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Friday, Aug. 3, 2007
Orgy of destruction beyond transformation
A drinking bet made the other night involved me writing an entire review in verse. "Transformers" seemed a likely candidate, and while still nursing a good buzz, I plunged into it . . .
I think that I shall never say, I liked a film by Michael Bay. His films are stupid, and they're loud, But yet they always draw a crowd. The acting's always utter dreck, And often starring Ben Affleck. His CG's blurry, jokes are crass, Yes, Michael Bay can kiss my . . .
Ooooh, not a good idea. I realized the next morning, no matter how silly or intentionally duff I made the thing, there's no way it would be as silly and duff as an actual Michael Bay movie. Remember, this is the guy who took more of a dissing than anyone in "Team America" except for Kim Jong Il.
Bay's latest, "Transformers" — a movie adaptation of the classic children's toy — is not an especially bad film, like, say, "Pearl Harbor" or "Bad Boys II," other outstanding moments in the M. Bay oeuvre. Rather, it is an exceptionally ordinary one, a generic summer flick that looks and feels like so many others.
If the idea of giant robots kicking the bejeezus out of each other for well over two hours lights your fire, then this is your film. (And somewhere, I see Homer Simpson's eyes glaze over . . . ) Not just giant freaking robots, but robots that change into cars, trucks, helicopters, and boom boxes. You know, just like the toys, except these CGI versions cost millions to create.
In a nutshell, this is good mindless summer fun, and one can only lament what a curse it is to have a mind, but, hey, that's what beer's for. After a couple of dai jokkis you won't care how god-awful, how positively Ed Wood-ian the acting is here, you'll just be cheering when that three-story tall evil robot powers up, and declares — in classic evil pitch-shifted doom voice — "I — am — Megatron!"
No, I'm serious: there's a very good B-movie contained in "Transformers," it's just there's a lot of other detritus floating around too. Take the film's opening, where a sneak robot attack takes out a U.S. military base in Qatar. It's the old "USA as underdog" propaganda line being beaten into our heads again, despite the fact that the sole superpower is so military dominant that robots from outer space are about the only "plausible" threat one can imagine. Not surprising from Bay, who, like his mentor Jerry Bruckheimer, is more than happy to have his scripts approved and even changed by the Pentagon in exchange for use of their toys.
The film then cuts back Stateside, where high-school teen Sam Witwicky is buying his first car, a used yellow 1976 Camaro that looks like it came out of a Tarantino film. The car turns out to have a mind of its own, and though Sam doesn't know it yet, it's the good robot Bumblebee in disguise. The car's tendency to drive where it wants to go causes some embarrassment for Sam when he gives a ride home to Mikaela (Megan Fox), a high-school hottie he's after.
Shia LaBeouf, previously seen playing a dork in "Bobby," plays the dork again here, but since this is Bay directing, a ridiculously over-the-top dork. LaBeouf's motor-mouthed nervousness and bumbling is a very poor attempt at Billy Crystal, and not funny. Fox's character is of a type with recent Hollywood: she starts off as an aloof bimbo, a pure sex symbol ogled in long, slow shots up her bare legs and midriff. The full-on cam relents later in the film, though, when Mikaela gets tough and starts fighting the robots. In Hollywood, a woman proves her worth through militarization, her ability to kick ass, another trope that's become a symptom.
The evil robots, known as Decepticons, try to hack into Pentagon computers, while the secretary of defense (Jon Voight) and a hacker named Maggie (Rachael Taylor) try to stop them. The Decepticons are looking for details of a secret government project called Sector 7, which has kept their leader in a bunker for decades. (Gee, has anyone seen "Independence Day?") All the robots, both the good-guy Autobots and the Decepticons, are looking for a long-lost magic box called "All Spark," which created the robots' universe, and which may now be located on Earth, and Sam has the clue they need . . .
As usual, for a Bay film, you can play "spot the steal" — lifts from "Terminator," "Men In Black," and "Gremlins" are readily apparent. Also, like so many summer popcorn flicks, everyone talks like children, in cute little cliched catch-phrases: "My bad," "go figure," "this is soooo not good," or "we're soooo dead." And, of course, what are the good robots fighting for? Yup, you guessed it: "Freedom is the right of all sentient beings," says Autobot leader Optimus Prime.
As noted above, the robot battles are indeed pretty damn cool. But they're so speedy the CG imagery comes off as blurry, and it's often unclear what's happening. And the laugh lines? Well, this film's idea of humor is a used-car salesman who says, "My name's Bobby Bolivia, like the country, but without the runs." Latin America, diarrhea . . . really, $150 million to spend on your film and that's the best you can do? But like the bad acting, it's all due to Bay, who clearly isn't interested in anything but his special effects, a true heir to the throne of George Lucas. Lucky for him there's a huge audience of geek-boys who feel the same way.
By mid-film, "Transformers" has turned into the usual patented Bay orgy of destruction, with the dialogue just endless military jargon. But when Bay has two plane-size robots go crashing through an office tower obliterating the people inside — a money shot that's even in the previews — I couldn't help but wonder whether the guy has no shame. After 9/11, this? As entertainment? "Why are we fighting to save the humans?" asks one of the Autobots. "They are a primitive and violent race." Go figure.