Tuesday, July 03, 2007
REVIEW: Transformers (2007)
"I hung up and said, 'Thank you, I'm not doing that stupid, silly toy movie,'" --Director Michael Bay, on his initial reaction to being offered the directing duties on "Transformers"
That quote seems to pop up in nearly every remotely-in-depth interview with Michael Bay regarding the making of the film. I'm not sure what amuses me more about it: The idea that Michael Bay, maker of the most empty, commercial-esque films of ANY A-list director, somehow feels he's "above" making a movie based on a line of action figures; or the idea that he feels he's in a good position to turn down a near-garaunteed hit after having just made "The Island."
"Why does Michael Bay get to keep on making movies?" --The End of An Act, "Team America: World Police"
Acting, as all Movie Geeks find themselves acting at one point or another, as the Geek in Residence among both ordinary folks and the odd oldschool "Film Buff," I often find myself answering "on behalf" of my fellows - at least to the best of my ability. From the "Buffs," one question that tends to come up a lot is "Why do Movie Geeks by-and-large give such a pass to Michael Bay?" It's a fair question, given the amount of hyperbolic vitriol the general Geekdom sends in the direction of "Hack Pack" filmmakers (Tim Story, Brett Ratner, Paul W.S. Anderson, etc.) versus the "meh, his stuff is good for a laugh, especially "Bad Boys 2!!" backhanded-praise it generally floats toward Bay.
The best reason I've been able to offer is, basically, that those others have "offended" Movie Geekdom "personally" in ways Bay hasn't: By the "screwing-up" of hallowed geek-appeal franchises. Anderson is not loathed (perhaps too much, I think in his case) for being an iffy filmmaker, he's loathed for making an iffy film out of "Resident Evil." Story's crime is the two "Fantastic Four" attempts, while Ratner managed the impossible feat of making a dull Jackie Chan film AND drove "X-Men" into a wall. Bay has "skated," for the most part, because as far as Geekdom tends to be concerned his output- however questionable it may be- has never "defiled sacred ground." (Though I know a few WWII vets/afficionados who would disagree i.e. "Pearl Harbor.")
I bring this up because, as of this most recent film, Geek "sacred ground" is looking pretty damn defiled... and Michael Bay's "free ride" from the Geek Community (for whatever it's worth) has probably come to an end. "Transformers" is easily one of, if not the, worst films of 2007.
A certain number of you are already discounting the entire review for that. Because you've seen the banner up top, read the other posts, and are thus already saying some variation of "Whatever. Guy's a geek, he's just mad that they changed the way the robots look and remixed the story so that people OTHER than nerds who memorized all the mythology can follow it."
And I'm not gonna lie to you or pretend that all the other easily-searchable posts on this blog about "Transformers" didn't exist: I've been wary of this one for awhile, and yeah, I am a huge, huge geek especially when it comes to sprawling scifi sagas about giant alien robots. I'll say it up front: My "dream" version of a Transformers movie would be a 100% robot-centric, humans-as-background-details epic dripping in fifty Wiki's worth of continuity and mythos about Cybertron, Vector Sigma, the Matrix of Leadership and Energon Cubes; Soundwave deploying Laserbeak from his chest and Megatron inexplicably morphing into a gun twenty times smaller than his normal size, and everyone looking as close to their "original" conception as possible... ALL OF IT played at the level of deadpan portentousness usually reserved for Biblical epics.
But I'm also enough of a realist to understand that I was probably never going to get that version, in the same way and for the same reasons that I'll probably never see "The Silmarillon" announced as an in-production LOTR prequel. The most any reasonable person could ask was that the film be a solid, mostly-serious scifi/actioner, that the characters be engaging and reasonably similar to their original incarnations and that the overall result would be a fun "newcomers welcome" reimagining of "Transformers" mythology. In short, a decent action film about battling good and evil robots hiding out on Earth in the form of cars, planes etc...
...and even on THAT narrow criteria, "Transformers" proves itself a devastating failure. It features an awful screenplay, built on a flimsy structure and draped with some of the worst dialogue ever spoken even in Michael Bay movies. It's human characters are too numerous, badly developed and horribly acted - any actor who CAN give a bad performance is giving it here - while the mechanical ones are largely indistinguishable, uninteresting or annoying. If there's a misstep that can be made, it's made. Better movies are ripped off, interesting ideas are tossed aside.
It's tempting to consider that having ANY high expectations for this sort of film is a losing prospect. The original "Transformers" series (and yes, it IS germane to the discussion since without it this franchise wouldn't have become so enduring as to be worth making into a shitty Michael Bay movie) that the film takes the bulk of it's main inspiration from was such a "lightning in a bottle" thing... somehow what was only ever meant to be - what perhaps only ever had any business being - a toy commercial in narrative form wound up with a gift-from-the-gods vocal cast and an ambitious writing staff and somehow transformed ITSELF into a genuinely worthwhile peice of youth-oriented pulpy scifi. It wasn't Tolkein, sure, but at it's very best it could occasionally approach, say, Burroughs. But thats the exception, not the rule, both for the genre and for the franchise overall. But even that hard truth can't excuse how truly, stunningly bad most of this movie is.
Props to the "Pinkagumma" guy who made this.
