WARNING SPOILERS… but frankly I don't give a damn because I hate this movie. It's the movie that's spoiled, I tell ya! The movie that's spoiled!
I went into Transformers with tempered expectations. This was Michael Bay, after all, a director who I despise more than any other. A director responsible for the misogyny of Bad Boys II, historical pompousness of Pearl Harbor, scientific corruption and American jingoism of Armageddon (you'll be happy to know that Bay still ardently believes there is sound in outer space), and the blatant rip-off of The Island1. Michael Bay, master of product-placement (still intact, unless I'm somehow forgetting the Mountain Dew Transformer from the original series…). Michael Bay of sexism city (thankfully disallowed from nudity in this film). Michael Bay… Michael Bay… oh, Michael Bay I do loathe thee! But: this was Transformers—a franchise about giant robots in disguise battling over Earth. Perhaps if there were one franchise with which Bay might acquit himself, one franchise which might actually benefit from Bay's "talents," it would be this one. After all, Transformers wasn't a very good cartoon to begin with, but it survived in popularity because of its perfect mix of camp and tenderness which has endeared to it many loyal fans. The critical reviews of Bay's film were mixed (currently 56% on rotten tomatoes, cream of the crop reviews give it 69%) but the ultimate thumbs up or thumbs down was always dependent on how much the reviewer appreciated action over story. Most agreed that the action was show-stopping, dissent concerned the human element. Going into the film with this perspective in mind, I was ready for—indeed, really wanting—an action-packed popcorn flick that would have me at the edge of my seat with fantastic effects and engaging battle sequences. I didn't care so much if the story was dumb, just give me giant robots in disguise. Maybe, just maybe, Bay would pull it off.
There was one moment when I almost liked this movie. The Autobots are descending to Earth for the first time,"stealthily" (they manage to make more noise in outer space than they do tromping around parking lots) invading neighborhoods and shopping centers, noticed only by young children. At this point, the film already thoroughly has Bay's handprints all over it from the incredibly sexualized teenaged protagonists to the painfully immature humor, but watching the Autobots descend with the heroic theme music playing in the background and the giddy teenagers trying to film it all on their camcorders, for a moment I was willing to accept that Bay had made the film with the aesthetics of a fifteen year old. Not, mind you, just an attempt to give fifteen year olds what they wanted to see, but to honestly attempt to recreate Transformers exactly as a contemporary fifteen year old boy would: and what are fifteen year olds but horny young adults with terrible taste in humor, an addiction to violence, and a begrudging need for some paternal guidance? Hell, if you put it that way, Bay seems the perfect choice to direct this film.
This positive reaction, and relative forgiveness for the usual Bay sins, did not last long. The film quickly lost all narrative coherence and descended into a numbing mix of extreme camp one moment to unbelievable seriousness the next. But that wasn't all, Michael Bay was still Michael Bay and with him comes baggage no fifteen year old has yet acquired. No matter how he tries, Bay isn't fifteen. His depiction of the adolescent sex drive, for example, ultimately seems condescending, not empathic. "Tired of never getting the girl? Quit complaining and get a hot new car, like me, Michael Bay!" the film seems to instruct. It produces a certain nastiness heightened by what I can at this point only describe as Bay's complete incompetence behind the camera. And here I must make my self very clear: Michael Bay is incompetent. He should not be allowed to make movies. Transformers was his last chance (for me), and he blew it.
