Continued from yesterday.
Say what you want about the Transformers sequels — and I’ll say plenty of good and bad things below. They were directed by the original movie’s director, Michael Bay, executive produced by Stephen Spielberg, and represented different stages of protagonist Sam Witwicky’s life — as portrayed by Shia LaBeouf in each film. Transformers (2007) showed Sam as a high-school student. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) showed Sam in college. And Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011) showed Sam struggling on the post-college job market. Each time, Sam was struggling to form his own identity, during these periods of an American man’s life, and each time he was played by the same actor.
How many action franchises can you say this about? Richard Donner directed one and a half Superman movies. Tim Burton directed two Batman movies. Christopher Nolan got three Batman movies, all with the same actor, and got to end his story — for which he’s been understandably applauded. But whatever you think about the relative merits of their films, Transformer director Michael Bay did this and just debuted a fourth installment. Jon Favreau only made it through two Iron Man films, while Joss Whedon and Zack Snyder are working on the second installment of their current franchises.
The idea of depicting a different stage in a young man’s life with each film is something we’d normally associate with art-house films, not big-budget, sci-fi blockbusters. No, I’m not claiming these three films are art films, but what they’re doing, in relation to one another, is something ambitious and admirable. That’s arguably Hollywood at its best, able to fuse popular content with deeper structures and meanings.
And if it matters, all three Transformers movie have grossed more than the one before, with Dark of the Moon surpassing a billion dollars worldwide.
The movie tries to duplicate the formula for the first film, which so ably blended its Spielbergian tale of a high-school boy and his car with big-scale action sequences. Only here, the Sam Witwicky story largely doesn’t work. Sam is away at college and struggling to keep his high-school relationship with Mikeala Banes going. When the Decepticons resurface, Sam’s college life is interrupted, and the opportunity this provides for heroism allows him and Mikaela to reconnect. That’s not a lot to work with, and his arc mostly feels like a retread of the first movie. Like many sequels, instead of carrying the protagonist’s story forward, he’s given a setback between films, so that returning to the new status quo achieved at the end of the first film can feel like an accomplishment.
Moreover, the movie isn’t successful in grounding Sam’s second arc in college, the way his arc in the first film was grounded in high-school anxieties and concerns. True, we’re shown Sam adjusting to college life, leaving his girlfriend and Bumblebee behind. When Sam’s seduced by a Decepticon in human form — a reinvention of the Pretender concept from the original toy line — it’s supposed to be an illustration of the sexual temptations faced by residential undergraduates, which can make long-distance relationships with high-school partners difficult. But it’s all too titillating, all too quickly dismissed, and a little too head-on to have the deeper resonance it could have. Similarly, when we see Sam struggling in a classroom, it’s not because he’s an adolescent with normal college problems but because he’s hallucinating, due to his exposure to the AllSpark. And yes, it’s a little amusing to see Transformers fighting on a college campus, but none of this captures the anxieties of this period in a young American man’s life, the way the first film did with high school.
The movie soon leaves college behind, as if it can’t wait to focus on its action-driven plot. Unfortunately, this too is a let-down. Optimus Prime is (temporarily) killed, a development that was first depicted in the 1986 animated movie and which has recurred often enough that it’s become a trope of Transformers stories. The removal of Optimus Prime raises the stakes for the survivors and ostensibly allows Sam to find his courage in the absence of Optimus Prime’s leadership. But Optimus’s death feels more perfunctory than dramatic.
One of the conceits of the films is that each of them reveal some previous interaction between Transformers and Earth. Rather than changing human history from what we recognize, these interactions produce the human history we know. This plays into the fad for conspiracy theories, especially those about alien-human contact, and the movies have a decent amount of fun with this.
In the first film, Earth is where the AllSpark fell — and where Megatron, searching for it, got frozen in ice. This led to the creation of Sector 7, a secret American governmental organization that knew the truth and was meant to prepare for any future alien incursions. The movie also revealed that Hoover Dam was built partly to house the dormant Megatron and the AllSpark. This irritates me slightly: the Hoover Dam was one of the largest public works projects in history, and it ought to be lionized as such, especially given America’s ahistorical contempt for the idea that government can do much of anything. More annoying is the idea that cellular phones and the like have been reverse-engineered from Transformer technology, an idea that simultaneously mystifies and devalues the real work of scientists, while also radically exaggerating our ability to reverse-engineer anything from truly alien technology. But whatever. These are common enough sci-fi tropes, and I’m able to overlook their annoying implications.
