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I gotta be honest with you. I went into this movie with mixed feelings. On the one hand I was once a huge Transformers fan. What's not to like? Giant robots who could be cars, planes or pretty much any damn thing up to and including - well, I don't want to give away what might be in the sequel.
Last year when I announced that TRANSFORMERS was in production and Michael Bay was the director, that was my first warning.
The sneak peek trailer was such a piece of crap.
Michael Bay made his name by directing a 1995 movie that starred two hot actors at their peak. Bay followed the Cop-Buddy formula to a T and let his actors, Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, have their moments and fun. All good and the movie was a hit.
Then Mike made The Rock, which also starred two major actors who, at that time, seemed indestructible, Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage. That movie didn't do so well but it very nearly broke even in the U.S., finally bringing in a small profit in foreign and video release.
Then came Armageddon.
Armageddon was magnificently stupid, but Michael was still following what would be known as the Bay template. He latched onto a formula and never deviated, regardless of what the script called for. That was good too, because the script to Armageddon sucked. Yet when you have an all-star cast like Bruce Willis (who was still Die Hard hot), Billy Bob Thornton (fresh off of his Oscar winning turn in Sling Blade), Ben Affleck (fresh off of both Chasing Amy and the Oscar winning Good Will Hunting), Liv Tyler (fresh off a string of low budget hits and pasted on nearly every god damn magazine cover except Playboy), and Steve Buscemi (fresh off of years of hits from Reservoir dogs to Pulp Fiction to Desperado to the Oscar winning Fargo to Con Air), and a radio air-played to death Aerosmith song, its damn difficult not to have a hit. And it would have been a hit for any movie which makes $200 million at the U.S. box office. Unfortunately it was so expensive that the break even point for Armageddon was about $280 million.
So Michael decided he could do it all himself and wanted to tackle a movie that would extend his range outside of his formula. He took on Pearl Harbor in 2001, which tanked horribly. Though Pearl Harbor also brought in about $200 million, its budget required $270 million just to break even.
Michael realized his limitations (which every man has gotta know), and scurried back to his first hit, Bad Boys, making Bad Boys II in 2003. As good as I thought it was (hey! I enjoyed it! Shut yer cakehole!), it brought in $138 million, with a break even point for the movie at $260 million (Michael's budgets were also shrinking). Now Michael was losing serious money and his cache was going down, not up. His next film, in 2005, was THE ISLAND. Again, his budget was shrunk further, yet THE ISLAND was his biggest flop to date, bringing in only $35 million domestic when it needed $252 million to break even.
Ow! Damn It!
Yet Hollywood works in mysterious ways. Ways that would make a gambling addicted loser laugh and heartily shout, "Whoa! I'm not THAT bad!"
See, if you want to make a big budget movie, but cannot afford a director who demands a big budget salary, then in Hollywood they are more than happy to go with a big budget director who works for relatively cheap. Even if that director has a long track record of making flops - he still made massive big budget flops. Now no gambler that I've ever known (and I've known plenty) would bet on a horse or dog that was a consistent loser, regardless of its pedigree. If you're going for high stakes it's better to go with the untested new animal because at least that one could surprise you, whereas the proven loser will Prove he's a Loser!
Yet, Hollywood is a magical land, where people play for money that doesn't belong to them and Hollywood Corporate folks are known, if nothing else, for their big hearts (they even care about the environment!). And Mega A-list producers sincerely believe that if they can find Just-The-Right-Project, then their idiot acolyte will make good. Having your acolyte look good makes you look good as a mentor: Even if that idiot acolyte is Michael Bay.^
In the interests of full disclosure, there are two reasons that I had to give you all of this preamble.
THREE, Three reasons that I had to give you all of this information (and a nice Monty Python reference).
So what about TRANSFORMERS?
We go from the shock and awe of humanity's first discovery of a Transformer (to our surprise, they're more than meets the eye!) to a shlub of a kid named Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf: I, ROBOT, CONSTANTINE, DISTURBIA). He turns his class project into a show and tell session about his great grandfather (pay attention because this scene is an all consuming plot point), then makes a mockery of himself and a joke of his project by then turning his show and tell session into a cheap ploy to sell his Grandfather's old crap and make a few extra bucks to buy his first car.
But that scene has nowhere to go so now for something completely different. NORAD and the Pentagon are going ape over the appearance of this entirely new enemy which started downloading all of our top secret stuff via the computer link-up in Qatar. We are led by our secretary of defense John Keller (John Voight: ANACONDA, TOMB RAIDER, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE ), who is so stunned by the rapid attack and world events that he doesn't know whether to shit or wind his watch. And when yer talking about Robots in Disguise, that watch is crucial! For that matter, so is the auto toilet that flushes itself!
