Transformvesty

I know the exact moment when Michael Bay’s 144-minute Transformers movie was lost to me: 83 minutes in, when Bumblebee pees on John Turturro.

Now if the sight of a jaw-droppingly rendered twenty-foot-tall robot urinating on an unsuspecting human being sounds like fun to you, then you’re exactly the knuckle-dragging mouth-breathing demographic to which Bay aspires. Couple this with lots of stuff exploding over and over again with little rhyme or reason, and there’s no reason you won’t love Transformers. It’ll be OMFD ROFLMAO AWESOMEQXZ!!!!!!!!!

If, on the other hand, you have a couple of neurons to rub together, I would suggest that this scene is in fact a metaphor for how Michael Bay (as Bumblebee) thinks of his audience. Then might I suggest better things to do with 144 minutes of your time, such as pummeling yourself in the head repeatedly with a sledgehammer, which will produce a similar effect but will blissfully leave you unconscious for most of it. Transformers is a big, loud, dumb movie that will leave you feeling pissed (on) for having watched it.

This is a pity, because I so wanted to like Transformers.

Ever since someone emailed me this dancing car commercial, I knew it was high time for live-action Transformers movie to kick shiny metal ass all over the screen. I mean, it had been two decades since the last Transformers movie, and every other 80s craze seems to be experiencing a comeback, so why not the Transformers, arguably the coolest toy/cartoon of that decade?

I thought my prayers had been answered when I saw the first Transformers trailers. “Executive produced by Steven Spielberg,” it said. “Robots by Industrial Light and Magic,” it said. I had visions of Jurassic Park with shape-shifting robots that were all but confirmed when I saw this:

There was no way movie could not rock.

“Directed by Michael Bay,” it said.

Aw, crap.

Michael Bay, who I assume got his start in the movies when some gaffer brought him in for “Bring Your Hack-music-video-director to Work Day,” is best known for making utterly craptastic offerings like Armageddon and Pearl Harbor and The Island. His movies are known for being bombastic, rapidly cut, misogynistic, two-hour commercials for beer, cars, and plastic explosives. It’s a style to which he punningly refers as “total Bay-os” and to which I more accurately refer as “what movies would look like if edited by a chimp cursed with both epilepsy and ADD.” Still, I assumed that not even the great ineptitude of Michael Bay could screw up a premise as straightforward as “giant ass-kicking robots that transform into sports cars and jets,” and I would be the first in line to take back all the nasty things I’ve ever said about him if he got this one right.

Then he made Bumblebee pee on people for fun.

Now, before we get to much further, I should point out that I’m a Transformers fan, but not a fanboy. On the one hand, I probably had thirty Transformers toys when I was 10, which if you’ve never seen them before are best described as Tonka toys rebuilt by Erno Rubik: battle-ready robots that transform into cars and guns and dinosaurs. (I even had one that transformed into a fully functional microscope!) Hands down, Transformers were so much cooler than those fleshy wuss-bags G.I. Joe or He-Man. I avidly watched the cartoon, a Cold-War-inspired morality play in which the vile Decepticons, lead by the ruthless Megatron and bent on galactic domination, were repeatedly defeated by the good Autobots, lead by the noble Optimus Prime. Even if it was nothing more than a thirty-minute commercial for the latest plastic doodad at Toys R Us, it was a fun commercial that gave to each plastic doodad a personality and a voice: the brave and noble Optimus, the screechy and impatient Starscream, the wicked cool Soundwave. And yes, I was one of the gazillion boys who got all teary-eyed (but didn’t cry, no sir, nuh-uh) when Optimus died in 1986.

On the other hand, unlike most fanboys, I eventually got on with life. I filed the Transformers away as relics of the 80s, to be recalled with warm and fuzzy nostalgia, along with Nintendo’s Robotic Operating Buddy, or Reaganomics. I didn’t live and breathe the comic universe, and today I probably couldn’t even name ten Transformers, much less tell you what they transformed into (although, oddly enough, I bet I could remember how transform any of the toys, even now). As a result, I could care less that Bay upgraded wimpy Bumblebee from a beat-up VW Bug to a steroid-injected Camero, or that he combined both the Autobot Creation Matrix and the Underbase into a single cube thing, or even that he gave Optimus Prime lips.

All I wanted to see was rollicking fun, rock-’em, sock-’em robot mayhem on a grand scheme with characters I remembered from the cartoon.

I did not want to see them pissing on people.

