1: Initial Reaction
ROBOTS SMASH! RARR! Bloody marvellous, and a fanboy's wet dream. Quite simply the most fun you'll have in the cinema this year. Who cares about politics or heart when you've got SMASHY ROBOTIC GOODNESS? Optimus Prime, Jazz, Bumblebee, and Ironhide in the film you've been wetting your pants about ever since you saw those Citroen adverts with the dancing C4. Prime uses his energon sword, Megatron is voiced by Hugo Weaving and wields his mace, and it's all the cool ever.
And, apart from the film's actual script, in the world of meta-telly we now know what Andrew's been doing since he left the Watchers Council, what happened to Danny McCoy to give him PTSD in season two of Las Vegas and Ed Norton's never looked younger! What's not to love?
2: On Reflection
Last week I went to see Transformers and, well, I don't know what I expected to gain from the experience. As a child, I was immensely attached to the toy line and, more particularly, the British comic series. But the newly released film was, patently, sure to have very little to do with either of these things. So when I went to see it, I had no clear perception of what it was I really wanted. Perhaps it was an impulse of unconscious loyalty, or the fulfillment of one of those ironic necessities that lurks in the facts of human existence. I don't know. I can't tell. But I went.
You see, they were the dream—mechanical beings able to transform their bodies into vehicles, machinery, and weapons; a last line of defence against the chaos-bringer Unicron. They were at war, heroic Autobots pitted against evil Decepticons, both on their homeworld, the metal planet called Cybertron, and here on our Earth. They were the galaxy's last hope. They evolved on a metal world circling the star of Alpha Centauri, a process borne from naturally occurring gears, levers, and pulleys. The Quintessons, obsessed with the science of transorganics, created Cybertron as a vast factory until their slave-class robots gained self-awareness, named themselves Autobots, and overthrew their former masters.
Transformers continuity has always been an appalling mess. No one medium—whether toy line, cartoon, or comic—has ever really bothered to be consistent with another. So when I say that I had no idea what to expect from the film, I mean it quite literally—though, as it happens, the film is charmingly up-front about its intentions with its opening monologue. Against a backdrop of stars, galaxies, and drifting planets, a pitted stone cube spins endless through space—and the voice of Optimus Prime tells us that this cube is the "Allspark," our MacGuffin for the next few hours. In one fell swoop, any suggestion of adherence to any other continuity is cast aside and we're free to sit back and let the giant robot-on-robot action start.
There's no plot for me to summarise, analyse, or critique—the film is entirely open in that monologue about the fact that this is a MacGuffin film and has no pretensions to be anything more. In this, it is at least less insulting than, say, Mission Impossible 3, but my early fears of a Tomb Raider retread weren't allayed any by the sudden appearance of Jon Voight as the U.S. Defence Secretary. Voight is always watchable but let's be honest—bar a notable exception in Michael Mann's Ali, Voight has been phoning it in since the De Palma Mission Impossible.
He's no different here, I'm afraid—but then, he's doomed to be merely a human in a Transformers film. Humans have always been the weak and annoying link in any given Transformers storyline, mainly because they're added to be "audience identification characters" (AICs), i.e. young, stupid, inevitably self-righteous, and continually bloody annoying. So it's something of a surprise when the humans in this film are, on the whole, not annoying distractions from the film at hand.
This is partly because the humans are far more of a focus in this film than they have been in previous Transformers efforts. I'd be hard-pressed to say that the film short-changes viewers wanting hardcore robot-on-robot building-smashing action, yet the titular race of warriors are given no time to develop as characters. The filmmakers appear to have decided that, really, what people want is a CGI fight fest between giant robots—and yes, this is ultimately pretty cool sounding, if you're into the whole giant robots thing (and let's be honest here—who isn't?), but it's not really Transformers, is it?
The reason that there's a Transformers film released now, the best part of 25 years since the toy line first started in Japan, is that the toy line's success was spurred by the attached storyline. I've never had much time for the argument that the original animated film was an extended advert for toys—it's facile to deny that that wasn't a motivating factor in its production, but it's also fun to watch and has some genuinely nice character moments for something that's aimed at boys under ten. And it's those characters that we bought as kids—we bought them because we admired them, or feared them, and we wanted to re-enact their battles in the confines of our own bedrooms. We didn't buy them because we were merely plastic fetishists, otherwise we'd all have been buying Go-Bots and Visionaries. What set Transformers apart—what always set it apart—was that it was imaginative and the purchase of a toy meant owning part of a larger universe.
