Friday, June 24, 2011

Transformers, No. 2 - Transformers (2007)

Where’d the idea of doing a live action Transformers movie come from? Well, nostalgia, the ongoing sense that every revered 1980s property could (nay, should) be brought back for the old audience with a filter of maturity, while also appealing to younger, newer audiences. Filmically, the same rough 2007/8 period renewed Die Hard by Living Free, gave us a Rambo actually called Rambo, and then there was that Indiana Jones movie we shan’t speak of again.

Plus, movie producers are always looking for the latest untapped lode (uh heh heh) from which to pilfer. Within the larger post-millennial period which Transformers defines, they’ve gone to theme park rides (Pirates of the Caribbean), comic strips (Garfield), and soon enough we’ll get an influx of board game movies (Battleship, et al). (Comic book movies barely count, as they are genuinely respectable.) Of course, earlier periods produced occasional “odd source” movies, like Clue or Mars Attacks! (both of them awesome), but without the prominent ubiquity of the ‘00s.

And Transformers represents the “toy line” side of that thought process, though to say this ignores the Hasbro’s innumerable TV and comic manifestations – to say nothing of The Transformers: The Movie. Any promising source is worth doing repeatedly – hence Hasbro also created the live action G.I. Joe, initially switched out for Transformers thanks to goddamned Saddam Hussein. In a similar(ish) vein, there would’ve been the now-scrapped Thundercats flick, plus one only assumes “My Little Pony,” “Candyland,” and in ten years we’ll all be even the wiser.

Ah, but Transformers…Doing this property in live action is indeed a good idea – I say, willfully ignoring what’s been done. To begin with, the allure of specifically a live action film (as opposed to more animation, likely for TV or DTV or HDTV) is the sense that it is the official story – Obviously no pragmatic adaptation can be perfect, but more people will know it, give it more credence, and thus the Transformers characters enter the mainstream consciousness as never before. It’s a sort of pinnacle, or tent pole, to increase awareness of lesser “Transformers” entities – as a Hasbro business decision, with no question as to artistry, this is a sound choice.

Plus, live action demands discipline in a way animation doesn’t – even with a budget as permissive as Transformers’. With limited resources, and the need for relative realism, bombast becomes grounded. A strange thing to say, I know, about any Michael Bay movie – for now I point out what everyone knows going in, that Michael Bay directed Transformers. And while Bay’s approach is the furthest from disciplined, the medium does it for him. The Movie, for its hallowed position amongst nostalgists, is just as hyperkinetic and sugar-rushed, in its 1980s way, so Bay is actually a good choice to update and modify what seems to be the franchise’s main mode – for better or worse.

Helping out Transformers the most, conceptually, is its need to go mainstream. I know, hear me out! With an excessive budget, Transformers cannot just appeal to pre-initiates as The Movie does; it must balance that sort of hardcore fan with the absolute ignorantsia. Thus Transformers, under the guidance of executive producer Steven Spielberg (it’s perpetually odd to think he and Bay aligned), focuses upon humans – It’s Blockbuster 101: Devise an outrageous premise (in this case, space-faring giant robots that have evolved naturally to turn into 20th century Earth vehicles), and present it normally. Transformers then eliminates a lot of the zanier “Transformers” baggage, such as a space setting, or the Transformer sub-groups (Insecticons, Dinobots, most anything post-Generation 1). Instead Transformers takes place on Earth. In the present day. Humans are the main characters.

That last part is a major sticking point for many “Transformers” faithful, for whom Optimus Prime is Jesus Christ. But this is the sort of necessary trade off one makes in adapting “Transformers” to live action, since the title characters are expensive: CGI behemoths whose rendering process is known to blow up computers (because Michael Bay needs explosions everywhere).

