Sunday, July 22, 2007

Movie Review: Transformers

Movie Review: Transformers

Transformers is all spectacle. It’s a non-stop cigarette commercial, and in the same way that ciggie commercials are now banned (for being manipulative and inappropriate) Transformers is, for all the eye candy and distinctive Michael Bay action sequences, incredibly shallow.

A 7 year old boy sat three seats from us, on the edge of his seat for the WHOLE movie. He was shaking his little fist, crying “WOOOOW” and just totally taken in by it. I may not be 7, but I get it. As a kid I consumed every Robotech episode on TV, often recording and replaying the same episode over and over. I also had my own Zoid toys (not quite rip-offs of the original Transformers). And since Steven Spielberg was involved in the making of Transformers, I get the wish-fulfillment for children thing. Problem is, Transformers pretends to be all grown up when its primary audience is still barely out of kindergarten. Perhaps the idea is to say, hey, this is for all the children out there (even the children hiding inside grown ups). That’s fine, but even children need the value of a story well told. The messages In Transformers are dissident and dodgy.

Here’s a summary of the story:
Once upon a time there’s a geeky smart-mouthed loser boy.
Geeky loser meets sexy girl.
Sexy girl (understandably) not interested in geeky boy.
Geeky boy gets super toy and shows it to sexy girl.
Sexy girl likes super toy and accepts geeky boy.
Sexy girl and geeky boy live happily ever.

Director Michael Bay needs to go back to film school. Not to hone his skill as a filmmaker, but to learn how to tell a story. There is nothing wrong with Bay’s craft; he is the king of cool, doing great promotional work for the US Air Force, Burger King, Toys R Us and Cosmopolitan. But that’s what’s wrong with this flick. We don’t go to the movies (or expect young children) to watch beautifully crafted commercials, and that’s what Transformers is. Surprise surprise, Bay’s background is making commercials, but he really needs to move beyond that now and start making movies that tell a story.

Could this flick have been better executed using better actors? Doubtful. The actors, even the new faces, did a great job portraying one dimensional caricatures. There is no character development through the whole flick: the soldiers start off gung ho and remain gun ho, the parents (Kevin Dunn and Julie White) are typecast as annoying ignoramuses, the sexy girl, Mikaela (Megan Fox) remains sexy - there’s an attempt to complicate matters with a criminal record, but then this is withdrawn - Sam, the geeky boy (Shia LaBeouf ) maintains too high pheromone levels throughout and the defense secretary (played by Jon Voigt) manages just one small step - making the predictable leap to trusting an Aussie blonde and one of the black genius sons from Me, Myself and Irene. The problem then is the story.

The story revolves around a machine face-off: the Autobots vs the Deceptogons. Any guess who are the goodies and the baddies? Exactly. Amazingly, they are able to draw energy out of thin air, and to top that, have inexhaustible weaponry. The laws of the universe are turned inside out here, where no matter how much the Transformers are battered, beaten and blown up, they always come through in mint condition; not a single scratch. Even small children ought to know better than that.

There’s an interesting scene where the father of young Sam takes him to buy a car; drives by a line of Porches, and offers to buy his son a second hand car (for around $5000). As in the real world, the son wants something for nothing, but his father didactically insists on a cheap, second hand car for a start. It’s one of the most immature elements of this flick, that while driving through a tunnel in the car, the girl makes a disparaging remark about the car, and voila, the car transforms itself into a shining dream car. A logical transition if your film audience is 7 years old and younger.

Another image that hints at an overly juvenile mindset is the protracted search through the house for a pair of glasses. While this scene had its moments, the most compelling image was really of a dolls house, with Transformer toys hiding under and around it, while the lego parent peeks out of the doll house window in the upstairs bedroom.

If the stars of the show are the Transformers themselves then why do we see, for example, Optimus Prime blinking? Do machines need to blink? Do they need to explain to each other why we are worth saving (machines telling us we are ‘good’, according to a machine code of conduct?)
The most damaging message in this movie is the idea that people (parents) can be replaced by things, and that things, can provide you with people (girlfriends). The parents in this movie are represented with scorn and disdain, the robots, with their deep voices, play the considerate, intelligent and warm protectors, and even a close friend is ‘expendable’ in the effort to ‘get the girl’.
There were some Machine World flashes from The Matrix, and if one wants to be extra critical, the yellow Chevy reminds us of something out of Fast and Furious, and I’m not sure if the hero LaBeouf was anyone’s cup of tea.

Steven Spielberg spent a lot of time on filmmaking larks, enjoyable but fanciful films like Raiders of the Lost Ark. Then he made the transition to memorable and meaningful flicks like The Terminal, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich and Minority Report. Michael Bay is no doubt a crafted filmmaker, but he could do with a few notes out of Spielberg’s Moviemaking Guidebook.

Like Bay’s The Island, Transformers is an interesting concept, and possibly Michael Bay was trying his darndest just to entertain the whole family. A simple strategy then: simply unleash endless spectacle. It succeeds in being entertaining, it does, but for the amount of time, money and attention, it is outrageously devoid of anything meaningful or important to say. Today the messages conveyed by this sort of entertainment (like getting something for nothing) are particularly vulgar and distasteful.

The best metaphor for this story lies in the title, and the possibility was always there to write a deeper story about engaging the human condition, and demonstrating our need to upgrade our behavior. The writers could have maintained the action and spectacle, but added more convincing elements like multi-dimensional characters, characters with conscience, people who in the course of the story, truly change and learn and grow up. The movie critically avoids confronting the imperative we are currently faced with: to transform the world into a better place by first transforming themselves.

Running time: 2 hr. 24 min
Rated PG-13

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