Moriarty Makes First Contact With TRANSFORMERS! The Movie, The Comics, The Books & More!
Published at: July 2, 2007, 7:09 a.m. CST by Moriarty
Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here.
We can dispense with the clever tapdancing up front, all the hyperbole, and just cut right to it: TRANSFORMERS is a fun, slick summer movie. It’s very entertaining, and it might as well say “Starring ILM As The Coolest Goddamn Robots You Ever Saw” in the opening credits, because that’s what is going to make the film whatever size hit it is.
It’s good. And that’s not saying “there are good parts in it,” either. I think as a movie, it knows exactly what it’s doing, it does it well, and it manages to avoid the mistakes that a lot of similar recent movies have made. This is not INDEPENDENCE DAY. This is not GODZILLA. I think this movie can only be a good thing for the world of TRANSFORMERS. I think this movie makes it a much larger cultural icon than it’s ever been before. This is not a toy commercial... and don’t get me wrong... it’s not a film, either. It’s a movie. A really, really fun movie.
And, look, no one’s more surprised at me saying any of this than I am. The last time I saw Michael Bay, it was at an event that Dreamworks threw for THE ISLAND. They showed a chunk of the film and then had a reception afterwards, and I was standing with Mr. Beaks and some other people when Bay walked up to us. “Hey, guys, what’d you think?” he asked, and then he saw me. “Not you. I know you hate me.”
That’s not true, but I’ll agree that I don’t like most of Bay’s work. I think THE ROCK is unmercifully stupid, with a script flaw that ruined it for me even before the incomprehensible action did. ARMAGEDDON is just plain lousy, and represents the nadir of Bay’s quick-cut style. PEARL HARBOR reduced a real tragedy to a “cooooool” video-game cut scene, and the disrespect rubbed me the wrong way on every level. When I first met Bay, he had every reason to think I disliked him personally, based on how strident I was in writing about his films.
But then something strange happened. BAD BOYS II came out, and I had an unapologetically good time watching it. It’s amoral, grotesque, and excessive, but that’s exactly what it’s trying to be. It made me think of GRAND THEFT AUTO as I watched it, and the action in the film is so insane, so completely cock rock, that I found myself finally enjoying Bay’s work.
I think THE ISLAND was a misfire, but not a complete one. There’s stuff in the film that I liked. I don’t think all the pieces work together completely, but it’s a mild disappointment, not an abomination like some of his earlier movies. It seemed to me that Bay was actually honing the style he created, and not just repeating himself over and over. With this film, I walked in with less baggage than many of our talkbackers if only because I’m not a fan of the ‘80s cartoon that is the source material, and I wasn’t judging the film as an adaptation.
And before you start calling me a hypocrite, I’m not. I may comment on choices people make in adapting material, but I believe that a film either works as a film, or it does not. I don’t base my reactions completely on whether someone is faithful to the source or not. I think there are things that will always change going from one version of something to another, and all you can hope is that the end result will work for an audience. In many cases, the new version of something is aimed at people who never saw the original, and the people who end up being the most upset about something are those who were hardcore fans the first time around.
I’m fairly sure that’s going to be the case here, too. TRANSFORMERS is going to play really well to most audiences, and I expect there will be many people who suddenly find themselves excited about the franchise, ready to see another one. I also think that the one group of people who will be least satisfied will be the hardcore ‘80s fanboys. And I’m not bagging them for the way they’ll feel, either. It’s just that this is not that cartoon. They are totally different, with different characterizations, different dramatic arcs, different mythology at play.
And I want to understand the POV of the average TRANSFORMERS fan. Over the last month or so, I’ve been sent various peripheral TRANSFORMERS tie-ins, like IDW’s prequel comic and their official adaptation, as well as the two novels by Alan Dean Foster, GHOSTS OF YESTERDAY and the official novelization. I also co-hosted a screening of the 1986 feature cartoon at Cine-Space in Hollywood, where the crowd obviously had a deep connection to what they were watching.
I’ll be honest with you... I thought TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE was a giant piece of shit. As a film, completely independent of whether I’m a fan of the property or not. I think it’s incomprehensible. I think it’s noisy and stupid and doesn’t make a lick of sense. I watched it on DVD and at that screening, and I’m fairly sure that only nostalgia makes that film bearable for anyone over the age of 10. The animation is ugly, the “characters” are nonexistent, and the impact of any deaths in that film could have only been felt by someone already thoroughly immersed in that particular fantasy world.