Though this is…an avoidable problem…The Transformer redesigns are hideous, a fallout of Bay’s insistence (back when he was surprisingly reticent to shepherd a “stupid toy movie,” he being so mature and all) that the Transformers be believable. By “believable” he means technically so, thus an undue amount of effort was put into making robots which could actually transform – and then squelching that effort anyway, by making the transformations superfast and totally incomprehensible. The result is a bunch of visual diarrhea, a baroque spiky nightmare which (honestly) is a lot more coherent on my television than it was in the theater. Anyway, these complex, complex designs are harder to render, so the Transformers are given less screen time as a result – no time to make a dramatic impact (in keeping, frankly, with The Movie).

(Complexity-for-believability is Bay’s chief contribution, and it doesn’t work. It especially jibes poorly with how he shoots the frequent – but not frequent enough – robot fights, as though from a puny human’s point of view. It’s simply difficult to parse out. On the big screen, this technique gave me the single worst headache of my life. Yes, Transformers is literally the most painful movie I’ve ever seen – though my choice to drink a yard of Blue Moon and sit in the front row didn’t help.)

Oh wait, I’m nitpicking fundamentally flawed character design, when perhaps we ought to take a step back and consider the larger concept of Transformers. If we accept the need to stick with humans, a new narrative must be devised. While Transformers still tells of Autobots and Decepticons, we take a human perspective. How would humans perceive two warring robot factions?

There are two approaches. The Spielberg approach does like E.T., and tells of a boy’s first car – a universal (enough) story. Then the car turns out to be alive and, unlike in Christine, it’s good, leading the boy into an ever-expanding universe. It just happens to be “Transformers.” It also just happens to be a narrative which celebrates blind consumerism, which is in Hasbro’s interest.

The Bay approach highlights military hardware, because he has a nine-hour erection for the U.S.’s military industrial complex, and an unquestioning faithfulness to our recent the icky imperialistic politics. So he shows soldiers in Qatar (further subtitled as “the Middle East,” because we have the IQs of lobsters) fighting an alien invasion – of robots.

Neither of these approaches really meshes with the other, so naturally Transformers does both of them…at once. The military angle affords Bay an opening action sequence, but at the expense of further wonder or discovery (though the preview trailers have already sabotaged that emotion to begin with). His tale of warfare, entirely independent of the other plot threads until well over halfway through, also grants Bay the chance to cut away whenever Spielberg’s domestic suburban tale isn’t hypermacho enough (i.e., “not enough military”). Considering Bay’s exclusive marketing agreement with the armed forces (essentially), lotsa pointless military porn was probably inevitable. ‘Merica – FUCK YEAH! Of course it has nothing to do with “Transformers.”

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles of course, Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf , a stuttering young Jewish actor who reminds Spielberg of a falsely “manly” version of his younger self, and does nothing for anyone else) wants a car. He gets a car. Fascinating! Specifically, he gets Bumblebee, now a Camaro because of an unavoidable GM tie-in – this is consumerist hagiography, and “better” than The Movie simply by being a more sophisticated commercial, for more products. In the long run, Sam does learn that his car lives, and seeks a mystical space MacGuffin (the All Spark, available now at Pep Boys). Meanwhile, Sam romances Mikaela (Megan Fox – no comment), which doesn’t feel like the usual tacked-on blockbuster romance because A) Sam is clearly just filmmaker wish fulfillment, and B) Mikaela gets us as close to pornography as the PG-13 rating will allow.

There is the promise of…some sort of movie in Sam’s antics. One can see the Spielbergian heart buried deep under all the chrome, and wonders how J.J. Abrams might’ve handled this same basic movie. Bay, who is clearly embarrassed by the need to dwell upon a normal teenager, rather dudes up even Transformers’ baseline reality with all sorts of strangeness.

Every time some past event is referenced (an Arctic expedition, football tryouts, the Mars rover), it is shown, for upwards to 10 seconds each – which seems like a very frivolous use of budget. Some of Sam’s tale is told with an attempt at humor, a sort of American Beauty for mouth-breathers. That’s when the movie isn’t randomly attempting, for all of several seconds, to ape Kill Bill – mostly by “borrowing” musical cues.