Meanwhile back in Qatar, the few survivors of the first Decepticon attack, led by Sergeant Lennox (Josh Duhamel: THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY , TURISTAS) barely have time to reach a small desert village before they are attacked again by a Beast Wars style Decepticon (or possibly an Insecticon for you old fans!), this is a very cool scene: which is utterly muddled by a few comedy bits in the middle of it involving a nose-picking Indian man, a long distance cell-phone call, and Josh Duhamel's military uniformed character kneeling before the ass of Tyrese Gibson's uniformed military character (because that joke worked so well in INDEPENDENCE DAY and that's when TRANSFORMERS is being released - 11 years later to the day!). Such comedy ruined the seriousness of the scene ... which might be to the good anyway seeing as how, being a movie about a Hasbro toyline, there will be No Blood and Guts. So without the comedy the seriousness would soon dissolve into A-Team camp anywho. So yeah, we do the comedy bit about cellphone tech support in India. I enjoyed the scene, but now the movie is starting to lose its identity and the 5 Shriek Girls are starting to erode.
And so it goes, back and forth between what is happening in the world and what is happening in Sam's tiny part of it until the two worlds collide. Sam is in deep lust with the untouchable high school beauty, Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox). So he stalks her until just the right moment; when she has momentarily taken all the crap she can temporarily handle from her standard issue jerk jock of a boyfriend. Sam makes his move and between his aggressively confused low self-esteem and the slightly more expert machinations of his machine aka Bumblebee (Mark Ryan: THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA , THE THIRST, THE PRESTIGE), he gets his foot in the door of Mikaela's attention span. Sam knows that he can't compete with the boys that Mikaela really digs, which are hunky pop-jocks with tight muscular bodies. But, Sam does have a kind of cool fixer-upper car, doesn't he? When Mikaela says his car is a piece of crap, Bumblebee throws them both out and goes off in search of a snappier ride to transform into. Bumblebee soon returns in the form of a car that an underage girl would be proud to go down in.
For those of you who aren't TRANSFORMERS fans, it works like this. Transformers weren't created by flesh and blood folks (the original, yes - but not in this movie), they are a complete life form unto themselves. But they don't reproduce sexually. They were created by The Cube (again, that's not the original story but no matter - feelings change, people change), which houses the energy they reverently call The AllSpark. The AllSpark turns any and all metal it ignites into a sentient robot (AllSpark now = Primus, the planet of Cybertron itself - moving on). For purposes of survival, said robot is capable of reorganizing itself into pretty much any shape and size. If it comes across a machine it has never seen before, it can quickly scan it, determine how to reshape itself into an exact replica of it, then do so all in the space of seconds. Thus is the life giving power of The Cube, which is massive but not dense. Housing and attracting energy, it can expand to the size of a building or shrink to the size of a basketball, but only weighs a few pounds on earth in either case. Without The Cube's AllSpark, there can be no more Transformer Autobots or Decepticons. Whoever possesses The Cube can make as many replications of its own design as it wants, and that's why Megatron chased after it and why all of the autobots flew out to all parts of the Galaxy in search of it. But only Megatron knew where he was going, and if he finds The Cube he will use all of the resources of earth to make billions of Decepticons, destroying the planet and thus ruling the galaxy. So the Autobots and Decepticons are real life forms with real feelings, emotions, senses, problems, and so on.
"Wait a minute," you say. "Isn't that two expository chunks about the same damn cube?" Yep. And they actually did it in the movie too. See why opening narration is so freaking useless?
I can't fault the story/screenplay by the heretofore mediocre writing team of Alex Kurtzman (THE ISLAND), Robert Orci (THE ISLAND), and John Rogers (THE CORE) (Who in the living hell put that freaking team together? And was the lobotomy painful?) I know these three guys write the worst, most Mystery Science Theater 3000 garbage ever - mainly because they have zero grasp on the reality of science at all. But keep in mind that they were also bound, first and foremost by Hasbro, to write a story that eight and nine year olds could watch and understand so as to demand Transformer toys. Which means that the writers had to bring it down to a Michael Bay level of understanding. So cut them some slack in this case because TRANSFORMERS is unquestionably - in my mind - the best movie these guys have ever written.
Sadly, while Michael followed his ancient and well-worn action template to a fault, he clearly has no love or understanding of what the hell TRANSFORMERS are all about.
You see, Hasbro didn't make a popular cartoon series called GIANT ROBOTS & CAR CHASES. Over two decades of cartoons in both crappy animation and superior computer graphic animation (until it finally devolved into Beast Wars - WTF was THAT all about? I mean, Insecticons are one thing, but my Robot transforms into a ... Hippo?) weren't about giant robots fighting other giant robots. That was secondary. Seeing such stuff look real is the icing on the cake, but the actual CAKE is watching these bad mofos TRANSFORM! That's why so many of us are fans of a thing called TRANSFORMERS, Michael! Nobody has EVER been a fan of a TV show or movie called GIANT ROBOTS & CAR CHASES - which is why nobody has ever MADE a TV show or movie called GIANT ROBOTS & CAR CHASES.
They are called TRANSFORMERS! Get it? TRANSFORMERS? Robots that transform into unexpected things? More than meets the eye? You have no idea where they will pop up or what they will be because they TRANSFORM? Hence the name, hence the plot, hence the point?