And Transformers starts off so well. The prologue narration begins with the unmistakable voice of Peter Cullen (reprising his role as the voice of Optimus Prime) explaining how the past and future of the Transformers race depends on the good guys finding “The Cube” before the bad guys, before ominously concluding “But we were too late.” Cut to present-day Qatar, where an ominous black helicopter supposedly gunned down in Afghanistan is escorted to a US Army base. As the copter powers down, its rotors abruptly stop spinning and it goes frighteningly silent for the briefest of moments, before suddenly turning itself inside-out in a violent tornado of gears and guns. It emerges as a massive mechanical monster that unleashes horrific death, massive destruction and l33t haXor skillz. The sequence is violent and frightening and jaw-dropping, and everything that a modern Transformers movie should be.

How did it go so wrong?

Part of the problem is that Michael Bay is quite vocal in his dislike of the Transformers mythology. Bay doesn’t appreciate Transformers fans; if anything, he has great contempt for them. He initially dismissed the idea of Transformers as a “stupid toy movie,” and on AMC’s Shootout remarked that he “couldn’t stomach the cartoon,” which he says “wasn’t that great.” That contempt translates to the screen, to the detriment of the movie.

I’m not claiming Bay needs to stick to the source material with dogmatic precision by any means, and some of his changes do make for a better movie. For example, the original cartoon’s plot involves two opposing factions of sentient transmogrifying robots from the war-ravaged, resource-depleted planet Cybertron who bring their war to Earth. There, the evil Decepticons try to drain the Earth of its rich energy resources while the good Autobots seek to defeat them and protect the unsuspecting humans caught in the crossfire. This works great for an episodic serial program, but it’s a bit nebulous for a movie.

Instead, Bay puts the robots out scouring the galaxy for a massive version of Pinhead’s puzzle box called the All Spark, the “The Cube” mentioned in the prologue. (That the All Spark has the nightmarish power to transform iPods and automobiles and flashlights and whatnot into homicidal robots, and can fold itself up into a handheld version of itself for convenient travel only makes the Hellraiser connection even more appropriate. Move over AVP! I smell a new cross-over franchise!) It turns out that the exact location of the All Spark is encoded (for reasons no one in the movie should know, but everyone apparently does) in an old pair of glasses.

Unfortunately, most of Bay’s changes are not to modify the existing story lines into an engaging movie, but to in fact reinvent the entire story in his own image. Given the lowest-common-denominator gutter for which Bay makes movies, the result is less than stellar.

For example, since Bay thinks Transformers are “stupid toys,” he de-emphasizes their role in their own epic struggle, putting the emphasis instead on a bunch of bumbling humans. Bay keeps almost all of the big bots off the screen for most of the movie’s first hour, and the bulk of its interminable run time involves a likable high-school doofus named Sam Witwicky sells of his family’s treasured antiques — including the aforementioned All-Spark-encoded spectacles — to buy a beat-up old Camero that, through a sentience manifesting itself by suggestive songlists and convenient breakdowns, helps Sam sack the babe of his dreams, an “evil jock concubine” named Mikaela. This isn’t Transformers; it’s Herbie: Fully Pimped. Along the way, Sam overcomes those usual rites of passage, like standing up to the jock, surviving pratfalls in front of cute chicks, or hiding three-story-tall robots in his backyard while his parents discuss masturbation with him. (Really.)

In addition to this John Hughes fare, large chunks of the non-robotic screen time are wasted on Jon Voight (reprising his role as FDR from Pearl Harbor), who spends the movie always one step behind a pair of irritating computer hackers, who spend the movie always one step behind John Turturro (very badly overacting Tommy Lee Jones’ character from Men In Black), who spends the movie utterly clueless and being peed on by giant robots. It’s like a “Domino Theory of Dumb.” The only other likable human in the cast is Josh Duhamel, who plays G.I. Joe, and spends most of the movie blowing up Decepticons.

I should, however, note that the “Sam and his wacky car” parts of the movie are reasonably (and also cringingly) funny. Shia LeBeouf is reasonable likable as the bumbling Sam, and Megan Fox is, well, hot. Michael Bay is utter crap as an action-movie director, but as a tongue-in-cheek teen-coming-of-age sci-fi-movie director, he ain’t half bad. (I, for one, eagerly wait his remake of Zapped!.)

Still, I could forgive Bay for making the Transformers play second-fiddle in their own movie if they were at least engaging characters in their own right. Unfortunately, Bay’s robots are a lot like his movies: visually arresting, extremely noisy, and devoid of basic intelligence or personality.

