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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
Welcome to another irregular Culture Cast feature where I will be looking at and breaking down various film franchises. First up: Transformers!
It is amazing to me how much “the internet” seems to hate the Transformers movies, yet each new one continues to out-gross the previous entry. Clearly people like them, and, let’s face it, there is a lot to like about the movies. Director Michael Bay and producer Steven Spielberg knew how to bend this toy/cartoon franchise into workable blockbusters for mass audiences. You have a relatable everyman as the lead, quirky side-characters injecting humor, and wonderfully executed action spectacles. Add in the terrific special effects, and you got a mega hit. That doesn’t mean the movies are perfect. Far from it. However, they are the perfect form of light entertainment for moviegoers to plunk down their money every two or so years.
Transformers fans have complained that the movies focused too much on the humans and not enough on the robots. While I can understand that criticism at its core, I don’t think it hinders the actual movies. Keep in mind, these movies were directed at general movie goers, not hardcore fans. If the three films were nothing but “all-robots, all-the-time”, I’d argue that the first film would not have been a minor hit at most making any follow-ups nonexistent. The concept of Transformers is a difficult sell to general movie-goers, because it is so crazy (and, let’s face it, kind of stupid). Focusing on the humans makes it work. The idea of “less is more” was a wise move for Bay to take, especially in the first film.
So, what about the actual films? Well, I liked the first one. I recently re-watched it, and I had forgotten how long it takes for the Autobots to actually show up. However, so much happens in that first hour, that the movie’s pace never slows down. Bay, who has a tendency to craft overlong movies, was really able to keep the audience’s attention as the story unfolded. However, things do start to slow down considerably during the second half as it becomes a dumping ground for exposition. Shia LaBeouf starts to refine his manic shtick that will label him for all time, and Megan Fox, honestly, isn’t that bad. People love to give her a hard time, but in everything I’ve seen her in (which, admittingly, hasn’t been much), she always does well with the material she is given and delivers.
The film also features one of my biggest pet peeves in movies in that where anytime computer savvy characters enter, the males are almost always either overweight, extremely nerdy, or socially inept. However, the females are almost always super model attractive, completely stylish, and wearing impractical heels. *sigh* What can you do? As I mentioned above, these films were for general audiences, and Bay knows his audience.
The second film, Revenge of the Fallen, is a complete mess. I am sure a lot of it has to do with the 2007-2008 writers’ strike, but the film has, among other things, numerous plot holes, a weak narrative structure, pacing issues, and bizarre character appearances and disappearances. I am more than willing to forgive a terrible movie as long as it is entertaining, but the movie isn’t even that. Quite simply, I found the movie boring. The characters (and subsequently the audience) don’t even know what is really going on until about until an hour and a half in. Before that, it is one giant chase with no context.
Also, did this movie really need to be 149 minutes long? The correct answer is no. One could have easily cut 45 minutes out of the movie, and I bet it would have been much tighter. For example, Sam (LaBeouf) learns that Optimus Prime (who previously “died”) can come back to life if they get this one item. The movie takes about fifteen minutes for Sam to get the item, and then another thirty minutes for him to run to Optimus (who is lying about a mile away). Thirty minutes!! Did we really need thirty minutes of nothing but Sam dodging bad robots and the military firing guns? Absolutely not. Especially since we then learn that Sam didn’t even really need the object to begin with because the Transformer gods tell him he’s awesome (yes, that actually happened).
However, things got much better in the third film, Dark of the Moon. I have to say, of the three movies, this one probably has the most interesting story. Like the first film, it is well-paced, but takes its time developing an intriguing narrative. Also, I’d say this movie does a better job at deepening the Transformer characters (at least the trio of Optimus, Megatron, and Sentinel [the latter wonderfully voiced by Leonard Nimoy]). The last half of the movie, of course, is pure action spectacle. As Zack and I discussed during our Michael Bay podcast, the destruction and subsequent siege of Chicago looked fantastic. As a Chicago area native, it is always great to see a movie utilize the city.
Megan Fox is, of course, replaced by Rosie Huntington-Whiteley as new character Carly. Unfortunately, and no fault of her own, she doesn’t work. She is a fine actress, and I hope she has a successful career. The main problem is that the movie tries to force this back story onto her, and it doesn’t work. I cannot buy her standoff with Megatron at the end of the movie because there wasn’t any previous relationship between her and the robots. It seemed pretty obvious the role was only lightly rewritten once Fox was fired (or dropped out, depending on who you believe).
If there was one thing that unsettled me about the flick is that it unintentionally paints Optimus as being an unlikable ass. Specifically, the Autobots are voted off the planet and are believed to be killed. The Decepticons then destroy Chicago. Optimus and his crew then show up and imply that they purposely sat by and let the city be destroyed (presumably with millions dying in the process) to send a message to world leaders that they need the Autobots. Is it me, or is that going a little far for one of the most heroic characters in pop-culture? In some ways, it is kind of funny.
Overall, these movies are big, loud, dumb, and a lot of fun. I don’t quite understand why they get so much hate online besides people claiming that the filmmakers “don’t get” what the original, and supposedly superior, cartoon was about. Honestly, I can’t help but feel that is the rose colored glasses talking. The cartoon was designed to sell toys and featured nothing but robots fighting. It seems to me that Bay captured notion perfectly and added a much-needed human element. I challenge anyone to go back and check out Transformers: The Movie from 1986 and honestly say it is better than the Michael Bay films. In my opinion, it isn’t, and I’ll take Bay’s movies over anything from the old cartoon.
Having said that, I do wish Bay brought over that rockin’ song by Lion. You know which one I’m talking about.