You wouldn’t think a Michael Bay movie based on a cartoon based on a line of toys could be a let-down, but the trailers for Transformers suggested something more epic, impressive and, well, grown-up than this long, loud, childish nonsense. The highlights and glimpses shown in the trailer played much better without being stuck in the middle of 148 minutes of noise. Take the sequence of a new-to-Earth transformer robot climbing out of a suburban swimming pool and striding over a tiny little girl: in the trailer, this looked as if it might be a scary, awe-inspiring moment; in the film, it’s squandered by a weak pay-off gag as the moppet asks the metal monolith if it’s the tooth fairy.
The picture starts with a narrated sequence which brings audiences with dim memories of the cartoon (or the 1985 feature film) up to speed on the premise: a war between robot lifeforms has devastated their original planet, and rival factions called the ‘Autobots’ and the ‘Decepticons’ (good names for toys, dumb handles for movie characters) are coming to Earth to finish their war and see who gets a mystic cube doodad (like Marvel Comics’ Cosmic Cube crossed with a giant Hellraiser puzzle box) which will, um, do something unspecified. For a while, Bay plays an Independence Day game as groups of characters across the world get drawn into the mystery: tough grunts (Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson) in Qatar skirmish with a robot that can look like a Black Hawk Helicopter destroyed in Afghanistan (shades of Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons) and a sand-burrowing mechanical scorpion thing that gives them no end of trouble in the desert; a sneaky little critter which can impersonate a boom-box infiltrates Air Force One (all we see of the Prezz are silly red socks) and downloads all the important data about world defences; a hot compter genius (Rachael Taylor) and a chubby black uber-nerd (Anthony Anderson) make discoveries a huge staff of smart folks under the direction of the Secretary of Defence (Jon Voight) fail to; and Californian whiny teen outsider Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) persuades his sit-com father (Kevin Dunn) to buy him a beat-up Camaro that has a Herbie-like mind of its own — playing radio bursts of ‘Baby Come Back’ or ‘Sexual Healing’ to impress teen queen Mikaela (Megan Fox) – and turns out to be Autobot Bumblebee.
In a plot device which combines secret history cleverness with you-gotta-be-kiddin’ idiocy, Sam’s ancestor was an arctic explorer who discovered Megatron (the head Decepticon) frozen in the ice in the 1890s; the kid has inherited a pair of broken spectacles that contain a map which will lead the Autobots to the cube, stashed (along with a still-frozen-but-not-for-long Megatron) in a secret base built under the Hoover Dam on the orders of President Hoover, who also founded an X-Filesy government conspiracy (Section 7) to keep things under wraps. A smug, foolish secret agent (John Turturro) hassles Sam, and a horde of transforming ‘bots tiptoe devastatingly around the Witwicky house, but eventually the plot runs out and (like a Toho Godzilla film) human characters scurry and hide (except for Sam) while the big robots smash each other and whole cities up. The transformers are mostly voiced by the original cast, which is either a nod to purists or an admission that big name guest stars would be surplus to requirement. Of course, the effects are now so incredible that it’s almost beyond the point to mention them: but after the first five or six transformations, even the presto change-o robot-into-truck business gets weary, and there rarely seems any pressing need for the disguises except to tie in with the toys.
This falls into the usual ‘family’ action film trap of delivering an incredible amount of damage with no apparent casualties, so there’s rarely any suspense or rooting interest. Apart from the sneaky Frenzy, who pretends to be a CD player or a mobile phone, the individual robots show little personality – even at this length, Bay seems nervous of slowing down to let any character come through. A couple of times Bumblebee is on the verge of being interesting – that radio sampling bit (a la Christine), a spruce-up into a sleeker model (with a Kill Bill music sting), bonding with Sam – but Bay hurries on before an emotional connection can be made. The humour is mostly overdone, with too many broad, lazy performances (Turturro and Anderson are especial offenders) scuppering plot threads that might have had some weight.
Bay’s last film (The Island) flopped, and it was suggested it stirred a few too many ideas into its chases and explosions. Therefore, this pre-sold blockbuster isn’t in the business of being clever, just of being busy. However, even on that level, Transformers feels more like an overindulgent Part Three than an invigorating original.
Transformers Revenge of the Fallen (2009)
Originally published in Sight & Sound.