For example, Bay felt their original forms were too clunky and boxy to move fluidly and believably, so he had all the bots upgraded. And while the jury is out on his initial claims (these awesome Citreon commercials here and here and here make a strong case that a “boxy” car-bot can also be impressively athletic), the newly redesigned robots are (I must concede) a marvel to behold. These Transformers have a decidedly alien look to them, seemingly both skeletal and heavily muscled simultaneously. This is even more remarkable when one realizes that their bodies are, in fact, still composed of the same windows and mirrors and exhaust pipes and axles and all the various other components of their vehicular alter-egos. The Decepticons in particular are especially frightening, like Blackout, who changes from the aforementioned helicopter into a steroid-induced Terminator with propellers, or Bonecrusher, who shifts from a horrifying Duel-looking truck into an equally horrifying roller-blading beast with a scorpion-like tail, or penultimate baddie Megatron, who transforms from sweet Cybertronian jet into what I can only describe as a robot-mummy-werewolf nightmare of jagged claws, teeth, and metal. Moreover, the transformations from robot to machine are slick and visceral: the robots don’t so much gradually “transform” between modes as violently “explode” and “implode” between them, and the effect is cool as hell (one spectacularly lame break-dancing transformation excluded).

But this robot revision comes with a price: while the new Transformers look cool individually, lumped together they are virtually indistinguishable. Whereas in the cartoon each robot bore a strong semblance to the external attributes of the vehicle into he transformed — the trucker cab torso of Optimus Prime, the VW hood-feet of Bumblebee, the cockpit sternum of Starscream — the movie’s bots instead seem primarily composed of all their internal components instead. Hence, when any two Transformers go mano-a-mano (or botto-a-botto, perhaps — which they do — endlessly — in the finale — it resembles less two bipedal robots than a churning mess of gears and pipes and tires, sort of what you might to see expect if, say, a small black hole where to spontaneously form in the middle of an auto parts store.

More crucially, Bay invested so much time in giving the robots a believable look and physical presence that he spent no time giving them any character. Good Lord, the rampaging dinosaurs of Jurassic Park have more emotional substance to them than any of Bay’s automatons. And it’s not like this would have been hard to do — forty minutes spent watching the first two episodes of the cartoon (here and here and here) is all it takes to determine Optimus’ nobility, Starcream’s treachery, Bumblebee’s spunkiness, and so forth.

Instead, Bay portrays the Autobots, who are supposed to be the good guys in the movie, not as heroic warriors but as semi-retarded frat boys: Jazz introduces himself to Sam and Mikaela with “What’s crackin’ little bitches?” before busting out some break-dancing moves; Ratchet points out that Sam is horny and turns into a Hummer (giggle giggle); Bumblebee spends the first half of the movie trying to get Sam laid, and later …shudder… pees on somebody; and Ironhide is the posterboy for the NRA gone amok, first threatening to shoot Sam, then Sam’s girl, then Sam’s dog, and then Sam’s parents. Even Optimus — yes, Optimus Prime — comes off like an MTV cast-off, saying things like “Oops, my bad” and “What is with you?” before transforming into a big rig made over by the guys at Pimp My Ride. My God, the final scene of the movie is Sam dry-humping Mikaela on Bumblebee’s hood while the Autobots watch intently.

Eww.

(Otimus does explain that the Autobots learned English through the world wide web, as justification for why the Autobots sound more like petulant tweens than ancient warriors. I guess, then, that I should be thankful that Bay has enough restrant to not have Optimus saying things like “Sam Witwicky, let’s be BFF!” or quoting penis-enlargement advertisements.)

Still, if the Autobots come off as one-dimensional caricatures, that’s still one more dimension than the Decepticons are given. Almost none of the Decepticons are given anything more than a name before being shuttled into Los Angeles one at a time to do battle with our Fratbots. Even Megatron — bad ass Decepticon despot Megatron — spends the first two hours of the movie frozen in an ice chest, and then does nothing more than growl a lot after he’s thawed out. In fact, the bad-bot who gets the most screen time is Frenzy, an irritating pint-sized robot who looks like a Bionicle, talks like Popeye on speed, and sadly manages to overact worse than John Turturro.

All of this crap — the wasted subplots on sub-The-WB style human comedy, the stupidification of the robots, etc. — means that movie is neither true to the spirit of the Transformers source material nor much fun. Still, this hokum could be tolerated (if not exactly forgiven) if the movie could deliver the rock-’em sock-’em action, the only viable aspect Bay might salvage from this debacle.

It turns out that, despite its excessive length and shoot-’em-up premise, there are really four big action set-pieces in Transformers. The first is the helicopter attack in Qatar, and as noted, that kicks ass. The second takes place about 40 minutes into the movie, in which the survivors of the Qatar attack fend off another attack by a second Decepticon who, despite its supposed technologically-imbued super-intelligence, chooses to disguise itself inconspicuously as a twenty-foot long jet-powered robotic scorpion. That aside, the action is fast and furious, marred only by a dumb racist gag involving Indian customer service representatives (twice, even!), and the bad bug bot is eventually subdued into retreating under an impressive display of high-tech weaponry and stick-to-it gusto of the US military.

