help of a bunch of kids (Rachael Taylor, Colin Fickes, Tom Lenk) to uncover the source of top secret transmissions. Yeah… I’m sure the government always pulls in students from local schools and gives them access to top secret information all the time when something like this happens. Riiiiight. There’s also a subplot about a top secret (meaning high school students must run its web page) government agency, run by Agent Simmons (John Turturro), who know more than they are letting on.

Have you noticed we have spent this much time on plot and haven’t talked about Transformers yet? See, in a movie called Transformers, that’s a problem.

Since the main storylines are cluttered with human characters the Transformers themselves aren’t given enough screentime to make them fully developed characters. Bay and his team instead use the big robots for action sequences, explosions, and stunts, making what should be the stars of the film into little more than special effects.

Aside from how they are presented there are numerous problems with the Transformers themselves. First, because the film made a deal with GMC all the vehicles must be GMC vehicles. This means that none of Autobots, in robot form or in vehicle form look correct. Bumblebee is a Camaro? Ironhide is a silver pick-up? Ratchet is a yellow and red Hummer? I realize some changes might have to be made, but this is like making a Knight Rider film with K.I.T.T as a blue mini-van or casting Will Ferrell to play Shaft. It just doesn’t work because anyone with half a brain know not to try. What, was there no one with even half a brain attached to this project?

Even Optimus Prime, the closest looking to the original model, is vastly different. It also doesn’t help when Peter Cullen is the only original voice to return for the film and several of Transformers including Soundwave (who gets a ridiculous looking make-over here) speak in a clicking dialect which I’m assuming is supposed to make pre-pubescent boys laugh. There is no logical explanation as to why some of these extremely advanced machines understand English fluently and others do not. And forget any of the tapes showing up, all this Soundwave does is look goofy and shoot out pointy cd’s at people. No Rumble, no Ravage, and no Laserbeak here.

Whle were on the subject of mistakes Prowl was an Autobot and a police car. Yet in the film Prowl is a Decepticon who they have renamed Barracade. Huh? If you can’t even get the look and characteristics of the characters right what’s the point in making the movie? In total there are only about a dozen Transformers in the movie (no Wheeljack, no Sideswipe, no Sunstreaker, no Shockwave, and no Dinobots) but aside from one scene where Prime introduces the five Autobots to Sam there is no differentiating the characters to the audience. Even this scene is played for laughs, rather than to introduce the characters, as the robots all act like the films and television signals they have been listening too. Wow, whose three-year-old came up with that joke?

One of my favorite Transformers is Megatron, leader of the Decepticons who spends most of the film frozen in statsis, and after he’s melted it gets really bad. For starters he is unrecognizable. He’s not a gun or a tank (like in later incarnations of the character); he doesn’t even have his trademark laser canon! Instead he’s some huge BeastMaster looking thing who growls and spits out dialogue like the Incredible Hulk. Seriously, I kept waiting for him to say “Megatron SMASH!” The original voice of Megatron was Earl Hammond who chose to die back in 2002 rather than live on to be a part of this fiasco. Lucky bastard. He is voiced here by Hugo Weaving whose distinctive voice is impossible to understand or pick-out from the growling and drooling this Megatron seems to enjoy. This terrific movie villain is turned into the Big Bad Wolf. It would be sad if it weren’t so unintentionally funny. And can someone explain to me why a robot needs fangs?

Ignoring the myriad of problems above, for a moment, let’s get down to why the Transformers are on Earth. Rather than using the explanation from the original series or comic, the writers create a mysterious life-giving cube called “the All-Spark” which can give life to any mechanical object. How it does this isn’t even considered, let alone explained. The All-Spark is on Earth and both sides want it. What’s odd about the All-Spark is each time it is unintentionally used it makes nearby machines turn into mass-murdering Decpeticons. Why does it turn all machines evil? The script does it for cheap laughs at having people run for their lives from a Coke machine, but by doing so it raises the question - are all machines inherently evil? If so, how does that explain the Autobots? If not, why doesn’t the All-Spark create any Autobots? These are the types of questions which will drive you crazy as you watch this film.

We’ve gotten this far without discussing the many and myriad logic holes throughout the film. First off the the movie contains several scenes where these huge metal robots tiptoe around public areas and are completely unseen as they cause destruction with every step. There’s also a scene where Soundwave leaves a grounded Air Force One, walks across the runway whistling and gets into a car and drives off without a single person noticing. There is a limit to my disbelief and this film stretches far, far beyond.

I’ve said before that the film seems geared to pre-pubescent boys. That’s certainly where the humor lies with two urination jokes, a masturbation joke, and several provocative shots at the young teen leading lady. All well and good for the twelve-year-old next to me, but how about something for the rest of us to enjoy too?

Fans, and critics, of Bay’s films will also find several of his trademark touches including the obligatory sassy black characters (Bernie Mac, Anthony Anderson, Esther Scott - we can always count on Bay to put race relations back fifty-plus-years with each film), huge and increasingly ridiculous special effects (count how many times Sam’s body alone should be crushed throughout the film, wait - you’d have to see the film to do that, nevermind) and trademark scenes of military personel and vehicles set to rising music intended to make your patriotism swell (there are shots I am positive were lifted straight out of Pearl Harbor).

A final note. This is a personal objection I have to the movie. Over the course of the film military personnel in camaflogue combat fatigues battle in bombed out buildings in the desert and in cities which are at times eerily similar to current events in the Middle East. Others may not be offended by the film’s bad taste in the use of such images, but for me it was just one more mistake in an ever-increasing list of things gone wrong with this film.

Other than some nice transformations of robots to vehicles and back again and a couple big action sequences (which you can find in countless other, and better, films) there is nothing worth watching in this movie. Fans of the orginial characters will be deeply disappointed. Those unfamiliar with the characters may not feel the lack of nostalgia I did, but they will still be trapped in a dumb action flick without much enjoyment or sense for almost two-and-a-half hours. What a waste of $150,000,000.

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