Transformers was a Michael Bay film based on a 1980s TV cartoon series that existed mainly as a multi-part commercial for a line of (admittedly cool) Japanese toy robots. Given that the project flashed so many ‘danger – warning’ signals upfront, it still managed to be a let-down. An early trailer suggested Transformers would spin its playroom concept into something epic, and even terrifying – but the eventual picture diluted awe-inspiring effects with goofy humour and was stuck with the resolutely unappealing Shia LaBoeuf its human anchor. Still, it was a huge box office success, which means that there was no incentive to make the sequel any better. So, here’s Revenge of the Fallen – two and a half merciless hours of rampaging, morph-bots imposed on the dramatic content of a Revenge of the Nerds sequel.
By now, there’s no point even complaining that Bay mixes his soundtracks so that the explosions are pumped up but all the dialogue – even in the notionally ‘quiet’ scenes – gets muffled … that the script fails even at elementary tasks like establishing the names and multiple identities of its cast of robots …that the plot hinges on magical mcguffins whose properties shift as required for any given scene …that all the ‘adult’ performers (John Turturro, Kevin Dunn, Julie White) have to act like hyperactive toddlers (in a comic highlight, the hero’s mom eats a hash brownie and wanders about the campus in a stoned fugue embarrassing him) …that Earth’s armed forces persist in expending thousands of rounds of ammunition against robots even after it’s been extensively demonstrated that this does them no harm at all …that the uber-babe heroine is as much a trophy possession as the shapeshifting sports car …and that (as in the Matrix sequels) CGI giant robot carnage by the yard becomes ultimately mind-numbing and curiously unstirring. This time, Bay dollops in more Joe Dante-ish business with gremlin kitchen appliances bouncing around like toons on poppers, hypes up some irritating new robots by giving them the eye-rolling business a Hollywood film might have foisted on cowardly negro servants in 1935, and weirdly overlaps with A Night in the Museum 2 as a jet-plane in the Smithsonian comes to life (as in the Museum film, the locale is an excuse to get the heroine into very tight aviatrix trousers). It is hinted that previous generations of Transformers looked like Model-T Fords, but no explanation is forthcoming as to what they turned into in the several thousand years between their arrival on Earth in a 2001-ish prologue and the dawn of the machine era.
So much happens, that the odd image resonates, even if it’s hard to draw the line between what’s going on here and the rival robotics of the latest Terminator sequel: the seductive college babe Decepticon whose fleshy tongue extrudes at the end of a ten-foot metal snake is momentarily impressive (though the villains’ hitherto-unknown ability to pass for human features nowhere else in the plot), there’s Chariots of the Gods-esque lunacy to be had in the Fallen tearing apart the Great Pyramid to reveal the sun-smashing machine the structure was built to bury, Bay plays with his backlist by referencing Pearl Harbor as robot missiles spectacularly sink a US aircraft carrier, and the amalgamated Decepticons become a memorable huge grinding maw in the climax (though damage is limited to property, since speaking part humans don’t tend to be casualties). There’s a fleeting 9/11 mention and a tiny moment when the US retrospectively asks permission of the Egyptian army to wage interplanetary war in their desert, but otherwise the real world impinges not a whit.
Transformers Dark of the Moon (2011)
Originally published in Sight & Sound.
The Michael Bay-Steven Spielberg Transformers franchise, based on the Hasbro toys and their 1980s cartoon spin-offs, has managed three relentless instalments which consistently deliver state-of-the-art special effects (this time, inevitably, in 3D) that contrive to be less engaging than the baggiest mutant dinosaur suit ever worn by a Sumo wrestler trampling a scale model of Tokyo.
The strangest decision was embedding the selling point business about feuding races of giant shapeshifting automata in a Disneyish youth comedy. The first film is built around a love triangle between everyman foul-up Shia LaBeouf, his supremely hot girlfriend (Megan Fox, unceremoniously written out and replaced by posh British underwear model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley here) and his sentient car Bumblebee (a best bud/pet substitute like Herbie, not a temptress love rival like Christine). It now seems that even Michael Bay found so much fault with Transformers Revenge of the Fallen, a big enough hit to make this third installment mandatory, that he has opted to rein back certain tendencies perceived to have warped that sequel. Though it still seems odd there should be a chunk of an Office Space imitation, dealing with the LaBeouf character’s workplace troubles, bolted into the first third of Dark of the Moon, comedy relief is mostly confined to human guest stars (Ken Jeong, John Malkovich, John Turturro, Frances McDormand – all quite dreadful, for Bay has no comic touch). The much-criticised funny dialect transformers are given short shrift with ‘we don’t let them off the base much because they’re assholes’ and the robots are mostly here for the action
A long prologue revealing the secret history of the Apollo program, which later yokes in the real Buzz Aldrin (who went the same self-fictionalising route in Fly Me to the Moon), delivers frissons as the 1969 crew encounter a crashed spaceship hulk on the dark side of the moon (which is not the same thing as the dark of the moon, of course). Amid the wearisome clanking, space-wasting human characters (LaBeouf takes all the knocks in reviews, but at least he’s got more presence than Josh Duhamel or Tyrese Gibson) and monotonous robot carnage, Bay stages well-conceived if derivative action licks (some peril in a tilting skyscraper expands on Spider-Man 3 and Cloverfield) and one of the new mechanical monsters (a burrowing giant worm) is an impressive creation (though similar to creatures from Dune and Terminator Salvation). This time, the approach is tougher – we see people (anonymous extras) get vaporised, robots ‘bleed’ red coolant when savaged and LaBeouf has a hated human rival he can duke it out with in the ruins. Patrick Dempsey has to carry the burden of explaining a nonsensical plot as an evil, car-collecting accountant in league with – but still weirdly surprised by the treachery of – a race happy to call themselves the Decepticons.
