Thursday, July 05, 2007

Movie Review: Transformers

Wow.

Just. . .

Fuck, wow.

Where to begin? I guess I should start by stating for anyone who has yet to figure it out, I was a fan of Transformers ever since one fateful Saturday morning in 1984 when I turned on the television to NBC at 6:30 and caught the first episode of what would be a very promising new cartoon series to a six-year-old. As time wore on my interest in the series waned from passionate to passive, but I am by no means not a die-hard fan. I'm just not an uber fanatic who has to collect every single toy, watch every single cartoon, and know every single incarnation frontwards and back. I have the luxury of picking and choosing which toys and storylines I enjoy and which ones I believe to be crap.

I am a true fan of the original Generation One universe. A few years back, I bought several episodes on DVD, before they released the box sets, and in watching them, I found myself asking myself what the fuck I ever saw in these stupid things. So I'm not so much a fan of the cartoon specifically as I am the mythos involved. Despite being a banal toy commercial for seven-year-olds, the original TV series created deep and memorable characters that have stuck with a generation of children for decades and fueled every single regurgitated incarnation that followed. My favorite cartoon series was definitely Beast Wars, followed distantly by its continuation, Beast Machines. Beast Wars was geared toward children only in very minor ways. It contained rich characterization, major continuity arcs, and it had a sense of humor that twenty-somethings could follow. Hell, the robots cursed in that series, although granted it was Cybertronian curse words like "slag" and "prime" and "the pit," the inflection was still there. The three series that followed Beast Machines were utter tripe with almost no redemable value. They were made for children in embarrassingly painful ways.

In the early 2000's, the short-lived Dreamwave Comics company revamped Transformers with an all-new, grittier image honed specifically for the adult fans of the old series with phenomenal art prominently by the likes of Don Figueroa, Guido Guidi, Alex Milne, and others excluding Pat Lee, who although better than most of Marvel's Transformers artists, (with the notable exception of Andrew Wildman), still rather sucked outright. The writing for the comics was on par with Beast Wars, including the Cybertronian cursing, continuity arcs, and rather graphic violence. In the opening scene of the first mini-series, Megatron crushed a human into a ball and stepped on another. Later in the same mini-series, Optimus Prime shot Devastator's head open at point-blank range. Much later in the series, Megatron tore Shockwave's gun arm off as punishment for his treason. That's fucking hardcore, and those are only three examples. The characterization was outstanding in this series. Jams McDonagh, who goes by the name Brad Mick, had a unique gift for expressing each character's many personality traits with as few words as necessary. In fact, I honestly believe the movie would have been immeasurably better had he penned it.

As far as the toys, the Eighties toys were, with minor exception, utter crap. The technology just didn't exist yet to give the toys the proportions and articulation they so richly deserved while still allowing them to turn into a completely different thing. Only recently had the toy technology caught up to the demand of more realistic toys. The Classics line is both fun and practical to switch between forms and set up on your display shelf. The now-defunct Alternators line are nothing short of engineering masterpieces. I am also seriously digging the new line of Robot Heroes featuring chibi-style cartoonish figurines of famous Transformers in the vain of the Star Wars Galactic Heroes figures. I love those little guys, and I just have to collect them all. Quite frankly, very few actual Generation One toys made it through my youth without being completely destroyed. I could probably count them all on one hand. I know I have the bird half of Sky Lynx, Trypticon is in excellent shape except missing a few parts, I have a G2 Grimlock in his G1 colors, and I have a Soundwave that stands up like a dying fish. I probably have a few more but I don't know where they are at the moment. I'm pretty sure I still have a Shockwave somewhere.

So I'd consider myself a very passionate casual fan. I've been following the new movie buzz since it first started back in 2003 when Don Murphy was shopping the idea around to different studios. It really hit hard in 2005 when Paramount/Dreamworks bought it under the supervision of Steven Spielberg himself. I joined the entire fandom in being beyond orgasmic to think that the giant robots were getting the live-action big screen treatment. And that's precisely when it all turned to shit. The rumors and leaks and outright statements started cropping up indicating all over the place that this would not be the same Transformers we grew up with, despite being based on Generation One. In all actuality, it was based on Generation One in much the same way as A Beautiful Mind was based on the actual life of John Nash, or in the same way that the movie Highlander was based on the life of George W. Bush. Namely, it was "inspired by," which is a new Hollywood way of saying that the movie is going to suck.