But what I see over and over from fans is an explanation of the dynamics that were important to them. Key friendships among the Autobots or rivalries within the Decepticons. Starscream’s constant desire to ursurp Megatron. Optimus Prime as an ethical role model. These things were obviously key to the connection that fans had to the TV series, and those are the things they want most when they see anything new featuring those characters.
My advice for the truly hardcore, the ones who aren’t going to be satisfied by the fireworks of Bay’s film, is to track down Alan Dean Foster’s prequel novel. GHOSTS OF YESTERDAY sets up the mythology of the movie with certain details, but it spends a lot more time with both the Autobots and the Decepticons, and all those dynamics the fans say they want... well, Foster gets them right. All the stuff between Starscream and Blackout is particularly good, and the way Optimus Prime handles his first exposure to humans explains a lot about who he is. The Ark is used in the novel, as is the Nemesis. The centerpiece of the book is a massive space battle between all of the Autobots and Decepticons, one in which their personalities play a major role. Foster’s said that he didn’t know the characters at all until he started working on these two books, but he seems to have captured the essence of what’s made the characters so popular with the fans in a way that I would highly recommend you check out if you’re feeling like the film’s not going to do it for you.
The IDW comics are less satisfying overall. Their prequel comic basically just explains things that the film explains without really adding anything, and their adaptation suffers from the same problem most comic adaptations face... they can’t begin to duplicate the visceral impact of the film itself.
So like I said... I’ve tried to understand the rabid fandom, and even though I think there were some interesting notions in some of what I read or watched, nothing grabbed me. So when I walked into the film last Thursday at the Paramount, I had pretty much no expectations one way or another. All I wanted was something good.
And, no, I’m not a proponent of “turn your brain off and you’ll enjoy it” as a way of approaching films. Never have been. I don’t believe in that at all. I don’t have guilty pleasures. I don’t think films are “so bad they’re good.” When I recommend a film, it’s because I genuinely think it delivers on its promise, and in the case of TRANSFORMERS, I think Michael Bay has finally found a perfect fit for his sensibilities. He’s made his most entertaining film, aided in large part by his cast, and I’m confident that audiences are going to go back to this one several times, all summer long, because they’re going to need to see it more than once to fully absorb.
It’s not the greatest action movie of all time, but it’s certainly the best sci-fi action movie in a while. It’s outrageous, but it has a real sense of wonder, one of the things that’s missing from so much of the big CGI lightshows released these days. I may be impressed by FX work in many films, but not many people feel comfortable slowing things down for that moment of “Holy shit” awe anymore. It’s one of the tricks to getting this sort of thing right, and so is tone. TRANSFORMERS plays rough, but it keeps things just light enough. I think if they err, they err on the side of comedy, but enough of the movie is genuinely funny that I can appreciate the choice. The closest experience I can compare this to is JURASSIC PARK. I remember the first time I saw that, in the Alfred Hitchcock Theater on the Universal lot, with a theater made up entirely of tour guides. It was still a few weeks away from release, and all of us had been on the lot during the production of the film. We didn’t know what to expect. We’d snuck onto soundstages and seen the dinosaurs, but seeing the Winston creatures live and then seeing the way they blended with the ILM work in the film were two very different experiences. I didn’t think much of the movie as a whole, but that 30 minutes or so in the middle... the T-Rex attack sequence... was such an amazing experience, so physical, that the temperature in the theater actually went up as the sequence played out.
And I went back several times that summer to see it again with new crowds, and every time, the same thing happened. People were pinned to their seats to such a degree that the rest of the film didn’t matter. While I don’t think there’s any one sequence in TRANSFORMERS that quite reaches the visceral power of the T-Rex sequence, I think the film as a whole works better than JURASSIC PARK did. For one thing, the robots are in a lot of the movie, and they inhabit a physical space as well as Davy Jones or Gollum did, completely real. You stop thinking of them as effects and start thinking of them as characters, and that’s the film’s biggest victory. They may not be the exact same characters some of you grew up with, and that may make it impossible for you to enjoy the film, but they are definitely characters. Optimus Prime and Bumblebee are the ones who get the most screentime, the most definition, and Shia LaBeouf has to interact with them for the majority of the running time. He definitely deserves whatever rewards Spielberg wants to heap on him, because he makes you believe that he’s interacting with living creatures. In JURASSIC PARK, it was Jeff Goldblum who carried that burden the most, and he’s the one who made it possible for the audience to believe what they were watching. Here, LaBeouf and Megan Fox are the ones who spend the whole film interacting with the robots, with the rest of the cast sort of dropping in and out from scene to scene. And, yes, Megan Fox is an unreasonably hot li’l thang, but I think she’s also got a genuine charm that makes her approachable. I’d like to see what she can do in a film that’s not just about running and baring her midriff. Still, she seems like she’s in on the joke, and that makes all the difference.
