Robots in Distress
The time seems ripe for a re-evaluation of Michael Bay. It’s been almost 10 years since his Armageddon ruled the box office by sheer brute force of publicity, star power, and on-screen CGI explosions, and made millions of moviegoers fall in hate with him for inflicting that scene with the animal crackers on us, not to mention that awful Aerosmith song.
Since the turn of the millennium, however, the director’s star has waned considerably: All his movies underperformed at the box office, and the events following 9/11 made his appeals to patriotism and whiz-bang obsession with special effects look corny and outdated. Really, though, his 2005 action picture The Island wasn’t that bad, and even Bad Boys II recently enjoyed a rehab of sorts after Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg paid such glowing tribute to it in Hot Fuzz. Maybe all the criticism of his movies was just the word of player-haters who dismissed him out of hand just because he chose to make popcorn pictures. Maybe it’s time to give the guy his due and appreciate Michael Bay as an unrecognized genius of the multiplexes. No! No! By all things good and pure, no! The smoking pile of scrap metal called Transformers drops into theaters this week, and it shows us the badness of Bay’s filmmaking in full stinking flower. Everything unflattering that has ever been written about Hollywood blockbusters applies to this movie. If you’ve found any of the summer’s other event movies disappointing, this thing will make those seem like the second comings of Citizen Kane and The Godfather. This radioactively horrible movie is not only bad enough to make you understand why the terrorists hate us, it’s bad enough to make you join the terrorists.
OK, let’s take a breath. The movie’s based on the line of vehicle/robot toys that enjoyed their first wave of popularity in the 1980s. The Transformers weren’t the first such toys on the market, but they sold well, partially because each individual robot was given a distinct job and personality, qualities that were further explored in the ’80s cartoon tv series called The Transformers. Personality is exactly what’s missing here, along with many other things, and when your movie loses a comparison to that cartoon, it’s an evil omen. The movie’s robots are hardly developed at all as characters, perhaps because there are so many people and plotlines gumming up the works. Shia LaBeouf plays an ordinary teen named Sam who discovers strange behavior in his newly acquired beat-up Chevy Camaro. The car turns out to be one of the good guys in an intergalactic war between good and evil Transformers (Autobots and Decepticons, respectively) over a metal cube that crash-landed on our planet centuries ago and is now in the U.S. government’s hands.
This is surely enough story for a whole movie, yet the filmmakers don’t stop there. Instead, they shoehorn in a group of American soldiers who survive a Decepticon attack in Qatar, a secretary of defense (Jon Voight) trying to deal with the new alien threat, a hot girlfriend for Sam (Megan Fox), and an officious super-secret government agent (John Turturro) who tries to pull rank on everyone else in the name of national security. These characters are abandoned for such long stretches that we forget who they are when they reappear, and they make this 144-minute film feel overstuffed and thin at the same time, no easy feat. LaBeouf tries blessedly hard to shoulder the load, but he’s defeated by the DELETE’s myriad lapses in common sense — the movie ends with the government somehow concealing the Autobots’ existence on Earth, even though thousands of people just witnessed their showdown with the Decepticons that tore up a major city. In addition, the attempts at humor are not only unfunny but cringe-inducing, like the extended gag where the Autobots try to hide their massive selves from Sam’s parents, who think their son has locked the door to his room because he’s masturbating. (There was a much wittier gag involving Shia LaBeouf and fake masturbation in Disturbia a few months ago.)
Even if the comedy worked on its own terms, it’d still be out of place because Bay never conjures up a sense of wonder at these alien beings disguised as ordinary vehicles. If only one of Transformers’ flaws is fatal, it’s this one. The filmmakers’ attempts to demystify these robots and give them human personalities is useless because they haven’t sufficiently been built up in the first place. The fight sequences near the end carry no weight because the filmmakers haven’t bothered to give us a clue about what’s at stake. Also, the scenes are badly edited. The filmmakers recast Peter Cullen, the actor who provided the voice of Autobot leader Optimus Prime in the cartoon series, as the same character here. It’s all part of Transformers’ naked appeal to boys and their dads who (like me) were boys themselves when the toys first came out. I have little use for nostalgia, but even if I had, it still wouldn’t be enough to make up for the woeful writing, direction, production values, and anything else you’d care to name on display here. That’s why this loud, poorly made toy commercial of a film (we can only hope) will be consigned to the slag heap of history.
Starring Shia LaBeouf. Directed by Michael Bay. Written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. Rated PG-13