As far as I’m concerned, Transformers first aired at 5:30 in the morning on my local Fox affiliate. This was back in the halcyon days when the Fox Network bought syndicated series the way survivalists buy bulk foods, slapping them down anywhere a hole in the programming schedule presented itself. Many a school day began with me dragging myself out of bed, the better to catch the theme song and learn the title of this latest episode in the Autobot’s seemingly-never-ending battle “to destroy the Evil Forces of…the Decepticons.”
For a time, the Transformers headed up what felt like my own Hour of Power, their show followed up by that realest of Real American Heroes, G.I. Joe. I often dreamed of an epic crossover event between my two favorite marketing tie-ins. I imagined Cobra Commander shitting himself in fear at the sight of an Autobot assault force rolling over the horizon. I imagined G.I. Joe’s hanging from every open window and flat surface their new their allies could provide, lasers ineffectually blazing. I imagined the unholy alliance between Serpentor and Megatron…not that Megatron would ever lower himself to an equal partnership with so puny a creature. I imagined the whole thing ending with Optimus Prime shaking Duke’s hand as bald eagles soared through sparkling fields of fire works. At sunset. Ironhide and Sgt. Slaughter could arm wrestling in the background, next to a stand of American flags that waved safely in the breeze, secure for another day from all things Evil and noncommercial.
I didn’t know at the time, though obviously I realize by now, that I was fervently hoping for the prototypical Michael Bay film. So, in an abstract, magical-thinking sorta way, this is really all my fault. For that, guys, I really am sorry.
Both shows grew onto the silver screen. Both spawned quickly forgotten spin-offs that no one seemed to like very much…except for me. And now, my dream safely dead, I find that it’s finally come true in the worst possible way…a way that seems depressingly inevitable. Not just that the finished product would be crap (I was sure it would be from the moment I heard of it), but that it would be such blandly predictable crap, so pedestrian in its offenses, so unforgivably stupid.
I blame Michael Bay, of course. I could take the hard way out and blame something abstract, like the American psyche of this so-called post-September Eleventh World…but I’d rather blame ol’ Madman Mike. All the cool critics are doing it. My review of Armageddon may be a screeching anachronism, but its sentiments still stand. California lawmakers should impose an immediate restraining order on Mr. Bay, keeping him to a minimum of five hundred feet away from any movie making equipment. No more iBooks or MassiveAttack for you, Mike. No more multi-million dollar budgets. No more invitations to dine with Will Smith, and no more opportunity to sneak a peak down his wife’s dress. You’ve officially abused the privilege and (I know everyone says this but) this time, Mr. Bay, it really is personal. These are my happy childhood memories you’re fucking with, son.
And he begins said fucking right out of the gate. “Before time began,” a very familiar voice intones (no fan worth the name will fail to recognize Peter Cullen as Optimus Prime) “there was…the Cube. We know not where it comes from, only that it holds the power to create worlds…and fill them with life. That is how our race began.”
Right. Following in the footsteps of their forebears, the (as yet uncredited) writers of this piece feel no need to choose from the multiplicity of extant Cybertronian creation myths, carving their own from scratch. I find the idea of sentient machines worshiping a geometric shape somehow fits, even though it lacks any hint of authentic creativity. “But like all great power,” Optimus continues, “some wanted [the Cube] for good, others wanted it for evil. And so began the War. A War that ravaged our planet until it was consumed by Death. And the Cube was lost to the far reaches of space.”
Beware movies that begin with such expository dumps. They reveal the moviemaker’s true opinion of their audience. Either we’re too stupid to figure all this out form the movie itself or the movie makers are too stupid to figure out another way to tell us. Which is funny, considering Optimus Prime will eventually give pretty much this same speech to our Token Human later on. “And just when all hope was lost,” Optimus concludes, “message of a new discovery drew us to an unknown planet called ‘Earth’…but we were already too late.”
With that ominous groundwork lain we switch to Qatar which, the Buzzing Action Movie Title Crawl informs us, is in the Middle East. Thank you, Buzzing Action Movie Title Crawl. Where would we be without you? Still in Qatar. Why Qatar? Because the United States has maintained a military base there for years. Owned and operated in conjunction with Qatar’s government, Al Udeid Air Base grew like a weed once we declared our War on “Tearah,” its existence officially classified until Vice President Cheney’s official pre-Iraq Invasion visit of 2002. It now houses at least fifty airplanes and a rotating contingent of U.S. troops. Let’s meet some of them, shall we? They will be our G.I. Joes for the remainder of the film.