Just so we're all on the same page, short version: There was a civil war on the machine planet Cybertron between rival factions of Transformers, (sentient robots who can "hide" by changing shape to resemble indigenous technology,) that eventually destroyed the place. Now, matching teams of Autobots (good guys) and Decepticons (bad guys) are continuing their fight on Earth, hiding out in the form of cars and trucks (in the Decepticons' case, military and police vehicles) while seeking important items scattered around the planet. In the series, it was "Energon," in this film it's "The Allspark Cube," a Cybertronian relic capable of turning ANY mechanical device into an instant-Transformer.
What is at first immediately apparent is that Bay and most of his associates clearly have no interest whatsoever in the material they've been assigned to make a film out of. Despite being the title characters, the Transformers themselves are pushed to the sidelines and reduced to guest stars in "their" own movie. Instead, Bay occupies an INSANE amount of time spinning his wheels on his preferred visual subject matter: Masturbatory shots of vehicles in motion, heroic magic-hour slo-mo tableauxs of American military personal striding toward and away-from helipads, huge roomfuls of Pentagon suits barking orders at a sea of deskbound techies and autumn-hued explosions - every once in awhile, he plugs a Transformer or two into the background just so we remember which movie we're watching.
Still MORE time is spent rehashing a lot of business we've already seen done 100 times better in "Independence Day," as Defense Officials, bright-young-thing hacker wizards and a cut-rate MIB knockoff called "Sector Seven" go through the motions of a generic Alien Invasion movie. Amid all this, Bay also proves himself a singular talent at misusing good actors, coaxing a shockingly bad performance from John Tuturro and a shockingly dull one from Jon Voigt. Meanwhile, Josh Duhammel and Tyrese Gibson stand around as survivors of a Decepticon-decimated army squad, so that Bay can mark time indulging in his juvenille fetishism for "Army Stuff" (when it came time to actually MAKE a serious movie about the Military, it was "Pearl Harbor" and he wasn't up to it.)
But the majority of the film is centered around "it-boy" Shia LeBeouf as Sam Witwicky, a dorky High Schooler who just found out his new car is the Autobot "Bumblebee" and is going through a "boy becomes a man arc" thats plays out like Bay's demo-reel trying to prove himself adept at aping executive producer Big Poppa Spielberg's signature "E.T."-isms. Let's be clear, here, and "Transfans" especially hear me loud and clear: The movie is about LeBeouf as a cut-rate Elliot, and the Transformers are just his glorified sidekicks. Aside from leader Optimus Prime, who gets lots of expository narration, even the most random human characters get more overall screentime than any of the Autobots, and aside from two cameos the Decepticons don't even show up until the final twenty minutes or so. LeBeouf is a promising actor, and it's been understandable elsewhere why Spielberg has flipped for him, but here he's getting no help in a godawful role in a godawful film.
The desire of the producers to ground the story in a generic "reality" is regrettable, but understandable. Problem is, the focus on LeBeouf's story leads the film into it's most unimaginably awful territory: HUGE scenes that go on forever focus on the cutsie-poo "comedy" of Bumblebee helping not-yet-robot-aware Sam score with the object of his desire (Megan Fox in the role of Assembly-Line-Maxim-Hottie-With-No-Business-Trying-To-Act) by spontaneously tuning in love songs on the radio and other "Herbie"-like foolishness. Bay and company even go so far as to steal from "The Iron Giant" with a hatefully bad scene of Sam trying to "hide" his new Autobot pals in the backyard.
And then there's the Transformers themselves. Look, I'm still not a fan of the overly-busy new look for most of them, back that would be easily forgiven if they just weren't such awful characters. Of the whole lot, only Peter Cullen's Optimus Prime manages to come off decently, despite his ill-advised flame paintjob and goofy gorilla face, thanks to the voice-acting vets solid delivery (yes, fans, "transform and roll out," "one shall stand, one shall fall" and "freedom is the right of all sentient beings" are all spoken at least once.) The rest of them are either incredibly annoying (looking as YOU Bumblebee and Jazz) or uninteresting (Ratchet and Ironhide, who may as well not even be in the film.) The Decepticons fare a little better, since they're in the film even LESS and thus can't be as faulted for being badly characterized, but it's STILL a dissapointment to report how anticlimactic and dull a Big Bad Megatron turns out to be.
There's badness in this I haven't even touched on yet. Seriously, pages and pages could be written about the uselessness of all the extraneous characters, the shameless cribbing from movies WAY too recent and well known to be "okay" to lift from, and how craptastic the second act is. But I think you get the basic idea: Even with my lowered expectations going in, "Transformers" is a complete dud. And, damn it, it depresses me to say that. Not only because, yes, as both a Geek and a child of the 80s I can honestly still imagine a GOOD movie having been made from this material; but because I've always been a staunch proponent that ANYTHING can be made into a great film, be it a Peabody Award winning book or a line of toys... and the complete artistic failure of "Transformers" makes it that much harder to argue that point.
Still, I can take at least two comforts in this. First: That the film is going to get SLAUGHTERED at the boxoffice in it's second week by "Harry Potter," an event which will mark the most satisfying instance of something getting the crap pounded out of it by a scrappy Englishman outside of a "Transporter" sequel...
...and second, that the pile of money it's going to (regretably) make in it's FIRST week will probably insure the greenlighting of every other 80s toy-toon thats been snapped up for film deals in the runup to this. Which means A.) others are free to try and succeed where Bay has failed, and B.) either way, I'll get the fun of watching CHUD's Devin Faraci have a cow every time one gets announced: http://www.chud.com/index.php?type=news&id=10575
FINAL RATING: 2/10