Thank god for superhero films – they’ve made the state of blockbuster filmmaking infinitely superior this decade than the one that preceded it. This is partly because the comic book revival has been driven by a band of filmmakers who cut their teeth in independent and alternative film (Sam Raimi, Bryan Singer, Chrisopher Nolan). But it’s also because they’re adapted from a medium that can’t rely on action sequences to move its plot forward; with static images on a page, the stories need plot turns and character development to keep readers coming back issue after issue.
Watching Michael Bay’s Transformers, one wouldn’t be faulted for thinking that the past ten years never happened. It feels far more at home amongst the fare that populated the 1990s – your Jurassic Parks, your Independence Days and your Godzillas. What Transformers shares with all of these is that they’re about ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events almost entirely beyond their control (until the film’s conclusion, that is); that, along with a razor-thin plot and almost non-existent character development in the interest of blowing lots of stuff up. And while Transformers is certainly far better than the disaster genre at its worst, one wonders if it’s a filmmaking trend that we want to go back to.
Disclaimer time: I’m not writing this as a Transformers fan. While it seems that almost every male in my age group grew up playing with robots in disguise, they never found their way into my TV rotation or toy collection. Mattel cagily made a product that appealed to that part of the pre-pubescent male brain that loves trucks, cars and vehicles of all sorts, a part that I evidently didn’t inherit. So I went into Transformers without any nostalgia to shape the experience, but still excited to see the different ways that Michael Bay could throw robots into one another.
And on that level – pure visceral thrills – Transformers succeeds far better than anything else thus far this summer. There are various jaw-dropping effects sequences and money shots in the film, almost enough to render my “death of wow” observations ridiculously premature. The first time that one of the Deceptacons transforms back into a vehicle earned entertained gasps from the audience, and well-deserved ones at that. And the decision to set the final battle within city streets is an inspired one, allowing for all sorts of slow-motion madness.
But for everything that he does right, Michael Bay goes ahead and does something in Transformers that makes me cringe. I like how the military is used to introduce Megatron, but otherwise most of the military storylines in the film just seem like an excuse to take advantage of Bay’s connections with America’s armed forces. They also fill the film with a ridiculous amount of periphery characters that just stuff and bloat the story. It’s like Bay’s solution to every plot problem he comes across is just to throw another underdeveloped character into the mix.
But my biggest problem with Transformers is that it spends way too much time trying – and failing – to be funny. You’d think that the first time we see the Autobots would be a moment of awe and wonder, and at first it is. But then it’s followed up by a horrible comic sequence where they have to hide around Sam’s house while he tries to find this pair of antique glasses. Almost every time the movie tries to be funny, it does so in an incredibly childish way – the moment where a Transformer urinates on a human bad guy is easily the film’s nadir. I recognize that Transfomers was always a children’s property, but Pixar has proven time and time again that you can be funny without being condescending to your audience, which is what Transformers does time and time again.
The only thing that holds this mess together until the next awesome explosion is Shia LaBeouf as Sam, who lives up to the ridiculous hype he’s received over the past year. The future son of Indiana Jones is likeable, believable and grounds the film even when everything else around him is absurd and ridiculous. But even he can’t overcome a plot that’s based on a flimsy television show where the story was driven solely by the need to create more and more toys to sell to kids. There’s simply too much going on here, and moments that should be heartfelt – like when Sam’s Transformer is captured – aren’t earned and fail to satisfy.
When both barrels are blazing, Transformers is fun, no question about it. But it’s only fun on the level of a six-year-old or a six-year-old at heart, appealing to that side of your brain that likes cool robots and explosions. Unlike with the best of the comic book genre, there’s nothing going on beyond the visceral. Michael Bay has made sure that the television show’s iconic catchphrase stays an ironic one: there is nothing more here than what meets the eye.
Watch: Transformers trailer