Let me repeat that: TRANSFORMERS. They're Robots in Disguise!
We rarely get to see these robots transform. What we often see is one of them already as a car or a truck or a boombox. On the majority of the occasions where they transform, we hear it happening offscreen. Or we see a giant leg transform, or the transformation is so damn quick that a car basically spins into a blur and viola: It's now a jet fighter or a Nokia. So many times the audience began to gasp appreciatively, only to be cut short in their enthusiasm when Michael, who is incapable of orchestrating even a cgi fight scene, starts behaving like my nine year old nephew at his birthday party and swings the camera around in a dizzying blur or shaking the crap out of it as an impotent substitute for action.
So yeah, the science was so bad it had the audience laughing at the wrong moments. There were some forgivably corny moments (Michael may have thought he was being serious and making a statement) but TRANSFORMERS is also for the kids so I let it pass.
What's more, for a 2 hour and 23 minute movie, it all seemed to go by pretty quick. Michael knows his shit when it comes to throwing it at the screen.
Now it would have been really cool to set the tone of the film where we no longer know what could become a Decepticon, which was the point of the cartoon show. There are a few moments where a cell phone or an appliance transforms into a cutesy Jar Jar Binks bot complete with cutesy dialect. But any time say, a military vehicle was a Decepticon, Michael let you know about it right off the bat. Instead of watching the horror on a human's face as they were surprised by the transformation (like we saw in 2002's RETURNER) we get it all up front, no surprises. In fact, Michael eschews surprise in this movie which is odd considering its whole reason for existence. Can you imagine how wicked cool it would have looked if a massive cruise ship or aircraft carrier came into port, and then mightily transformed, towering over the city? Well, keep imagining.
Michael gave everything away by showing the Decepticons instantly blur changing into the military vehicles they would be for the rest of the picture. Sucked the fun right out of a number of what could have been very cool scenes.
Still, GIANT ROBOTS! GIANT MONSTERS! And they're from OUTER SPACE! We've known about them (top secretly - another nod to ID4) since the early 1900s, when Herbert Hoover had a frozen Megatron brought to a secret government installation and formed the dreaded, Sector 7!
We've never been able to deconstruct Megatron. Hell, we've never been able to figure out The Cube. But merely by looking at it and watching The Cube make a robot with its mysterious AllSpark, we've figured out how to make everything from X-Ray machines (actually X-Ray machines existed before the 1900s), Radio (actually radio machines too, existed before the 1900s - it's that whole ignorance of science thing I mentioned. On the other hand, the folks behind this movie, Dreamworks, religiously believe in man-made global warming!), lasers, and even microwave ovens (Microwave ovens are a direct technological result of X-Rays and Radio waves. Microwaves ARE radio waves!). All of our technology comes from simply looking at the giant frozen robot. IT'S JUST THAT COOL! Megatron is the Arthur C. Clarke version of the big black monolith: Except the Monolith never transformed into a babe magnet.
Still, GIANT ROBOTS! GIANT ALIEN MONSTERS! The Decepticons are led by Megatron (Voice of Hugo Weaving: THE MATRIX [all], THE LORD OF THE RINGS [all], V FOR VENDETTA) whose team includes such varmints as Bonecrusher and StarScream. The Autobots are led by Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen - the original voice of Optimus Prime! Yes! As well as the voices in Robotix, GoBots, Voltron, and even various episodes of The Smurfs! But no Metroids. Oddly enough, Peter never voiced the Metroids or Mechanoids. The world is a bleaker place for it.). Optimus' crew, besides Bumblebee, includes Ironhide, Ratchett, and the black robot, Negroid. Well, okay he's really titanium silver and his name is "Jazz" (Darius McCrary: VAMPIRES: LOS MUERTOS). But he talks a groovy hip-hop urban lingo somewhere between Skillet and Huggy Bear - and is the only Autobot to die~. Jazz' last words are "You want a piece of me?", and then he's pieces (Jazz was voiced by actor and Jazz musician, Scatman Crothers in the 1980s cartoon. Yes, he really is supposed to be the token Blackbot). Optimus does a thing where he holds the broken parts of Jazz and quickly ticks off the dead bots' nobility and virtue, blah, blah, blah, then tosses the carcass over his shoulder and moves on with life. Not that we really got to know Jazz. He was a red shirt in this flick.
Anyway, TRANSFORMERS doesn't really require a deep story or good science. It is, to quote Robert Englund, "disposable fun." So Michael Bay might finally have a hit on his hands. And if that's so, then good old Steven Spielberg finally found Michael's perfect niche: directing theatrical remakes of 1980 syndicated cartoons! I can't wait to see what Michael does with the Smurfs.
What's more, since I can honestly say without hesitation that, despite of all of its flaws (and partly because of them), I enjoyed TRANSFORMERS and will even buy the DVD, this flick gets 3 Shriek Girls.
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