I remember seeing the first Transformers film in cinemas in 2007, and I remember enjoying it. It was like so many other blockbusters in the post-9/11 decade: obnoxious, loud and stiflingly American. It was situated at that tenuous crossroads for American exceptionalism – where abject failure in Iraq was staring the administration in the face and attempts to democratise Afghanistan in the vacuum left by the Taliban were undermined repeatedly by corrosive insurgency. Americans had little to look up to in their country’s blood-soaked exposition of its manifest destiny, so instead they looked to Hollywood – where adroit military commanders plan deft manoeuvres with giant interstellar droids to bring freedom and liberty to the whole universe. Oo-fucking-rah.
Then I saw the second film in 2009, and the whole fantasy collapsed. Revenge of the Fallen, also known as ‘the racist one’, stands to date as one of the most bloated, horrifying movies ever shat out by the Hollywood cabal; a nightmare fever dream of CGI explosions and animal sex jokes which, merely by existing, hastened the collapse of the American Empire by centuries. The jingoism of the first film gave way to a pseudo-fascist endorsement of military rule which seems out of place even in the Michael Bay pantheon, which generally revels in grovelling at the feet of gruff infantrymen armed to the teeth with the latest war tech. As a fresh-faced seventeen year old, I was confronted with a vision of decay so explicit that I’m still yet to recover. I did not see the third film.
But when I heard they were making a fourth Transformers film, I felt something resonate. When a film series breaks free of the tried-and-true trilogy format, it transcends mere cinema and becomes institution, as grave and serious as any other. Case in point: the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, which as a totality is a more vital exploration of the human mind than anything Jung ever produced. I had to see this new, LaBeouf-less Transformers. But how would I catch up on the myriad complexities of the lore, from which I had been removed for half a decade? I had a mission: to watch every Transformers film in succession. It was a ten-hour journey more intense than any other; a grim quest that took me to the very beating heart of the American Dream and the blasted out husk of American Reality. And beyond – to the stars.
Besides, there’s a crucial fact often overlooked by sneering cinephile millennials: you’ll probably still like the shit you liked when you were fifteen. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar and a fool.
It’s important to point out a simple home truth before I begin: this film is overwhelmingly fucking stupid. It’s a fact which should hang from every word henceforth. Transformers clobbers you with its sheer wrongheadedness from the first minute and doesn’t let up until you’re shivering on the cheap linoleum floor of your kitchen struggling to remember the basic rules of arithmetic. It’s loud and dumb and unrelenting, and if you were anticipating anything else, return immediately to your Ingmar Bergman DVD re-releases. You’ll be happier, and so will I.
Here’s the lowdown. Limp, useless nerd Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) buys a used car from Bernie Mac (may he rest in peace) which turns out to be a robot alien named Bumblebee, who is a member of a group of guardian warriors named the Autobots, led by Optimus Prime, who defend the galaxy from another group of robots named the Decepticons, led by Megatron. John Turturro appears as a government agent, palpably deserving much better than this. Meanwhile, Josh Duhamel leads a group of brawny, sweaty soldiers fighting the very same Decepticons on a military base in Qatar, and Megan Fox walks around the frame aimlessly while the camera zooms in and out gratuitously on her ass. These plot lines converge clumsily at some point. Do you follow? It doesn’t matter, and never will.
The whole enterprise is conveyed through dialogue which lurches between extremely bro (“You eyeballin’ my piece, 50 Cent?”) to coldly military. That said, the performances are largely fine. I remember now why LaBeouf was such a big deal for a little while – he’s likeable as the main man, and holds a kind of manic pathos genuinely lacking in most Hollywood action leads. It’s too bad he turned into a crazy plagiarist so soon, or he might have had a bright future as a charismatic Hollywood lead before a lurching downward spiral into prescription drug abuse, a la Dennis Hopper. Fox is equally pleasant, and has an edge usually lacking from empty female action leads, but I wasn’t kidding about the objectification. The camera treats her like meat, lingering on her body in a manner more befitting a sexual assault PSA than a big budget film. This is unfortunately the world we’ve created, and now we have to bask in it like the horny teens we are. Duhamel’s character is literally a zero. I assume the character sheet was one line: “This character is played by Josh Duhamel”. He has no characteristics and nothing distinguishing him from the average background grunt save for the fact that he has more lines.
