It is pure foolishness to go into a film like Transformers expecting art, so my expectations were relatively modest: I just wanted to have a good time, and see some exciting action scenes. That's why Michael Bay films exist in the first place, isn't it? I feel this was reasonable expectation: a little excitement, a lot of fine stunt work. No need to be a snob about it. Who doesn't enjoy a little carnage candy from time to time? And besides, respected film critics (some of whom I know personally...), -- as well as close friends of mine -- had relatively positive things to say about the film.
Which makes me suspect that either those people have temporarily lost their minds, or I seriously need a lobotomy so I can join the club. Because any way you slice it, Transformers is a two-hour insult to the intelligence and especially the genre of sci-fi.
At fifteen minutes, I wanted to turn the thing off, and watch a smarter movie...like, say, Bay's Armageddon (1998). At a half hour (a seeming eternity...), I wanted to be anywhere - doing anything - besides watching the film. By the time the movie was over at 143 minutes, I was drained, spiritually exhausted from the herculean effort of paying attention to a plot that was so flimsy, so mechanical, so utterly lacking in human value and simple entertainment that it made me yearn longingly for the next episode of Ghost Whisperer. At the end of this bloody debacle, Kathryn turned to me and said, "let me quote Howard Margolin here: that was feces."
I never thought I'd say this anywhere, but this is a movie that makes the 1998 Godzilla look good by comparison. This is a film that makes Independence Day appear a paragon of intelligence, clever plotting and wit. Transformers is a movie so corrupted by blatant stupidity and fourth-grade potty humor that it makes me yearn for the subtlety and relative maturity of, for example, Lost in Space (1998). It's Underworld-bad. It's Uwe Boll bad. It's a steaming cinematic turd-pile: a stultifying, de-humanizing, seemingly-endless, self-aggrandizing paean to clanking metal and egregious product-placement (Burger King, GM, etc.) Since the whole bloody thing is based on a "product" (a popular toy line of the eighties from Hasbro), perhaps this is par for the course. But I've always preferred movies so inventive, so exciting, so imaginative that they've spawned toys, not toys that spawned movies. I guess I'm in the minority. Again, mea culpa. I'll gladly cop to that.
The biggest problem with Transformers is that - substance wise - it is actually much, much less than-"meets the eye," to coin a phrase. It throws a multitude of (bad) ideas at the screen, a sort of "kitchen sink" strategy; one no doubt carefully focus-group and poll tested, I would wager, to titillate and distract the widest possible demographic of popcorn-chomping masses. Think bread and circuses here...
The overarching strategy, I believe, is that the sheer volume and noise of all those hackneyed story elements smacking the silver screen would -- hopefully -- prevent you from thinking much about the ridiculous plot or from asking questions about the narrative. First it's a war movie set in the Middle East (topical, no?). Then it's a coming-of-age teen sex comedy (quick, get a load of Megan Fox's painted-on stripper abs while she checks under the hood of the car!) Then it's an E.T.-style schmaltzathon about a boy's friendship with a camaro-cum-robot called "Bumblebee." Then it's a hunt for a "cube," the film's McGuffin,. Then it's a conspiracy film about a secret government project, "Sector 7." And then it climaxes with platitudes about the "special" and worthwhile nature of human beings, so you can leave the theater feeling proud - proud - of yourself and your species. We're special.
Special Ed, perhaps, if the people in this film are any barometer of average human intelligence.
Never mind that you just endured over two hours of grinding metal robots and stupid, interchangeable humans killing each other, extreme destruction of property (blowed up real good!!!), offensive racial stereotypes masquerading as humor (Bernie Mac and Anthony Anderson - j'accuse), and the worst overacting from John Turturro in a Hollywood release in years. Just so long as you don't ask questions, and at the end, you feel uplifted.
Cuz that's what bread and circuses are for. This is a movie that believes - like so much of corporate Hollywood these days - more is always more, bigger is always better, and louder is always preferable. And Transformers relentlessly keeps piling on the noise and destruction, like a multi-car wreck sprawled across the highway. Eventually, you just succumb to the sheer weight piled upon your senses and give over. Kind of like a cinematic rape..one that beats you into submission and then asks you to feel good about the experience afterwards.
Here are a few questions I would like to direct at the incoherent narrative (which is so filled with plot holes you could drive Optimus Prime's truck through some of them). Why does the film's McGuffin, "the All Spark" only seem to create evil life? I thought - according to the awkward exposition - that the nature of created life would depend on who controls it. Instead, whenever the thing is "energized," it creates mean little robots. It's not a Decepticon device, is it? Secondly, how come characters (Megan Fox's character, for one) don't register shock or surprise the first time that they see a giant robot lumbering towards them? But then, later, some of the very same characters all gasp at the sight of the captured Megatron --- once they already know giant robots exist and are here on Earth?
