Long ago, Chuck D. warned us, "Don't believe the hype." True, he was talking about injustice and racial inequality in America and this is a blog that gripes about movies. But the advice is still sound.
This week, Michael Bay unveils his latest film TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON. Bay has been living with the Autobots exclusively for four years now. He has gone from initial claims saying he would only direct one of the entries to directing all three, boasting about his buddy-buddy relationship with Steven Speilberg more with each passing year.
While I have spoken to many people who have enjoyed the first two TRANSFORMERS movies, I have not spoken to anyone over the age of 14 who has loved them. So, while they are not completely worthless, I fail to see how the world gets swept up in the hype every single time.
My problems with the TRANSFORMERS movies are simple. For one, the design of the robots has always left much to be desired. When in motion, they resemble blurry Erector sets - just a lot of swinging robot arms and legs that don't really convey anything. Completely nondescript, they are full of tiny details that make them unappealing to the eye. The very image of the robots is a distraction of wheels, gears and computer imaging. Unlike other CGI characters in far better films, one never gets the feeling that they are looking at a character, but another special effect. In fact, the robots themselves have no real personality to speak of. And while it may seem a bit strange to complain about the lack of emotion from machines, everything in the TRANSFORMERS mythos stresses that these are sentient beings. Hence, it should not be much to ask.
But just because the films are called TRANSFORMERS does not mean they are about TRANSFORMERS. Instead, we get the story of Sam Witwicky, a loser kid whose initial posting of rare artifacts on eBay thrust him into the middle of an intergalactic war. Or something like that. I'm sorry, it's not that I don't understand what's going on in these films. It's that I can't be bothered to care.
If you go see a James Bond film, you want to see a film about James Bond. You don't want to see a film about the guy that crashes on James Bond's couch a few days each month. That's the problem with these films. The robots themselves should be more interesting than the guy who gets to hang out with the robots once in a while.
And let's just talk about the plot for a second. As I mentioned earlier, I lose track of what's going on in the TRANSFORMERS films, not from a lack of comprehension but from an overall lack of interest. Think about it. Can you honestly tell me that you knew and cared what was going on every step of the way during these films? Perhaps you can and if so, I stand corrected. But no one event ever seems to flow into the next during the first two films. Rather, it's just a random selection of jigsaw pieces thrown up on the screen all at once. Not only is no attempt made to put the pieces together, I'm not sure all the pieces belong to the same puzzle.
This is a major problem that goes back to Bay's greatest weakness as a director. Technically, he's great. But when it comes to telling a story, he has nothing to show for it. PEARL HARBOR was to be his prestige film. Early buzz had people saying it was SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and TITANIC rolled into one. In an interview with a magazine, Bay talked about how he saw this great vision of the bomb being released from the Japanese plane, tracking down through the clouds and then impacting the hull of the ship. When asked what he wanted to convey in that shot, Bay seemed to be puzzled, as if the interviewer suddenly started speaking in tongues. Michael Bay can tell you how to film an amazing shot, but he cannot tell you why.
This isn't a problem if you're telling a simple, breezy adventure film. But these films seem to throw all these random events into the mix, never giving us any reason to care about what's happening. Reports say that there is an enormous action sequence that takes up the last 45 minutes of the film. It's big, it's loud and it's an achievement in special effects. But the last two films also featured long action sequences towards the end of the film. I did not care about either of these climaxes. By the time they reached their respective third acts, I had given up finding anything in the films worth investing in.
Now, Bay is telling us not to pay any attention to the second entry in the series. He didn't get to do what he wanted there. But this time, he knows what he's doing and he has accomplished things on film that you have never seen before. How easy it is to forget that he said the exact same things when the second TRANSFORMERS film came out in 2009. This is much better, now they know what they're doing, you've never seen anything like it.
Keep in mind that I have not seen the third TRANSFORMERS movie. This is not a review and I am not judging that film. I am however judging the first two films and the hype surrounding the third. Why should anyone be excited to see a third entry in a series, when the first two have left much to be desired? And yet they are. The campaign is working. It's frustrating to watch.
As mentioned, the film has at least one big action sequence and probably more. It also contains much of the horrible comedic relief found in earlier films. Why are we subjected to the goofy parents (Kevin Dunn and Julie White)? We have Ken Jeong (who I enjoy in COMMUNITY and THE HANGOVER and hate everywhere else) improvising much like Anthony Anderson did, disastrously, in the first film. We have yet another convoluted storyline which sounds remarkably similar to earlier entries in the series - a previously hidden race of evil robots suddenly wakes up and smashes things on Earth, meaning the good robots have to come in and stop them.
We also have a new female lead. Making her feature film debut is Rosie Huntington-Whitely. She may turn out to be a solid actress, who knows? But the important thing is that she will smile, look pretty and keep her mouth shut. This is why she was hired and that is why Megan Fox was fired. The only reason I would have paid to see the third TRANSFORMERS film is that Megan Fox seemed to rise above the material. She's not here this time around. She made some disparaging comments about Michael Bay's chauvinistic and dictatorial directing style. The same thing has been said about Bay ever since he started his feature film career in the 1990s. On the set of THE ROCK (Bay's best film to date), Sean Connery famously called him a "cocksucker." If James Bond calls you a cocksucker, there's probably some truth to it.
What makes Fox different is that she said her comments while being a woman in Hollywood. Sorry people, but it's true. Guys get away with saying all kinds of things that women are called on. Don't believe me? Look at the things Shia LaBeouf has been caught saying. He has bad-mouthed virtually every film he's appeared in within the last five years (including the second TRANSFORMERS for director Bay and the fourth INDIANA JONES for producer Speilberg). He has spoken candidly about sleeping with women on the set and has gotten into trouble involving alcohol and scrapes with the law. Now, imagine his name was Sharon LaBeouf and tell me Michael Bay would show due patience.
The sad behavior of Bay and LaBeouf does not necessarily translate to the screen, but it does make the firing of one actress and hiring of another more manageable actress rather hard to accept. And what does translate onto the screen is that they have spent two films trying to get us invested in the relationship between their two lead characters, only to jettison the girl for a younger, more compliant model.
So to recap, we have the same focus on the humans instead of the robots. We have the same tone-deaf comic relief from human and robot alike. We have another convoluted story which is not much different from previous entries. We have a big concluding action sequence that is a dog's breakfast of special effects. The old relationship dynamic has been flushed and rebooted. The only thing that seems to have changed is that the only thing I liked about the previous installments isn't in this one.
So, why should I be excited by this film? I've heard all the promises before and I'm just not buying it anymore. If I wind up seeing the new TRANSFORMERS film, it will be unplanned. If my friends insist on going, I will not pass up a night at the movies. Otherwise, I have no interest. There is no event in this event film. The Emperor has no clothes. All we have is a lot of explosions punctuating an ongoing series that has already proven itself to be a colossal waste of time.
I know my opinion won't be shared by most people, but I felt the need to say it. And there are some who will not buy into the hype. The other night, a friend of mine went to a press screening of TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON. He took his daughter to see the film with him. I received a phone call from her as they were leaving. "Scott, the new TRANSFORMERS is horrible! Don't see it!" This girl is seven years old, but don't let that fool you. It appears she is more aware and critical of mediocrity than most people. Her opinion bodes well for the future.