Michael Bay is one of the most loved and hated filmmakers out of Hollywood. Critics have nothing but distain for the man, the only movie he’s ever made to gain a positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes was his sophomore effort The Rock. Audiences however seem to love him, only two of his movies have failed to break one hundred million at the box office and two of them have broken two hundred million, and those are just domestic numbers. Bay makes empty Hollywood action movies with cheesy scripts, terrible acting from otherwise solid actors, and excellent technical skill. As Jeanine Basinger once described him: “[Bay is a] master of movement, light, color, and shape—and also of chaos, razzle-dazzle, and explosion.” However all this talent is wasted because the guy seems entirely oblivious to the fact that he’s always working with poor clichéd scripts and he couldn’t direct an actor if his life depended on it. Bay’s new film Transformers is in no way a change in pace for Bay. The film is essentially Armageddon with robots, its so full of clichés and bad writing that it often distracts the viewer from the fact that this movie bears a ridiculous concept that could only be taken seriously by a ten year old or Michael Bay.
I’ll admit I’m not this movie’s target audience, but it boggles the mind to determine what that audience is. The film is quite violent in that PG-13 kind of way and contains a number of not-so subtle sexual innuendos. If this is family viewing they might a well toss Armageddon into the pantheon of Disney classics. At the same time the film is far to silly, cartoonish, and cheesy as to insult the intelligence of any adult. I’ve never seen a single episode of the cartoon this is based on, and I’ve owned one of the toys the cartoon was created to market. Needless to say, I saw little to be exited about in this adaptation.
The film opens with a cheesy voice over that seems to have no place in a movie made in 2007. The voiceover is mostly cryptic and sets up that there is some sort of battle to come between good and evil alien forces that will occur on earth. This voiceover seemed to confirm my fears that this movie would be nothing more than cheesy 80’s children’s fare awkwardly packaged for 21st century teenagers. The film then cuts to Qatar, which is in the middle east according to the title card conveniently put on screen in case you’re too stupid to know where Qatar is. What then transpired was an action sequence so cool that it even had a cynic like me interested. A helicopter landed in a Qatar military base and preceded to “transform” into a robot which, according to Wikipedia, is named Blackout. The Robot then uses a combination of very interesting weapons to decimate all the U.S. troops. This impressive combination of pyrotechnics and CGI was undeniably cool, and this excellence in visual effects is maintained throughout the entire film. However when the story begins so do the problems.
Bay’s first mistake was to place the film so largely from the perspective of teenagers who have no earthly business taking part in a major national security incident of this nature. The main character is Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), a suburban high school student who is finally being given a new car by his father. Forced to choose between a number of old and worn cars at a sleazy used car dealership, Sam chooses a classic Camaro, which he doesn’t know was a transforming alien robot that drove itself to the dealership in order to be picked out by Sam. The Autobots (heroic transforming robots) need Sam because his grandfather was an arctic explorer who discovered the frozen remains of the Decepticon (evil transforming robots) leader Megatron, who somehow imprinted some kind of homing device onto his glasses that detects the Allspark (which may as well be called “The MacGuffin Machine”) even when its been relocated to Nevada, and since these glasses have been passed on to Sam finding him is essential to the fate of the world. Carefully consider that sentence and you will understand how hard screenwriters had to work to make a marketable teenager into the star of this movie. Sam is joined by Mikaela (Megan Fox), who severs no purpose to the plot other then to be hot. It turns out that Sam’s new Camaro is the Autobot Bumblebee, who communicates by picking convenient songs on the car radio to fit a situation. One wonders why the Autobots would send the one member of their team who is incapable of explaining the situation to Sam if he’s so important, a lot of screen time would have been cut if another autobot like Optimus Prime had just knocked on the kid’s door and said “the glasses or your life!” One also wonders why the autobots and the U.S. military continues to waste their valuable time on this kid once the glasses (and with them the one minor tie he has to the story) are handed over.
Meanwhile the people who are actually supposed to be dealing with problems like this are worried about the strange threat that has presented itself in Qatar. The Secretary of Defense (Jon Voight), sends in the air force into Qatar to save the survivors of the opening sequence who are now being attacked by a scorpion robot. Among these survivors are Sergeants Lennox and Epps (Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson) two completely under-developed characters who are only slightly more important to the story than Mikaela. The air force learns through this encounter that humans do indeed possess some weapons that are effective against transformers, this is the full extent of the importance of this action sequence on the plot.
