Starring Shia LeBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, John Turturro, Kevin Dunn, Julie White, Ramon Rodriguez, Isabel Lucas, Hugo Weaving, Frank Welker and Eeyore
Directed by Michael Bay
SPOILER ALERT: These innocent-looking words may transform into evil, plot-revealing spoilers without further warning.
Michael Bay is often the object of much scorn and derision for directing films that favor style over substance, assaulting the audience with flashy special effects and booming soundtracks while seeming to eschew such things as character development and coherent storytelling. In spite of this, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen made thirty-seven bazillion dollars1 over the course of its opening weekend.
Did I say "in spite of this"? I meant "because of this".
The reason Michael Bay's second Transformers movie made a metric ton of money despite reviews that are almost universally negative is simple: Michael Bay understands that the modern movie theater is tailor-made for big, explodey, in-your-face films featuring frenetic action and jaw-dropping special effects that push the audience right to the edge of sensory overload and keep it there for nearly two solid hours. Bay's brand of filmmaking has all the elements that compel me (and millions of people like me) to step up to the ticket counter and plunk down eight or nine (or ten) of their hard-earned American dollars in exchange for a hundred and twenty or so minutes of larger-than-life, mind-numbing eye candy.
Mock me if you will. Call me a philistine. I'll gladly cop to that charge. Why? Because when the theater shakes to the rafters each time Optimus Prime's massive metal fist smashes into a Decepticon's face it completely drowns out the sound of cell phones ringing. When a flaming meteor pummels a giant aircraft carrier, I can't hear the people behind me—you know the ones; the couple who insist on maintaining a running narrative throughout the entire film—yeah, I can't hear a word they're saying, nor can I hear the baby crying off to my right. As an added bonus, those giant transforming robots beating the bolts out of each other in a fight sequence so fast-paced my eyes and brain can barely keep up renders me all but unable to even notice the jackass in the next row updating his Facebook status from his iPhone. It's sheer bliss.
Compelling characters? Subtle, nuanced performances? Thought-provoking narrative? Please! That stuff has no place on a forty-foot-wide screen rendered in so much digital brilliance that I can count the sympathetic protagonist's eyelashes as the camera zooms in for a close-up during his heart-wrenching, Oscar-worthy monologue. When I want to watch a film from a visionary director that provides some insight into the human condition—the sort of intellectually-stimulating high-brow cinema-as-art drivel I'll be talking to my well-read friends about over chardonnay and canapés—I'll buy the DVD and watch it at home. Where it's quiet. Where no one is kicking the back of my chair. Where the only jackass with a cell phone is me.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is a triumph of cinema-as-spectacle. That said, it is also an awful, awful movie. All that stuff about sacrificing2 a decent story in the drive to push action to the forefront; it's all true. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is a film that, like most everything Michael Bay has ever touched, makes me want to give him a high-five and then drive my knee into his tender, private bits.
The part of me that can switch off my critical brain and just enjoy the awesome sight of 40-foot-tall robots transforming into vehicles and then back into robots, all the while beating the ever-lovin' hell out of each other doesn't begrudge Bay one nickel of the admission price. The other part of me—the part that still geeks out over those transforming robots but cringes when one of those robots displays very obvious testicles or when the formerly-badass leader of the Decepticons is reduced to a groveling lickspittle at the feet of The Fallen or when the movie turns into Decoys 3: Alien Robot Seduction—that part howls for Michael Bay's head on a pike.
Revenge of the Fallen obeys some bizarre, twisted balance that I will call Bay's First Law, which can be simply stated as follows: For every moment of awesome, there must exist an equal and opposite moment of awful.3
|Transforming robots. Come on, that's right up there on the list of The Coolest Things Ever.||Non-transforming robots. I'm looking at you, Ravage and The Fallen. Seriously, a robot that looks like a giant chrome kitty? Who the hell is that going to fool?|
|Robots in disguise. This might be a little redundant, but it bears repeating: robots that can transform into cars and planes and tanks and motorcycles are made of awesome!4||Robots in disguise...as humans. No! No, no, no! A thousand times: no! Once you give Transformers the ability to assume non-mechanical disguises you ruin them forever! You need look only as far as the Dinobots to see ample evidence of this.|
|Devastator. What's cooler than a car transforming into a giant robot? How about six or seven contruction vehicles combining to transform into a robot so big it can't even stand upright?||Devastator. What's not cool about a robot made of seven construction vehicles? How about a pair of testicles made of wrecking balls, dangling between said robot's legs despite the fact that none of the vehicles comprising the robot had a wrecking ball?|
|Jetfire. The SR-71 Blackbird may be the coolest plane in the history of aviation; the only way to make it cooler: transform it into a giant robot...||...but not if that robot is my grandpa! He has a beard and a cane, for cryin' out loud! Oh, and here's something you probably didn't see coming: he can teleport. Dude, if you can teleport, why do you need wheels or wings?|
|More Transformers. Revenge of the Fallen has a bunch of new Transformers, both Autobots and Decepticons. More giant transforming robots = more giant transforming robot fights. And that is cool.||Yeah, but...two of those new 'bots (Skids and Mudflap) are best described as racist caricatures, while Arcee, the only female Transfomer,5 is killed after only one line of dialog. Definitely not cool.|
Then there are the humans, who exist solely to allow the budget some breathing room and to remind the audience that the Autobots have to watch where they step. Bay still drools over Mikaela (Megan Fox) with his camera,6 while Sam (Shia LeBeouf) remains the hapless, confused hero and his parents (Kevin Dunn and Julie White) provide much-unneeded comic relief.