To attempt to describe how Bay managed to crush my relatively generous, pre-screening optimism for his film, I have compiled a list of ten reasons to hate Transformers. I left out some items mainly because they have become almost industry standard (like blatantly filming scenes so that they can later be turned into levels in the accompanying video game. See George Lucas). Other things, like Bay's gratuitous violence, I've left aside as the film sells itself on this point and there's no reason an audience member would go to Transformers without expecting to see things blowing up. Also, I'm no fanboy of the Transformers series. I've seen the original movie and have referenced where Bay has deviated from it on some points, but I have no stake in defending the legacy of Transformers as a "universe." So without further ado, here are ten reasons to hate Michael Bay's Transformers…
1. Commodity Fetishism. To be fair, this could be argued as a "problem" inherent in the Transformers series long before Bay took the reigns. The original film showed the Sam character fishing with his friend Hot Rod while I suppose he could instead be playing with other, human children. But the Transformers were so highly anthropomorphized (and animated) that they were more imaginary friends than machines, not unlike the highly anthropomorphized Terminator. Those films were about finding humanity in the machine mainly as a way of rediscovering it in ourselves. The original Transformers were as popular as action figures as they were cartoon characters and were in this sense actual imaginary friends for young boys to play with (the cartoon Sam is much younger than the depicted Shia LeBeouf). Bay makes feints towards this younger sentimentality, occasionally depicting younger children and establishing, but under-developing, a boy-and-his-dog relationship between Sam and his Autobot guardian. But Sam, as played by LeBeouf, is no child. He is clearly played as an adult trapped in a late teenager's body. Importantly, Bay's Sam isn't longing for imaginary robot friends, he's longing for a car. A fast car. A sexy car. A car that will make all his wildest fantasies come true. This is patented Bayism and patented commodity fetishism. It's the reason why GM and Pepsi and Nokia etc. all paid millions of dollars for their products to be placed in the film and be depicted as "cool." Bay calls this realism, and perhaps he can make the case for that. After all, Spielberg surrounded us with advertisements in Minority Report. Compare the two films, draw your own conclusions. All I know is that Sam is pathetically willing to sell his grandfather's Antarctic exploring equipment just so he can buy a car and the film completely sympathizes with him. I suppose there is something to be said for the progressive nature of this (history is dead, so why not trade it in for something new) but for a car? Bay's own commodity fetishism is manifested further in Sam's desires as the original car he gets—an 80s Camaro— later transforms (hint hint) into a brand spanking CGI embossed new Camaro of the future for no reason at all. It has nothing to do with the plot, nothing to do with the characters. It simply is a better, faster machine. It simply looks cool. There's a famous cultural studies essay which debates if having sex in a field is better than having it in a car. Judging by the final scene of Transformers, I think I know Bay's answer.
2. Sexism. I know I said that I would avoid citing usual Bay transgressions in this list, but I honestly thought that Bay would go easy on the sex in this film. After all, Transformers is very much a kids' series. And if you look at the original film there is absolutely no way anyone could believe it had anything to with sex (as Bay thinks of it). There was, if I recall, a total of one female robot in the original film, and it was pretty clear that she was put there simply to be politically correct (something I found unnecessary, after all these are robots, not humans, but it's a far greater gesture towards feminism than Bay will ever make). Bay's Transformers, however, is as hyper-sexualized as ever. I rolled my eyes immediately once I saw Sam making staring at the female lead, Mikaela, who would be destined to become his unbelievable love interest. Stereotypes abound as she is of course dating the school jock (she's apparently attracted to guys with big arms). She quickly leaves the jock for Sam, of course, thanks to Sam's slick new automobile (I'm not a jock myself, but I have a feeling they're not all that bad, and, were I jock, I wonder if I'd be offended being portrayed so stereotypically all the time in movies…). When Sam ogles at Mikaela's exposed midriff as she works on his car I cannot help but feel revolted knowing that Michael Bay is behind the camera, staring as well (and that I'm being forced, as the audience, to also stare at a teenaged girl's rock hard abs and her tits [in a Bay film, they can only be described as such] crammed into a push up bra). While Mikaela might have wisely left the stereotypically evil jock, I don't see Sam as any better of a choice. His attraction to her is purely sexual. He's never met or spoken to this woman before in his life. He wants her for the same reason Bay wants us to want her: because she's hot. The fact that she falls for this is pathetically illogical (again, I attempted to forgive this by imagining this as a film told by a fifteen year old, but as we'll see, this interpretation doesn't hold up). So what have we learned so far? Fast cars and hot sex are good, right? Even if I don't think this is morally suspect, it's still just a waste of breath, in fact, it's obvious. Advertisements have inundated me with this information for years. Do I need Michael Bay to remind me? To show me—eww—how? I don't think so.