Nobody signed up for Transformers for the characterisation or plot. They signed up to see the megadroids punch and shoot each other. The Transformers themselves are actually kinda fun. Optimus Prime is voiced by Peter Cullen, the same guy who voiced him in the cartoons, and seems pretty good at conveying the firm gravitas of being a giant consumerist robot. Megatron is played by Hugo Weaving, whose voice is distorted and deepened like someone in witness protection, and for presumably the same reasons. They punch each other spectacularly, and many buildings are destroyed. Lots of people die in the ensuing chaos, I assume, but that’s never addressed. I’ve always wondered about this: who covers the enormous costs associated with the collateral damage caused by these marauding spacemen? Do insurance policies cover the financial burden associated with having your body and property maimed by interstellar missiles? Lord knows.
It was early in the journey, so I was mostly alert. I noticed a few things. One: Michael Bay sure hates the government. A lot. Some bureaucrat actually refers to his own “ridiculous government salary” with obvious contempt. Consistently, the government is shown as bumbling and foolish. Turturro, head honcho of the government forces, is stripped naked and tied to a pole in a particularly strange comic moment, and we’re invited to laugh at his fecklessness. Conversely, the military are shown as driven and focused, as capable of fighting Transformers as they are of violently occupying generic Middle Eastern desert hellholes. It’s an uneasy contrast which persists throughout the entire film, and I get the sense that Bay wouldn’t be averse to a rigid military dictatorship with himself as chief propagandist.
Two: the barely-elucidated backstory has some hilarious implications. We find out that the U.S. government has stored Megatron in a cryogenic chamber for a century, and that most of the advances of modernity – cars, microchips, and so on – were reverse-engineered from his body. For a rabidly pro-American film, that seems like a solid rejection of American market ingenuity. Turns out the greatest inventions of modern man weren’t a result of good old-fashioned American capitalism – they just ripped ‘em out of a robo-monster after it fell from space. Eat that, Mitt Romney.
I’m gonna say it. The movie looks good. Great, even. The prehistoric CGI of 2007 holds up admirably, and it’s obvious that Bay and his cinematographer have a strong command of the camera. Noted and highly respected film historian Jeanine Basinger once described him as “a master of movement, light, colour, and shape”, and its hard not to agree. For all the criticism of his gratuitous use of slow motion and schizophrenic cuts, Transformers is curiously bereft of them. Huge, wide-panning 360º shots? Sure. Epic panoramas of desert horizons with silhouetted military machinery? You betcha. But it’s cohesive and fluid. The movie moves from set-piece to set-piece seamlessly, and you get the feeling for why producers keep throwing inconceivable sums of money at Bay to keep producing merchandise-friendly garbage. He’s dangerous, but not untalented.
I liked Transformers in 2007, and I liked it now. For all its bullshit ideology (“Freedom is a right of all sentient beings,” said the giant powerdroid stoically), it’s a strong action film. It might have been because it was early in my quest, but I was feeling energised and ready. I ate a bowl of cornflakes and milk. My brain was alive; a well-oiled machine, gears spinning. My body yearned for more.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)
When I told people I was stupid enough to do this, the most common refrain was “number one is good; number two is garbage – skip it”. My memories of the film seemed to confirm that prejudice, but I knew I needed to watch all of them. To skip was to surrender. I prepared myself by eating a plateful of Bundt cake, a kind of confectionary popular amongst the descendants of German immigrants in Minnesota. It was good, the film was not. I contemplated drinking a beer, but it was noon on a weekday, and I felt like my life had not disintegrated to that point.