Meanwhile, in the most gratuitous sub-plot in this tangled mess of a story, three young hackers are brought in by the pentagon to deal with the threat these giant robots pose and the mysterious sounds that were recorded from the first attack. This sub-plot goes nowhere and is almost entirely abandoned in the last third of the movie.
The movie starts off all right, the skeleton of a passable disaster film can be seen in the build up while the robots are still have a certain mystery, before they come out in the open, start talking to humans, and the movie devolves into the cartoon it is. For the first half of the movie there is a lot of comedic relief which generate laughs with hit-or-miss success. It’s once the Autobots reveal themselves to Sam that the movie goes awry. In many ways I think the movie would have been better if it had eliminated the Autobots and played out as a fight between the evil Decepticons and the military. I think there would have been at least some dignity in that, because the Autobots are boring characters that are even more one note than the human characters. The Decepticons are also more interesting looking robots than the Autobots, but few of them are introduced until the final battle, and most them have little screentime even then. The Decepticon’s lack of screen time actually works in the movie’s favor since they don’t ware out their welcome like the good Autobots.
The performances in here range from awful to not-that-bad. The least embaracing performance comes from Shia LaBeouf. It’s a testament to how good LaBeouf is that he doesn’t embarace himself when delivering poor lines like when he “introduces” special opps agents to the giant robot that is destroying their car “Gentlemen… let me introduce you to my friend: Optimus Prime!” Jon Voight is a respected veteran actor who should have learned his lesson about playing authority figures in Michael Bay movies for his insanely bad turn as FDR in Pearl Harbor. As I’ve stated before the Mikaela character was written for no reason other than to bring a fine looking ass into the movie, and in turn Megan Fox was cast only for her fine ass, and in turn gives a howlingly bad performance. Why, in this age of internet porn, do people still pay theatrical prices to see hot looking women? Meagan Foxes performance destroys almost any of the remaining good qualities of all the scenes she’s in. The most bizarre performance however comes from John Turturro, an actor I once respected but who is more and more proving to be fairly one note. Turturro’s character is played almost entirely for laughs and is consistently cringe inducing. He’s completely out of place and stops the movie in its tracks.
The script is littered with loose ends and plot holes big enough to drive Megatron through. Long story short: The MacGuffian Machine (excuse me “The Allspark”) ends up in a secret location under the Hoover Dam. How the government managed to move a robot and a cube the size of a house from the north pole to Nevada in complete secrecy and then build a dam over it is a mystery, but that’s beside the point. Once the glasses (AKA Macguffian 2) lead robots to the Hoover dam (instead of the North Pole where the glasses were actually imprinted) it is decided that the MacGuffian machine will be moved to Los Angeles and hidden. Why they are bringing this to a city where the ensuing battle almost certainly kills thousands of civilians when they could just as easily battle it out in the desert is beyond me. I guess they did it because Michael Bay didn’t think a desert fight would look cool enough. It also boggles the mind why they take the more than four hours trip to Los Angeles instead of the nearby Las Vegas is also a mystery. Also a mystery is how they managed to out run the Decepticons who have three aircraft that could have easily outflanked all of the good guys. These are just the plot holes in one five minute period of the movie, the number of holes in the entire movie may be countless.
Now I’ll get to the part of the movie that will attract most of its audience, the special effects. The effects are awesome, the robots look very real and fit into the universe extremely well. The movie may rival the Star Wars prequels for most effects shots. The action is also pretty respectable, there are explosions galore in this movie and some interesting twists on the concept of the car chase. The movie will deliver good eye candy for those willing to overlook the many, many, many problems the movie has on all other levels. I for one didn’t think that was enough.
Before you jump on me with the whole “it’s a popcorn movie, it doesn’t have to be ‘good’” argument, let me say this: I don’t see why popcorn movies need to only be about special effects. There have been too many good popcorn movies made in the last decade for that excuse to hold water for me. Take Steven Spielberg’s 2002 masterpiece Minority Report as the critic’s exhibit A. Minority Report had a lot of very exiting action scenes and beautiful special effects, more than enough eye candy to satisfy anyone looking for that, yet it was also intelligent, thoughtful, well made, well written, and powerful. Now look at exhibit B: The ever popular 1999 action film The Matrix. The Matrix had breathtaking action scenes, academy award winning visual effects, and also a brilliant script with enough philosophical insights to impress Harvard philosophy professor Cornel West. When movies like these are able to be solid all around movies while still being fun eye candy, I see no reason to give lackluster action films like Transformers a free pass.
I’ll begrudgingly give Transformers two stars for its solid visual effects, the handful of jokes that work, and Shia LaBeouf’s performance. I think I’m being more than generous in giving it that much.
** out of four