Watching the Franchises I Hate: ‘Transformers’


The current Hollywood system orbits around one goal: finding the next hit franchise. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, the ‘Bond’ series, the ‘Harry Potter’ series…every studio is looking to launch the next big franchise that will produce a marketing bonanza and endless spin-offs and sequels. In the case of the DC and ‘Spider-Man’ franchises this is pursued doggedly beyond the point of quality.

Anyway, there are some massive, box-office smashing, fanboy inducing franchises that I’m not into. ‘Saw’, ‘Fast and Furious’, ‘Twilight’ and so forth. In some cases it’s because of personal preference and in some cases it’s because I saw the first one or two and didn’t feel compelled to follow it through. During a nasty 4 days spent burning high with fever and uncontrollable shaking I decided it would be a good idea to crack through a couple of these and see what all the fuss was about.

The first attempt: Michael Bay’s ‘Transformers’ series.

Why I Haven’t Seen It: Because Michael Bay. Some of his ridiculous techniques worked in his early films, like The Rock, but with every film he piles on more and more of the same in an effort to ‘improve’ on the last film. Transformers was the tipping point where the movies were driven by these tropes rather than supported by them. The movies has done well financially and the odd numbered ones have managed reasonable critical scores. But I wasn’t interested in revisiting a childhood favourite through the filter of Bayhem.

Transformers

Undoubtedly the most successfully received of the series and the one that spawned the multi-billion dollar franchise, it successfully sold to the mainstream while pleasing the fans of the classic series. This last part is surprising as there was quite a bit of criticism leveled at the redesign of the Transformers and their transformable forms being changed. I am bummed that Bumblebee isn’t a VW Bug anymore, but that would look pretty silly in this new context. The new look doesn’t bother me, but it does make it difficult to distinguish which robot is which amid the shitty editing and constantly spinning camera.

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That’s MY Bumblebee.

It’s the editing that causes the most grief. The movie is packed solid with jump-cuts, continuity breaks and pointless spinning tracking shots at completely inopportune times. It’s one thing to have a distinct visual style, it’s another to use it in every single scene regardless of whether or not it’s appropriate. Trying to follow some of the action scenes can lead to real frustration, especially when you want to get a good look at the Transformers themselves. There’s precious few opportunities to simply watch the robots in action or transforming without the camera whipping away.

Anyway, the story is all about recovering and protecting a magical McGuffin called the ‘All Spark’, a box that turns things into Transformers, Transformers that immediately start murdering everything in sight in spite of the repeated ascertain and Transformers were all peaceful before Megatron showed up. Most of the movie revolves around the terminally uncharismatic Sam (Shia Lebouf) as he tries to score with Megan Fox (Megan Fox) and continually whines like entitled whippet. If I was the core audience and this was supposed to represent me I’d take it as a massive insult. He’s an awful human being, yet we’re expected to sympathise with him. He spends the movie screeching and crying about how much his parents ‘don’t get it’ while having zero chemistry with Megan Fox. All the human characters are awful, either whiney and annoying or fulfilling some nasty racial stereotype.

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Quite frankly I’m wondering why you were famous in the first place.

Given that it takes a full hour for Optimus Prime and the bulk of the Autobots to show up, and a further hour for Megatron to make his appearance, we spend roughly two goddamn hours following the many, many human characters around, the vast majority of which could have been cut without impacting the story. First on the chopping block can be the system analyst/eye candy and her whacky African-American friend, followed by John Turturro’s creepy secret agent and about 90% of the military characters whose only role is to fulfill the military sponsorship contract of making the army look awesome (no, really – there were recruitment stands outside many cinemas showing the film).

This movie may have worked for me if we didn’t spend most of the running time watching annoying, racist characters gibbering like morons. The juvenile sense of humour didn’t help much, reaching a low point when John Turturro – an actor with the Coen Brothers on speed dial – gets pissed on by a robot. The Autobots all talking in pop-culture references and cringeworthy slang doesn’t make them appealing characters, with the gag that they learned about Earth language from ‘the internet’ is lazy. Apparently the only website they had access to was 9GAG because they all talk like idiots. Bumblebee, being the most developed of the robot characters, speaks entirely in sound bytes from the radio (for some reason the ‘radio’ includes endless movie quotes more than anything else), which, like Shia Lebouf, is somewhat insulting to the core audience. Of course you can form an emotional attachment to something that only speaks in pop-culture quotes! A colleague of mine, with a degree in film studies, said she ‘teared up’ when they did a fake-out death of Bumblebee…but she’s always been a blithering idiot. The only other one with decent screen time is the small, high pitched ‘whacky’ Decepticon who exists solely to be annoying.

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It’s the robot version of this shit.

I didn’t think much of this one. It’s saturated in product placement taking the place of artistic decisions, there’s way too much time spent with deplorable human characters, the editing is a mess, the humour is base level, it’s packed with underhanded racism and story is formulaic. It’s not worth anything more than a CGI smash up.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Aw, shit. My opinion of the first movie was nothing like the general consensus. It’s considered good fun, I found it a boring mess. Then this one comes out and it gets dragged through the mud. General audiences hated it, claiming it was little more than ‘giant CGI robots fighting each other’ (weirdly enough, this was the same reason they say they liked the first one). Even weirder, I preferred it to the original.

