The pinnacle of 80s nostalgia exploitation has arrived. It’s hard to believe that producers Tom DeSanto and Don Murphy had a tough time getting a Transformers movie set up at a studio, since this is the movie of the year for so many men who grew up with the Transformers toys and cartoon. The anticipation for this thing was at an absolute fever pitch, as the massive box office figures over the last week have proven.
Yet I found myself at an utter loss to understand why a movie based on a fairly lame cartoon – whose hackneyed story was only cobbled together to justify the existence of some toy vehicles that turned into robots – is so breathlessly awaited by grown men. The cartoon somehow passed me by in my childhood, so perhaps I’d be salivating more if it hadn’t. Or would I? Is anyone else looking around in confusion, a little unnerved at how a toy from the Eighties has spawned a $150 million, state-of-the-art live-action film directed by blockbuster extremist Michael Bay? There are plenty of terrific original concepts from major talents sitting in cold storage in Hollywood but instead we get Transformers, because those concepts aren’t sure things.
This film is the beginning of Hollywood’s next phase in turning to established properties for its summer blockbusters, after virtually every superhero and top-drawer creator-owned comic has either been filmed or optioned, the attraction being that the creative legwork has already been done. Recognition from previous incarnations helped the Spider-Man and X-Men films scale the commercial heights that they did, and now that Transformers has been a massive success, don’t be surprised to see other eighties properties put into active development, purely because the prime 18-35 male demographic grew up with this stuff. GI Joe, He-Man, and even Thundercats – yes, Thundercats – have already been acquired by studios.
Big event movies have always been accused of unoriginality or at least pastiche, but in the last ten years we’ve seen a major shift from films that are marketed to provoke recognition of a certain kind of movie experience to recognition of a brand as well, be it a well-known cartoon or comic or TV show or a previous film that has virtually become a brand by virtue of its own success. It’s as if studios are so keen to set record grosses and bring in fat cheques for shareholders that they ramp up the income even further by almost exclusively making movies with built-in brand recognition, while leaving original concepts to fall by the wayside, to either be undermarketed or not even made, even if those concepts may attract healthy grosses if they were treated with respect in their promotion and didn’t have franchise juggernauts to suffer comparisons with.
Observe the box-office failure of Children of Men and Serenity. Yes, one is based on a novel and the other a TV show, but they were hardly drawing on a fanbase for big grosses, so they might as well have been original concepts as far as the general public were concerned – they weren’t brands. Both films have the framework of a popular, crowd-pleasing (if not massively upbeat) experience, yet they tanked because their studio either had too little faith in them to promote them adequately or because Hollywood has poisoned its own well by dominating the time that everyday people take to think about movies with established brands, so that we can now only get excited for films with concepts we’ve been excited about before in other incarnations. Say what you will about Independence Day, especially that it was merely a modernisation and hybridisation of prior alien invasion flicks, but at least it was original in the sense that it lacked a brand. The emerging overt branding of films could be seen in its “ID4” nickname, but on the whole the film capitalised on recognition of a certain kind of movie, not a kind of product.
At the risk of sounding hypocritical, at least Michael Bay’s Transformers is a really fun flick, probably the first summer action film this year to genuinely deliver, and I say that with shock. I view this film as a happy accident, that despite its creatively stagnant genesis, it eventually emerged as a flick that didn’t make me want to eat my own face. Better to have a corporate movie that’s decent than one that isn’t, if not for the long-term prospects of this trend dying out. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and made the sensible decision to anchor the spectacle with a very likable hero: Shia LeBeouf’s Sam Witwicky. With this performance I can see why Steven Spielberg was impressed enough to cast him as Indiana Jones’s son (maybe) in the upcoming fourth film. He’s got a witty, down-to-earth charm that works like gangbusters, and even though some will decry the ‘human’ subplots as unnecessary distractions from the giant robot coolness, they’re necessary to install a sense of wonder in the film.
Steven Spielberg, in his role as executive producer, may have had a hand here. This is more childlike than any of Bay’s previous films, and it adds an extra dimension to the experience. There’s a scene early in the film where we first see one of the Autobots (the good Transformers) in their proper form, but it takes a second to realise what we’re seeing. Bumblebee, as he’s called, is seen in an out-of-focus long shot shining a beacon of light into the sky, and Bay waits for the money shot until LeBeouf turns and sees what his car has become. It’s an impressively awe-inspiring moment, much like the silent overhead flying shot of the Man of Steel in Superman Returns. But like Bryan Singer, Bay doesn’t live up to that image elsewhere in the film. The fact that he wrung it from the fundamentally inelegant and clunky Transformers concept at all is praiseworthy in itself though.
The Transformer effects themselves are quite astonishing. It’s only in the last couple of years that we’ve been seeing CG-characters that genuinely feel like they’re on the set with the actors. The seams are rapidly disappearing, and it’s stunning to witness. Not only do they look visually integrated, but these creatures have a weight to them as well; when they crash into a building, it no longer seems like one bunch of pixels hitting another, but a massive weight causing immense destruction – we can feel the force at last (pardon the phrasing). The actual transforming looks great too, the transitions from live-action vehicle to CGI alien difficult to glean.
But the characterisation of the robots leaves a little to be desired, perhaps because so much time has been spent on the humans. Three or four of the Autobots are ciphers that barely speak (I can’t even recall how many there were, they made that little impression). Fan-favourite Optimus Prime gets most of the attention, along with Bumblebee, but since the latter can’t talk and the former has terribly ponderous dialogue they don’t fare too much better. And bad guy Megatron is dull and by-the-numbers, despite being voiced by an unrecognisable Hugo “lovin’ that paycheque” Weaving.
It’s a shame, but doesn’t scupper the movie because we’re treating to great human characters like LaBeouf and John Turturro’s quite batty government agent. Iif you want someone to offer a different spin on a tired archetype, you hire someone like Turturro. He invests the role with a quiet madness, perhaps enjoying the silliness of the concept but choosing to use it to his advantage rather than phoning it in – the performance is his Good Shepherd character by way of Dr. Strangelove. LaBeouf’s parents are a hoot too, and contribute to a quite zany (yes, Michael Bay manages zany) second act as LeBeouf tries to help the Autobots without alerting people to their presence. There are a few such moments peppered through the film, such as with Bernie Mac’s car salesman, and it’s nice to see a blockbuster not going for the obvious gags to meet its humour quotient (although the requisite franchise adaptation pun squeezes in. You won’t miss it – the entire cinema groaned at my screening).
The other characters are fairly limp, such as Josh Duhamel’s utterly vacant soldier, Megan Fox’s gutsy but somehow lifeless heroine, and Jon Voight’s Secretary of Defence – he’s so predictable in the role I can barely describe his performance without resorting to clichés myself. But there are mercifully few “look, these guys are people with lives!” moments, Independence Day-style, save for Duhamel talking about seeing his newborn baby minutes into the film .Why not have a ‘Human Interest Moment!’ subtitle to make the inclusion even more pointed?
To be fair, it is a struggle with an invasion movie of this scope to determine where the balance should lie between the people experiencing the invasion and the invaders/visitors, since the self-sufficiency of each is determined by the success of the other, but always draws attention to how oddly juxtaposed the two are anyway. Transformers is much more successful at this than Roland Emmerich films like Independence Day, Godzilla, and The Day After Tomorrow, so it’s worth the ticket price for that. You won’t be cringing at the horrendous script construction or feeling that your intelligence has been insulted (much). It’s a thrilling and funny couple of hours that doesn’t make you want your money back or look at your watch. What more could one ask for in these days of the overwrought blockbuster?