First the names were leaked, which got fans excited because some very recognizable names were present such as Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, Ironhide, Ratchet, Prowl, Megatron, Starscream, Soundwave, Vortex, and Devastator. Then a first draft of the script was leaked and the fans were appalled at how ineptly each character was represented. It turned out that outside of a few obvious inclusions, most were placeholder names. Then the robot designs were leaked and that was the dealbreaker for a lot of fans. The robots looked almost nothing like their namesakes. In fact they looked like horrible heaps of random junk with insect faces. In fact, I drew the picture to the left as a spoof of the robot designs, stating that I sat down for two minutes and came up with a new design for Soundwave, or possibly Megatron or Ravage because what's the difference? The producers assured us that we would be impressed when we saw the way the robots moved, and I'll admit that it was impressive. In fact it won me over in spite of the designs. However, any producer worth his weight knows that special effects alone do not a good movie make. That is where the real trouble begins.

I knew this movie was doomed the moment it was announced that Michael Bay was on board. I didn't have a great amount of respect for Michael Bay, and his raping of my childhood far worse than any poorly-drawn Darkwing Duck slash porn did absolutely nothing to endear me to him. Michael Bay is a very good director, I'll give him that. If you need a big-budget disaster movie shot, he is your go-to guy. Unfortunately his movies also tend to be totally devoid of any memorable plot or substance with lots of flashy special effects to cover up the lack. It results in an admittedly very entertaining and visually stunning movie that is in no way memorable or even worth a repeat viewing. That is exactly what Michael Bay's Transformers turned out to be. This is what we all feared. I went into it with more trepidation than I ever had for a movie before. My only prayer was to not let this movie be a complete embarrassment to the entire franchise. I even apologized to my girlfriend beforehand on the chance that it might be because I highly suspected it to be. (My intention was to see Live Free or Die Harder with a Vengeance and not subject her to the possibility of a bad Transformers movie, but we arrived about fifteen minutes too late for LFoDHwaV.) Unfortunately, it really rather was.

To the unseasoned fan, it was probably a passable or maybe even decent movie, but as a fan of the series for the past twenty-two years I was approaching it from a completely different angle. Yes, I was ready either be righteously impressed by it or dissect every minor disappointing detail. There could be no in-between for me. I am the Star Wars geek that just watched The Phantom Menace. The one thing I was most concerned about with this movie was for them to please, oh God, please get the characterizations of the Transformers right. I didn't care nearly as much for the humans because last I recall, this was a Transformers movie, not a humans movie. Unfortunately, Michael Bay spent far too long developing the personalities of the human cast and it seemed that the Transformers, whom the movie was named after, were largely written in as an afterthought.

Optimus Prime had the most speaking lines, and even his characterization was completely one-dimensional. The other robots were developed even less. Of the Autobots, Ratchet and Jazz were by far the worst. Ratchet's personality was a carbon copy of Spock from Star Trek, and entirely devoid of the charismatic sense of humor that his Generation One counterpart possessed. Ratchet is less like Spock and more like Hawkeye Pierce — a seasoned professional at his craft, warm and friendly, light-heared and fun, and when the situation calls for it, a resourceful leader. Jazz is a highly skilled warrior who does everything with style and pizazz. He's also one of Prime's two most respected lieutenants. This movie featured him throwing out a few crass one-liners and primarily serving as cannon fodder. I suppose it didn't matter, though, because every robot in the movie had nearly the exact same voice making it almost impossible to tell who was talking if more than one was onscreen at once.

