It’s become kind of fashionable to mock the Tranformers movies. In large part, that’s due to their director, Michael Bay, who’s got a reputation for big explosions and superficial plots. When someone wants to mock Hollywood blockbusters, and they don’t want to mock super-heroes, it’s a fair bet that they’ll mention giant robots blowing things up, or some other description that could apply to the Transformers movies.
Really, that’s just a sign of those movies’ commercial success. And I’m not going to argue that they’re deeply philosophical movies. However, they largely deliver what’s reasonable to expect from a big-budget blockbuster that’s not trying to be a philosophical art-house movie: specifically, some amazing action sequences, which are meaningful because they’re illustrations of bigger ideas, mixed with some really good character moments.
Let’s start with the first live-action film, 2007′s Transformers. Admittedly, part of the joy of the movie was seeing live-action Transformers in the first place — something fans had dreamed about for years, but which hadn’t been technologically feasible until a few years before the movie’s release.
Equally, some of the potentially embarrassing aspects of the Transformers — such as their adoption of English vernacular and human voices — are on display here, but objecting to them is a little like objecting to super-hero costumes; they’re part of the tradition, for better or worse. Similarly, you can nitpick that the Transformers’ adoption of human vehicle forms doesn’t make sense, but that’s kind of like pointing out that super-powers aren’t realistic. A lot of these are simply aspects of the premise itself. The movie doesn’t execute these things perfectly — I’d certainly like a little more explanation, and these movies’ sci-fi narration can be ponderous (like much opening and closing narration in sci-fi and super-hero movies).
But Bay does get some things right, like trying to retain the Transformers’ scale between their forms — something the original comics and cartoon often got very wrong, prompting theories to explain the discrepancies. (I say “Bay” and not the screenwriters, because this rule was reportedly set at Bay’s insistence.) Bay also helped invent the idea that, since the Transformers could transform, they didn’t need a ship, and thus we see the Autobots coming to Earth in forms resembling meteors. Bay would later use Transformers ships, but the meteor-like “protoform” idea was a solid way of thinking through and working out the Transformers premise.
The movie was executive produced by Stephen Spielberg, and he contributed in meaningful ways to the film. Spielberg chose the screenwriters, decided that the story should be grounded in a boy and his car, reviewed and gave notes on drafts of the script, and asked Michael Bay to direct the film. It’s not too much to say that the film is divided between Spielberg and Bay, between character-driven moments focused around Sam Witwicky (the Spielberg side of the equation) and giant action pieces (the Bay influence).
And here’s the thing: both of these sides of the movie work really well. Their combination gives the action a soul, and it also solves the problem of what you do in a Transformers movie between giant, super-expensive action scenes.
Shia LaBeouf takes a lot of critical flak, some of it deserved, for both his acting and his plagiarism. But he’s brilliant as a young man, nervous about getting the girl, anxious about his fiances, and focused on getting the gorgeous girl.
Watching the movie, I was reminded of 1980s movies, like License to Drive (1988) or even Ferris Beuller’s Day Off (1986). It was an era when Billy Ocean could sing “Get out of my Dreams, Get into My Car” (1988), as if the two went hand-in-hand. The car has long been a symbol of America, but those movies sold a particular combination of the car and the young American heterosexual male, at a particular point in his life, when high school still seems like the world and romantic success — especially for a kid who isn’t rich — can seem painfully wedded to something like having a cool car. We haven’t seen many movies since the 1980s that have really sold the magic of a young, naturally lustful man and his car. In fact, I’m not sure how well those 1980s movies really sold this as a coherent formula. But man, does Transformers sell it — and man, does it work.
Of course, the 1980s were also the era in which the Transformers were born, and the story of Sam Witwicky adapts a story that began in the closing pages of Transformers #1 (Sept 1984), in which the young Witwicky — there named Buster — encounters Bumblebee leaking fuel and speaking in his father’s garage. It’s a haunting image. The movie wisely removes the father’s job as a mechanic, and it replaces this setting for a used car lot, where Sam’s choice of Bumblebee is rooted both in his family’s limited, middle-class income and the idea that the right car, like the right girl, could literally or figuratively speak to you.