Here's another good question: How does Megatron stay frozen under Hoover Dam when he's not in a hermetically-sealed chamber and we plainly see human scientists walking all around him? So let me get this straight:.humans (who are much smaller organisms) aren't frozen in this environment, but the giant robot is? Why, also, do the robots always feel the need to announce each other by name when they are about to engage in mortal combat. "Optimus Prime, I will destroy you!" "Megatron!" etc. Based on this facet of the film, I eagerly await the officially licensed Transformers drinking game.
I have tried - with patience and logic - to pin a few people down about why this movie is so good in their eyes. One answer I keep getting is that Peter Cullen did the voice of Optimus Prime in the 1980s and it's cool he got to do it again for the 2007 movie. Well sure. Okay. That is cool! Neat. Warms the cockles, really. Next?
Then they say, "the special effects were great." Yes. Indeed. The giant robots are very cool to look at. And the special effects are impressive.
For about five minutes. Again, this movie lasts 143 of 'em.
After that, I hear: "well I grew up with the Transformers in the 1980s, so it's about nostalgia." I appreciate nostalgia; one could argue, actually, that this blog is a testament to nostalgia. What baffles me, however, is that these are the self-same people who grew up with Godzilla, Planet of the Apes, Halloween, The Omen, Battlestar Galactica Scooby Doo, and other older franchises, but they don't feel nostalgia for the modern interpretations of those franchises. In fact, they give those modern adaptations no quarter, no mercy. So why fall for something as loud and empty-headed as Transformers? Shit, I'd even take Burton's Planet of the Apes over this excrement (and I despise that film with a passion).
Okay, okay. Bottom line: is this movie exciting? That was my expectation going in - an exciting time - so even if the movie was stupid, did it get my heart pumping faster?
Well, er, no. Except, perhaps, in righteous outrage. By my reckoning, cinematic excitement generates from the fact that you know and like the characters in jeopardy. So that at the moment when the car chase or the final battle arrives, you care so much about those people that you are emotionally, deeply engaged, concerned for their welfare, even when you shouldn't be because you've seen a million movies before. We all know that Luke Skywalker will win the day, that James Bond will survive for the next film and so on...but because we care about those characters and their universes, we suspend disbelief and find ourselves involved. Is there one character in Transformers we actually care about? Just one? I submit there is not.
Again, don't give me the "this is an action movie" not a character piece argument. I love the Die Hard movies...because John McClane is a personality we care about, and there is something human at stake when he goes head to head with terrorists. Ditto the amazing and inventive Bourne movies. Action movies work not merely because of the stunts, but because of the people - the personalities - fronting the stunts. Transformers' human beings are more pre-programmed, more predictable and more robotic than the titular mechanisms. The officious "government" agent. The bad girl (juvenile record) with a good heart who dresses like a pole dancer. The awkward kid with the pumping heart of a hero. The sassy comic-relief black dude. The cutesie, bickering but loving parents. Is any character in the film more than the sum of a cliche, maybe two?
And that's the most important reason why this movie is a travesty: it understands robots poorly, but it understands human beings even less so. The authors of the unfortunate screenplay, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, are doing Star Trek next. I had read a lot of interviews with them before seeing Transformers and felt very confident in their skills. Now...not so much.
If Star Trek proves to be this dumb and vapid, I shall become enormously depressed...and - honestly - may never recover. Movies - especially movies in the imaginative terrain of the sci-fi genre - carry a unique duty, in my estimation, a responsibility to show and tell us things that are challenging, different or new. They can exist in the terrain of action, but they must also speak to the human mind and the human soul (like Alien, Terminator, Planet of the Apes, The Matrix, Star Trek).
Transformers doesn't do that. It doesn't engage on any human level. It's a loud, gimmicky steam-roller that tramples over the intelligence of an audience. It's not a good action flick, it's not a good science fiction movie, and the film's clockwork, manipulative heart speaks volumes about the movie industry today. And the much ballyhooed action sequences? There isn't one in the film that matches the highway chase set-piece in The Matrix Reloaded. Not one.
Transformers is a grotesque and cynical dollar-sucker. Even if you like the TV show. Even if you like fighting robots. Even if you've never seen a movie before. Even if you're bored. Even if you have half-a-brain. Even if you watch it with one eye open. Even if you watch it on drugs. Even if you watch it in your sleep.
Feces indeed. I haven't hated a movie this much in years.