This is an abridged version of a review I wrote for Christianity Today Movies. To read the rest of this review, click here.
I cannot begin to describe to you how much I loathed Transformers, but as it is my job to do so, I shall attempt to find the words.
But first a confession. I hate Michael Bay’s films (Bad Boys, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, The Island). If you are about to pounce on my predisposed bias, let me also assure you that I badly wanted to like Transformers. Truly. I hoped against hope that it would be good. I made a concerted effort to wipe away all vestiges of my knee-jerk repugnance to Bay’s oeuvre. After all, I thought, the usual reasons I detest Bay’s films — that they are big and loud, with skimpy plots, showy car chases, massive explosions, testosterone fueled action, etc — might actually be just the things Transformers requires.
Yes, I am one of those 30-somethings who grew up playing with the original Hasbro toys (can a film based on toys be any worse than one built around animatronic pirates?) And yes, I used to love to watch the fantastic animated series that ran in the 80s. While the animation certainly doesn’t hold up 20 years later, Transformers’ spirit is unchanged. They were as cool then and they are cool now. I say all that just to assure my readers that I came to this film as a legitimate fan.
Bay and his team go to great lengths (and time) to make Transformers a human story first. The everyman at the center of this story is actually an everyboy, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), an average 11th-grader interested in finally getting his first car and using it to impress the ladies. What Sam doesn’t know is that there is a lot “more than meets the eye” about the beat up old Camero he drives off the used car lot. Sam doesn’t realize how right he is when he comments that the car seems to have a mind of its own. In fact, it does. The car is actually the Autobot Bumblebee, a vanguard sent to protect the young man who unwittingly holds the secret (within a conceit far too ridiculous and silly to even try to explain here) to an eons old galactic civil war, the AllSpark cube, a monolith of extraordinary power that crash-landed on Earth a century earlier. Exactly what the AllSpark is and what it does is never really explained other than that it animates anything electronic into malevolent killing machines.
But Bumblebee isn’t the only robot in disguise looking for Sam. The Decepticons have found him too and soon he is caught in a tug of war between the Autobots and Decepticons. Before it is all over, the war will spill out onto the streets of Los Angeles, and Optimus Prime will be pitted against his nemesis Megatron in a titanic battle of good and evil that will decide the fate of the entire planet.
Transformers begins strong. The voice of Peter Cullen, aka Optimus Prime from the 80’s cartoon series opens the film. For fans of the cartoon series, it is a spine-tingling moment. Unfortunately, it is the last such moment. Everything begins to unravel the second the Autobots reveal themselves to Sam and begin speaking. They are jaunty and playful, speaking in jive and hipster speech that, they tell us, they learned from trolling the web. They come off as parodies of their original cartoon selves, incompetent clowns who bumble around like ridiculous circus performers.
Even gallant Optimus Prime is reduced to mouthing ridiculous one-liners. “My bad,” he says sheepishly when stepping on a piece of Sam’s father’s landscaping decor. While this clownish behavior would seem ridiculous coming from any of the titanium behemoths, it is especially troubling to see that even Prime does not escape unscathed. Are we seriously supposed to believe these are the same all-powerful beings who are here to save our world? Bay sacrifices whatever sort of credibility the film might have, substituting cheap laughs for substantive characterization. The film never recovers.
Prime has always been the ultimate father figure. For an entire generation growing up during the 80s, he represented a leader of stalwart bravery and impeccable wisdom. His moral clarity and unwaverability was inspirational to young boys desperetly looking for role models. When Prime sacrificed himself in Transformers: The Movie, it was both tragic and valiant. Here he is a buffoon.
If Transformers has one, identifiable flaw it is this singular inability to even pretend to take itself seriously. While a certain amount of self-deprecation is healthy (and can be found in the cartoon series) Bay takes it to such protracted lengths that it has no chance of being anything but a caricature.
Another subplot, dealing with Section Seven, a shadowy government organization established to protect the AllSpark cube, runs afoul of believability when front man John Turturro arrives in a role so ridiculously over-the-top and lampooned that his preposterousness is topped only by the comic antics of a ridiculous Decepticon named Frenzy who coverts into a beatbox.
Did I expect too much? Did I expect the film to treat the original story as sacrosanct? No. But why can’t Transformers take itself seriously? On their face The Lord of the Rings and The Matrix (among so many examples) are preposterous. The reason they work so well is becuase the filmmakers behind them tackled their subject matter with utter sincerity and absolute seriousness. There was no winking at the audience. They treated their subject matter as if the world they were creating was completely believable and since they believed in it, so did we.
Bay has no such interest. He is incapable of making a film without his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. Some people find that sort of filmmaking fun and accessible. I find it exasperating, cheap and disrespectful of his viewers. He is out to have a good time at the expense of his material. He cares more about theatrics than substance, more about cheap laughs than genuine humor, more about splashy effects than the heartbeat of a genuine story.
Not that the actors don’t try within the constraints they are given. LaBeouf is one of the finest actors of his generation and while this is the sort of film that hardly allows him to stretch his wings, it is a nice venue for him to enjoy showing off his comic dexterity and rapid-fire motor mouth. As his love interest, Megan Fox, like the film’s CGI, is little more than eye candy.
The CGI in Transformers represents a new high water mark. There is no real use talking about the performances of any of the human actors, competent as they may be. For Transformers, the actors are mere props for Industrial Light & Magic's CGI Geppettos. Transformers is an undisputed CGI spectacular. In fact, it is the most complex CGI film ever made. The robots are so phenomenally detailed that it took supercomputers 38 hours to render just one frame of movement! They move with spectacular grace and fluidity, always convincing in terms of weight and proportion. Their metamorphoses are staggeringly complex and, according to the digital artist that created them, complete accuracy. While the effects are extraordinary, at some point it just becomes an overwhelming and indistinguishable deluge of flying wreckage, sporadic explosions, and gnarled heaps of metal. It is all sound and fury, signifying nothing. The film’s climax ends too suddenly, resolving itself in a sort of technobabble conceit that would have us believe that it makes sense merely because that’s the way the alien technology works.
Transformers is dumbed down movie-making. By his own admission, Bay said that the film was intentionally crafted to appeal to nine to 15 year olds. As the closing credits began to role in the screening I attended, the adult audience erupted into violent applause. I was one of only a few within sight who sat on my hands, staring in abject horror from my fellow theatermates to the screen and back again. Maybe they were merely getting in touch with their inner children. Just when I felt totally alone in the universe, a man somewhere behind me stood, and screamed Michael Bay’s name at the top of his lungs, followed by a string of profanity.
No one will pay attention to the negative reviews, of course. Transformers is going to do explosively well at the box office. Paramount and Hasbro will get rich no matter what any of us say. It is critic proof, and crafted to make money by appealing to the largest number of people possible, with as little substance as possible.
Too bad then that Transformers is nothing more than a parody, a 144 minute long joke with Michael Bay laughing all the way to the bank.