In Revenge of the Fallen, we learn that the ancient Transformer known as the Fallen — the founder of the Decepticons — ruled ancient Egypt, yet apparently had use of human slaves despite the vastly superior technology available to him. The absurd idea that aliens built the Pyramids has become a stable of irresponsible alternate history, which makes it almost pardonable. But it’s all rather convoluted, to say the least. There are Sun Harvesters, including one hidden inside one of the Pyramids of Giza (which has somehow gone undetected all these years). There’s also the Tomb of the Primes, and the idea that noble Transformers would transform into walls to enclose a great secret is a cool one — except that it’s not clear why they’d have to die to do so, and it’s all bound up in another mystical Transformers MacGuffin, the Matrix. The idea that Transformers history, at such a key point, had already intersected so heavily with Earth’s, feels like a mistake, but the idea that Earth’s location would somehow be lost to the Transformers is utterly absurd. None of this makes sense, despite some interesting ideas at work.
And that’s very much the problem with Revenge of the Fallen: tons of ideas, many of them good, but none of them explored. It’s the Transformers version of the problem that plagues many super-hero sequels, in which too many villains and plots are crammed together — with the result being a mess in which none of them shines, rather than an epic feeling.
Jetfire’s a perfect example. His design is pretty fantastic, and the idea of a Transformer in the form of an SR-71 Blackbird hiding in the Air and Space Museum is frankly awesome. But when did he acquire this form? Why is he in the museum? Is it even possible to imagine, as the movie requires, that he’s been hanging out on Earth since ancient Egypt?
But above all other examples of this overstuffed effect is the introduction of whole new classes of Transformers — concepts familiar to Transformers fans but that any one of which would be more than enough for a single film. You have the Pretenders, recast here as Transformers able to assume human form (or at least the form of hot co-eds?). It’s an ability with vast implications (e.g., the Decepticons could impersonate the President of the United States), totally ignored by this and later movies. Then you have the idea of combiners: the fact that the Constructicons can unite to form the giant robot Devastator. In the climax, we’re casually introduced to yet another concept: that a Transformer could become body armor as a way of souping up someone else. Here’s how that’s introduced: a dying Jetfire says, “Take my parts.” Optimus Prime does, as if anyone would know how to do this and it’s no surprise that Jetfire’s compatible in this way. Optimus then goes flying off, rather morbidly wearing Jetfire’s corpse. If the movie hadn’t jumped the shark already, it surely does at this moment.
As if all of this wasn’t enough, the voices and personalities of Mudflap and Skids seemed to embody racist stereotypes. I’m sure the filmmakers thought these “humorous” personalities were just a bit of fun, parallel to many Transformers’ unique voices and silly personalities, but these two characters’ portrayal recalled the (rather obvious, I thought) problems with Jar Jar Binks and was uncomfortable to watch. It also compounds the problem that Jazz was was the only Autobot killed in the first movie, which suggested that the racist trope of the black character(s) dying is so strong that it even applies in a movie about robots from outer space. Instead of making this an anomaly, the sequel seems to double-down on the strategy of using robots as a shield for some pretty troubling racial depictions. I’m sure someone in Hollywood is okaying these depictions as examples of diversity, but with all the complaints they’ve received, it’s time for them to stop.
It’s not only critics who have panned the film. To their credit, many of the movie’s creators have agreed. Michael Bay said the criticism was fair, singled out the Fallen as a poor villain, blamed the 2007-2008 writers’ strike for problems with the script, and resolved to do better with the third film. Lorenzo Di Bonaventurra isolated one of the core problems, saying, “We tried to do too many things in the second movie, which didn’t give enough time in any one of them. We were constantly jumping to the next piece of information, the next place.” Shia LaBeouf agreed, saying the movie had lost its human core while trying to outdo the action of the original. This kind of honesty and public recognition of a movie’s failings is pretty rare, especially for a movie that was a stunning commercial success.
Fortunately, the third film would be much better.
Continued tomorrow, with a look at Dark of the Moon.