If the Autobots were one-dimensional, however, the Decepticons ranked somewhere on the Planck scale of character development. The most developed was Megatron, as an angry brute who harbored a seemingly unfounded hatred toward humans. This portrayal stripped Megatron of absolutely everything that made him a complete badass. Megatron is a sinister and cunning tyrant who takes shit from absolutely nobody. His demeanor was captured all wrong in this film. He's not a slinking, contorting monster. His manner is actually very militaristic. Anyone who studied the show for an episode or two would realize that Megatron marches when he walks and stands tall with confidence. Starscream had no chance in this movie to reveal his treacherous nature. He basically showed up as Megatron's disappointing lackey with zero aspiration for leadership. Blackout, (the helicopter), was pretty badass but had no personality to speak of. Brawl, (incorrectly referred to as "Devastator," which was only intended to be his placeholder name), had even less of a personality which I suppose is okay since his screen time was almost not worth the time it took to render him, despite being a badass looking robot. He and Blackout would be the only two I would actually consider buying a toy of if I were so inclinded. Bonecrusher barely had a chance to live up to his name before being beheaded by Optimus Prime. Barricade, (the police car), was the most menacing of the Decepticons outside of the ill-conceived Megatron, despite only having once scene to really show it off. I think Frenzy, (the freaky-looking little tape deck dude), was the most fleshed-out Decepticon and also the most true to the source. The original Generation One Frenzy was a little punk himself, so although this thing was made out of equal parts butt and ugly, it was entertaining to watch and actually the best homage.

Now, although I didn't really want to see all of Generation One replicated onto the screen, I would have liked to see some more focus on characterization and a far better plot. To call the plot laughable would be a compliment. It had numerous holes large enough to drive a Mack truck through. A lot of the narration was embarrassingly corny, and the scene where the other Autobots arrive on Earth and introduce themselves to Sam Witwicky was one of the most shameful moments in cinematic history, complete with stupendously contrived heroic background score. It was one of the many times throughout where I felt embarrassed to be watching this movie.

Probably the biggest plot hole was that the robots, upon whom the movie was based, were very underused. They primarily didn't show up until the final third of the movie, and once they did start getting into the action, they were very easily defeated and much of the cinematography was so fast that you didn't get to see much of the action. I mean, you could tell that someone was doing something to attack some robot, but you generally couldn't tell who was attacking or who was under attack. Other gaffes include but are certainly not limited to:

- The Autobots' senses are so finely tuned that they can tell the Decepticons are advancing from hundreds of miles away and that Sam's pherome levels indicate he wants to mate with Mikaela, but Bumblebee can't detect the fact that Frenzy is inside him.

- The world's best computer analysts can't decode the computer hack with all the resources that the most top-secret areas of the United States government has to offer, but the girl hacker's friend can decode it in seconds on his home PC.

- When the Allspark was condensed, it was easy for Sam to just pick it up and run with it like Forrest Gump on speed. Considering all it did was condense on itself, wouldn't it still retain the same mass and therefore weight? If it originally weighed no more than a football, why didn't someone just pick it up and carry it somewhere before? (Also, why was this plot contrivance of mass-shifting allowed but strictly outlawed for reasons of "suspention of disbelief" when it came to the idea of Transformers like Soundwave and Megatron mass-shifting?)

- Also, if the whole plan was to destroy the Allspark in the first place, why didn't Bumblebee just do it in the dam? What was the point of trying to save the thing that they were just going to destroy later?

- Carrying the one thing that they knew was attracting the most destructive war machines to ever hit planet Earth into the center of a major metropolitan area was probably the single greatest military strategy blunder of all time. Seriously, it makes Iraq look like forgetting where you set your car keys when they are in your hand the whole time.

- When half of your enemy forces can change into super-advanced air machines, is airlifting the thing they're after really the wisest choice? Especially by helicopter when you know one of the enemy combatants can change into a helicopter?

- When the power of the Allspark is to turn every electronic device into a vile, evil war machine, what did anyone expect Cybertron to turn out to be? Shouldn't at least one of the devices the Allspark changed into a robot have tried to help the humans?

- Barricade was never defeated, he just disappeared all together. This might be incorrectly regarded as a goof; he may have split to call reserve forces or something for the sequel.

- Instead of using a homing device or subspace encoded radio message, Bumblebee signals his teammates from thousands of light years away by shining an Autobot symbol against the clouds. What. The. Fuck.

