In Defense Of - Transformers (2007)
There are two properties that I can point to and tell you that these are what made me the nerd I am today: Superman and Transformers. Sure, other things came along later; Star Wars, Masters of the Universe, He-Man, the rest of the DC Universe, Marvel and so on. But at the very core of who I am, you’ll find two faces staring back at you, Kal-El and Optimus Prime.
So, as I sit down to write a review for Michael Bay’s first Transformers film and given the above confession, you, dear internet reader, are asking yourself to which group do I belong to: the people that wrap their arms around anything with the property’s name on it and defend it to the bitter end or the people that absolutely HATE anything that isn’t the original incarnation that got them hooked on the characters? Because, as well all know, no middle ground exists on the internet.
To steal a quote from the very first Transformers animated movie, “Then it pleases me to be the first.” [You’re not-Ed.]
When it comes to new movies, I just post them as a review. When I dig up something from the past, well, sometimes I’ll still just call it a review, or, like in this case, I’ll look up what Rotten Tomatoes’ consensus is as well as the vibe the film has on the internet. And it should come as no surprise that this review falls into the “In Defense Of…” category.
I popped in the blu-ray the other day so that I could prep for the upcoming release of Transformers 4: Age of Extinction. Okay, and I figured, given that first paragraph, I really needed to get some Transformers and Superman cinematic love on the website. The film opens with some Optimus Prime narration…and some people really don’t like when a movie starts off with narration. I disagree. I feel like it’s the grown up version of story-time…which is what going to the movies is! Starting in this way, everyone in that theatre is on the same page, between people who have loved the property for years and people who just decided to check out the movie because…hey, explosions. This serves as a ‘wading into the pool’ before we get into the movie’s deeper stuff. [Using ‘deeper’…in a review for a Michael Bay film? You might want to rethink that sentence. - Ed.] So we learn of the Allspark cube and how it fell to Earth…then cut to modern day Quatar. Heh, you know, back when the film came out in 2007, I thought featuring conflict in the Middle East would date the film, but it’s 7 years later, so hey, who would’ve thunk it…Transformers is a timeless classic! The military stuff is rife with clichés such as “Hey, do you guys remember weekends?”, commanding officer has child at home he wants to get back to and so forth. Now granted, it’s Michael Bay, so not only are we expecting this, we should know that the “rah-rah go US Military!” is ONLY going to get worse…much worse. Now, given that the movie operates under the ‘invasion’ sci-fi style, much of the military stuff doesn’t feel out of place. Jingoistic at times? Yes, certainly. Still, our first Transformer reveal, the Decepticon Blackout and his raid on the military base, does do an excellent job of establishing the threat.
And then we change modes. Now we’re in, as Executive Producer Steven Spielberg called it, ‘a boy and his car’ mode. We start off by meeting the main character Sam Witwicky giving a presentation to his history class about his great-great grandfather, Archibald Witwicky, who had led an expedition to the Arctic Circle. Turns out he found something up there that would eventually drive him mad…and leave an imprint on his glasses. We’re shown Sam as a desperate character…he’s desperate to get a car (so much so that he’s trying to sell equipment associated with his grandfather’s voyage to the class) and desperate to get the hot girl in the class. Speaking of desperation…if I tried to do with any of my history teachers what Sam seems to get away with here…pleading your way to a better grade? Ugh. Maybe that’s why kids are seemingly getting dumber. This will eventually lead to the acquisition of Bumblebee from Bernie Mac’s used car dealership. This brings us to Shia LaBeouf. As a stammering, awkward teenager, he does fine…but at the same time, it does wear thin. Of course, by the end of the film, he’s pretty much devolved into an anime character [Talk about irony – Ed.] where all he does is yell and shout. The Witwickys are meant to be the audience’s gateway characters, our way to identify and relate with what’s happening in the film and they serve their part mostly well. However, they are prone to, shall we say ‘eccentricities’ that maybe should’ve been cut out of later drafts of the script: the ‘bling’ on the Chihuahua and the whole ‘special, alone time’ scene come readily to mind.
Our third mode of the film [Woo Hoo! A triple changer! – Ed.] focuses on a small group of hackers, recruited by the military to track down the signal Blackout was using to get information from the military. Now, story-wise, I know why this is in the film. You need a way for the good guys to find out what the bad guys are up to without relying on exposition or villainous monologue. Fine, but I’m pretty convinced this is not the way to do it. Much of this falls under the trope of “Hollywood doesn’t understand how computers work”, which, again, Michael Bay, so it’s not entirely unexpected. But when you have an Australian model trying to say lines like “Fourier transfers”…my god…it just looks DUMB. Like, casting Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist DUMB. [Well, like all triple changers, there’s always one mode that’s kinda crap. – Ed]. My last criticism falls on the last hacker introduced, portrayed by Anthony Anderson, whose only real purpose seems to be comic relief. While it can be debated as to whether or not the comedy works, this character does seem to be excessive, which, given Anderson’s girth…maybe that was the whole point.
