The more things change …
With Transformers, director Michael Bay makes a wise move: He’s come out with a movie that simply doesn’t have to be good. Bay’s whole career (Armageddon, The Rock, Pearl Harbor, The Island, etc.) has been a series of variations on Monster Rally Destruction Derby, and he’s never shown much interest in putting together a movie that makes real dramatic sense, so this career move is probably long overdue. Movie audiences probably can be divided neatly into two parts: Those who wouldn’t go to see a movie based on Hasbro’s Transformer toys no matter how good it was, and those who can’t wait to see it no matter how bad it is. For both groups, the fact that the movie is directed by Bay won’t make a damn bit of difference.
For the benefit of those born before 1978 or after 1990, Transformers are a series of toys marketed in the United States by Hasbro beginning in 1984 (and first developed by the Takara Co. of Japan). A Transformer may look like a car, a jet plane, a truck or a tractor, but turn a few knobs and pivots and it becomes a powerful-looking robot. Hasbro’s marketing strategy included a complex back-story about the robots, their origin on a distant war-torn planet and their titanic, galaxy-spanning war, all covered in TV kids’ cartoons and video games.
The back-story—all about the good Transformers (Autobots) and their leader, Optimus Prime, vs. the evil Decepticons and their leader, Megatron—doesn’t really matter, even if you’re wistful for Saturday mornings in front of the TV clutching your Ironhide or Starscream. Nor do the story blandishments that writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and John Rogers have added here: the assault by a Decepticon on a U.S. military base in Qatar; the secretary of defense (Jon Voight) and his efforts to get to the bottom of the attack; dorky teenager Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), whose great-great-grandfather was a famous Arctic explorer who went crazy after one expedition, where he claimed to have discovered a “giant ice-man”; the great-great-grandfather’s glasses, which Sam is offering on eBay, not knowing they’re etched with a code giving the location of the mysterious “Allspark,” over which the Transformers have been fighting all these millennia; Sam’s car, an aging Chevy Camaro that’s really an Autobot in disguise.
Equally unimportant is the almost sub-literate sloppiness of the script. Take for example the fact that Sam’s ancestor is referred to as a great-great grandfather one minute, a grandfather the next and a great-grandfather the one after that. Or the references to what President Hoover did “80 years ago”—Orci, Kurtzman and Rogers being unaware that 80 years ago, the president was Calvin Coolidge. Or the pitched battle that takes up much of the last hour and lays waste to a large city (L.A., maybe?), but somehow gets covered up by a vigilant government.
No boy with fond memories of his ’bots is likely to balk at that, or at any of the other cavernous holes in Transformers, much less at Bay’s clumsy way with comedy or penchant for yanking us rudely from location to location like an ill-tempered tour guide going through a spiel in which he has no interest. What really matters—all that matters—is the nostalgic glow that sweeps through the audience when the Transformers start transforming, and when the voice of Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen, who’s been doing it since 1984) is finally heard. There’s something so weirdly comforting about that voice, sounding as it does like an electrified blend of Santa Claus, Mr. Spock and Tony the Tiger.
There’s even the little chuckle that sweeps through the audience when the credit flashes across the screen: “Based on the line of Hasbro toys,” or words to that effect. It’s an almost subversive moment, in a way. Do you suppose D.W. Griffith, John Ford or Orson Welles ever could have imagined such a thing? For that matter, does anyone who sits down to see Transformers give a damn what Griffith, Ford or Welles could imagine? Or do they come merely to see this year’s contender for Best Robots Ever?
Many movies are critic-proof. Some are even actor-proof. Transformers, though, is director-proof. And, given who the director is, that’s a lucky thing.