- Bumblebee was rendered mute after suffering an injury to his vocal processor so serious that Ratchet couldn't fix it, but it was seemingly repaired simply by his going through a battle with the Decepticons.

- Granted that Bumblebee just saved them from Barricade, but I still think Sam and Mikaela were way too ready to accept the Autobots and their explanation of events. I mean, you just encounter a race of seemingly hostile, giant alien robots; would you blindly accept everything they tell you without question?

- How did the Autobots automatically know about Sam Witwicky's great grandfather and his connection to the Allspark? If the information was so readily apparent that the Autobots could just get easy access to it, why did the Decepticons have to destroy entire military bases to find it?

- No one, including the people that Frenzy walked directly by, thought to question the autonomous scrap pile walking away from Air Force One after a major terror attempt.

- The dealer let Sam and his dad drive away with the Camero that turned out to be Bumblebee despite the fact that they said they didn't know where it came from and therefore would not have a title. I don't think any honest dealer would let a customer buy what amounts to a stolen car, and the Witwickys seem too honest to let a dishonest dealer sell them a stolen car anyway.

- Mikaela was first seen in the classroom gazing fondly upon Sam as he gave his presentation, then later claimed she didn't even know who he was. The progression from complete stranger to romantic interest moved way too fast. It would have been more plausible if she revealed that she did secretly find him kind of cute, but never figured he would be anything near her type.

- At the end of the movie, Sam and Mikeala were making out Sam's sentient car while the other Autobots watched. I don't know about you, but I would feel a tad uncomfortable getting my "groove thang on," (as it is technically referred), on top of my best friend.

Those were just some of the plot holes I could list off the top of my head. I'm sure there are many more. The script seemed to be pieced together by Silly Putty and airplane glue, and it was revised by more writers than any movie I can recall seeing in recent years. It seems that the more people to adjust the script, the less tight it got. Far too much time was spent on guaging the humans' reactions to the invasion and far too little time on the actual invaders. The mystique approach may have worked for the original Predator but we already know what the Transformers are. Even the producers of Predator 2 knew not to rehash the mystique angle and instead focus on showing us how badass the Predator is. More time should have been spent showing us how badass the Transformers are instead of making us wonder where the fuck they are.

As an old school fan, I hate the idea of the characters scanning for and reconfiguring themselves into an alternate mode. I think that was one of the worst ideas to come out of the post-Beast Wars era. I know that it was necessary as a plot device to save time, but I liked the idea that they had to be rebuilt into their alternate mode, preferably by their ship with a bit more time had the script been rewritten from the start to not be a total joke. If they could just scan any mechanical device and instantly change themselves into it, why didn't one of the Autobots scan a nearby jet or helicopter and fly away with the Allspark themselves? After watching the government "handle" the giant robot alien invasion and protect the Allspark first by leaving it right next door to Megatron and then by driving it into the middle of a downtown metropolitan area, would anyone else be kind of weary trusting it to their capable hands? Overall, I think the script should have been rewritten from the start by someone who knows what the fuck they're doing like Brad Mick or Simon Furman, the guy who's been writing Transformers for over twenty years now and who wasn't so much as consulted.

The movie wasn't without its merits though. Most notably the special effects were absolutely outstanding. ILM at one point said they consider Transformers to be their new benchmark work, and I can definitely see why. The robots were rendered magnificently and for the most part, realistically, and they each contained tens of thousands of moving parts. Transformers was an overall visually stunning movie, but unfortunately the almost complete lack of plot or story makes it overwhelmingly forgettable. I'd much rather see the 1986 animated movie. Kup and Springer's one-liners in that movie are absolutely classic and the battle at Autobot City is Transformers like Transformers was meant to be.

The fact that they seemingly killed off Megatron makes me ponder the possibilities for the sequel that was greenlit before the first movie even hit theaters. Will Megatron somehow return? Or will his absence make way for another prominent Decepticon to challenge for leadership, such as Soundwave whom Don Murphy at one point said he really wanted to explore in the second movie, or Shockwave who already has a really kick-ass form rendered and who is the only Decepticon able to defeat Megatron and more dangerous than Megatron. Of course, all of this speculation will be rendered useless if a competent writer is not hired to draft the next script.

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