This reinvigoration of 1980s tropes is handled with great acting and great visual panache, but I won’t deny that it’s in some ways a throwback — and not only to the glory days of the American automotive industry. The middle-class, all-American young man defining himself by his car and his girlfriend, which are treated similarly and packaged together, carries undeniable sexist and racial overtones. Sam’s the white male good guy, with whom we identify despite his white lies, and his would-be girlfriend, Mikaela Banes (played by Megan Fox), is defined by her sexiness just as much as the car is. This is true despite the fact that Mikaela does get some important moments of interiority, in which we realize that she’s struggling painfully with her own family and class issues, which are actually in excess of Sam’s domestic obstacles. But while anyone would be foolish to deny these overtones, we’d also be foolish to deny how well these tropes of the girl and the car and the nervous heterosexual white boy are welded together into a whole that, through its acting and its visuals, has that elusive movie magic to a remarkable extent.
Everything that happens with Sam, Mikaela, and Sam’s parents is infused with the concerns of his story. When the Autobots stand in his yard and Sam tries to keep them out of sight, it’s humorous enough on its own. But it’s also about Sam desperate to juggle the various parts of his life. He feels like he has to pretend to be someone else to win Mikaela, and he’s soon hiding what he’s doing with the Autobots from his parents. That the Transformers are tied to Sam’s ancestor, the explorer Archibald Witwicky, is accomplished through the somewhat silly idea of information being etched on Archibald’s glasses. But this demonstrates how, as in the best action movies, everything that happens is an illustration of the protagonist’s mental state. The Transformers themselves are bound up in Sam’s family history, just as his discovery of Bumblebee is bound up in his family’s limited budget. Everything’s of a piece here.
The more traditional Michael Bay parts of the film also work exceptionally well. Sure, the movie films its soldiers like it’s filming pornography, and there’s a fascist worship of the military that underlies this. But we’re hardly talking about 300 or anything, and the soldiers in question are real heroes, who act selfishly. And the action sequences are terrific.
There’s a reason the sequence in which Blackout lands without a pilot, on a base in Qatar, then dramatically transforms and kills almost everyone there, was used in trailers for the movie. It’s tense, stunning stuff. Viewers know what the Transformers are, but the humans don’t. And when we first see them, both this reveal and their deadly potential are handled with magnificent cinematic drama. This is hardly special effects for its own sake; its special effects wedded to human drama and a sequence that uses cinema’s strengths, rather than substitutes for them.
Of course, when discussing the Michael Bay action half of the movie, nothing beats the climax, in which the conflict moves to a fictional American city. True, the explanation for this setting is a plot hole: the heroes are trying to take the Allspark (a MacGuffin, to be sure) away from the Decepticons, knowing the Decepticons are pursuing it, and they choose a population center. But the action that ensues is a perfect illustration of the movie’s tagline “Their War, Our World.” It’s an idea that was always implicit in the premise of the Transformers, although the original comics and cartoon pulled its punches and never depicted the kind of urban decimation that would actually happen, were the Transformers actually battling on Earth. What we get in the movie’s climax isn’t just some thrilling devastation. It’s actually the fulfillment of the entire Transformers premise — a fulfillment earlier incarnations of the Transformers weren’t brave enough to stage.
When we see a missile from a Decepticon plane slamming into a skyscraper, it’s not just entertaining carnage and mayhem. It’s a courageous willingness to follow through on the implications of the story. In cinemas less than six years after 9/11 (and years before the devastation seen in The Avengers or Man of Steel), this kind of urban devastation could be difficult to watch. But how lame would the movie have been, if giant robots had carried their war to Earth, only to battle only in conveniently secluded areas? It was mind-bending to see Transformers realistically swerving down populated streets. But the easy damage they inflict on everything they touch also demonstrates a laudable willingness to follow a story’s central premise to its logical conclusion, rather than rely on narrative dodges.
On both the human, Spielberg level and the action-packed, Bay level, Transformers accomplishes impressive feats. Sure, there are a million things I can nitpick. (Beyond what I’ve already mentioned, Frenzy is a bit too silly, and I’ve never liked the over-intrictate surfaces of the Transformers’ robot forms. And while much of the acting is excellent, especially those playing the Witwicky family, John Turturro and Jon Voight aren’t given very interesting characters.) Transformers isn’t a perfect movie by any means. But it’s a good action movie, with several stunningly good sequences. In some very important ways, it improves on existing Transformers lore.
It’s more than a good action movie. It’s an admirable one.
Continued tomorrow, with a look at Revenge of the Fallen.