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It Has a Robot

I loved Optimus Prime as a kid. I played with his toy, and I watched him on TV. But I held no huge expectations for the Transformers movie when it was announced, because for one thing you'll go crazy pinning your hopes on Hollywood to do justice to your fondest childhood memories. Also, it's just a Michael Bay movie. It could be a lot of fun, or it could be Pearl Harbor. I'd have been perfectly content if all Transformers ever did was introduce me to Kung Fu Monkey.

In movies, like all stories, there's a concept called the "key image." It's not always literally an image, or it may be an image that doesn't appear in the film, but it sums up the theme and style of the story. The key image that convinced me to see Transformers was this:

A ten-ton truck transforms into a 30-foot robot while hurtling down my beloved LA freeways at 70 mph, then skids into cars and those God damned city buses as it attacks another giant robot. This wasn't the Transformers of my youth, but I loved it. In a Michael Bay movie, I could expect this sequence to stretch on for easily eight minutes, and I couldn't wait to love every second of it.

In actuality, it's all over in less than two. And that's the story of Transformers – it oozes potential, but that potential is rarely realized. (Probably because it oozed off somewhere.) The actual key image from Transformers ends up being a lot more like this:

I'm no purist for the original Transformers mythology. (Although if they'd changed that awesome "transforming" sound effect, I'd have stormed out of the theatre and hurled my Coke at the screen on the way. Perfectly good Coke!) The story was cooked up quickly to sell some very cool toys, and it didn't make a lot of sense. But it had one thing going for it: simplicity. The robots came from some other planet. They changed into cars and planes – with a spine-tingling sound effect! They kicked ass. That's really all you need.

I'm proud of Michael Bay for retaining the gentle, charming wisdom of Optimus Prime, the leader of the Autobots. I'm glad he kept the sound effect and augmented it with some painstakingly engineered animation. It's a shame he changed the design of the truck Prime transforms into, and switched Bumblebee from a VW bug to a Camaro, but such is life. I'm less enthused that he retained the Autobot supporting cast's propensity for horseplay and "witty" one-liners. These two-story robots are strangely goofy when they're not fighting to the death. They grumble when peed on by a chihuahua; they crack their knuckles before getting down to work. They strut and preen and pratfall like those hammy battle droids in the Star Wars prequels. Is it too much to ask for humongous interstellar robots with a little dignity?

Also, this motley crew is proof that the more things change in action movies, the more they stay the same. Specifically the racist conventions. One of the Autobots is sort of "urban" – he talks like a black guy and likes to breakdance spontaneously – and his name is Jazz. Not just named after an NBA team, but also the type of music invented by black people! And in the big final battle, guess who evil Megatron rips in half? Even the black robot is the first to die.

It's unfair to get into little details, but it bothered me that the Transformers are revealed to be like the T-1000 in Terminator 2. They can transform into the shape of anything they sample with a quick digital scan. So they arrive on Earth as plain old robots, then scan something and transform into it. If they see something they like better, they can scan that and transform into it instead. This begs the question, why transform? Why have a lot of car parts hanging off you when you're in robot form, if you could just become a roboty-looking robot and then scan a car and turn into it when you're done? This is all set up so that Bumblebee can turn into a sweet new tricked-out Camaro to impress the Shia LeBeouf character, which is a shame because it defeats the nice message we learned in Robots: that even an old junker can be a hero. (However, it allows Chevy to market snazzy new Camaros, on which they earn a higher margin than the used ones.) It's also presumably an answer to the question of why robots from light years away know how to look like our Earth cars – a question also answered by a maddening revelation that irked Holly to no end: that all technological innovation in the last 80 years has been reverse-engineered from a Transformer the government holds in cold storage. The internal combustion engine, source of our many woes and rising sea levels? Came from an advanced civilization millennia ahead of our own, and it's only there because when pulled apart and reconfigured into robot form, it allows said robot to pee on John Turturro. Laughable, man!

Not that these trifling complaints would mean a whit if the rest of the movie were awesome. But the action scenes are abbreviated and unsatisfying and the exposition in between is labored and often contradictory. Actors outnumber robots 3-to-1. Whole sideplots die off without going anywhere, and far too many meetings take place at the Pentagon when someone could be out somewhere fighting a robot – or better yet, riding one around. A sense of wonder is missing from the interactions between Bumblebee and LeBeouf (whose performance saves many scenes and portends great things). Where's the adventure? The movie spends more time on a scene where he hides the Autobots from his parents than it does on the freeway chase. Bad form. The whole thing would've benefited from the perspective Spielberg applied to War of the Worlds: tell the story from one guy's point of view, and give it that personal grounding point in reality. The main focus is the giant robots; rather than smashing them against each other like an eight-year-old on the living room floor, why not stagger in awe at what they really are?

4 Comments (Add your comments)

"Holly"Thu, 7/12/07 2:00am

I like hearing from folks who actually played with the Transformers as kids. Since I didn't, I have no basis for appreciating them from a perspective of childlike wonder (especially because, as you point out, the movie didn't do the greatest job of putting that across for us newbies).

A fellow My Little Ponies fan and I were discussing the possibilities of a serious live action My Little Ponies movie, a la this version of Transformers. Imagine! The evil cat lady Katrina could try to take over the world in an initial bloodbath, and the president would be stumped, and we'd all have to team up with helpful ponies to save the day! It writes itself.

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