Like the Joes (and, for that matter, the Autobots) every character receives their one defining personality trait. There’s Fig (Amaury Nolasco), the Token Spanish Speaker (Token Cubano if his taste in food is any indication); Tech Sergeant Epps (Tyrese Gibson), the Token Black Dude; The Token White Dude in glasses, a sort of Private Joker figure and obvious Redshirt; and Captain Lennox (Josh Duhamel), who’s supposed to tug at our heartstrings in a very Steven Spielberg kind of way since he “just want[s] to hold [his] baby daughter for the first time.” Awww….[blech]
The Captain’s transport lands and we meet this baby daughter…along with the hot wife who bore her…via video chat. Other soldiers can wish they’d married TV anchorwomen but Captain Lennox went and did it, by God, because he’s a “real” American. Right.
Outside, F-18’s escort a rogue Black Hawk helicopter onto the tarmac. It comes willingly enough despite its pilot’s disdain for identifying himself. Soon after touchdown, the Black Hawk jams base communications. Its engines stop, its rotors retract, and (in the film’s first and last well-conceived “holy shit” moment) the Black Hawk stands up, reforming itself into a towering, vaguely humanoid shape that proceeds to make merry sport of the U.S. military. This is the most brilliant piece of the film. Special effects, cinematography, atmosphere, even…God help me…Michael Bay’s directing…combine to make a sequence actually work because, for once, the confusion and anger I’m feeling at not knowing what the hell is going on is an intentional outgrowth of this beat in the story. For a jaded giant monster movie fan like your humble narrator, these wonderfully awful two and a half minutes of cinematic carnage are almost too much to ask for. And, indeed, this sequence will set up multiple plot holes which the film – in true “A film by Michael Bay” fashion – will never bother to plug, considering its audience too stupid to have noticed. Every silver lining has a cloud.
So forget about those Real Amerikan Heroes for a moment. We take you now to a real war zone: an American high school. There Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) (who, with a name like that, cannot be anything other than Our Hero and the Michael Bay Identification Character) is here to make his genealogy report. You can tell it’s an American high school because Sam’s “report” is nothing more than a lame, big kid version of show n’ tell (which he still manages to talk his teacher into giving him credit for). Sam will be our Token Human for the remainder of the show. You can tell since he commands the Power of Illustrative Flashback.
Unlike those Real Amerikan Heroes (all top of the line Action Movie Cliches), the Token Human is an immigrant from mainline Transformers mythology. The cartoon Autobots never rolled far without their human “friends” in tow: the improbably named mechanic-and-son team of Sparkplug and Spike. While other independent contractors were off working for a living, Sparkplug and Spike, somehow, always found the time to fall into some damn trap or another, often requiring the Autobot Rescue Service to pull their fleshy hides out of the fire. (Hell, Sparkplug even got brainwashed by a mad scientist once.) Think of them as a Binary Lois Lane.
And Sam Witwicky is certainly neither of them…though he does turn out to be something of a Lois Lane. He’ll be the key mover and shaker of this plot, so much so that it might as well be his name on the movie (I’m sure he and Bay considered this to be “their” film in much the same way Bay made Pearl Harbor into The All-About Affleck Show). At one point, Sam’ll even fall off a tall building, forcing the real hero to come swooping in and save him. Thankfully, they’ll be no kiss after. You can go rent Superman Returns for that. (Though, really, for God’s sake, why?)
Sam’s show n’ tell is also a shameless attempt to pawn off his great-great-grandfather’s Arctic Exploration memorabilia on unsuspecting classmates. Seems Captain Archibald Witwicky was quite the Gentleman Adventurer of 1897. He led men to the Arctic Circle (“Which is a big deal,” Sam informs us…see the kind of dialogue we have to work with here?) and came back a raving lunatic. Spent the rest of his life babbling about some gigantic “Ice Man” he discovered. Whatever, right?
There are more important things going on in Sam’s life. He’s a middling student but, with visions of his first car dangling in mind, he’s managed to pull together three As and two thousand bucks. So it’s off to Bernie Mac’s Used POS Emporium (no, seriously) to kick off the plot. When Bernie calls across the lot to his “mammy,” who hangs out in a rocking chair on an adjacent porch, she speaks for me (and everyone viewing this film) with the one-fingered salute she throws back to Bernie, Sam, and Sam’s dad (the poorly-used Kevin Dunn, best known [to me, at least] as Colonel Hicks from 1998’s Godzilla).
Bernie Mac, in turn, speaks for the makers of this film when he admits that, “If I had a rock I’d bust your head.” None of the characters notice the hamhanded way that yellow, 1970s Camero maneuvers itself into Sam’s hands…or Sam into its. There’s something vaguely creepy about the notion of “robots in disguise,” particularly given the way our society worships technology so slavishly. They really could move among us unseen and we’d never know until the fatal blow came…especially if they disguised themselves as “mindless” Action Movie directors…
Sam, being an idiot, is delightfully oblivious to his car’s sentience. “I’ve got the car, now I need the girl…I need money to take out the girl.” No one on Ebay seems that interested in a 19th century pair of glasses, his parents are mad Stepford monsters, and he’s shared a school with the girl of his dreams since first grade…and she doesn’t even know his name. Ah, the lost pleasures of childhood: insecurity, paranoia, fear and perpetual letdowns…not at all like life now. No. Not at all.