3. Michael Bay or Michael Moore? It makes sense that today's filmmakers have a lot to say about the Iraq War. Vietnam spurred many of the great films of cinema in the 70s and 80s (and also We Were Soldiers, heh) so it's interesting to see how Hollywood reflects the ever changing nature of war. Michael Bay reflects it as something of a big loud cool testosterone-injected joke. I doubt the Army minds. As if the men and women serving in the Middle East right now didn't have enough to deal with, in Transformers they are attacked by the evil Decepticons at the beginning of the film. First, though, we get to see our supporting cast band of brothers which includes one gentleman who speaks in Spanish half the time leading to the chorus of his fellow soldiers: "English, dude, English." (a phrase which really captures the majesty of our country's mother tongue). I can't tell if this is a joke or not. Where does the movie fall on the recent hot button immigration debate? The soldier speaks Spanish (bad!), but on the other hand he's fighting alongside all our other good old boys (yeehaw! Er, good!). After the Decepticon attacks we find ourselves on board Air Force One and witness the film's very lame attempt at making fun of President Bush who asks a stewardess to fetch him some Ding Dongs meanwhile the world is being attacked by giant killer robots. Just like when he kept reading from that story book on 9/11, get it? Hah! All I have to say about this is that there is a certain bizarre logic to having the worst director in the world making fun of the worst president in the world. My larger point is that Bay is blatantly playing with post-9/11 politics in the film, but that's just it, he's only playing with it. The movie's overtures into those issues seem serious one moment and are undercut the next (and also completely shoot down any reasonable interpretation of this film as by and for fifteen year olds). American soldiers getting slaughtered in Qatar is juxtaposed with Bush asking for more Ding Dongs. The point is incredibly ham fisted and strikingly unfunny besides the fact that it seems like it doesn't belong in a film so fantastic as Transformers. Is Bay trying to create an allegory here? There's also a secret group of agents called "S7" which are theoretically post-9/11 Men in Black operating at the direct behest of the President (but without the knowledge of the Secretary of Defense?) If S7 is supposed to be a menacing stand-in for Homeland Security and other Patriotic Act specters one wouldn't know it as the chief S7 agent plays the character comically, even wearing an undershirt with "S7" emblazoned on a Superman logo! Again, what statement is Bay making here? That really the CIA, FBI, and Homeland Security departments are just a bunch of egotistical dolts (God knows Bay would have plenty to draw from if that were the case)? It's corny even beyond Bay's usual theories on how government (conspiracy) works. In a supposedly poignant moment, one robot denies that humans are a particularly violent race. No, just our film's are. The constantly conflicting post-9/11 references leave one feeling that Bay has completely abused post-9/11 issues either because he doesn't understand them or because he is mocking those who do.
4. Kids These Days. It's difficult to interpret what Michael Bay thinks of his audience. He features them in his films, you see. Those fifteen year old boys I keep mentioning are all over Transformers with Shia LeBeouf playing their surrogate protagonist. Everyone else is a lot less flattering, however. Leaving the jocks aside, consider the young black obese hacker teenager who is supposedly the best hacker in the world (we never know why he gets this label because he never gets a chance to hack anything before being arrested and is clearly there… well I have no idea why he's there. It's yet more stupid subplot that should have been cut). This young hacker lives at home with the stereotypical black grandmother archetype who he constantly screams at (Bay loved this stereotype so much that he also has Bernie Mac, in a completely different scene and setting, screaming at his black grandmother earlier in the film. Is that what all black familial relations are? Screaming at aging matriarchs? Hilarious!). Meanwhile the other youth who pop up when the Autobots first descend are fat white kids running around with camcorders and chattering into cell phones. Granted, for all I know that is what all fifteen year old boys are like these days—pathetic slobs—but somehow I feel that's just how Michael Bay thinks all fifteen year old boys are these days. Nice way to say thanks to your fan base, I suppose. Maybe if they all got Camaros, Bay would think they were cooler and let them have sex with his beautiful co-stars…