In fact, I think that sums up what makes this film work for me in a way that Bay’s other films don’t: he finally feels like he’s in on the joke. He seems like he’s loosened up here, like the signatures of his style are more for fun here than they are because he takes them seriously. There’s a moment midway through the movie, when the various Transformers are all crashing to Earth in response to Bumblebee’s signal, and a couple of kids go running towards one of the crash sites. One of them turns to the other and, huge smile on his face, yells, “Oh, man, this is, like... a hundred times cooler than ARMAGEDDON!”
And, y’know what? It is. It’s cooler, it’s bigger, and it’s fun in a way that his earlier films aren’t. There are a lot of people who show up in this film, characters who may only show up for a scene or two, and not all of them work. The uber-hot Rachael Taylor is flat-out awful as a computer genius who figures out an important part of the film’s exposition. Jon Voight’s performance is a dud, and part of that is the role itself. Making the Secretary of Defense into the action hero of the film might work at another point in time, but all I could think as I watched was how ludicrous it would be if Donald Rumsfeld were thrust into these circumstances. And considering Dubya makes a semi-cameo in the film, that’s not a huge stretch on my part. But having said that, those performances or those choices don’t derail the film for me. And it’s not a case of forgiving them, either. It’s just that there are so many other performances and choices that do work. Kevin Dunn and Julie White play the parents of Sam (LaBeouf), and they come up with gold pretty much every time the film relies on them as comic relief, White in particular. John Turturro takes a fairly standard role as “the government agent” and invests it with a sort of quiet lunacy. Even Bernie Mac and Anthony Anderson take stock comic relief roles on the page and invest them with just the right energy to make them play. Josh Duhamel and Tyrese don’t have much “acting” to do, but they’re credible in the action scenes, and they help ground it in a recognizable reality.
One of the things that Bay brings to the table is his relationship with the US military. They don’t just hand out access to the Pentagon or offer up state-of-the-art hardware to any filmmaker who asks, but with Bay, they know he’ll shoot it like porn, making every machine sexy. The way he features the gear in this movie (including the Transformers themselves), it’s like watching TOP GUN if Tom Cruise played the jet. He knows exactly what he’s doing here, and I’m puzzled by anyone who criticizes the big set pieces in this one. I’ve certainly complained about his cutting style before, but I think he’s listened to that criticism, and this time out, there’s a sense of geography and clarity that seems brand new. Just take that first scene as an example, where Blackout lands on the military base in Qatar, transforms from a helicopter to a giant fucking robot, and then starts marching around kicking unholy ass while looking for the base’s server.
The scene’s got everything it should have: a sense of scale, of danger, and he’s careful to make sure that it builds. It’s not just “Bayhem,” as one of the reader reviews the other day said. Instead, there’s a purpose to the sequence, and it’s not just excess for the sake of it. Bay takes his time in this film, building to the real full-scale stuff that makes up act three, and that also seems new. He doesn’t just throw in stunts for no purpose. He actually constructs his gags with some genuine visual wit. I’m not sure what happened... maybe Spielberg had some influence on him, or maybe it was the material, or maybe he’s just built up enough experience as a filmmaker that he’s starting to see his films as full-length narratives instead of just a collection of thirty-second moments. Here, he finally feels like he’s not making a commercial.
I wish the script by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman were a little more focused and quick-witted. The MacGuffin they use (a pair of glasses with some sort of technical plans etched onto the lenses) is sort of retarded, but again... the film almost seems to be aware of it. It’s hard not to laugh out loud when Sam incredulously asks Optimus Prime how they found him and this intergalactic warrior answers, as seriously as he can, “eBay.” They gloss over the most improbable moments, and they keep things moving at all times. If this was just a little smarter, a little less based on coincidence and convenience, this would be on par with some of the best work of action cinema. As it is, it’s like the best fast food meal you’ve ever eaten, genuinely tasty and filling even if it’s not quite nutritious. I know I’ll be seeing it at least one more time theatrically, probably so I can take my wife back to see it, and I’m looking forward to seeing if they fulfill the promise of the film’s final few images. For now, consider me finally converted. I can honestly say that, for the first time, I dig TRANSFORMERS. This version’s convinced me, and if it manages to alienate the fans who have been waiting for this since childhood, that’s a shame. But I think there will be plenty of new fans who replace them, and I think I’m one of them.