The Girl, in this case, is Mikaela (Megan Fox). Think of her as a Negative Spike. While Sparkplug was a fine, upstanding specimen of humanity (when he wasn’t under Megatron’s thrall) we find out later that Mikaela’s father was a bottom feeding criminal, currently touring California’s finer correctional institutions. So he’s Nicholas Cage’s character from Gone in 60 Seconds. Such is her back story. Pay attention, we’re supposed to give a shit. Or were you staring at the “teenage” girl’s boobs? Of course you were, you fucking pervert.
Meanwhile, we’re definitely meant to fawn over Captain What’s-His-Name’s merry band of military folk, lost as they are in the Qatarian desert. Thanks to a Token Local Boy (probably a shepherd…if he were Japanese, his name would be Kenny) they reach some outpost of civilization, pursued all the while by a beautifully rendered mechanical scorpion.
I won’t call that thing “Scorpinok,” because Scorpinok was Megatron’s loyal and imbecilic Second in Command during the Beast Wars of prehistoric Earth. This thing exists merely to show off the Blow Shit Up skills of the U.S. Armed Forces. After all, we’re at War, people, and we should all Support the Troops with slow motion photography and sweeping pans over sunlit sand. “Scorpinock” ambushes our plucky military heroes on the outskirts of some local Adobeville and the film reveals its true intentions. It stands naked like the crass, Pentagon-approved commercial that it is. Parents, take heed: this film exists to make sure your children know being a soldier is KOOL! You get to save the world and blow shit up all at the same time. What could be more American than that, I ask you?
And it is the Americans who triumph, needless to say (we’re less than half an hour into things as it is). All the standard Action Movie bullshit is here in full regalia. Men stand tall, shunning all pretenses of ducking for cover as furious explosions rain shrapnel down upon them from scant meters away. Their guns shoot straight, never jam, and never, ever misfire. They can all, miraculously, hear each other speak over the cacophony of battle, since radio links are obviously for pussies. And because this is a movie, Captain What’s-His-Name has to go through the “hilarious” rigmarole of borrowing a cell phone from Arabic Kenny’s dad and a credit card from Token Black Dude. Then he has to talk to customer service. All this to call down some A-10 Tank Killers on their Decepticon pursuit and pad the film out. Rather like I’m padding this review.
Stateside, things go from bad to worse. Decepticons infiltrate Air Force One, learning things we won’t be told for another ten minutes. They seem particularly interested in a bubble-headed boy named Sam who’s trying to unload some of his grandfather’s old crap on Ebay. After a moment of high-speed cross indexing, they find Sam’s house on Google Maps and its off to kill the douchebag…right?
Not that he needs the attention. Apart from being totally inept at this whole “getting the girl” thing (the better to shag her after the end credits, natch), Sam’s caught a spot of car trouble…in that his car is alive and fond of taking itself out for nightly drives to deserted parking garages so it can blatantly plagiarize ET (but, since Spielberg gets an Executive Producer credit on this flick, I guess that’s okay). No need for concern, of course. We already know what Sam will soon learn: his bitchin’ Camaro is a robot in disguise who’s name (through some arcane linguistic alchemy) translates as “Bumblebee,” an Autobot assigned to guard Sam from the Evil Forces of the Decepticons…who are already rolling their way, looking for Sam’s grandfather’s glasses.
Why? According to Optimus Prime (and if you can’t trust Optimus, who can you trust?), Megatron, leader of the Decepticons, crash landed on Earth centuries ago while searching for that Cube Optimus was going on about in the Prologue. Sam’s granddad unearthed Megatron and the Cube on his ill-fated Arctic exploration. Before going inert for the next hundred years, Megatron sent out a signal, “imprinting” the Cube’s location on Captain Whitwicky’s glasses. That Cube is, in fact, the All-Spark, the generative force of Cybertronian existence. With it, Megatron will be able to transform Earth’s machines into a fresh new army, with which he’ll surely conquer the universe.
Step back with me a second and let’s marvel at the cognitive gymnastics our screenwriters, former Xena and Hercules scribes Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman (who, unfortunately, went on to write 2009’s Star Trek remake), had to go through in order to justify Sam’s presence. Make no mistake: that cognitive whiplash your feeling is entirely Sam’s fault. Whatever else he and Makela do, they’re charged with being our point of view characters. They have to be, because focus groups showed the filmmakers (or their Japanese masters) that we, the audience, are just too stupid to empathize with giant robots from outer space. According to the logic which gave Sam birth, we need these Pretty White Kids and their Problems just to get any enjoyment out of this film.