The third takes place about ten minutes later, and this is when the action starts to go downhill. The sequence starts with Barricade, the nasty Decepticon police cruiser, transforming into a towering terrorbot and cornering Sam for his antique glasses. Sam makes a run for it, and despite the fact that Barricade seemingly takes ginormous strides and can convert into a supercharged police cruiser, is unable to get any closer than twenty feet behind Sam at any given time. Eventually Sam’s self-aware Camero intervenes and drives him (and, conveniently enough, his hottie Mikaela too) away, fast-and-furiously pursued by Barricade. After an aggressively uninteresting chase involving recycled clips from Gone in 60 Seconds, the chase ends a day later (apparently) at a power plant, where finally Sam’s Camero transforms into a giant robot (the watersports-loving Autobot Bumblebee).

Finally, we’re going to get our first taste of Transformer hand-to-hand combat!

…Except that that little speed-addled Frenzy thing shows up, and we instead are subjected to a pointless sequence of Sam being repeatedly beat up by it until Mikaela decapitates it with a power saw while the two Transformers duke it out completely out of frame (and, oddly enough, earshot as well). When that’s over, Bumblebee shows up to more or less announce that the other, presumably more interesting battle, is already over.

Dude, weak. Seriously.

The fourth and final action set-piece is the penultimate battle royale, a massive, balls-to-the-wall thirty-minute robot-clusterfuck explodogasm starting on Interstate 15 and ending in the streets of Los Angeles (cleverly renamed Mission City in order to explain how everyone can drive to it from Hoover Dam under fifteen minutes). It opens with great promise — a high speed chase car chase in which Optimus Prime dukes it out with Bonecrusher roller-derby-style that ends with an eyeball extraction followed by a decapitation.

Unfortunately, it’s a brief battle (it’s less than a minute long — blink and you’ll miss it) it goes rapidly downhill, for two main reasons.

First, and most noticeably, it is absofrickinlutely impossible to tell what the hell is happening at any given moment. An unfortunate but inevitable consequence of (1) the aforementioned indistinguishableness of two Transformers dueling it out, (2) the also aforementioned lack of characterizations of any of the Transformers (which would have made you possibly care if you could figure out who was involved), and (3) Michael Bay’s chronic inability to neither hold the camera still or hold a camera take for more than a few microseconds, the final act of Transformers is thirty minutes of robots crashing endlessly into each other, stuff blowing up repeatedly for no apparent reason, people screaming ceaselessly. Far from being entertaining, after ten minutes its simply numbing, and after twenty minutes the only thing it delivers is a migraine.

Second, and perhaps more fundamentally, the battle is stupid. First off, the whole point of the last act is that, now that the All Spark has been found, the Decepticons will stop at nothing to capture it in order to unleash its gawdawful power to exterminate the human race. So what do our heroes decide to do? Hide it in the middle of a densely populated urban city. Brilliant! Then when it later becomes apparent that leading and army of 50-foot-tall robot killing machines who transform into heavily armored tanks and jet fighters and choppers into the middle of downtown LA might perhaps have been a bad idea, they instead decide to airlift the death-unleashing little box out of the city in a tiny helicopter. Oh, for Pete’s sake.

In addition to the utter idiocy of the battle plan is the remarkable stupidity with which the Transformers on either side execute it. On the one hand, it is clear that it takes several Autobots (together with the help of the Army and Air Force) to defeat a single Decepticon, yet the latter never actually appear to utilize this advantage and team up. Two Decepticons side by side would apparently be all it takes to wipe out the whole of California, and yet instead they line up one-by-one to be individually defeated by the super-rocket-monkey-robot-team. The Autobots, on the other hand, never seem to realize that their ability to change what they transform into at will (a ridiculously silly ability given to them by Bay Almighty and utilized by both Bumblebee and Frenzy) might be better served at this point by changing their form from the 2008 GMC lineup into, say, some of various army tanks and helicopters and armored vehicles littered about the battlefield.

The absolute worst part of the grand finale is its resolution, or rather prominent lack thereof. Optimus Prime and Megatron duke it out, the former protecting the All-Spark-bearing Sam while the latter trying to kill him. They beat each other up for an interminible period of time before Sam more or less hands over the little Hellraiser box to Megatron — whereupon it burns a hole in his chest and he dies. Yes, the final Transformer conflict is resolved not by the prowess and abilities of the machines themselves, or event by the tactical know-how of the US military. It ends because the All Spark also apparently indiscriminately burrows itself into Transformer chests and kills them, sort of like the chestbursters from Alien, only in reverse.

On the plus side, however, the final battle does include a homicidal Mountain Dew dispenser that fires soda at folks with an awesome “Poon! Poon! Poon!” sound from its cannon:

Still, when all is said and done, though, the whole the Transformers movie is summarized by the scene I mentioned at the very beginning: a great concept utterly pissed away.

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