Talking Movies

July 31, 2019

From the Archives: Transformers

Another dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives brings us to where it all began with Sam Witwicky trying to impress his hot classmate by buying his first car, and not bargaining on that car being an alien robot or his grandfather’s glasses being key to ending an alien civil war.

Two warring factions of a race of sentient robots invade Earth searching for the powerful Allspark which alone can end their battle. A geeky teenager who holds the key to its location will be protected by one of the most iconic characters of the 1980s.

If that last sentence sounds a bit like a description of Die Hard 4.0 that’s because Transformers, like Die Hard, is a blockbuster that just scraped the American PG-13 rating but is really not aimed at kids so much as kidults. Transformers is the blockbuster that saves this underperforming summer of wet weather and wetter sequels. Which is quite something given that it’s directed by Michael Bay, the man who gave us Pearl Harbour, a cinematic atrocity that will live in infamy. But Bay, suitably chastened by the failure of The Island, has finally grown up. The fingerprints of his producer Steven Spielberg are all over this film. He has managed to make Bay stop editing his films like a 5 year old on a sugar rush and adopt a sceptical attitude to the godlike status of the American military. He has also, in a nod to another film he executive produced, turned the Decepticon Frenzy (the sneaky one who spied on people, here a small ghetto-blaster) into a robotic Gremlin who is mischievous as hell and even chuckles maliciously like the Gremlins.

Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is our typically nerdy Spielbergian hero, desperately trying to impress classmate Mikaela (Megan Fox) with his first car. The car though is the Autobot BumbleBee, sent to protect Sam, who can only communicate thru the car radio (frequently hilariously). Transformers is surprisingly funny. Between LaBeouf and John Turturro as a secretive government agent there are scenes in this film with so much neurotic bumbling going on that you half expect Woody Allen to show up demanding royalties. There’s a full very entertaining hour of Sam trying to impress Mikaela and failing miserably, and Bumblebee trying to keep Sam safe from Frenzy, Blackout and Scorponok (the Decepticons hunting him and hacking American military computers for the whereabouts of their leader Megatron) before the leader of the Autobots, Optimus Prime, arrives on earth.

Prime, still voiced by Peter Cullen, is exactly as you remember him. Rendered in the colours of Superman, willing to sacrifice his own life to save others, he remains one of the pre-eminent Jesus figures of pop culture. When that truck-rig emerges from a mythical mist you know he will still have never-ending reserves of compassion. Sadly his nemesis Megatron (voiced by Hugo Weaving) is given too little time to make the menacing impression he really should. The last 40 minutes are an utter orgy of destruction on freeways and city streets but as Bay has made us care deeply about all these characters, human and robot, this is the most gripping pyrotechnics he’s ever delivered.

4/5

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July 25, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Franchise

Shia LaBeouf is done. Michael Bay is done. Transformers as a franchise is not done. But maybe it ought to be…

Whispers (by which I mean the usual incessant briefings by publicists) abound that Jason Statham is about to assume the lead role in the Transformers franchise and take it in ‘a darker direction’. While it’s always nice to see ‘The State’ in action movies, the last thing this franchise needs is to go any darker. It’s positively screaming out for a reboot to the sunnier climes of its original vision. And yes, I am aware that talking of something needing a reboot to capture the halcyon era of four years ago is a new level of preposterousness, but it’s justified. The third act of Transformers 3 is so dark as to resemble Independence Day by way of the back-stabbing betrayals by humans collaborating with exploiting aliens of Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 AD rather than the fun of 2007’s Transformers. This is amplified by very questionable touch of District 9 in the Deception guns that vaporise flesh so that piles of bones fall to the ground after they shoot people.

Ehren Kruger has written a script that, like his Scream 3 which also featured Patrick Dempsey, is structurally very sound and has any number of nice touches, but which fundamentally strays from the existing tone of the franchise.  Kruger’s rewriting of the space race as a cover story for a covert mission to retrieve an alien artefact, and the meltdown at Chernobyl being a disastrous attempt to utilise that alien technology, works as well as X-Men: First Class’ similar slyness. Patrick Dempsey impresses as two kinds of villain, the romantic rival who has more money and power to impress the girl, and the Quisling of smooth collaboration and self-justificatory villainy. The comedy with Ken Jeong maniacally harassing Sam, John Malkovich chewing scenery as Sam’s eccentric colour-coded boss, and Alan Tudyk freaking out as John Turturro’s unhinged PA is all very funny….but it’s insane; you’re laughing nervously because this doesn’t fit in with the rest of film almost as much as you’re laughing because it’s funny.

Kruger’s comedy is a style of humour which is entirely different from the comedy of the first film which organically grew from the characters around who an action story suddenly took place. This lack of organicism is a problem unwisely highlighted in-camera when Frances McDormand’s spook tells Sam he really has no function in this story, and sure enough Sam later inserts himself into the storyline by sheer perseverance rather than any interior logic. A greater problem is the discordant note struck by Kruger’s approach against Kurtzman and Orci’s template. It’s always embarrassing to remember just how juvenile a director the middle-aged Michael Bay is, but the ogling of Rosie Huntington-Whiteley (all low-angle shots and short skirts) is different than that of Megan Fox, because it lacks the nod and wink self-awareness of Kurtzman and Orci’s script. It’s as if Kruger has no interest in semi-apologising for this nonsense. Bay’s lingering introductory shot of Huntington-Whiteley is, fittingly, of her arse, which is what her performance is a load of, to paraphrase Shirley Manson. But this can be forgiven as just Bay being Bay…

What is unforgivable, after the disastrous introduction of so many non-characterised or racially caricatured robots in the last film, is that Kruger doesn’t retrench and try to fully utilise the original Transformers, but instead retains racially caricatured characters and then (like a LOST scripwriter) continues to hoover up yet more new characters. I’ve complained about this before but Kruger here reaches the apotheosis of this franchise’s incomprehension of the riches available in the Transformers comics. Sentinel Prime may be from the comics but so is Shockwave, and he’s outrageously wasted in the film when in the comics he has the most distinctive style of delivery of any Transformer bar Grimlock and is a wonderfully nuanced villain. Kruger’s shocks are effective but the killing of Ironhide is incredibly gimmicky and the weak exits of Starscream and Megatron from the franchise are disgracefully disrespectful to their characters’ status in both the comics and the previous films, and, in Megatron’s case, as tonally wrong as Burton’s Batman dispatching the Joker. But then how Optimus finally deals with Sentinel plainly belongs in a macho action movie for adults, not a sunny blockbuster for children. Characters gushing blood oil, having limbs parts torn off, and their spines CPUs torn out is too much. The darkness makes this film feel loooong…

Transformers was a cartoon series designed to sell toys by creating archetypal characters who had entertaining adventures. The comics injected cod-Shakespearean parallels and ended in traumatic apocalypse but they were also great fun. Surely the film-makers could remember their true target audience and lighten up a bit…

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