Watch With Me! Day 01: Transformers

As my dad drove down the Garden State Parkway, I realized this is how I’m beginning the summer, my first summer since starting college. The sun barely peeked through the clouds as acid rain bathed the Honda Civic, a stark contrast from how I normally picture summer vacations: a beautiful blue sky with a golden sun radiating all underneath with its light. I haven’t felt a summer like that since high school. (Granted it was just a year ago and summer just began. I… uh, shut up.)

When I ended my freshman year in high school, I was a doe-eyed fifteen-year-old in sunny Los Angeles, kicking off my summer vacation meeting the actors, writers, directors, producers, stuntmen, even prop makers of the Power Rangers franchise. The influence that show has had on me knows no bounds, and to this day I credit that show as being one of my biggest inspirations in life and work. That very same summer, the summer of geek conventions and costumed heroes, Transformers was released in theaters.

I still remember the first time I saw this movie in theaters. I was home for about a week from Los Angeles when I met up with one of my best friends, a ginger from my freshman English class. Our icebreaker was her Clerks t-shirt she wore on casual Wednesdays so I knew we were going to get along just fine. She’s also an obsessive Power Rangers freak, and was red with envy when I told her over and over about meeting Johnny Young Bosch and his band Eyeshine in the elevator. I kept telling her the story as we walked into the dark, cold theater.

Two hours later, the credits rolled. As I stepped out into the late July evening, I had two things on my mind: HOLY SHIT THAT WAS AWESOME, and a ride home. Transformers, from the eyes of a fifteen-year-old Asian teenager, was one of the best movies ever. It had everything I wanted and hoped for. I thought of myself as Sam Witwicky, I wanted to bone Mikala Mikaela (Wikipedia check…) Mikaela (I was right!), holy shit I love America, and cars freaking everywhere. It was the best movie ever! Right?

Right?

Before tonight, I had seen the first film a whopping two times. The first at the movie theater, the second on DVD when I got it for Christmas. And I didn’t watch it since.

I'm bored.

What happened? I’m not entirely sure myself. Transformers is the quintessential nerd franchise with a super dedicated fanbase, Michael Bay is the only man in Hollywood who can produce a big enough budget to make third-world countries weep, and Megan Fox is a walking porno. How can these movies draw so much heat from film buffs and even Transformers fans everywhere? What is it about these movies that make people cringe yet open their wallets to a $709.7 million gross revenue? Let’s find out.

The movie begins with Peter Cullen (cue fanboys) as Autobot leader Optimus Prime talking about the All Spark and their destroyed home planet have I lost  you already? The world of Cybertron, home of the transformers, was destroyed in war between the Autobots (good guys) and the Decepticons (bad guys, because they deceit and con! Get it? Get it? No? Okay.). The two factions search high and low for the All Spark, and that brings us to Earth.

Supposedly the All Spark is the key to life or some other, but frankly it’s a MacGuffin — what it does isn’t super important, it’s just the fact that it is important is what counts. Optimus Prime can use it to rebuild Cybertron while Megatron can use it to take over the universe. How? Why? What’s the science behind it? Can it cure human diseases too?What’s the writing on it? What language is it? How can it go from super big to super tiny in seconds? None of that matters. By the laws of film and/or literature, the All Spark is important simply because it is.

Off to a great start.

Before I popped this movie in tonight, the first thing I remembered from it was just how damn American it was. The recent events surrounding the death of Osama Bin Laden has put American morale at an all-time high, despite the fact that my dad filled up his tank today at $4 a gallon. It may sound strange, but this movie is already beginning to show its age, as the opening shots of military bases in Qatar kick off the movie. But that’s through the lenses of a viewer from 2011. A viewer in 2007? It’s a whole different story, and that’s where the movie succeeds: it fucking gets you (if you’re American, at least). The introduction of the heroic soldiers talking about Fenway Park and Michael Jordan, all simple but effective techniques to get you to root for these guys. And damn it, it does! These soldiers are your bothers and sisters (though no female soldiers are ever seen, interestingly) who you grew up with, like the things you like, hate the things you like, and look just like you! Damn it, they are you! They even tell off their fellow soldier, a proud Latino American who speaks Spanish, to fuck off because that’s AMERIC-…oh. Hmm. Anyway.