There are two jokes about dogs fucking in the first fifteen minutes of Revenge of the Fallen. They are the same dogs. Two dogs are shown having sex, and that is the joke. It is the buildup, the tension and the punchline. The same joke is repeated, one minute later. We are, presumably, expected to laugh both times. Brevity is the soul of wit, said Shakespeare, and he was wrong. Spectacularly wrong in an ugly kind of way which can only be understood in retrospect. The altitude of the film never quite recovers from the dogs fucking. I give this film two fucking dogs out of two.
The plot: Sam “Big Dog” Witwicky is carted off to college, without his loving girlfriend Mikaela (again played by Fox). The world’s governments now know about the Transformers, and perhaps the general public do too – it’s never quite made clear, which seems odd. Meanwhile, an ancient and terrifying Transformer named The Fallen is orbiting the Earth and preparing, I assume, to destroy it. There’s a lot of stuff about a magic MacGufffin called The Matrix Of Leadership which I did not care about at all. The ‘scary old evil thing wreaks havoc’ is a trope as old as storytelling itself, and I encourage you to embrace it in all facets of your life. Excite your sexual partner with a naive archaeologist/ancient evil roleplay. The possibilities are endless. There’s a new character – another government bureaucrat, even more snivelling than the last. Once again, we’re told to hate the government and love the military. This particular individual is thrown out of a warplane at some point in the film to great fanfare, so there’s that.
The execution is, to say the least, flawed. I tried to take notes during the film, but stopped after writing ‘this is bullshit’ in excess of thirty times. Characters appear and then disappear without having said anything which propels the plot. Something explodes. A big robot says something about liberty, and a scarier-looking robot rebukes it. The camera leers at Megan Fox’s breasts. To say that I wasn’t invested in the plot suggests there was something to be invested in. It is an experiment in tone and colour which coincidentally aligns visually with a cherished toy brand. I didn’t understand it in 2009, and I still don’t.
A couple of strange things. John Turturro’s character now works in a deli. Why? I’m not entirely sure. In the previous film, he was a high-ranking employee of a secret government agency unknown to even the Secretary of Defence. Now he works in a deli, and that’s funny. He is also shown wearing a thong, which is also funny. The bar for comedy is set so low in this film that the jokes elicit more of a puzzled grunt than anything. Pain and Gain later proved that Michael Bay is just not a funny person, even when he’s trying, so perhaps this juvenile bullshit can be understood, if not condoned.
Secondly, this movie is racist. Like, really fucking racist. I’m talking old-school, Californian gold prospector racism. The two comic relief characters in the film are robots that are modelled off some buffoonish African-American archetype which went out of fashion at some point in the 1950’s. One of them even has a large gold tooth and huge ears. I feel like future broadcasts of this film – if, regrettably, they happen – should be prefaced with the same message they put before those old Looney Tunes minstrel shows. You know, this film was a product of its time, and to remove these scenes would suggest these attitudes never existed, yada yada yada. Anyone who suggests racism is dead would do well to see what Michael Bay thought was funny in 2009.
The quality of the craft takes a huge nosedive when compared to the first film. I assume Bay fired his last cinematographer for not saluting an American flag patriotically enough, and replaced him with an enraged, horny chimp. The camera jitters furiously throughout. Shots rarely last longer than half a second. The fight scenes in the first film were clear – there was a defined narrative to the way the robots moved and fought. In this, it’s akin to a car crash. Lots of twisted metal, screeching and thumps, but not much sense. Worst of all, they’re boring. I spent the second half of the film in a deep thought paralysis not unlike a ketamine overdose, snacking absently and wondering where the hell my life went so cataclysmically wrong.