And the whole movie boasts the same sort of whiggerism I’d identified in Scary Movie 3, the clear product of a white man accidentally misreading “urban” culture. Sam’s comic relief parents (who intermittently shatter whatever “reality” Bay goes for) refer to “bling” and whatnot with utter ignorance; the movie as a whole does similarly, slopping on the surface details of hipness everyplace – e.g. Sam’s love of faded faux-retro T-shirts, which is totally not in keeping with his ostensible “nerdy” persona. Also, his spray-on douche tan. Plus, Bay casts Anthony Anderson, which is automatically evil – especially since he gets a completely isolated “super kewl exxxtreme ballz” hacker subplot.

Actually, to limit myself to the human details, there are a lot of individually indefensible decisions in Transformers:

Bernie Mac (rest his soul) appears as a used car dealer, and forces laffs in, in a way which reflects Bays’ prison shower gang rape conception of komedy. He calls his mother a bitch, berates a Puerto Rican for being a Puerto Rican (or some sort of non-black ethnic). It’s all very ugly.

Anthony Anderson gets largely the same routine with his grandmother, minus the racism. This is the modern equivalent of sambo dancing, a tone-deaf parody of hood rats that somehow is meant to appeal directly to said hood rats.

A U.S. soldier is ridiculed for speaking Spanish, because that’s not a language that is spoken by American citizens. Another soldier is lambasted for having slightly irregular culinary tastes. This is in the film’s first Earth-bound scene, setting the stage for our species as a whole!

Sam has an extended-wannabe-Jeff-Goldblum-stutter-off with a drug-obsessed cop, who likewise exists in some skewed comic reality unrelated to any other scene.

White people, for the most part, are frat boys, a lifestyle which is celebrated. Sam is weaker because he hasn’t fully embraced douchiness yet. His conquest of Mikaela is just one crucial step in his arc towards embracing assholism, Bay-style.

Also, Bumblebee “upgrades’’ from a 1976 Camaro to a 2007 (probably) Camaro, which seems equally distasteful – but maybe that’s just me.

It’s a complete tonal mess! This is what Transformers does. Nothing which happens has any emotional relevance to anything else. Nor plot relevance. For instance, it appears Bay wanted to film a scene of a gremlin-sized Decepticon (that’s Gremlins gremlins, not car Gremlins) – it transforms into a boom box, because that’s “gangsta.” This beast, whose name I dunno, raids Air Force One, simple because. Because Bay wanted to film an Air Force One scene, why not, and toss in an utterly spineless “caricature” of George W. Bush too – The man wants ding-dongs, oh the political commentary!

Then the Transformer robots get sorta halfway almost kinda involved in their own story, and come across badly. Bay doesn’t seem to “get” robots (at least when they’re not military hardware). Despite their transformation camouflage, the Autobots physically hide behind puny hedges. A Transformer is mistaken for the tooth fairy, something which makes zero sense. A Transformer urinates on John Turturro’s head – you don’t fuck with the Jesus! A dog (a Chihuahua, which affords a Taco Bell reference and $) urinates on a Transformer. Assorted childhoods are raped.

This isn’t necessarily what a live action Transformers should’ve been like. Surely, there’s a lot of stupid, stupid stuff in the older series, but that isn’t what’s perpetuated the brand. Nostalgia-wise, memory upgrades the Transformers into something more effective than they really were, and it’s that notion which Transformers should’ve aimed for. For all the “detail as realism” misdirection, Transformers needn’t be this reductive. Raiders of the Lost Ark still stands as what should be done with properties like this – realize the potential of silly old genres, elevate them.

That all being said, revisiting Transformers has been far less painful than I’d anticipated. In light of The Transformers: The Movie, Bay’s magnum Optimus really does feel a little calmer. For newbies it’s approachable, which is surely something can’t be said for other “Transformers” products. As for a lot of the genuine miscalculation, well, that is “Transformers,” only here in its 2007 guise – hip hop and Bush worship and bad comedy, in place of cock rock and Reagan worship and bad comedy.

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