The soldiers are the good guys (if slightly xenophobic), we know that much. They are 1/5 of the humans that make up the movie, you know, the movie about transforming alien robots. I imagine one of Michael Bay’s obstacles was making a movie about transforming robots seem human and something the audience can relate to. Upon realizing just how freaking impossible that is without being taken lightly, I’m pretty sure Bay gave up and threw in a total of five different human groups that come together in the face of adversity.

Yeah. Five groups of humans. How many groups of transformers are there?

Two.

This is going to be fun.

So after Blackout’s attack on the base (did I mention there will be spoilers?) we cut to good ol’ suburban America, at a high school where Sam Witwicky gives a presentation on his ancestors, which in turn sets up more backstory for the war for the All Spark. Sam Witwicky, portrayed by Disney alum Shia LaBeouf, is the main human protagonist of the story. He’s the American everyteen, a super horny internet nerd desperate to get his first car. These traits get the audience to relate to Sam Witwicky, another way of hooking the audience (and myself) to invest themselves in the story. Everyone at one point has to have been Sam, is Sam, or know someone just like Sam. The guy who’s just misunderstood but tries, and lives with his lovable family and dog in a two-story house in suburbia.

Except Sam is a fucking shmuck.

So Sam’s ancestor is super famous, right? He explored the Artic Circle (SPOILE-…ah, who cares?), right? So why the fuck would you auction off his possessions to buy a car so you can get laid? I understand selling expensive items is a good idea, and that’s why people sell pirated copies of World of Warcraft or unopened boxes of… well, Transformers toys. Not centuries-old tools that belong in a God damn museum. Is that supposed to be funny? Is that supposed to be the joke? Selling priceless items on freaking eBay? If it’s supposed to be funny, then it fails to entertain. It remains topical and culturally relevant, true, but that doesn’t make it funny or make Sam likeable in any way. At this point, Sam is the irresponsible, selfish older brother and not the heroic teenager that everyone wishes they could be.

I’ll play devil’s advocate and say that this isn’t the 80’s anymore (lol) and that super babyface heroes aren’t as interesting as the morally gray antiheroes. But if that’s the case, I frankly can’t place Sam anywhere on this spectrum. He’s a good kid that means well but ditches his best friend and sells family heirlooms to get some ass? In real life, that’s what we call human. But in movie world, that’s what I call confusing as fuck and poor writing.

Sam leads the second group of humans we will be journeying with throughout the film. He’s accompanied by his mom and dad, who I seriously think are satires of today’s American upper-middle class families, thus making them the most entertaining out of all the humans. It is their punchlines and their jokes that actually make the movie enjoyable, because I sure as hell can’t laugh at Optimus Prime saying “My bad.” More on that later.

Furthering this group of humans is Sam’s love interest and reason why he got into this whole mess in the first place: Mikaela, played by Megan Fox. Not only does she have the worst name in the history of all female protagonists, but she’s arguably the hottest, something every American male that has seen this movie has said at one point or another, her real attitude and behavior behind the scenes notwithstanding (personality still counts, folks). Though hot as she may be, nothing can rescue her from the completely bland and boring character that she actually is. Mikaela, like Sam, is also a flawed human being, who has a past she’d sooner forget. But, and maybe this is more of Megan Fox’s fault, but I do not get that feeling at all from her throughout the movie. Even when she’s revealing her secrets, even when she’s vulnerable in the climactic firefight, even ever, she is bland as can be and there is absolutely nothing interesting to say about her except that she’s hot.

The third, fourth, and fifth set of humans (sigh) are the hackers, the US government, and Sector 07 respectively, although you could mesh those last two groups together DOES ANYONE CARE? I’m tearing my hair out that I have to talk about all these humans before I can even get to the main attraction, the fucking Transformers. Fuck it, let me speed this up.