There ought to be a way to make a live-action film about giant shapeshifting robots which is either a) fun or b) awesome or, preferably, c) both. After three tries, it’s blatantly evident that Michael Bay can only just about manage b) long enough to provide enough shots to cut into a trailer. Indeed, the ‘coming attractions’ for all three Transformers pictures are outstanding, which might well be the reason why – given the low expectations of a Michael Bay film based on toys and cartoons – they still manage to be disappointing.
Transformers Age of Extinction (2014)
Hands up anyone who thinks a Transformers movie should be 166 minutes long … thank you, Michael. Now, anyone else?
Some critics – Mark Kermode, most prominently – argue that the existence of this franchise epitomises everything that’s truly atrocious about the movies in this age … indeed, by extrapolation, it’s possible to consider Michael Bay’s monumental spin-offs from an 80s cartoon based on a line of toys symptoms of everything wrong with America or humanity. Which is putting a terrible load on trivial nonsense, but if nothing else Bay invites the attention by piling so much excess on flimsy foundations – once upon a time, money and resources like this would only be available to a real-world space program or war effort, and if they were channelled into filmmaking the likes of a David O. Selznick or Darryl F. Zanuck would at least be hoping for an Oscar-winning middlebrow artistic triumph out of it. It’s the mismatch between resources and ambition that annoys people, but even on the scale of awesome pulp these films are as irksome as they are impressive.
The good news is that Shia LaBoeuf – who might genuinely have been driven mad by the experience of the last three films – and his obnoxious character are gone, and there’s been real effort to up the human content. We spend a lot of time with struggling inventor/overprotective single Dad Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg, fresh from Bay’s change-of-pace Pain and Gain), a more interesting lead, and the always-welcome Stanley Tucci gets smart/funny bits as genius billionaire Joshua Joyce while Bay has recruited Jack Raynor, star of What Richard Did, to be the niceguy racecar driver boyfriend of Tessa Yeager (Nicola Peltz). Even the government baddies (Kelsey Grammer, Titus Welliver) are better-conceived, presenting serious threat. There’s still a tendency to shoot women as if they were apendages, with insistent leering at Tessa’s legs – even random extras get ogled, and Cade’s supposedly comic proprietary interest in limiting his daughter’s sexuality is borderline quease-making. Even more problematic is Joshua’s love interest – his competent, interesting archaeologist ex Darcy (Sophia Myles) just has to do exposition and is hurried offscreen so he can be rewarded for his change of heart by getting together with PA/bodyguard/kung fu chick Su (Bingbing Li).
The plot involves a deal between the CIA and Lockdown (voiced by Mark Ryan), an alien bounty hunter working for the transformers’ original manufacturers, to bring in the good guy ‘bots (a nice incidental – the Iraq style pack of cards listing the targets) while Joyce uses the remains to manufacture transformers for the US (in China – big new movie market, featured heavily in one of the five or six climaxes) but reincarnates big bad Megatron and Galvatron (Frank Welker). Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), disguised as a battered truck, is restored by Cade, which involves him in the endless battles of the robots. Yes, there are awesome battles and perils – some vertiginous dangling off spaceship anchor ropes (which serves to regirlify the briefly competent kidnap token Tessa), a fight that rips through a crowded Chinese city, the final (and delayed) appearance of the primal transformers who can turn into dinosaurs. But the noise … the dud jokes … the way Hound (John Goodman), a fat grunt type, gets to do his schtick over and over and over … the numbing, deadening repetition of it all. It borrows quite a lot from Man of Steel – few people’s idea of a role model movie – showing that despite everything at Bay’s disposal he still has to plunder other sources just to pad things out, even in a story that basically serves to reset the series by resurrecting the characters killed off last time out.