Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Less Than Meets The Eye

In the past, I have railed against the Transformers movie franchise. I freely admit that I have hated each and every installment. Before any fans accuse me of being an elitist snob with pretentious film tastes, I have to say nothing can be further from the truth. I like big summer tent pole extravaganzas. I like films that aspire to be a great time at the movies, nothing more. And I've liked Michael Bay films. I don't think that he's the end of films as we know it. I don't think he signifies all that's wrong with American films in and of himself. I liked Bad Boys, The Rock, and Armageddon. They were all solid action blockbusters; not deep by any means, but they delivered on the promise of some thrills and explosions and fun. I even thought The Island, while bad, was kind of trashy fun with a neat concept at its core.

But the Transformers franchise is the Anti-Christ, and it must be stopped. Seriously. It's not because these films are thinly disguised toy commercials. And it's not because these films are basically about giant robots fighting each other. I love the idea of giant robots fighting each other. I loved it in the 1980s, when I couldn't get enough Transformers. I love it now. And I have to admit that, by and large, the franchise of films does deliver on the promise of giant robots fighting each other. No, there are different reasons why I believe the movies are actually bad for you.

I've posted before on how much I loathe this franchise. And I held off watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen for about as long as I could. I saw it about six months ago. And it didn't let me down at all. It was just as big a mess as I thought it was going to be. Casually racist, blindingly misogynistic, and totally incoherent. Not all of that was Bay's fault; the script was god-awful. But the little touches that were undoubtedly his were among the most aggravating. That awful Stepin Fecthit pair of Autobots may not have been his idea, but the tiny transformer that humps Megan Fox's leg probably was. Worst of all, his visual style and quick cuts made the action scenes so cluttered that any clear picture of what was going on was almost impossible. The screen simply became filled with metal crashing into metal, with bad guys and good guys indistinguishable from each other.

I don't care if you're voiced by Nimoy, you still suck.
With the third film, I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. I honestly wiped the slate clean. The trailer was really strong, and it looked as if he was really going to pull out all the stops, and so I went in with an open mind. And it was an improvement, notably in the way it handled the action. The battles were no longer an indecipherable mess, but were clearly and efficiently directed, with Bay's skilled deftness with such set pieces seemingly back to the level of his earlier films. The major final battle in a decimated and war-torn Chicago is really a sight to see. Every single cent spent on visual and practical effects are up there on the screen, showing you things that you can honestly say are thrilling and bold.

The story is also better, or at least, almost coherent. Certainly it makes more sense than any of the previous films. There's a great little prologue involving the Moon Missions of the 1960s, and Shia LaBoeuf gets an interesting character arc at the beginning of the film; how does a guy who's saved the planet twicedeal with being seen by pretty much everyone around him as slacker doofus and not explode from frustration? It allowed for some interesting scenes for him to play. And LaBoeuf really does act his heart out.

But, that's where the good things end. There's still the same rampant misogyny, which is really getting tiring. Bay infamously fired Megan Fox after she made a few disparaging remarks about the guy, and replaced her with Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, a model who is not an improvement in any way. In fact, I thought she was a robot herself due to her complete inability to express any emotion whatsoever. I thought he might have corrected his treatment of women in films by hiring the astounding Frances McDormand, but she provides nothing aside from a slight obstacle, and her government agent character is not only set up as a jerk, but she also needs to get her butt saved by John Turturro's embarrassing caricature. Bay also manages to sneak a joke in about the Japanese and how those crazy people make strange machines like photocopiers! Awesome.

Remember how much you loved this guy? Yeah, he's nowhere near this movie.
The story completely sabotages its own hero, transforming Optuimus Prime from the wise noble warrior of the first two films into a merciless engine of destruction in this film's final act. There's also (and SPOILER WARNING here until the new paragraph) a part of the story where Prime and the autobots pretend to be dead until after Chicago is razed and thousands are dead because "your leaders had to learn" some sort of lesson about....well...giving in to giant robots, I guess. Well, thanks for letting thousands of people die, Optimus Prick, hadn't you sworn to protect us in the last two movies? Awesome object lesson, big guy. Where'd you learn that from, George Bluth?

In the final analysis, this film suffers from the same problems that both the earlier installments suffered from, namely laziness and a lack of heart. The effects and the action set pieces are not treated this way, but the story and the characters most certainly are. People don't behave consistently, and caricatures are placed right next to so-called actual characters that we're supposed to care about. The action, as well done as it is, is also pretty intense for a film series that is designed to appeal to 11 year old boys. More than one good guy coldly tells various bad guys, "I'm going to kill you". I'm not saying that PG action films can't be that intense, but they have to earn that level, and Transformers doesn't. It's a toy commercial, and its tone is so all over the place that when it does go to the dark place, it feels woefully inappropriate rather than an earned escalation.

Again, I feel this is different than other bad movies, say like Green Lantern. Green Lantern understands its audience, and tried to make a film for them, they just made mistakes that led to a bad film. Transformers: Dark of the Moon thinks its a great film, and makes choices that seems to say, "They're going to come see it, so we don't have to care that much about story or the characters, we can just throw anything we want in there as long as it ends with a giant robot battle." That's crass, and the epitome of soulless marketing.

It has made a huge amount of money, so I'm guessing Transformers will be back. Here's hoping Bay has had enough and feels the need to move on, because a fresh mind may still be able to give us the gooey robot centre, without wrapping it up in all that soullessness.

No comments: