Super Serial – Transformers (2007)

Transformers

D

Super Serial aims to dissect series of pop art — be it a filmography, discography or run of comics — by looking at its individual components.

Last week on Super Serial we analyzed a movie that reveled in how alien it was. Nelson Shin’s Transformers: The Movie engages in a minimum of hand-holding; many parts of it seem purposefully structured to disorient audiences, or at least to confound their expectations. In stark contrast to that, we have Michael Bay’s 2007 film Transformers, a movie super-concerned with grounding everything that happens, thereby making sure that almost nothing interesting actually gets put on screen. The movie’s barely about the Transformers at all; this film would be better titled Our Military Plus Some Giant Robots, so we could feel better about ignoring it altogether. This is an awful piece of filmmaking, worse than most people seem to remember.

The number one mistake Transformers makes is setting its sights squarely on humans. I understand filmmakers wanting a human presence to anchor the film for the audience, but the amount of time Bay takes away from the titular characters to give to one-dimensional Earth-people is astounding. Do you know there are only three scenes in this movie where Transformers talk amongst themselves? And one of them is only three lines long. The film doesn’t ever give us a chance to get to know its heroes except through the eyes of Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf). Transformers doubles down on this human mistake by giving in to the worst trappings of bad science fiction movies, showing that the aliens in the film have a secret history intertwined with humanity that goes back centuries. By the time we learn that all human technology has actually been reverse-engineered from Transformers, I’ve checked out. The robots are cool on their own; we don’t need to know our cell phones come from them to make them any more compelling.

Part of the problem is that Michael Bay and his team shot themselves in the foot with the designs of their robots. In an effort to be more “realistic” (a term that almost always fails when applied to giant fucking robots), they decided to do away with the geometric, aesthetically pleasing designs created by the 1980s series. Instead they made their characters a mess of wires and vehicle parts. Again, I understand the impulse to appeal to modern sensibilities, but had creators stepped back for a second they might have realized that creating robots that look like piles of garbage removes any chance for audiences to identify with those robots. It takes away the characters’ agency. The Transformers literally become objects instead of characters.

And this is where Michael Bay completely misses the point of Transformers. To quote an awful Stan Bush song, our main characters are “robotic warriors.” They’re an alien race caught up in a terrible war, a war that happens to come to Earth. That’s Transformers 101, and Bay’s movie conveys it in words but not in deeds. See, I’d argue (and I’m sure lots of fans are with me) that the notion of Transformers is already compelling — they’re a race of refugees fleeing their war-torn planet, but they can’t leave their conflict behind them. Yes, they’re giant alien robots and can turn into cars and jets and stuff… that’s what makes them fun to watch… but their motivations are instantly relatable, and quite human. They’re like us, but 30 times bigger.

Michael Bay, on the other hand, presents the Transformers as something like a cross between superheroes and the latest in military technology. In a horrendous scene set to some choral bullshit courtesy of composer Steve Jablonsky (another creator who has no idea what Transformers is about), our Autobot heroes rain down from the sky like gods from Heaven sent to save us from… something. If you don’t believe me, look at the way the little girl in this scene looks up at Ironhide as he emerges from crashing into her backyard. It’s like she just saw Superman, and everything will be okay. This moment establishes the exact opposite tone of what Transformers should be — they’re not here to save us, they can’t even save themselves.

So, in lieu of the Transformers, who stands in as this film’s real heroes? The United States military. Please don’t take this as me critiquing the men and women who serve, and for whom I have great respect, but… aren’t there enough movies about the military? Did we really need another Black Hawk Dawn (and an inferior one at that)? Just this once, might focusing on the interstellar conflict of giant robots be just a little more interesting, especially when the movie’s supposed to be about those giant robots? The military having something of a presence makes sense, I suppose (though did it have to be just the Americans?), but why is Bay so fixated with military technology? This movie is full of needless cuts to insides of warships and planning rooms, showing us the nuts and bolts of the armed forces when it should be concerned with nuts and bolts of another kind. Many critics have called Transformers “military porn,” and they’re right on.