These three strands eventually converge through the machinations of a secret government agency called Sector 7, their most visible representative in this film being John Turturro as Seymour Simmons. Ho boy. There’s over the top…then there’s over the top…and then after an Everest-like climb, only then do you find Turturro’s Simmons. I get that maybe the point here is to have a secret government agent that’s a “True Believer”, someone who’s obsessed with the secrets they’re charged to protect, but he goes too far. The dial doesn’t go to 1000. It doesn’t go to 20. It goes to 10…and 10 is reserved for Jodorowski films. Dial it back, man.
My final gripe [Aren’t you supposed to be defending this film? – Ed.] combines the last three paragraphs, the comedy. Some of it works. A lot of it…not so much. Granted, it’s pretty low brow stuff because, yet again, Michael Bay. And as I’ve said in the above paragraphs, a lot of it just seems forced. Sure, the “blown transformer” line was pretty good…but Ratchet’s pratfall and “Woah! That’s tingly,” that led up to that…I’m pretty sure that could’ve been done better.
All that said…this IS a movie based on an old 80s cartoon. When you go back and watch those old cartoons, yes, most of the humor is low hanging fruit…it’s intended for kids! And yes, the old cartoons are like the best pizzas…lots and lots and LOTS of cheese. So, the question is, can you dock the movie for incorporating these elements? Not as much as reviewers and internet blow-hards would have you think. You see, the cartoons were designed to rein in as many kids as they could so that Hasbro could sell as many toys as they could. The movie’s focus has to be even broader than that. They have to make it appeal to both the kids and the adults who will take them to the theatre. Granted, I’m not sure sex and urination jokes are the best way to do that…but that’s what Hollywood does, appeal to the lowest common denominator to rake in the most cash. And while that’s worded like it’s a criticism, it’s simply a fact that we as nerds need to get comfortable with. You want that Transformers movie? Well, we’ll give it to you, but you and A LOT of people have to see it…so you have to share. And yes, in order to share it, it has to be diluted for mass consumption.
Another thing this movie owes to its origins? Megatron’s shitty plot…which, at no point does he ever state…it’s inferred by the Autobots and the humans. And honestly…the Autobots should’ve known better. See, they all think that Megatron wants the Allspark to convert Earth technology and conquer the universe. The movie doesn’t help in showing that yes, as Optimus tells us in the opening narrative, the Allspark does imbue life on lifeless machines, but it only makes EVIL machines. Holy crap is that a story avenue worth following. Does that mean the Autobots had to evolve beyond their Decepticon brethren to adopt ethics? Is the Allspark random in assigning souls/personalities…or is that job left to Vector Sigma? Does this mean that all Cybertronian life starts out evil? Granted, that’s weighty shit…and certainly not to be tackled by…say it with me now…Michael Bay. Equally silly is Optimus’ plan to stop the war…destroy the Allspark. How, you ask. We destroy it in a way that kills me too. Sigh. Look, we know Optimus is a self-sacrificing sort of ‘bot…but damn. How about actually coming up with a plan first? Sure, I can see that as we get into the final act and the fight in the city turns decidedly against the Autobots…with the death of Jazz and Bumblebee losing his legs…but right off the bat? No. If the Allspark is that important to not just Autobot or Decepticon but ALL LIFE on Cybertron, then Plans A, B, C, and D should be about SAVING it and keeping it the hell away from the Decepticons! But just as I said about the humor…can we REALLY hold it against the movie that it follows in the steps of its forebear? Just like the humor, the appeal for this plot has to be as wide as can be. You do that by making it as simple a ‘good vs. evil’ story as possible. So no, there’s no room to ponder the weighty questions I asked earlier in this paragraph because it’s too deep and won’t have the wide appeal needed to make the kind of money that a movie like this costs.
What you want is giant robots fighting giant robots and you want it to look pretty. And that’s what you get. The effects work, both digital and hard/on-set effects are great. Watching the movie with brain turned off, you can see that Michael Bay really is the perfect choice in director for this series. Sure, he has his faults (which I’ll talk much more about in a review for Transformers 2…where they really fall under the spotlight), but he can compose a pretty scene. He’s cinema’s pastry chef. It’s sweet and you love it…but it doesn’t really contribute any vitamins and may actually be not so good for you in the long run. But you still eat it. And you still like it. On its simplest terms, the movie works; a simple story about giant robots continuing their civil war on Earth. You get an identifiable point of view, Sam and his rite of passage of getting his first car and getting the girl, which allows you to take steps into a much larger, much more dangerous world. It’s all you can ask for in a first movie. We’ve been invited into a universe. Yeah, it’s based on toys and sure, it’s not going to win any Oscars for writing or acting. But it did get nominated for special effects…and in a movie like this, brainless summer fun, that’s the only nomination that matters. Did they get some of the characterizations wrong? Yeah, they did. Do we really want to see a giant robot peeing on someone? Not really. But somewhere, a 5 year old is loving it…and all the while, you’re staring at Megan Fox’s chest. Don’t over think it, dude. It’s Michael Bay, it’s explosions and it’s giant effing robots. Are you in?
The answer is yes.
(Addendum: I sat on this review for a night and remembered something I forgot to include…so I figured I’d throw it on the end here. Michael Bay also seems to have problems with space and time. Sunlight in one shot then a cut and suddenly it’s night, for example. Another one, much more apparent in the second film, but we’ll talk about it here, is his sense of geography…or lack thereof. Have to give him a pass on that though, as again, it does harken back to the original cartoon!)