Roger Ebert said in his one-star Revenge of the Fallen review that the film marked a turning point. Never again would Hollywood make a film so bloated, expensive and horrible. The limits of blockbuster filmmaking had been reached, and all that was there was an endlessly yawning abyss; the fabled end of culture. I wish he were right. But they made two more. As the credits rolled, I already felt fatigued. My housemate, wrapped up in blankets on the couch, slipped his headphones on, refusing to watch more. Sweet relief for some. Hands shaking, I started the next film.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)
God is a ghost who haunts the world with misfortune and death. I see His face: cold, inorganic, endlessly twisting and reforming. He transforms; His body shifting into a great black phoenix, wings spread like two shining blades. I’m shivering beneath a blanket, eyes sunken, as the opening voiceover rolls. To me, it is real. I have never seen the film before, but my lips move with the words regardless.
The critical establishment told me that Dark of the Moon was a stronger film than its predecessor, a blockbuster return to form for Bay. I’m not sure if I watched the same film, or whether my brain was so warped by the low-energy snacking and endless onscreen explosions that I was no longer capable of anything approaching joy. The film is more of the same: grinding, formless violence punctuated by jokes funny to no one. I’m beginning to notice something about the violence in these films. It’s censored in the strangest way possible. Decepticons fire machine guns into crowds, but no one is injured. Human beings are hurled off highway overpasses, but rather than smearing themselves inelegantly on the bitumen, they roll gracefully. I understand the films are essentially two-and-a-half hour toy ads, but the lack of actual carnage is surreal.
Where are we now? It turns out the 1969 mission to the Moon was actually an attempt by JFK to find a Transformer which lived up there. This Transformer, played by Leonard Nimoy, is a revered figure amongst the new Transformers, for some reason which I barely paid attention to. Sam Witwicky, despite saving the world twice, is now a nobody, applying for jobs. The first twenty minutes of the film is him applying for various high-tech industry jobs. I don’t know why these scenes exist. His new boss is played by John Malkovich, whose talent is shamefully squandered. He has a new girlfriend too, played by Rosie Huntington-Whitely. Megan Fox is out, having called Michael Bay ‘Hitler’ in an interview. No explanation is given for why she’s out of the picture, but before I could really think about it, robots started hitting things again.
I couldn’t really begin to distinguish the scenes from one another. Something happens, there’s a change of scene, then the same thing happens again with a different backdrop. A weird subplot emerges between Huntington-Whiteley and Patrick Dempsey, whose character I had no investment in and looked like a potato with a hastily scribbled face. The new awful government avatar is Frances McDormand. Considering what staggeringly great actor she is, I was personally offended that she was in this film. “Not you too!” I sobbed, as I ate Snako’s, which are an off-brand facsimile of a much better biscuit, in much the same way that this film is an off-brand facsimile of real art.
The pointed racism of the last film gives way to a much subtler variant, with no lack of menacing Arabs filling the frame at any given moment. There’s also a fun part where Witwicky is ambushed in the toilet by his paranoid co-worker (played by Ken Jeong coasting off his Hangover fame). Their boss catches them, and it looks like they were having sex in the cubicle. Get it? It’s gay. I would have been offended if I weren’t barely conscious of what was happening onscreen.
The greatest misconception of the filmmakers is that we were in any way invested in the main characters of Transformers from the start. This unfortunate assumption underlies the entire franchise, and the result is twenty minutes of Shia LaBeouf jobseeking. I replay this scene thousands of times in my brain as the scattered explosions judder across the screen limply, and metallic robe-voices echo through my skull. I begin to understand something fundamental about capitalism. When the profit motive becomes the only drive toward artistic production, franchises like this happen. It is a tremendous market failure which can only be addressed through strong legislation. I fantasise about jackbooted government thugs kicking down doors at Paramount Studios, demanding all work on sequels destroyed. I close my eyes.
Time for number four.
Transformers: Age of Extinction, the fourth in the franchise, hits Sydney cinemas this Thursday. James will be there. He will suffer for you. Pray for him.
Update: James’ review of Age of Extinction can be found here.