Of course slighting the very characters this movie promises to celebrate might not’ve been so egregious if Bay and co. could’ve crafted a compelling story with its human characters. Of course, this being a Michael Bay film, that’s off the table. Not a single character in this movie, robot or human, develops in the least; many main characters, played by actors who get top billing, are reduced to ludicrous stereotypes, such as Sgt. Epps, played by Tyrese, whose one job is to yell incredulously any time something tense happens. There are lots of feminist and racial critiques of Michael Bay out there, and they’re all justified, but I hope those critics realize that Michael Bay treats all of his characters, be they black, white, man or woman, as objects to push his nonsensical stories forward.

The one thing that saves this film the littlest bit, I think, is the climactic battle sequence. Once all of the movie’s major heroes and villains are in play (which takes almost two hours), some of the resulting battles are really cool; they finally deliver on the film’s visual promise. It’s definitely too little, too late, but the last 20 minutes or so of the movie can be pretty pleasing if you turn the sound off. Some impressive scenes: Optimus Prime battles Bonecrusher on a highway, which includes the frankly amazing visual of Bonecrusher slicing his way through a bus. A couple of the Mission City battle scenes also excel; despite myself, I do love the shot where Ironhide, propelled by his arm cannons, catapults over a screaming woman, as well as the straight homage to the ’86 movie when Jazz jumps on the Decepticon tank “Devastator” and does somersaults around his gun barrel.

Of course, many of these scenes, too, are tainted by a human presence. Any time two robots are really going at it (Bumblebee vs. Barricade, even Optimus Prime vs. Megatron) the film frustratingly cuts away to show us with Sam (LeBeouf) and Mikaela (Megan Fox) are doing. When Optimus and Megatron first start brawling, why do we need to see Sam cowering in a ditch? Does Bay really think it’s more compelling storytelling to show a teenage boy hiding in a corner instead of two giant robots beating the shit out of each other? That says to me that he has no faith in his character designs or even in what should ostensibly be his main characters.

So, yes, Transformers is a mess. I was horrified, upon re-watching this movie, to discover just how bad it really is. What made anyone think fans of the franchise would be satisfied with this is beyond me. Somehow it caught the attention of the general public and spawned a massively profitable film franchise, but I guess there’s no accounting for taste.