Whether they be searching for the elusive Matrix or stumbling (literally) through a painfully-long drug joke on an unnamed college campus, anytime the humans occupy the screen without the titular transforming robots present they drain a little more of the awesome out of the movie. Thankfully, there's enough left that I'm waiting for my next opportunity to sit in a multiplex auditorium and have my senses overloaded by all of Michael Bay's transforming sound and fury; even if, at the end, it signifies nothing more than meets the eye.
- Net. [↩]
- Or just plain ignoring. [↩]
- Bay's Second Law: An object, particularly a vehicle, at rest will disgorge its passengers in motion—slow-motion. [↩]
- But I'm still annoyed that Optimus Prime has a mouth. [↩]
- Don't try to think about why a Transformer ought to be female; your head may explode. [↩]
- Megan Fox's lipstick remains unsmudged whether she's dry-humping a motorcycle or after two days of hauling her shapely backside across the deserts of Egypt, pursued by murderous Decepticons. Cover the Autobots in that same lip gloss and they'd be pretty much invincible. [↩]
Why wasn't I told about Black Water? Why did I have to stumble across it in the local video store? I need to know these things. Don't you understand? I need to know.
"Inspired by true events"? That tears it: I'm never going swimming again.
And what's with all the crocodile movies coming out of Australia all of a sudden?1 Shouldn't they be making movies about marsupials?
Oh, wait. Never mind.
Look! Up in the sky! It's a blog! It's an ordered list! It's the Top Ten Superhero Movies as ranked by me!
10. Batman: The Movie (1966). The Dark Knight makes three separate appearances on this list and this is arguably the least dark of his incarnations; in fact, I've previously referred to the relative darkness of the Adam West version of Gotham's nocturnal vigilante1 as "a skim milk vanilla latté with a shot of raspberry syrup". Batman: The Movie is classic, campy fun that still makes me chuckle,2 but this movie proves that superheroes don't have to be dark and gritty to be enjoyable.
9. Superman: The Movie (1978). Superman movies trouble me. Christopher Reeve was a fantastic Man of Steel,3 but I've never really been a fan of the "funny" Lex Luthor. Why pit the most powerful man on the planet against a clown with delusions of grandeur? How about a villain who actually has a menacing presence on the screen?4
Most people I know would probably rank Superman II higher than the original, what with Terence Stamp and all that business about kneeling before Zod. In truth, the first two movies kind of blend together for me and I don't really consider them separate entities.
8. Batman (1989). The first movie I ever stood in line for on opening day, Tim Burton's Batman pretty much revived the superhero genre. Michael Keaton was surprisingly good in the dual role of Bruce Wayne/Batman, but it is Jack Nicholson who stole the show as the maniacal Joker. Unfortunately, this set a bad precedent for bringing in big-name actors to portray the villains and The Shumachery that followed damn near marched the genre off a cliff in a rubber-nippled batsuit.
7. Spider-Man (2002). All hail Sam Raimi for bringing the web-slinger to the big screen! Now please, stop making superhero movies. Though Spider-Man 2 had a better villain and better action sequences, the overabundance of whining and preaching knocks it down several pegs in terms of sheer enjoyment. We will not speak of Spider-Man 3. Is that understood? We will not speak of it.
6. The Incredibles (2004). Here's a special beast: a well-made superhero movie that was not adapted from a comic book. Actually, The Incredibles has roots in a whole slew of comic books, especially Fantastic Four (the movie adaptation of which only wishes it could be The Incredibles). For sheer imaginitive use of superpowers, no movie has yet matched this one.
