Qatar is in the Middle East! I learned that from the Transformers movie. Each of the dozen or so times the movie cut over to the action in Qatar (Middle East), there would be a shot of the desert and some army guys and a building with mosaic-lined archways and guys in turbans, and there’d be a subtitle that said “QATAR – THE MIDDLE EAST”. So you can’t say the movie doesn’t teach you anything.
The most valuable thing to be learned from Transformers, though, is exactly how not to make a movie about the Transformers. It’s really just awful. Don’t think that the caption thing is my biggest complaint about the movie — far, far from it. I only bring it up to demonstrate how the movie manages to use every single possible channel of communication available to cinema in its two-and-a-half-hour-long assault on the audience’s intelligence.
I’ve seen several positive reviews of the movie that include disclaimers as defense against the cultural elite who are supposedly going to be stumbling into Transformers and ending up baffled and outraged: you read a lot of reminders that it’s a big, loud action movie; and you see it’s supposed to be campy; and you’re bound to be disappointed if you try to judge it as high art instead of summer blockbuster spectacle.
Yeah, thanks, guys, but I think we get it. It’s 2007; we’re already over a decade and a half through the ironic generation. I think we all knew what to expect when we paid ten bucks to see a Michael Bay movie based on an 80s cartoon based on a toy about cars that turn into giant robots. Hasbro gets second billing, for crying out loud. The problem isn’t just that it fails to deliver as a real movie, it fails deliver as a campy marketing-driven giant robot action movie.
Action? I’ve read reviews that say the filmmakers knew what the crowd wanted, so they made sure to let you see the Transformers from the first scene of the movie. But that’s not true. It starts with the biggest of cliches, the character-building army guys discussing “what are you gonna do back home” sequence, which would be annoying enough even if the characters involved had anything to do with the rest of the movie. By the time you’re ready to see all of them dead, our first Decepticon lands and starts demolishing the base.
At least I think that’s what happened. The Transformers of the title are all so badly designed it’s impossible to tell them apart when they’re not in their General Motors® form, and it’s near impossible to tell what they’re doing. And in the movie, everything’s filmed with shaky cams and covered in smoke and explosions and lasers to make you feel like you’re really there. So the end result is a bunch of gray metal forms moving around incomprehensibly while people run around screaming, punctuating with the occasional cool shockwave effect and a car flying over something. Repeat that formula about a dozen times, and you’ve got all the action sequences.
Story? The “plot” is something about a giant cube that landed on Earth and the Decepticons are going to get it and the Autobots want to destroy it and the key is in Shia LeBeouf’s great-grandfather’s glasses. And you know really, whatever. A movie about cars that turn into robots doesn’t have to be better than that. But by about two hours in, when they started introducing another group of characters (this one led by John Turturro, which just made me very sad), I’d thought of at least a dozen better ways to tell the same story.
None of them involved dicking around for an hour and a half, and then suddenly bringing every character in the movie together in the same place to reveal that the main villain and the super-powerful object the villain wants to get have been sitting right next to each other for the past 80 years. Seriously, guys, that’s just lazy.
Comedy? You’ll hear that the movie is just smart enough to know that it’s campy, and inserts humor to make fun of itself. Don’t believe it! The height of the comedy is Turturro in comically ludicrous underwear getting peed on by one of the Autobots, while another makes a joke about lube. The same joke that they’d already made not five minutes earlier, when a chihuahua in a comically oversized foot cast pees on one of the Autobots during the sequence where they’re all hiding out around the main character’s house while his parents make belabored jokes about masturbation.
If I’m an expert on anything, it’s on the subject of overly-labored and stale jokes. And I could write a thesis on Transformers. There’s no joke so stale (e.g. President Bush stand-in asking for ding dongs) that the movie won’t make it at least twice. In a movie called Transformers that has only about eight or nine transformers, there are two, repeat two wisecrackin’ black grandmas.
Some of the “humor” was so unrecognizable as such, that the music guy was confused. Apparently Bay or somebody involved in the movie had just seen The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, and decided he wanted to try that new semi-improv comedy thing that was all the rage. There’s a bit with an overzealous cop accusing Shia LeBeouf’s character of being on drugs that I’m guessing was supposed to be hilarious, but had string-filled orchestral tension music playing throughout.
Performances? You’ll hear a lot about Shia LeBeouf, and sure, he’s just fine in the movie. Most of the cast is, actually. And you’ve got to give them credit; everybody seems to get that it’s a comedy, so you don’t have some people trying to play it straight while everything around them is goofy. But none of them have anything to work with.
Sound Design? The sound design rocked. Seriously. In fact, it was the only single thing in the movie that I thought was well done. The sound of the transformations, the alien broadcast signals, the sound of Starscream turning into a jet and taking off, all excellent.
Except I just remembered: as part of the astoundingly cheesy product placement throughout the movie, one dude’s Xbox 360 comes to life and grows arms it uses to attack him with. And it makes the Xbox 360 startup sound when it comes to life. Which makes me sad. Because it showed that somebody involved was detail-oriented enough to put that in, but was too oblivious to realize that he was working on a movie that was completely without soul or conscience and ultimately stands as an example of everything that’s wrong in 2007 American society. So there’s that.
Oh yeah I forgot! I failed to mention one of the things that bugged me the most. One of the Decepticons disguises himself as a police car. I’d read in other reviews that they replaced the “To Serve and Protect” motto on the car with “To Punish and Enslave.” And when I read that, I thought, that’s approaching a clever little joke there, maybe the movie’s not all that bad. But in the actual movie, there’s a big close-up of the back of the car during an action sequence, to make sure you see the joke. And then there’s a slow-motion drive by with the camera on the back-bumper to make absolutely sure you get it. And then, I’m not kidding, they added a CG effect where the words light up.
I’m assuming that Bay wanted to put a big flashing arrow pointing to the joke, but he’d already used up the budget getting a robot to pee on John Turturro.