The robots in this film don't have characters. Sure, so Optimus Prime comes out with a couple of lines like, "Freedom is the right of all sentient beings," "One shall stand, one shall fall," that sort of thing, but they're shoehorned references to previous incarnations where the lines were earned by context. By contrast, here it's almost as if the script is trying to create that Transformers feel with a kind of lazy shorthand, standing on the shoulders of giants. But don't let it fool you—the Autobots and Decepticons are completely secondary in this film, almost an afterthought. It's apparent in the script and, more visually, in the fact that all the Decepticons are a steady gunmetal grey. By the climactic CGI smashfest, it's genuinely impossible to tell which Decepticon is which in amongst all the blurred fists and flying debris. Now, don't get me wrong—I'm not moaning because I'm hung up on the past and I want ye olde G1 colour schemes back. I'd just like to be able to watch a film that has characters in it, and where I can tell the characters apart from each other.
Bay's reluctance to trust his film's success or failure to CGI characters means that he's been given some stunning CGI but then has to populate his film with the aforementioned AICs. And make no mistake, the CGI is stunning. I'm struggling to remember another film I've seen that blends live-action and CGI in such a way as to allow the complete suspension of my disbelief for the duration. With such promise, this could have meant that Michael Bay would be behind the first utterly convincing blend of live action and CGI characters in cinema history—an area where nobody has really dared to venture since the Folly of Lucas back in '99. But instead, we are given AICs—the demographically-chosen idiot savants who will, inevitably, help the giant robots solve their problems and thereby render them bystanders in their own film. I'm glad to say that Bay didn't tax my brain by subverting this expectation, and we do indeed get a succession of young and attractive people to help us find the film more watchable.
One of them is Shia LeBeouf, who looks uncannily like a young Ed Norton here, and who does a surprisingly decent job of carrying the film by himself. John Turturro appears and is his usual facially-elasticated self. There's an extensive list of supporting human characters, attempting to discover why the Decepticons are so interested in the Arctic Circle and the DoD computer network, and almost without exception they serve as comically ignorant foils for a Transformer of one persuasion or another acting as their straight-man. Much of the comedy is actually well done, and I'll admit to laughing at the 'masturbation' scene and subsequent look of joy on Mrs. Witwicky's face (it's less seedy than that makes it sound, honest). And though I have no real desire to own a car manufactured by General Motors (I'm more a Maserati man, personally), I now want nothing more than a beat up, sentient yellow car that automagically plays tunes to help me pull birds.
But these moments of human-Transformer interaction speak directly to the film's schizophrenic nature. I have no idea what this film is, but it's not Transformers as I once knew it. There's no plot, no pretense that it's anything but set-up for a series of sequels. No character development for the title characters, since that's reserved for a series of humans who quite probably won't even be in the sequels. I don't think the film's producers really know what the film is, either, beside a collection of vignettes which prove little but the following truths:
- date movies in which the socially crippled nerd ends up getting it on with the hottest girl in school are rendered infinitely superior by the presence of giant fighting robots;
- stupid buddy war movies in which the Americans are saving the world one country at a time are rendered infinitely superior by the presence of giant fighting robots;
- stupid computer hacking films in which a network is getting compromised by a recordable wave of sound that humans can look at on a screen and go 'woah' at like it means anything, and where OMG THEY DELETED THE INTERNET!?!? are rendered infinitely superior by the presence of giant fighting robots;
- John Hughes made arguably the best teen movies, and made them all by about 1988. Subsequent attempts to make frat-boy humour films which include the funny foreigner in a call centre, urophilia, and jokes about lube are rendered infinitely superior by the presence of giant fighting robots;
- Despite the truth of (4), that's still no excuse for what is surely the most disturbing thing I've seen in any cinema outside of Amsterdam—Optimus Prime, my childhood hero, uttering the line 'Bumblebee! Stop lubricating that human!'.
It's worth mentioning that points one through four are why this film feels ultimately unsatisfying when the conclusion is reached—it's not really a flim at all but a patchwork of several different films, each of which involves giant fighting robots. As such, it at least maintains momentum by switching narrative tracks every so often, but it leaves no room for, well, a film about the Transformers. And I don't want a remake of something that's gone before in previous
But the trailers make it look really exciting, right? That's what I thought too, until I saw the trailer for Big Ass Badgers and realised that here was a film that I wanted to see even more. I'm trying really hard to imagine how Transformers would be fundamentally different were it about giant badgers instead of giant robots. And, tragically, I am forced to admit that I have no idea.
The film looks gorgeous, and has a veneer of reasonable dialogue, but ultimately that's all it is—two hours of "Ooh! Shiny!" that lacks any real heart. And I can't help but feel that such a narratively empty film wastes the promise of a franchise whose success, twenty years ago, was determined by the imagination and heart that made it irresistible to legions of kids.
For what it's worth, I test-drove a Ford the other day. It, too, was shiny and competent in every way and yet, ultimately, the finest thing I could say about it was that it was just that. Competent. If we accept that the original Transformers film was nothing more than 90 minutes of toy advert then it becomes easy to say that Michael Bay has remained true to the spirit of the franchise—after all, he's created the most stunningly accurate General Motors commercial in history.
Tim does not readily give out personal information.
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