Friday, June 29, 2007

Less than meets the eye

My dad often likes to remind me of just how damn good a dad he was one early morning in 1984. It was December 23rd, and he found himself staring at the front door of a Toys R Us with a gaggle of other desperate parents, waiting for the sun to rise and the doors to open. The little girls' daddies were going to make a bee-line for the Cabbage Patch Kids, and the little boys' daddies were sprinting at the Transformers. My father, procreator of both male and female, had to balance his responsibilities delicately.

Twenty-plus years later, I still remember the joy of opening my Optimus Prime toy on Christmas morning. Whether or not The Sister got her Cabbage Patch Kid is lost to the cobwebs of my memory, or more likely I never cared to pay attention in the first place. After all, I had my Transformers and immediately went to work waging war: Autobot v. Decepticon.

Battling with Transformers was fairly easy. You took one robot, you smashed it against the other robot. You made your own sound effects - a deep, mechanical-sounding voice for the dialogue, and a series of "Phew! Phew!" for the lasers - and it didn't hurt if you threw in a couple of slow-motion jumps and flips. The real mythology of the Transformers never interested me. I didn't care where they supposedly came from, or what their motivations really were. I knew which ones were good, and which ones were bad, and that was enough.

Michael Bay, the director of the new Transformers movie, would have loved playing with me back then. Because with a couple hundred million bucks at his disposal, he has managed to do something very similar: he ignores story and anything resembling real-life drama, and just picks up the good guys and bad guys and slams them into each other. Over and over. And over and over. Oh, and over and over again, by the way.

Now the film looks great. I mean, fantastic. At no point do the effects look like effects; these robots are photo-realistic, and beautiful to look at. My inner 8-year-old would cream over the images if only he had hit puberty.

That's all the movie has, though. It seems every dollar was poured into making the robots great, but nothing was set aside to make sure they actually did anything interesting. I mean, in a climactic battle, buildings were being destroyed, cars were being tossed around like wadded-up paper, and five-story tall robots were thrashing against each other - and I was bored. I mean, I actually had this conscious thought: "All this stuff is going on, and I am fucking bored!"

A lot of people are going to give Transformers a pass because it's based on a line of toys and a cartoon. "The story doesn't matter," they'll say. "It was all about the effects and action!" The problem with that, though, is that after the "damn!" factor wears off - about 30 minutes in - you still have almost two hours of film left to fill. So much effort was spent making the Transformers look real and seemingly none went into making the world around them follow suit. The actors are all playing cliched, hackneyed characters with awful dialogue, whether it's the teenage heroes or the stuffy government bureaucrats (I will say this; I've rarely seen a more anti-government summer Hollywood movie.)

I refuse to forgive the transgressions of Transformers because of its source material. It should have risen above those roots, and provide well-rounded entertainment. Movies like Batman Begins, Spider-Man 2 and the first Pirates of the Caribbean show this is possible. The same thought processes that go into playing with Transformers toys shouldn't be used to make a monster-budget Transformers movie.

I must acknowledge that, in my preview screening, there was a lot of cheering going on, and the credits received loud applause. A lot of this came from people obviously intimately familiar with Transformers lore, including some wearing Optimus Prime masks (of course, none of these people were the actual children present.) So I know there are dissenting opinions out there, and you can probably already tell if yours will be one of them. Based on the fantastic trailers and overall promise, though, I expected more than what met my 8-year-old eye.

(A special acknowledgment to The Girl is necessary. She would have rather been anywhere but that theater, but graciously went and stood in line with me when she saw my excitement for the film. That she won't be as trusting of my enthusiasm next time is another reason I really don't like this damn movie.)

1:17 p.m. update:
Transformers producer Don Murphy has taken umbrage with a few of my comments. You can check out the message board thread here. It's pretty far down, though. Just do a CTRL-F find for either my name, Josh Massey, or as Mr. Murphy refers to my comments, "the predictable bastion of cretinous down's syndrome mongoloids of minimal age." Thank God I didn't strike a nerve.


William Goss said...

Dude, you're not alone. You've nailed it, and then some.

The fanboys in our crowd had many spastic fits of applause, while the rest of us just got BORED.

I'm nineteen, didn't grow up with them, but certainly understand the appeal. My dad thought the flick looked like fun, and I had shared his hopes.

But fun was apparently too much to ask for.

Burbanked said...

GREAT review! The Geekformer fanboys are too eager to forgive any filmmaking transgressions with this movie because "it's robots kicking the s**t out of each other, YEAH!".

But that is not, and never should be, enough. I am a hardcore action movie junkie, and I have never walked out of a film saying to myself, "Gosh, that was the best action movie I've ever seen, even though the characters were stupid, the plot implausible, the story convoluted and there was barely a believable moment to be found!"

As for myself, I was never a big Transformers kid - I watched the cartoons but they didn't do much for me and I never craved the toys. It's gratifying, however, to read a sensible viewpoint from someone who was definitely into it as an 8-year-old - but is capable of wanting more as an adult.

An excellent piece and you didn't even bash Michael Bay personally, as I certainly would've.

the gir- I mean, anonymous said...

Wow, your girlfriend sounds awesome. If a movie about the Easy Bake Oven ever comes out, you had best take her.

Doug said...

How weird is that? I, too, received Optimus Prime on Christmas Day '84 -- still the Best Christmas Ever, as far as I'm concerned.

Jennifer said...

I loooooooooooved Transformers. We used to play Transformers on the playground (intermittently with games of V). I was a huge Bumblebee fan and when I read they weren't including Bumblebee in the movie, I decided to skip the flick.

Josh said...

Bumblebee actually is in the movie, but he's a Camaro and not a Beetle. I guess Volkswagen didn't pony up as much product placement dollars.

cjKennedy said...

Weird that Murphy singled you out when actually your review is one of the more reasonable. Usually it's either "Transformers Rule" or "Michael Bay is a hack" and you kind of found a middle ground. Plus it's pretty clear you actually wanted to like the movie.

Then I've never understood the motivations of Don Murphy.

Doug said...

GM is introducing a redesigned Camaro next year as an '09 model; I'm guessing that's the primary motivation for Bumblebee's "metamorphosis" from a Beetle.

Doug said...

OK, I saw the movie, and I wasn't bored. At all.

Yeah, the script was cringeworthy in parts, but the main (human) character was likeable and believable, and I honestly didn't think the action sequences went on too long. Maybe I was just too entranced by the technical sophistication of the robot design to notice, which I guess makes me a mega-nerd, but still.

Anyway, I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree on this one. If nothing else, it deserves credit for being the first Michael Bay film that I actually liked.

doug r said...

Your "girl" is just like mine (my wife). She came along. along with my 12 year old daughter. My daughter got a little sleep in the middle. (To be fair, she dozed off during Casino Royale and Pirates 2 and 3).
I saw some smiles from the wife about a third of the way in, then afterward there was much muttering about "piece of crap".

Harlem Mama said...
This comment has been removed by the author.