We’ll get to that in a minute because there’s plenty wrong here. Either the film-makers are idiots are they assume you are. Bumblebee recovered the power of speech at the end of the first film, but doesn’t have it in this film. They spent the majority of the first film trying to find a weapon that would work on the Decepticons because conventional weapons are useless, and this film starts with an ‘elite’ squad of Decepticon hunters chasing them down using conventional weapons. It’s clear from the outset that the nobody cares very much about the premise or the story.

Racism and juvenile humour has been more than double downed on. The rude, bored, nose-picking Indian call centre employee must’ve raised a laugh from test screenings because now we’ve got Mudflap and Skids, a pair of shockingly outdated and offensive racial stereotypes that must’ve cost literally millions to create and bring to life. It actually overshadows the rest of French and Jewish stereotypes that litter the film. In terms of juvenile dick humour, John Turturro gets another up close and personal encounter with robot junk (why does the the robot have balls?) and a Decepticon who shoots things with his dick paired with one who farts fire. I’m surprised Michael Bay had time to come up with all these ‘jokes’ in between drawing cartoon penis’ all over public bathrooms.

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Millions. Of. Dollars.

Most of the pointless human characters got the cut, mainly because they’re pointless, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t include some new ones. We get a new annoying side kick who takes on some of the whining and yapping responsibility from LeBouf and contributes nothing to the story. Megan Fox continues to stand in the background and have her leg humped by one of the comic relief screechy robots. Turturro’s secret agent and Sam’s parents have been given larger roles for some unknown reason, possibly because the movie wasn’t annoying enough yet.

There’s an increasingly hypocritical stance regarding human life. The Fallen, the main baddy of the Decepticons, hates humans and wants to kill Sol for some reason. The Autobots are obsessed with protecting humans for some reason. They consider it their duty above and beyond all things to protect humans even if it means putting their allies at risk. That’s not even considering how they treat members of their own race who have a different ideological stance – the humble Bumblebee actually rips the spine out of an enemy and uses it as a weapon against another! This just doesn’t compute.

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HIS SPINE.

All of these problems have been mentioned in reviews already, but honestly they were all present in the first film. Obviously they saw audiences respond positively to that film so they did more of it. I don’t blame the film-makers as much as I blame the paying public who told them that they wanted this.

But, as I said, I had more fun watching this film. I still didn’t like it but when watching the two back to back this was more fun. More robots, more fighting, more variation in the scenery, less human bullshit. Yes, it’s full of problems but it’s the same list of problems as before. The first film had the benefit of being unique, but watching them in the same day reduces that initial wow factor. So yeah, if I had a choice I rather watch the second one again. Moving on to the next…

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Wait, where did Megan Fox go? Whose this other character who is the ‘love of Sam’s life’? Apparently Fox pissed off a suit and got booted from the franchise, and someone else was chucked in to play a new character with no defining features who essentially picks up where Fox left off. It took a while to notice the change because her entire first scene is an up-skirt shot on her butt. Because Michael Bay is a classy sort of fella. So this Blonde Megan Fox is here to…get kidnapped by the bad guy so Sam and him have something ‘personal’ to fight about. And to make a clear statement that when a guy is jealous of the attention their girlfriend is getting from their boss they are absolutely in the right and should take that fucker down ASAP. MASCULINITY, YEAH!

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Of course, Shia Labeouf vs Patrick Dempsey is the least masculine thing ever.

In spite of how the movie started with the stupid parents turning up again for more wisecracks, they’ve reduced the human cast down substantially. Everybody is taking a backseat to the big robots knocking the bolts out of each other, which is a massive improvement. In cutting the screen time away from the human characters they have, unfortunately, forgotten to neglect giving the Transformers any personality at all. There’s a whole plethora of new faces but they’re more interchangeable than ever before, which is remarkable. Still, better than two hours of Shia’s uncharismatic acting.

Whilst the opportunity to make the title characters something more than flash for the trailer is skipped over, this is the best in the series so far. It does more of the things that worked in the previous two and less of the shit that doesn’t. Not that it’s a good movie. Michael Bay still insists on including a bevy of “whacky” high pitched squeaky characters and this time they basically take down the Decepticon mothership. They can go to hell. They have stopped pretending that Transformers have been kept secret by the government and allowed the movie to operate on a global level but it comes down to two humans having a slap fight. The story is padded beyond belief with a TOTALLY CONVINCING scene where the Autobots all leave the planet before the final battle, and weren’t we totally surprised to learn this was a fake out.

Captain Obvious

Obviously Bay has blackmail material on the Coen’s friends because I don’t know why Frances McDormand and John Malkovich is in it. Full credit to Alan Tudyk for being awesome, as usual. His character was genuinely fun.

There’s not much more to say on this one. At least they seem to be learning from their mistakes. This bodes well for the last one.

