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
http://www.chud.com/index.php?type=news&id=10315
http://www.chud.com/index.php?type=news&id=10039

FINAL RATING: 2/10

9 comments:

Nate said...

Bob, I will get to a detailed rebuttal of your post later but I have to wonder... was there ANY chance of this movie being "good" for you?

From your earlier reviews I can't help but think that you were going to hate this movie no matter what happened and there was nothing it could do to redeem itself in your eyes.

Nate said...

Ok, point by point...

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."

There is a simpler explination. Michael Bay gets the audience. For better or worse he understands that people often just want fun, pure escapism from their movies and he doesn't try to be overly pretenous unlike a lot of movie makers who seem to be too self absorbed with how "important" their films are.

"Transformers" is easily one of, if not the, worst films of 2007.

My bias meter is going off. I mean, really the worst film? I liked it far far more than Pirates 3.

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.

I'm having such trouble following the logic here. They might really make a Silmarillon movie (or as I pointed out, MULTIPLE movies from the stories in Silmarillon). You version probably wouldn't get made because it'd make a sum total of [maybe] $1,000. Besides, I thought we already had that movie. Why not just admit you wanted a live version of the first transformers movie.

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

Sidelines? I don't have the hard numbers yet, but I'll bet you money bob that if you tallyed the the total film minutes with the total minutes of the transformers it'd be well over 50% (probably closer to 80). Or are you saying that their "alt" forms don't count? Only robot forms? (even then, frenzy racks up a large tally)

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"

Well you've lost a fan with this.

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.

No, actually I don't. Unlike F4-2 you at least gave better details on how it's bad. You basically just scream over and over "it's bad it's bad" without giving any real concrete examples. Or even one example of how it could have been better. I certainly liked how for once it really looked at what the impact on humans of these giant kick-ass robots showing up would be. The autobots came off as even more heroic then ever as we watch them actually make an effort to spare every human they can. Yeah I'm disappointed that we didn't get to see as much interacting between the bots (good and bad) as I would have liked, but this was an introduction movie. Like spider-man, we're just laying ground work for movie 2 which will really rock out.

Striker Z said...

I can't remember - what movie did Transporter 2 beat out at the box office?


And as to all that other stuff raised by the previous poster - I've noticed that this year has seen the culmination in a trend. One that sparked in '03 with Matrix sequels, kept trickling on bit-by-bit, expanded during last summer with X3 and Superman, and finally reaches a noticable climax with the infinite sequels of this year.

Namely, geeks aren't even vaguely united in their like or hate for the geek franchises.

Seriously, I know people - serious, hardcore Fantastic Four fans - who though that Silver Surfer was an awesome movie (haven't actually seen it myself, though I'll admit, one of them calling the Galactus cloud 'Lovecraftian' does sound like he was lying to himself). I've seen plenty of heated debates over whether a franchise was ruined or redeemed in the second or third movie, or whether the added bits to Daredevil make it more watchable, etc, etc. This is probably going to have an odd effect on geek culture. I think by next year, the idea of things being forever fixed in a certain geek outlook - written in stone on the internet, as you once put it - might actually be gone. Which suits me fine, because, despite being a geek, I find myself being at complete odds with everyone else lately (case in point - anything good said by anyone regarding anything in Marvel or DC comics in the last 24 months.)

Oh, and as for Transformers, well, I can't say that I was surprised. I wasn't planning on seeing it anyways. I got my good TF movie long ago, and I need to save money for other summer movies.

Bob said...

FYI, "nate"

I've opted to respond to you in the main blog. As a courtesy, I did not name you specifically. So if you want to keep this going, do so on that post ;)

Suz said...

Wow, I'd like to give you a handkerchief to wipe the foam from your mouth.

You obviously were expecting something completely different. I'm sorry that you were so disappointed in this film. I went to it expecting to be let down because that seems to be the theme of the summer. I left, along with the majority of the people in the theater, with a smile on my face.

It ultimately comes down to preference, and yours obviously differs with mine and others. My gosh, you want the directors of Mighty Joe Young, Jurassic Park 3, or The Mummy to take the helm of a Transformers movie? What are you thinking? What movie has more cheesy jokes and sight gags than The Mummy? What movie has more of a overworked premise than Jurassic Park 3? Talking dinosaurs? Give me a break! Mighty Joe Young? I fell asleep in the middle of that movie.

