2007Director: Michael Bay
Cast: Josh Duhamel, Megan Fox, Shia LaBeouf
verywhere I hear populists say that Transformers is a fantasy for devout fanboys, the zenith of Hollywood’s infiltration of geek mythology. I have limited exposure to this niche, one of the more aggressive subcultures among media philes, but I like to think the ranks of obsessive fandom come with values more self-respecting than this. The movie, wretched by any conceivable standard, exists in a vortex of violent stereotypes and half-plots that fails even to punctuate the spectacle, which is itself nearly impossible to follow.
Perhaps this is because this reviewer never had the toys as a kid. I gather this: There are good alien robots and evil alien robots. This distinction is drawn primarily along the lines of their stance on human life, which one side finds valuable and the other does not. Oh, and for some reason, these oddly man-like intergalactic specimens turn into Earth-bound vehicles, like a Camaro and a helicopter, on their down time. Was there anything else?
Paired with this foundation is the director Michael Bay. I sense you have just reacted in some way. I am too numb to react, because I just watched Transformers. I will spill too many words here urging you to avoid this fate, but in my mind you have at least six feature-length reasons already available to you. They popularly go by names like Bad Boys II, Armageddon, and Pearl Harbor, but it is much simpler to refer to them simply as Michael Bay movies, because that is the only piece of information you need.
Such enterprises are not difficult to spot, and Transformers sustains all of the hallmarks. There are only two colors: yellow and the rest of them. There are far too many actors, and they perform in a monotone of crass exuberance, because if they didn’t you wouldn’t be able to hear them. And there will be a shot of a helicopter, flying diagonally against a sweltering sunset in the Middle East, if the screenplay (ha, screenplay) will allow it. If Hitchcock imagined himself an eternal passerby in his films, so Bay does a giant piece of animatronic hardware presiding over the players on his digital game board, the only sign of restraint in his wayward universe.
If this sounds elitist, keep in mind that Bay earns his reputation with an irrepressible zeal, and his movies are so wrong-headed in every stylistic and thematic sense that they are nearly impossible to approach with an attentive eye or mind. Yet even with this knowledge, it’s entirely possible to believe (as I did) that Transformers could be Bay’s triumph, since a movie in which alien robots war in big-city streets seems uniquely suited to his interests. When conceptual excess marries its most diligent human champion, shouldn’t the movie that results at least strike some kind of pop rhythm?
By minute ten of this disturbingly long movie, that hope, or any, is lost. There are generic characters heaped on top of each other, introduced in at least four different waves if you include the robots, and each is more vacant than the last. The nominal protagonist is Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf, jaunty with misplaced cheer), who through generational custom becomes a centerpiece of a battle between those giant, feverishly shape-shifting machines who arrive to Earth to bounce against the skyline and fly though buildings. They talk, too, with the aid of the Web, which informs them of action-movie platitudes and the proper way to pose during a slow-motion explosion.
The true and appropriately unabashed star of Transformers, the CGI, is but another victim of Bay’s swooping camera, which can’t hold still long enough to capture the work of the true artists on the computers off screen. Here is where his incompetence really stings. Decked in a worn, washed-out palate, the movie is ugly even when the human characters dominate, but to swing the picture around so violently in the robot sequences is to mute the only real pleasure the film has to offer. Why studios continue to funnel money into special effects only to have this director subvert them willfully is beyond comprehension, but then so is most of this movie.
In the critical discussion of a film it’s considered a basic sin to imagine an alternative that takes a different approach. I did anyway, but only because the film’s credits beg it. An executive producer is Steven Spielberg, and the appearance of his name gives a flicker of the kind of boyish, densely imagined spectacle this might have been. No doubt it would have opened and ended with the same pointlessly sentimental and clunky human segments, but when those robots started to smack each other around, shit if we wouldn’t have felt it. I know this is against the rules. But if Transformers is really a fanboy’s deepest, seediest dream, then I see no reason why I can’t indulge an old popcorn fantasy of my own.
Transformers is currently in wide release.