Transformers: Age of Extinction

Really? Really?! You were doing SO WELL. This is a remarkably stupid movie even for Michael Bay. We start with another covert military squad who, like the previous movie’s covert squads, have no idea what the word ‘covert’ means. Unless this is a parallel world where ‘covert’ means stomping a giant, illegal alien robot around right next to a baseball game where everyone can see it before embarking on a town-wide demolition derby and flying a spaceship around. They’re hunting Transformers, again. Sam and and friends have all gone. Instead we have Mark Wahlberg in full The Happening mode (is this what happens when he has a director who doesn’t direct actors, but the visuals?) getting involved in the action with his daughter and her boyfriend. We’ll come back to them.

Wahlberg has stumbled across the hibernating Optimus Prime, and a tough as nails, no nonsense military guy shows up and BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

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OH MY GOD. This is one of the worst performances I have ever seen in a movie! The sunglasses and the trenchcoat is such a juvenile way of making a character look badass outside of The Matrix. I am genuinely impressed that the rest of the cast aren’t stifling their laughter at this ‘tough guy’ performance. This is deplorable!

Anyway, back to the story. Optimus Prime and his new human pets seek out the remaining Autobots and BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!! What the hell is this?!

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In the first film the Autobots had a throw away line about learning Earth culture from the Internet. Apparently these are the ones who relied solely on the deviantart page of an angst-ridden 13 year old. We’ve got a bitter, angry misanthrope in a trenchcoat, a freak’n samurai and a massive, pouch covered army dude chewing a literal bullet! This is just awful! Did Rob Liefeld get involved in character development in this film? These really do follow his character archetypes.

This is complete lunacy. Plot-wise it’s about some guys who have discovered they can use the metal Transformers are made out of to (shock) make new Transformers. They build Galvatron, and I thought they were actually going to go in a new direction for the villain but it’s just Megatron with a slightly different look, but he doesn’t have a ‘soul’. Yes, souls are real things and Transformer’s do have them. There’s some shit about dinosaurs being killed by…wait…dinosaurs?

Does that mean…

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Dude, is Grimlock going to be in this? I love Grimlock! He was my favourite when I was a kid! I still have the original toy! HOLY HELL HE IS IN THIS! HE’S RIGHT THERE! HE’S FIGHTING OPTIMUS! WHY…why isn’t he saying anything? Oh, what the fuck! They put Grimlock in the movie and he doesn’t get a single line of dialogue? No “me Grimlock?” After about 5 minutes total of screen time all the Dinobots just…walk away. That was it. Man, what a fizzer.

Not that dialogue does anyone any good in this movie. The script writer either drank a bottle of bleach or woke to the fact that nobody was paying the lines any attention. “It’s a giant magnet!” says Tucci. “Yes,” replies Wahlberg. “It’s sucking metal up and then dropping it!” I guess they’ve finally answered that question.

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The best line belongs to Optimus. “Honor…in the end,” he wisely espouses to no-one in particular while he LITERALLY stabs his enemy in the back with a giant knife. Very honorable. What’s your next lesson, burying the hatchet by dismembering him with a hatchet?

Then there’s the Wahlberg clan. He doesn’t want his 17 year old daughter to date, she’s secretly been dating a 20 year old . It’s not creepy though, the boyfriend found a loophole in that whole sex with a minor thing being illegal. He’s so proud with this loophole that he has the legal information printed out, laminated and kept on hand for when he has to explain it to people. I think this was supposed to be a funny scene but it’s not. It’s weird and gross. From that point on the extent of the characterisation is the dad and the boyfriend arguing over who gets to rescue the damsel in distress. This is like the movie version of those asshole fathers who take ‘funny’ photos of them threatening imaginary potential boyfriends.

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Let’s face it, these idiots are one step away from the fathers who make their daughter’s swear a ‘purity pledge’ to remain a virgin until marriage. Why do they think their teenage daughter’s vagina is their personal asset that must be protected? It’s sad that this is still how relationships are portrayed in a modern film. Bay really has the mentality of a caveman.

So, does this have any redeeming features? Actually…yes. Stanley Tucci was great. As a villain who sees the error in his way and changes sides he puts some real effort into his performance.

 I did recognise some voices of the Transformers this time around. Sounded like John DiMaggio and John Goodman. I popped open imdb to check and found that you have to trawl through every bloody extra in the movie before getting to the voice actors. I have no idea why they’re getting bottom billing here, it always seems to be the case. We’d like the voice actors to get a bit more credit since they’re the ones on the damn posters. Although I guess Goodman, DiMaggio, Peter Cullen and Ken Watanabe deserve to be credited after these legends:

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Will I Be Following the Rest of the Franchise: No. Not really. The idea of watching another potential Age of Extinction in no way appeals to me. I’m glad I got to see some spectacular use of CGI in the creation of the Transformers but nothing else appealed to me. It turns out there’s a Bumblebee spin-off is also in the works. This is even less interesting. As we established, the character has no more personality than a youtube ad. I’m over the flu so I’m done with the Transformers movie franchise.

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