The third set of humans are the hackers that identify the hack signals to be a match from the attack on the base from earlier. Although, really, this hack group is comprised of just two people: a hot Australian blonde named (To Wikipedia…) Maggie and her black best friend (because everyone has one) Glen. Next to Sam’s parents, these two are another potentially interesting duo due to their unique skills as hackers, although let’s be honest, this is Hollywood. Their *SPOILERS* abrupt end is a little disheartening considering there was a decent amount of screen time given to these characters, and to only have them disappear despite being very integral to the story is not only a big middle finger to the audience’s time and patience, but a middle finger to the characters themselves. Sam may be the one to carry the very important glasses for some reason I can’t remember, but it was these hackers that discovered the second hack attempt and later helped send a morse code signal for reinforcements. Their sudden end with no explanation was not fun for the viewers, all twenty of them, who actually liked these characters.

The fourth and/or fifth set of humans are the US government, which is somewhat confusing, because even I’m having a hard time keeping track. There’s the Secretary of Defense, which is one guy but represents all of the United States government (somehow), and the other being Sector 07, a group assembled by the President decades ago that babysit over fallen Decepticon technology (what that “technology” actually is is kind of spoilertastic so let’s just say it’s really bad stuff). Technically, the Secretary and the Sector 07 peeps are both under the United States, but these two groups tend to butt heads sometimes so where lines are drawn are often blurry. It wouldn’t be such a problem though if Agent Simmons (portrayed by John Turturro) wasn’t a total slapstick character; according to several interviews, the character was made humorous to retain a sense of fun in the military scenes. Indeed, Simmons is the only character keeping things light in otherwise dark scenes, but the problem here lies is that maybe Simmons is the wrong guy to make the jokes. He’s Sector 07, a no-nonsense division of the government that holds the biggest secrets in the nation’s history. The momma’s boy shtick seems somewhat out of place for a guy who manages to arrest the heroes, but that’s just me. Some of his jokes were funny but nothing memorable.

And finally, the transformers. Autobots are the good guys, Decepticons are the bad guys.

THERE, I’M DONE WITH THE CHARACTERS. FINALLY.

FUCK YOU ALL.

And herein lies the glaring flaw of Transformers. It’s got a asston of human characters, all two-dimensional, and the transformers, you know, the main attractions, are one-dimensional, given significantly less screen time and are hardly distinguishable or unique. Unless you are a super hardcore Transformers fan, good luck identifying who is who during the fight scenes.

I said earlier there is a possible reason why the Transformers were given such one-dimensional roles. For mainstream movie audiences, it’s incredibly difficult having CGI robots seem human and emotional, no matter how good the voice acting can be. This goes for everything, not just Transformers. This must be why Bay oversaturated the film with human characters, to make up for the (quite literally) robotic and inhuman disposition of the property. It’s easy to sell toys, but hard to sell drama with toys. That’s why the rooftop scene in Spider-Man is so laughable — it’s just two heads talking. You can’t see emotion, no matter how transparent the eyeplates or mouthpieces are. For Transformers, no matter how good the CGI looks, you can’t make it human.

And this is where Transformers ultimately fails despite trying very hard. It has a gigantic cast of human characters, yet none of them feel genuine or real, like a human. Sam didn’t really grow to be a better person, Mikaela kind of does but no one cared anyway, the parents didn’t grow from anything at all, the soldiers just went home, and the rest of the cast just disappeared. There was hardly any resolution to the characters except the defeat of the villains and Sam and Mikaela hooking up on top of Bumblebee which is just entirely too awkward.

But after all that, I have to give the film credit where credit is due. If there’s one thing you have to know about this movie, is that it’s not just a summer movie; it’s a summer spectacle. Between the explosions and the frantic brawls, Transformers raised the summer movie bar to epic levels when it came to simply entertaining moviegoers. As much as I dislike Michael Bay’s storytelling and overall directing, the man knows how to put on a show. It may sound insulting but it’s more of a compliment: Michael Bay is like a wrestling promoter providing pure and exciting entertainment with little to no enrichment value. And when it comes to entertainment, fuck enrichment values.

Any frame where you see a Transformer is a frame of sheer beauty, the CGI is gorgeous to look at even after four years. Just to push this further, I watched the movie tonight on a standard DVD but played it on my dad’s blu-ray player and 47-inch TV. Several scenes stood out to me as wonderfully shot, and especially so on a nice television.