5. The Sound and the Fury. This film's audio was a travesty. That said, I won't be surprised if it gets nominated for a Best Sound award as that's usually an Academy safe haven for films of this ilk. But even so, it would be an award totally undeserved. The soundtrack, first of all, was completely forgettable. The only moment when it worked for me was when the Autobots first descended to Earth (a moment which was probably heightened by the fact that I was giving the movie its biggest chance right then, see above). Why is the rest of the soundtrack forgettable? Well, first of all, in Bay tradition it is filled with heavy electric guitars and bass wailing away throughout the film, but even then you probably won't be able to hear it because the movie itself is incredibly loud. Now, this isn't the complaint of someone who doesn't like loud noises, it's the complaint of someone who likes some finesse, some craft, hell some occasional change in decibel in his sound effects as opposed to a half hour long deafening roar. The only interruptions to the constant sonic mayhem are the brief moments of slow motion (another reason to hate this film, which we'll get to in due time). But before moving on, it is worth noting that even the "quieter" moments are filled with ridiculous sound as well. Throughout the film whenever a character does the equivalent of a Dick van Dyke double-take the camera locks in on the character's face and a distinctive vroom noise is heard, as if someone took the needle off a playing record and mixed with the Tim Allen going "rruh?" It's laughable for all the wrong reasons, completely jarring the viewer out of their cinematic immersion. It's not a good sign when a film's comedic effect is dependent on the same audio gags used by seventy year old radio plays. Another similar sound faux pas occurs when Sam makes an impassioned plea to his high school teacher to get an A- on a presentation (which, had I been the teacher, I would have failed completely ). Melodramatic "sympathy" violins actually begin playing on the soundtrack! I'm not even sure how to interpret this. At first I thought Bay was making a joke and that the violins in this sense were ironic (not funny), but after watching the film I almost believe that Bay believes Sam's plea was incredibly serious (he needs the A- to get a new car, something which I imagine Bay might find incredibly serious) and deserving of the violins in its own right!
6. Bad CGI. I'll put it bluntly: Transformers has the worst CGI I have ever seen and any film reviewer who says otherwise should be sent back to film school with a temporary cut in pay. Think I'm being hyperbolic? I believe that in today's cinema CGI has at last become normal. Other than questions of artistic design (my laser bolt is "cooler" than yours) no CGI is more "real" than any other given equivalent budgets. Suspension of disbelief becomes ever less difficult for the viewer to achieve. This is a state, then, where "good" CGI is no longer measured simply on its verisimilitude, but on its deployment in the film. In my opinion, the only appropriate way to judge "good" CGI these days is by age-old film technique. In short, good CGI is now a question solely of good direction. Throwing everything and the kitchen sink onto the screen no longer has the same awing resonance it once did. Unfortunately, directors have yet to catch onto this fact (Mr. Bay, Mr. Lucas, I'm looking at you). The critical audience will soon no longer be impressed by "look what we can do," but rather "look how we can do it." Directorial technique has emerged for me as the only marker of CGI's quality, as all other aspects are now simply industry standard. Though not without his own directorial flaws of late, Steven Spielberg seems to understand me on this point. Jurassic Park was the first definitive CGI driven film of my generation. The first dinosaur? A brachiosaurus: big, slow, lumbering, glistening in the sunlight. It was at the time one of the most awe inspiring shots caught on film. One dinosaur, munching leaves. Later, Spielberg's Minority Report would become a bit CGI cluttered, but this was part of its dystopic commentary: the CGI was cluttered because it was a cluttered world. Lastly War of the Worlds, though a problematic movie, ranks as my current favorite use of CGI in contemporary cinema. The first alien attack in that film (one, just one!, giant "robot," tearing through the city making due where Michael Bay's dozen do not) was horrifying. Bay, you might have guessed, is no Spielberg (though the latter executively produced Transformers). Bay is George Lucas without the benefit of episodes four through six. Much has been said by reviewers about the eye-popping CGI transformations in the film, and in a film called Transformers one would hope the transforming is made to look pretty slick. But to this viewer, there is no sleekness, no design, no artistry to the transformations, just a bunch of textures and polygons flipping around like Rubik's cubes in the blink of an eye. There isn't even a half hearted attempt to actually show the "machinery" at work. Likewise the robot battles are impossible to keep track of as Bay cuts away at lightning speed (his favorite technique) and the robots dash about in a jumble of CGI metal and plastic. The original animation for the cartoon was slow (and often criticized for it) because it was (obviously) cheaper and easier not to animate scenes. This might be "boring" for today's audience, and I have no problem with a new film jiving things up a bit, but the methodical nature of the original cartoons truly allowed the Transformers to be seen (and thus to become icons) whereas in Bay's film they are but flashes of gray and red dashing across an exploding landscape.