NOTES:
-In general, the sound editing in this movie is really bad. Artificial echoes have been added to every robot voice, probably to give them a sense of scale; as a result, the robots end up sounding very muddled. That’s especially true whenever they speak in their annoying “Cybertronian” language, which ought to have not been included at all.
-I will say, it’s really nice that Peter Cullen reprises his role as Optimus Prime here.
-One of this movie’s many flaws: its flow is broken up by several comedy sketches that usually feature stunt casting (ex: Bernie Mac as car salesman Bobby Bolivia). That said, I do find Peter Jacobson, the actor who plays Sam’s teacher, quite funny.
-Another problem with the movie: the lighting is really bad. For instance, in the scene where the Autobots all hide around Sam’s house (more on that later), everything looks very artificial. A by-product of that… all the human characters look like they have dirt on their faces at all times. What’s up with that?
-Am I the only one who finds Sam Witwicky pretty unlikeable? He’s a little too frantic to be relatable as an everyman, which I’m pretty sure is what Bay and co. were going for.
-Another actress I quite like in the film is Julie White, who plays Sam’s mom.
-To contrast that: is there a more useless character than Sarah Lennox (Samantha Smith), the wife of the main military character? She exists solely to pine for her husband, but wouldn’t viewers assume that kind of stuff was happening anyway? Bay wastes time on it here.
-Mikaela’s boyfriend is a paint-by-numbers bro with terrible dialog. I love his brush-off line to Sam: “Hey guys, I know of a party.”
-This movie features many instances of Bay demeaning Transformers to get a laugh or advance the plot. Consider: why does Bumblebee care if Sam hooks up? Isn’t an interstellar war more important than this kid scoring with a hot girl?
-Even given what I said about feminist critiques earlier in this post, the character of Mikaela is way too sexualized.
-An early scene that I like, only for the camp value: on Air Force One, an officer finds a boombox sitting out in the open and brings it with her into a restricted area. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it’s a great homage to the original television series, where that kind of thing happened all the time.
-I also enjoyed the scenes where computer analysts attempted to figure out how the Decepticons could confound their systems. That kind of nuts and bolts stuff could’ve been really interesting had the movie chosen to focus on it more.
-Another awful comedy sketch scene: a police officer (Rick Gomez) interrogates Sam about his “stolen” car. Really unfunny. By the time Gomez gets around to rattling off a list of nonsense drug names Sam might’ve taken, this sketch has far outstayed its welcome.
-I think by far the most annoying stereotype here is the typical Boston guy in the army, Sgt. Donnelly (Zack Ward). I don’t know about you, but I was glad Scorpinok killed him first.
-Bad comedy sketch #3: the “Outsourced” scene when Captain Lennox tries to place a call to the Pentagon. Way to squeeze comedy out of an awful stereotype, Mr. Bay.
-This bears repeating again: composer Steve Jablonsky does a really shoddy job scoring this movie. In many ways, he’s the anti-Vince DiCola (from last week’s film). It seems Jablonsky wrote one piece of music and then used it over and over again. Why on Earth would he think it was a good idea to use a traditional orchestral score for Transformers? It does nothing to convey the machinistic qualities of the film’s heroes, something DiCola understood very well. The rock bands whose songs are used (Smashing Pumpkins, even Linkin Park) do a much better job capturing the movie’s tone.
-Though the scenes featuring hacker Glen (Anthony Anderson) are certainly guilty of being comedy sketches, they’re not too bad… Anderson’s a pretty funny guy and makes the best of his material
-Has it ever bothered anyone how Sam, on a bike, can keep up with or outrun a Camaro?
-Another retro nod: Sam’s “oh, shit!” line.
-Maybe my favorite design in the movie belongs to the Decepticon Barricade, who actually looks like a robot.


-There are at least two scenes in this movie when the setting shifts from day to night on a dime — when Sam gives Mikaela a ride home, and when Sam and Mikaela outrun Barricade. Has Michael Bay never heard of dusk?
-One of Bay’s worst “innovations” is removing Bumblebee’s voice, a stupid gimmick that’s made its way into most current incarnations of the franchise.
-Besides being military porn, a lot of this movie is also car porn. Given the subject matter, that’s perhaps a little more excusable, but I feel like Pontiac and Chevrolet basically get commercials out of this.
-The visuals of Cybertron during Optimus Prime’s flashback are fairly promising. I like the idea that it’s a planet full of ever-transforming buildings.
-Maybe the worst scene in the movie: Optimus directs his Autobots to hide around Sam’s house. Of course they’re too big to be inconspicuous and what results is HILARIOUS OH MY GOD SO FUNNY. For “robots in disguise,” shouldn’t these guys know better? And Prime is a wise leader, right? So why does he think this is a good idea? The scene basically destroys everything cool about the Transformers; Optimus Prime doesn’t say “my bad,” Ironhide and Ratchet don’t bicker like teenagers. Not only is it inconsistent with the characters as we know them, it’s inconsistent with the characters the film needs them to be an hour later! The scene also manages to work in a masturbation joke just to make any parents in the audience with really young kids uncomfortable.
-Weird pee joke number one: Sam’s dog urinates on Ironhide; Ironhide complains the dog “leaked lubricant.” Sorry, in this case a reference to Transformers: The Movie won’t save you, terrible film.
-Best actor in this film: John Tuturro, who plays Sector 7 operative Agent Simmons. I get the feeling Tuturro knew how bad this was going to be and said “fuck it, I’m doing whatever I want with these lines.” What results is an entertaining, if not totally goofy, performance. I love the way he insists Sam’s last name is “Wickety.”
-When we first meet Optimus Prime, he says he doesn’t attack humans. About 25 minutes later, he’s attacking humans. Good continuity.
-The actual worst scene in the movie: Bumblebee urinates on Agent Simmons. I don’t know how Transformer urination didn’t instantly clue me and everyone into how bad this movie truly is.
-Bumblebee’s capture scene is ludicrously overplayed. We’re supposed to feel sorry for him, but Bay’s designs have ensured that we can have no emotional connection to these robots.
-Remember how I said there are only three scenes in the movies where Transformers talk to each other without humans around? Notice that in all three of those scenes, the robots are doing stupid gymnastics for no good reason. Bay clearly doesn’t have enough faith in his CG models to let them stand still.
-Optimus Prime argues several times throughout this movie that humans are basically less developed Transformers. Um, what?
-In the scene where we first meet the Decepticon army (which takes far too long to get to), why are they all just chilling at military bases?
-Military porn reaches its zenith in this line tremendously delivered by John Voight (as Defense Secretary Keller): “Losing’s not really an option for these guys.” Let on the cutting-room floor: “They have been all that they can be. ALL!”