To which I say, Nay. We prefer POV characters who aren’t rambling annoyances or laconic Chicks. By the time the climactic battle grinds to its slow finish – a running showdown which magically teleports our characters from the Hoover Dam to downtown LA – I’m too numbed by Sam’s (and Makela’s, and Sam’s parent’s, and the Autobot’s, and especially the Decepticons’) idiocy to care about any of them. The mind wanders, entertaining itself with questions. Like, how much did Ebay have to fork over before Optimus Prime gave them an on-screen advertisement? How much did Chevy pay to make Bumblebee what he is today? Wouldn’t Las Vegas have made a closer, more scenic battle ground than LA? Or was Michael Bay trying to save money for more explosions? Is this the “Mission City” Captain What’s-His-Name mentions? Or was that supposed to be Mission City, Florida?
Why objectify the All-Spark to begin with? I’ve always understood it as a pseudo-spiritual idea, a kind of Transformer Nirvana where departed sparks rejoin the universal whole of which they are all but fragments, usually upon death or the culmination of some digital enlightenment. Why turn that into a cube and set our character’s chasing after it? Why create a new MacGuffin at all when the energy resources of planet Earth have served previous Transformers stories well for thirty frickin years? (If it ain’t broke don’t try and fix it, jackasses.) Why waste half the movie showcasing the Military Industrial Complex’s bumbling response to the Decepticon’s attacks when you’ve already got more padding than those Nerf sticks therapists give you to help you work out aggression? And who in God’s name thought having a giant robot pee (I’m sorry, “lubricate”) on John Turturro would be a good idea?
Answer? Michael Bay, a shameless hack convinced every movie he makes is the height of American cinema. Or maybe I’m wrong: maybe his only crime is functional illiteracy. He obviously didn’t do anything more than glance at his pet screenwriter’s script. I can see the plot holes from here. If you’re robots in disguise, why attack Al Udeid in the first place? Especially when you can infiltrate Air Force One so easily? At least the Decepticons were smart enough to leave no survivors…apart from our intrepid Joes. But how is it one Decepticon can wipe a whole air base off the map, yet five of them can’t to wrest one Cube from the noodley arms of a teenage boy? Then there’s the Heroes Battle Death Exemption that sees Captain What’s-His-Name keep his squad alive against the longest odds on Earth…and allows him to run a speeding motorcycle through a Decepticon’s legs for the express purpose of shooing it in the crotch. Because “subtle” is for fags, and that ultimate football-to-the-groin is the kind of thing Michael Bay considers A Good Idea…in so much as the word “idea” has any meaning for him.
And why on our green and energy-rich Earth would Makela even give Sam the time of day? If she’d stayed home she could’ve lived the week out in perfect ignorance of just how big a spastic douche Sam really is…to say nothing of the minor, alien incursion that almost conquered her planet. She’d be free to get on with what the Men in Black would call her “happy, little life” and not have to swap spit with…Sam Witwickey…ug. Gag me with your sister’s toothbrush.
Or (here’s a good one) why call it Transformers at all? Why not just call your movie Humans and be honest with yourselves and your audience? We came looking for a Transformers movie, find vapid drivel in its place, and we’re filled with spite. Surprised?
Nostalgia can be a dangerous thing, but I confess I’m giving into it more and more as time goes on. There’s something missing from these slick excuses for movies, these commercials in disguise. Those old G1 Transformers cartoons were little more than that, but that little went a long way. If it hadn’t, this movie wouldn’t exist. So what about those old cartoons managed to step above their origins in the climate-controlled boardroom of a Japanese toy company?
Quite simply, they dared. And unlike our current subject, they dared not to be stupid. They dared to be something at least marginally unique in a time when cartoons overflowed with musclebound figures from the Master Race. The Transformers wasn’t about humans from Eternia, or Dimentia, or Avalon, or even Earth. Earthlings may have helped out occasionally but this was not their stage. There were never any girls to get (until Arcee) or babies to hold for the first or final time. There were bigger things going on…like robots in disguise. Robots who seemed more human than their fleshy costars, what with all the bickering (friendly or otherwise), the backbiting…and whatever the hell was really going on between Megatron and Starscream.
(Looking back now, I’m pretty sure they were ex-lovers, still working together because…well, its not like the Decepticons have any kind of pension plan. Starscream probably just got sick of always coming in second to the total domination of the universe and decided to knock Megatron off…only to fail, the way Starscream fails at everything.)
All of which is to say, at least the old Transformers managed to be be more than the sum of their parts, more than a merchandising cash cow, more than a waste of my time and all of yours. That old cartoon’s worst failure remains more entertaining now than this movie’s greatest successes.