Again, I guess we all have our preferences.

Casey Malone said...

LOVED IT!
It suffered from the same stuff every non-The-Rock Bay movie suffers from, Sam Witwicky comes off as a total asshole for the first half of the movie (more to do with my distaste, as I get the feeling that average Yeah Dude thought he was "the shit" and would totally "play madden with that guy") and the Decepticons are pretty woefully underused as characters (ESPECIALLY starscream), BUT THAT BEING SAID...

Optimus made me feel small. The way being in the room with Superman should make you feel. I was inspired and awed.

Megatron scared the shit out of me. When he was frozen I felt this inexplicable dread that he was going to get free (which he obviously does).

The movie regressed me to an 8 year old so quickly that it completely had me, and I loved it.

Surya said...

my friend wrote in his blog about transformers. it's very funny, bob. i think you should check it out. http://thefool.multiply.com/journal/item/86

Vincent said...

There's a key reason why so much of the movie focuses on Sam and car-mode Bumblebee. The movie wants us to form a bond with the Transformers. But it's not easy for an adult audience to bond with giant warrior robots.

Sure, when we were 8 year old kids, it was easy to fall in love with the Transformers. When you're 8 years old, you fall in love with everything. You love your G.I. Joe toys, you love your teddy bear, you love spending all your pocket money on candy, you go ape-shit over ice cream, etc.

But how do you get teenagers and adults to fall in love with warrior robots? You need a 'halfway' point, where the filmmakers and audiences members can meet. Once you've got the audience to the 'halfway' point, you can coax them all the way to the intended destination.

In the real world, what's the closest thing that exists to a loving bond between man and machine? The answer: the bond formed between men and their cars. Certain men just love their cars. They care for their car, they modify and upgrade it, wash and wax it, buff out any dents, polish the windows and windshield, install a powerful sound system, and then they take her out for a spin and feel the wind in their hair.

This love between a man and his prized automobile is the 'halfway' point that allows the audience to be coaxed into forming an attachment to the Autobots. We can all relate to the feeling of loving a car, of loving the thrill of driving it and the freedom it gives us to go where we please. Sam's love for his car is the springboard from which the audience can leap towards a full-blown love of Bumblebee and the rest of the Autobots.

I think it was a brilliant - yes, brilliant - move on the part of the filmmakers to spend so much time depicting Sam's growing love for his car. That way, when Bumblebee finally transforms into robot-mode, Sam and the audience feel connected to the robot, because when we look at Bumblebee we see an anthropomorphized version of our own beloved automobiles.

And I also appreciated the storylines featuring the soldiers. Not because the soldiers themselves were particularly interesting, but because the audience needed to understand just how stupidly superior the Transformers' weaponry is. The scene where the helicopter Decepticon blows the shit out of the U.S. Army base was greatly needed. We, the audience, needed to see that even the might of the American military looks feeble next to a LONE Transformer.

Sure, it would have been nice if the Autobot-Decepticon battle had gotten a bit more screen-time, but it was more important to lay the foundations of the bond between us and the robots. If we don't care about the Autobots and their conflict, the big fight scenes won't mean that much. Plus, we got some pretty awesome scenes: Optimus kicking ass decapitation-style with his sword-arm, Starscream making the U.S. Air Force look like a pesky swarm of insects, Megatron showing Jazz who's boss, and Bumblebee bravely fighting on despite being severly injured.

And now that we care about the Transformers, now that the foundations have been laid, we know we'll get much more ass-kickery in the sequel.

R.S. said...

Decided to search through old reviews of yours good sir, and returned to this review of the start of the Transformers movie series.

When I did see it, I remember my first thoughts being how rushed everything involving the Transformers was. Of course there is also everything else about this movie thats wrong! Sigh.....such a shame and a waste.

IMO the best legacy of this movie and the rest of the series was how it laid the groundwork for Transformers Prime! I was born too late to appreciate the original transformers run. My intro was Beast Wars. And Prime actually recaptured what made that series work!

So regarding the legacy of the Bay series, as Moral Oral might say,

" in his own blundering way, Bay made Transformers Prime happen...and that's just Prime".