7. Slow Motions. All the above about sound and CGI is true, except when Bay throws the film into slow motion. Bay uses slow motion as poorly as Roger Christian (never heard of him? How about a little film called Battlefield Earth?), that is, Bay uses it for no reason whatsoever (unless, as usual, we're willing to count "coolness" as a reason). Perhaps Bay realized that most of his action scenes were too fast for anyone to keep track of, so he added a few slow motion shots to allow the audience to breathe a moment (and re-tune their ear drums). Unfortunately they only heighten the absurdity of his aesthetics. If he's not borrowing from The Matrix (two robots leaping at each other in mid-air firing blaster bolts) he's borrowing from himself (as when Jon Voigt, Secretary of Defense, disembarks from a helicopter in slow motion as patriotic music plays. This is the same character who in another few minutes will be shooting at robots with a shotgun. The Secretary of Defense!!! Gah!)
8. Egg MacGuffins. You know your film is hurting for plot when it requires not one, but two MacGuffins to move the action forward. The first is introduced in the film's opening exposition as the "life cube" or some such which creates life from inanimate objects. This is what the Autobots and Decepticons are chasing after. Okay, fine. After all, we need a reason to get giant alien robots to Earth, and at least they're not trying to steal our resources. But the movie must also have a reason for Sam to be involved, so there's a second, incredibly stupid, MacGuffin regarding Sam's great great grandfather's glasses. Yup, the second MacGuffin is a pair of eye glasses which must be located before finding the life cube. It's not as bad as The DaVinci Code, but it's still stupid. Also, these are the most resilient 100 plus year old eye glasses I've ever seen, who knew giant robots had such a delicate grip? Things get so bad that the film spends at least 10 minutes (it feels longer) as Sam searches around his house for the misplaced glasses meanwhile the Autobots hide outside. They create about as much racket as 5 garbage trucks, but somehow Sam's parents don't notice. Meanwhile Sam keeps saying "Shh!" over and over again in that Shia LeBeouf way and saying "Five more minutes, maybe ten." The only thing more impatient than the Autobots in this scene was me. Imagine my surprise when they actually spent ten minutes on the scene including a lovely vignette where his parents accuse Sam of masturbation? What, we're stealing from American Pie now?! If this is what some critics have referred to as the improved (for Bay) "human" or "comic" element of the film, some critics need to be fired.
9. Is Jazz Dead? No, this isn't a T.W. Adorno reference. In the original film several major characters on both sides of the Transformers universe were killed off in what I refer to as the X-generation's Bambi moment. Bay's film, despite all its gratuities, shies away from the sobering nature of the original, killing off only one Autobot, Jazz, who perhaps had three or four lines in the whole film. I won't get into the specifics and give away too much more of the who-lives-who-dies continuum, but needless to say the final words regarding Jazz's noble sacrifice are lost on me, especially when I had no idea who Jazz was in the first place and couldn't tell him from any of the other robots running around blowing the bejeezus out of everything. This highlights for me a certain lack of sincerity which I expect had more to do with licensing action figures than artistic statement. Kill Optimus Prime? No way! Imagine how much we'd lose in toy figure sales!
10. Woah! I have often found in my experience of studying bad movies that the best way to identify what's truly wrong with a film is to attempt to make a drinking game for it. The best rules for a drinking game, of course, are those which make you drink. A lot. That means you need to find repetition, words, actions, or shots that just keep cropping up over and over again in a film for no apparent reason. You know: "Drink every time blank happens." In this film, it's "Drink every time someone says 'Woah!'" You will be hammered. But you will also have discovered the number one flaw in this film. Transformers exists only to elicit that single reaction: "Woah!" For me, it fails even on that point. By the film's end I was completely disinterested and had I not been there with others I would have walked out long before the credits rolled. But even for those who did say "Woah" in the audience as much as the characters said it on screen, I still have to point out that that's a rather pathetic achievement. "Woah," after all, is a fleeting expression, not even worth the effort of saying "Oh my god that was incredible," instead simply, "Woah," and move on to the next brief thrill. This paradigm is perhaps the cause for Bay's rapid-fire pacing. He never sets his sights any higher than "Woah" and realizes that to make up for the lack of "Woah's" quality he needs constant, ceaseless, quantity. Perhaps he achieves it for himself and for others, but maybe after reading this review one will realize that "Woah" just doesn't cut it any more.