Saturday, August 23, 2008

Battling Transformers

Always tackling the controversial topics, this particular entry has been a long time coming. I thought about writing on this some time ago, but it got pushed aside. However, today I was reading online about the upcoming sequel to last year's Transformers movie. It's being directed by Michael Bay, just like the last one, and that can only mean that it's guaranteed to be an absolute crapfest.

Why should I care? Thing is, I was a big fan of The Transformers when I was a kid. In fact, I was still into them when I was a freshman in high school (although I'm sure that a lot of others were but wouldn't ever admit to it publicly at the time). I was into the toys, the TV show and the comics. The thing is, I still like the concept of them (beyond just the whole robots changing into cars thing - but isn't that really enough?) In fact, I hung on to all the toys. I even got them all out some time ago just to play with them a bit. (No, I didn't have battles with them like I used to - although why the hell not? I have a wife! I don't need to justify myself to anybody! But seriously, I just changed them back and forth and then put them away again.) A few years ago, there was a new comic series, and I bought the first couple of story arcs. It was fun stuff, and I could tell that the creators were probably about my age and fans from way back as well, as it had all the stuff that I always wanted to see (like them fighting in a major city) when I was a kid.

When I heard about the big budget movie coming out, I must admit that the best I could muster up was cautious optimism. When I heard that Michael "Superhack" Bay was directing, the caution level went up, but I still held out hope that it could have at least been a dumb, fun movie with some cool scenes of giant robots smashing each other while changing into cars, planes, etc.

I've written before about how some movies only seem okay when I see them in the theater, but then they get better the more I think about them. With this movie, I wanted so badly for it to be good that I started off by saying that it was "entertaining," but the more I thought about it, the worse it got. What an absolute disaster that film was.

They got one thing right. They got the guy who did Optimus Prime from the cartoon series to do him in the movie. Absolutely everything else about this movie was dung. This includes Optimus Prime himself. What's up with the flames on the sides of his truck form? He's supposed to be a leader with gravitas, not a roadie for ZZ Top. Not only that, but the designs of the robots themselves were crap. From what I read, they were going for a more "realistic" look (which is the first problem - a movie about robots from another planet that change into vehicles is by its very nature unrealistic. "Realism" just doesn't make sense. Oddly enough, I blame Batman Begins for the whole realism kick. It works for James Bond - not so much The Transformers though.)

I haven't seen it since it was in the theater, so I can't be too specific about what else stunk, but the one thing that really sticks in my mind is all of the cheap jokes: the old lady who flips off her son for no apparent reason, Bumblebee taking a leak on that one dude who's normally a good actor but was far too over-the-top in this one, the Autobots in the backyard, that lame intro to the character Jazz.

Not even the action scenes were well done. I mean, could anybody actually tell what was going on during any of those protracted fights? And what exactly can Transformers do? Apparently they can do everything and anything so long as it suits what that particular scene needs them to do. And what's up with the soda machine becoming a Transformer? Ugh.

Okay, why should I have expected anything better? I know, that was foolish. At least I've learned my lesson and won't go see the next one. At least I'll always have Transformers: The Movie. I bought that one on DVD, and surprisingly enough, it actually holds up.

Now, before you read any further, don't let me get comments saying, "Hey, Lance, I rented the old cartoon movie because you recommended it and it totally sucked!" This is not a recommendation, even though I will admit that I still like this film quite a bit. I will also argue that it's a superior film to the live-action one. If you were a fan of the old cartoon series, and you can still remember the difference between a standard Decepticon and the Constructicons, and you know who the Dinobots were, then you might actually enjoy it.

Why is it better? First of all, it has a more coherent story. The first third is basically just a protracted battle, but from there it follows the character Hot Rod and fits the Heroic Cycle quite faithfully. (Unlike the live-action movie, the cartoon is actually about the Transformers themselves, not the human who befriends them.) It doesn't have nearly as many cheap laughs (a few which are obviously aimed at the younger kids). The ideas are far more imaginative (a planet-eating robot who turns into a planet himself, five-headed judges who give the death sentence to the guilty and innocent alike, "Junkions" who learned to talk by watching TV and speak like commercial announcers - sample dialogue: "Destroy Unicron! Kill the grand poobah! Eliminate even the toughest stains!"

I would also go so far as to say that the dialogue is much sharper and wittier than anything in Bay's film. Also, the acting is better, and there's a great cast with Judd Nelson, Eric Idle, Leonard Nemoy, and even the great Orson Welles in his final role. Shoot, I can still rattle off lines off the top of my head: "I've got better things to do tonight than die!" "Your bargaining posture is highly dubious!" "Coronation, Starscream? This is bad comedy!" All this, and it has a bitchin' 80's hair-metal soundtrack that sounds better than any of the crap I heard in the new movie. Fans of Boogie Nights are compelled to agree! (You either get that or you don't!)

Were the Transformers high art? No, but Michael Bay actually managed to dumb it down - quite a bit.


Kaboom32 said...

The thing that the first youtube clip really shows? Optimus Prime is a fucking badass. He's at his best when when the goin' gets rough
He's been put to the test, but it's never enough.

Anonymous said...

Ah come on, Lance. Optimus Prime takes a thrown stalactite in the chest but then dodges the following laser bolt? If Bay did the same thing, you'd give him hell for it.

-The Jakes

Lance Christian Johnson said...

See my comment regarding "realism", The Jakes.

Kaboom32 said...

I think The Jakes should try dodging both stalactites and laser bolts before further comment.

Anonymous said...

I’m going to argue that a human's (I'll give away the secret, I'm a human) reactions to hurled matter and coherent electromagneticry has no bearing on alien robotic technology and comment further without experimenting on myself.

First off, you made no comment about the realism in Transformers: The Movie. You do imply that movies before Batman Begins did not take a realistic approach, but even this requires additional inference since your statement could equally well read, just as an example, that realism was common in movies, but just became more fashionable because of the success of Batman Begins. Besides, you never established a chronology between Batman Begins and Transformers: The Movie (simply that they were both before the Bay film). So even if defined more concretely, your syllogism would still be flawed.

Finally, my comment had nothing to do with realism. I’m fine with letting reality wiggle a bit in a film. Since you brought it up, though, it is odd that the writers/animators (not sure who made that decision) would decide to have the stalactite hit and the laser beam miss. It seems like the scene could work perfectly well if the accuracy of the two were reversed. But anyway, my comment was about proving that I watched your clip and saw something that I found funny enough to share with those that did not watch all agonizing 3:41.

So Nyah,
The Jakes

Lance Christian Johnson said...

I was referring more to the fact that I don't care about realism when it comes to The Transformers. Bay's movie had a pretense of being more realistic, but it managed to be even less so.

nonmagic said...

This is off topic, but I'm still not done with the story yet.

You're a great writer and it has give n me a lot to ponder. I'm a ponderer from way back.

Kaboom32 said...

I refuse to believe that you are human until you dodge both a stalactite and a laser beam. Really, it's the ONLY WAY to tell.

Lance Christian Johnson said...

Don't worry, Nonmagic, it's not COMPLETELY off-topic. The Transformers is one of my many influences.

Glad you're a ponderin'!