-Megatron’s design isn’t bad, but why when he awakens does he yell “I am Megatron?!” Did he almost forget?
-Starscream sucks in this movie. He happens to be one of my favorite characters from the Transformers mythology, and the writers remove everything interesting about him.
-I suspect the tiny Decepticon Frenzy was created just to give the non-military human characters an evil robot to fight.
-One of this movie’s annoying tricks: there are lots of times when a character (usually Epps) is about to say “fuck” but it’s cut off by an explosion.
-Man, Bumblebee gets totally shit on in this movie. First he has no voice, then he loses his legs.
-Megatron’s murder of Jazz is very unceremonious, though not as much as Optimus’ very offhand dismissal of losing his lieutenant at the movie’s end.
-What we see of the Prime/Megatron fight at the movie’s end is kind of cool. I especially love the shot of the two of them crashing through a high-rise building.
-The annoying focus on humans becomes super clear when the first words Megatron yells at Prime during their climactic battle is “humans don’t deserve to live!” Really, Megatron? You’ve been encased in ice for centuries and that’s the first thing you want to say to your archenemy?
-That said, some of Megatron’s dialog is kind of sharp. The writers did capture his total disdain for any life.
-Despite myself, I kind of like the Mountain Dew robot.
-Sam pushing a cube into Optimus’ chest is an awful climax. Awful. And what cruel soul made Peter Cullen yell the line “SAM PUT THE CUBE IN MY CHEST”?
-Are Optimus and Megatron brothers literally or symbolically? Either way, that’s kind of a weird line. Optimus seems more broken up about losing Megatron than Jazz.
-When Bumblebee does regain the ability to speak (somehow), his voice is very lame.
-It’s really uncomfortable how quickly Optimus and the other Autobots decide to start being protectors of Earth (there’s that annoying superhero thing again) despite the fact that they just learned they can never ever restore life to their home planet.

Next week we look at 2009′s Revenge of the Fallen, and I think we’ll find it’s actually better than Transformers… marginally.

tags: michael bay, super serial, transformers

  • Travis

    I saw this in the theater and I was appalled. I really cannot understand how so many people like this movie. I think I’ve only encountered a handful of people who agree with me (and you).

    The one part in this movie that I did like was when the men with guns invade Anthony Anderson’s house, and some guy (his cousin, brother?) runs through a plate glass window. I probably only liked this because I did that once too, in a nursing home on Easter.

  • Anonymous

     This is the best comment on the site yet.

  • Marc Alan Fishman

    Best comment on the site? Damn, guess I should write more. You hit the nail on the head. The beginning and end to this movie for me are the designs of the transformers. Simply put, they look like car wrecks. The movie was written and is played to the lowest common denominator… It rests it’s laurels on the idea that enough explosions, shitty comedy, and predictability will sell movie tickets. Sadly? It did.

  • http://twitter.com/Doubting_Tom Tom

    Wow, a controversial way to end a pretty bang-on review. I do have a couple of quibbles, and perhaps I would have more if I’d actually watched this film since its release, but:
    *I think the purpose of Sarah Lennox was to make us think her husband was going to bite it. The guy couldn’t have been more obviously destined for death if he’d said “what could possibly go wrong?” and was two days away from retirement. He was basically Deadmeat from “Hot Shots.” That his death didn’t actually happen was either a great fakeout or the most terrible foreshadowing in history.
    *I don’t agree about the “demeaning Transformers,” at least with respect to Bumblebee playing matchmaker. Sure, it doesn’t make much sense that Bumblebee became Herbie the Love Bug for the first part of the film, but I think the purpose is to humanize the character. Bumblebee’s just Sam’s pal (and wingman), a boy and his ‘bot. Ideally, the purpose of this kind of sequence would be to provide some character development and to show that the Autobots care about humanity and the planet while the Decepticons just want to blow stuff up and exploit our resources. It doesn’t work all that well, but it does make an attempt at correcting some of the other criticisms you have.
    *It’s not just the lighting that’s really bad, it’s the digital color grading. This page explains the whole disgusting process: http://theabyssgazes.blogspot.com/2010/03/teal-and-orange-hollywood-please-stop.html
    *As bad as it is to have the robot modes look like piles of randomly-arranged, constantly-moving metal bits, it’s really the opposite of the problem that Transformers toys have often had, with robot modes that look totally cool and alt-modes that don’t look like anything. And while I don’t like the Bayformers robot mode designs at all, I also don’t agree that it makes them unrelatable as characters. It makes them look alien (particularly the Decepticons, who in various cases don’t even have recognizable face-parts), and that is part of the point. If you had trouble identifying with the Autobots (based on looks, rather than poor characterization and complete lack of depth), then I hesitate to think what difficulty you might have had in “District 9.”

    I’m still not sure how “Revenge of the Fallen” will end up being better; I walked out of it feeling like there was *considerably* less focus on the titular robots in favor of even more military porn, and what Transformer focus there was was on the most cartoonishly offensive caricatures put to screen since “The Phantom Menace.”

  • Anonymous

    Sorry Marc, I love that you comment, but only Travis has written about running through glass doors. I mean, his comment was better than my whole post.

    But yeah, “lowest common denominator” is a great way to put this. Bay & friends found a formula for success but man, this movie is bad. 

  • Anonymous

    I never got the feeling that Lennox was going to die, actually, so I don’t see where you’re coming from with that.

    I DO see what you’re saying about Bumblebee, but still, priorities. There are things that need to get done RIGHT AWAY that don’t involve Sam and Mikaela boning. I can’t imagine a warrior helping members of a foreign species hook up instead of making moves to save his entire planet.

    I think the key to making Transformers relatable is giving them humanish robot forms with distinguishable features… it’s something viewers notice before any characterization (or lack thereof) and has a big effect on how we perceive the creatures (at least, if you believe me that Transformers are supposed to be just like humans in many respects). Good characterization might’ve helped, but bottom line: the robots are ugly. We start off not wanting to like them. A major strength of the ’80s series (which IDW exploits month after month) is that Transformers are supposed to be a lot of fun to look at, and Michael Bay seriously fails in that department. And as it happens, I didn’t like District 9 too much, though not because of the alien designs.

    As for RoTF, you’ll have to wait til next week, but I’m telling you now I plan on arguing against the racial critique of the film.

    Cool link about the digital color grading by the way. That’s hella lame./

  • http://twitter.com/pinkstonaa Aaron Pinkston

    “Do you know there are only three scenes in this movie where Transformers talk amongst themselves?” — It’s like the new Bechdel Test.

  • Anonymous

    Can you imagine how upset Alison Bechdel would be if Michael Bay made a movie called “The Lesbians,” and the lesbian characters only interacted with Shia LeBeouf and army men?

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