Monday, July 09, 2007

What meets the eye


There are types of movies that need to stop and remember what the audience is buying tickets for. Spring break and beach party movies exist to show bare breasts, Death Wish rip-offs exist to show a tough S.O.B. killing people responsible, directly or indirectly, for the wrong done to them and theirs. People working on them need to remember that they have a responsibility to deliver on these things.

Obviously, I understand that there needs to be a story to make either of those elements worthy of interest. I find the Girls Gone Wild videos remarkably tedious, for example... also disturbing, but that's another argument. I also believe that a great filmmaker could make a version of these core ideas and transcend them, in which case it would be acceptable not to pay off expectations. This one is a bit of a long shot, though, even if you're shooting for it, you should probably pay off well enough, just to be safe.

What does any of this have to do with Michael Bay's Transformers?

Easy.

Transformers is a movie that I, and any halfway reasonable audience member, went to see in order to witness the spectacle of giant robots kicking each others asses. And, on one level, it seems hard to argue it doesn't deliver in it's overblown way.

But imagine if you will a Spring Break movie that has only two briefly exposed breasts around the halfway mark and then ends in a football stadium filled with topless women or a revenge actioner that builds up to the protaganist simply machine-gunning through crowds at Disneyland. It doesn't resonate with anything.

Transformers spends most of it's running time attempting to introduce us to, and make us care about, a remarkably large cast of human characters. Two teenagers, five soldiers and a couple of superhackers, amongst others. As executed here, there are only a couple, notably Shia LaBeouf, that I would have been interested in seeing a movie about, if it did not involve giant robots.

I got some hassle when this was announced for saying I wasn't interested in the Transformers movie about people. I just wanted to see the stuff about the robots and Cybertron and their wars, etc. Mind you, as a follower of Hollywood movies and their requirements, I knew it needed human characters for the sake of the audience, or what is believed to be the needs of the audience, but I frankly didn't and don't care about or for any of that.

If I'd have been given this script to make into something better, I'd have kept the two teenagers and dumped all the others completely. It seems like the parts of the soldiers and the hackers were already cut down to the bone, large sections of what happens to them making little sense and seeming to occur out of nowhere and jump back in with large missing segments. But the problem isn't, as many suggest, that they were cut too much, but rather that they are there at all.

Once the already celebrated climactic battle occurs, there's little sense to be made of it. We are only briefly introduced to the Autobots, aside from Optimus Prime and Bumblebee. Our introductions to the Decepticons, including Megatron, are even more rote. As such, it's difficult to know or care which robot is which and why we care who wins the various battles between them.

Not that the battles don't look damn cool. They do. I just wish they had looked that cool and fully engaged me in the story surrounding them.

Some other brief notes, the references to Armageddon only make the moment when this movie tries to steal the famous list of demands speech from that movie play even more hollow. John Turturro's performance here makes his performance as Jesus in The Big Lebowski look like a model of restraint, which clashes up against the generally grounded performances of the rest of the cast.

Frankly, that's just it. This movie had no idea what it wanted to be. At times a comedy, and even more occasionally, a funny one. At times a sci-fi. At times over-the-top, although largely spending a great deal of time and effort to ground the movie in our reality. The way each of these elements roll about and crash into each others, aimless bouncing around, none is allowed to ever quite work.

There's some good work in here, not the least of which is by Peter Cullen, returning to the role of Optimus Prime, most of which just serves to fuel my imaginings of what a really good live-action Transformers movie might have been like.

For now, I'm thinking of hunting down a copy of Transformers: The Movie, which I recall enjoying when I was 15. We'll see how my results are a lifetime and more past since.

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