The first was Mikaela and Sam piling on top of each other before Bumblebee switched bodies to a new Camaro. Two teens have just discovered a world unlike their own, they’re scared and afraid and travel in the depths of the unknown. At least, that’s what I would have portrayed it as, in Michael Bay’s eyes it’s just two horny teenagers gettin’ close. But regardless, it was a wonderfully shot frame and Megan Fox’s beauty really came out and sucker punched everyone watching, her eyes lighting up as street glazed over her face. It’s no wonder people fell in love with her for a short time.

Another that was well done was the introduction of Optimus Prime. Arguably the most popular Transformer in the entire God damn franchise, Optimus Prime needed one hell of an introduction to show the audience who they’ll be rooting for. He could have busted through a wall with a fiery explosion behind him, he could have come out to epic music that climaxed at a high note. He could have come out to any other tried and true introduction, but he didn’t. No. Rather, he came out in a subtle, short, and very, very sweet frame — night, the music heroic but not overwhelmingly so, and light-up fog standing behind the alien figure. A quick shot of a truck passes by, and we immediately see the once-alien figure form into the all-too familiar red and blue truck. No words are said, no corny catchphrases. Just a beautiful shot of the truck transforming in the night.

Another scene that took my breath away again was the Autobots regrouping at the Griffith Observatory. As I said before, it was a treat watching the Autobots in their CGI glory, and this scene was a feast for the eyes. Nothing in the sky except a radiant sun gave the scene a sense of hope and warmth as the heroic Autobots plan their attack. To have it end with the very iconic line (“Transform and ROLL OUT!”) was exactly what needed to be done.

Throughout the film, glares and spotlights overwhelm the frame and at times overtake the characters within the shot. Whether this was done for aesthetics or poor filmmaking, I’m not sure, but something attracted me to it. Perhaps it’s a sense of wonder and awe; our world is to be a battleground for a centuries-old war that we had no part in. There is something bigger than us out there than blank space, worlds and galaxies far beyond our own imagination. We will either die or we will survive, and these lights can be the end of the tunnel or the hope should we persevere through adversity.  Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but the spotlights and glares had a significant presence throughout the film. The pessimist in me would say it’s just aesthetics, to make the film “look cool” with the advent of high-definition home media that would be commercially available when the film would be in stores later that year.

But the optimist in me would say there’s more to the film than meets the eye.

If there’s one thing I could do to this movie is shrink the amount of humans in the film. The groups of humans, especially Sam’s camp and the hackers, are so completely estranged it was like they weren’t really fighting to survive together. Either have these humans interact more and grow together, or shrink their numbers so we can focus more on who is who and what is at stake. The Autobots are so one-dimensional because time was spent on simply introducing human characters that in the end, no one was really unique or fully developed. Movies are a journey, and if characters do not go on an emotional or psychological journey, then the audience will never have been taken anywhere, no matter how epic the scale of the movie may be.

My suggestion: Merge Sam and Mikaela with Maggie and Glen. They all share traits that, if put together, might make for an interesting duo of characters. There runs a risk of creating too perfect or too interesting characters, however. But I’m willing to make that risk.

One thing is for sure: Transformers was a spectacle that greatly appealed to me when I was fifteen. It redefined the summer action movie genre, whether that is good or bad depends on who you speak to. Transformers, regardless of its enrichment value or quality, changed the game and opened the door for other toy properties to be sold as blockbuster movies; Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots is getting a movie with Hugh Jackman this year, and Battleship is on the horizon.

After tonight I may never watch Transformers again as I’ve moved on. But I miss being fifteen, and as I was watching I couldn’t help but feel like I had just finished freshman year of high school again, sitting in the dark theater next to my best friend hoping I get to drive a Camaro when I get my license.

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One comment

  1. Joseph F. Walter, IV · · Reply

    The only negative about this little piece (And I actually liked it!) was where you were trying to find meaning in the sun glares. There is no meaning in that…. that’s Michael Bay being Michael Bay because he thinks it looks cool.

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