5. X-Men (2000). In 1997, Joel Schumacher drove what I thought might be the final nail into the coffin of not only the Batman movie franchise, but into the entire superhero movie genre. Then along game Bryan Singer, Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart to revive it. Sure, Halle Berry, James Marsden and a bunch of other folks were along for the ride, but let's face it, X-Men fans only cared about two things: getting Captain Jean-Luc Picard into Professor Xavier's wheelchair and finding the right guy to wield Logan's adamantium potato peelers. Ian McKellan as Magneto was icing on the cake. As for the other X-Mean...yeah, whatever, we got Patrick Stewart, baby!
Unfortunately, Bryan Singer went on to murderize Superman Returns while Brett Ratner came in to do the same to X-Men: The Last Stand.
4. X2: X-Men United (2003). Why does the sequel rank higher than the original? Two reasons: Brian Cox and BAMF! Brian Cox plays an excellent bad guy; the perfect antagonist to Hugh Jackman's Wolverine. 'Nuff said on that. Now on to the other thing: Nightcrawler's teleportation attack on the White House was simply stunning. I spent the following five minutes trying to reattach my lower jaw and to this day I'm still not sure what happened immediately after that scene.
3. Batman Begins (2005). Holy franchise resurrection, Batman! Director Christopher Nolan rolled the stone away from the tomb and we found that George Clooney was gone—replaced with the American Psycho himself, Christian Bale. The retelling of Bruce Wayne's transformation into the Dark Knight Detective is the grittiest silver screen version of the Batman to date, and the Gotham-under-siege storyline lays a solid foundation for a resuscitated series.
2. Hellboy (2004). How much do I love this movie? Let me put it this way: I wish I had not one but two wombs so I could have both Guillermo del Toro's and Ron Perlman's babies. That is all.
1. Iron Man (2008). The latest is, indeed, the greatest. Jon Favreau is clearly an Iron Man fan, because he got everything right: casting, story, special effects, pacing, beards; it's all brilliant. Iron Man is the first movie I've seen in quite a while that had me wanting to stay in the theater and watch it again after the end credits had rolled. Speaking of end credits, if you haven't seen Iron Man yet (and you should), be sure to stick around for an extra piece of geekery after they roll.
As the self-appointed Arbiter of Superhero Movie Worthiness, I declare that this list is truth absolute5 and its accuracy is above question. However, if you should wish to offer your opinions on the topic—whether they rightly align with my own or not—you are encouraged to do so in the comments.
- Actually, Adam West and Burt Ward do most of their crimefighting in broad daylight. [↩]
- "Some days you just can't get rid of a bomb!" [↩]
- Brandon Routh did a find job of imitating Christopher Reeve in Superman Returns, but that was just about the only thing worthwhile in the entire movie. [↩]
- Sorry, Nuclear Man, you're about as menacing as Gunther Gebel-Williams with a head cold. [↩]
- Until my whim changes and I update it. [↩]
My love of monster movies is well established, but giant alligators and crocodiles occupy a special place in my—well, not heart, but certainly the reptilian center of my cinematic brain. Even more so than sharks, snakes and spiders (the latter of which creep me right the hell out, regardless of size) I enjoy movies that feature ridiculously huge crocodilians running rampant and treating the human race like an all-you-can-eat buffet.
But, you might be thinking, how many such films can there possibly be?
More than you might expect. The hastily-compiled list below contains a dozen of the finest man-eating reptile films from the past two and a half decades or so. I've seen nine of the twelve films and I hope to find and watch both Killer Crocodile, Killer Crocodile II and Krocodylus in the next couple of months. Yeah, I'm a bit of a completionist.
- Alligator (1980). It's not really fair to say that Alligator followed hot on the heels of the grandfather of all When Animals Attack movies, Jaws; in fact, this first true star of the sub-genre arrived between Jaws 2 and Jaws 3-D. Where Jaws made viewers afraid to go into the water, Alligator (starring none other than Robert Forster) was a cautionary tale about flushing unwanted pets down the toilet. The beastie survives to become a crocodilian of unusual size by munching on hormonally-modified critters discarded by Science. As usual, when Science makes a mess, it's up to the Robert Forsters of the world to play God's janitor.
- Killer Crocodile (1989). Alas, I've not seen Killer Crocodile, but it stars Richard Crenna's son, Richard (Anthony) Crenna, so how bad could it be?
- Killer Crocodile II (1990). The sequel, also starring Anthony Crenna, was shot back-to-back with the original, inspiring Peter Jackson to do the same when he shot the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
- Alligator II: The Mutation (1991). Is eleven years too long to wait for a sequel? Maybe not if you're an Indiana Jones fan; they've been waiting 19 years, but at least they get their leading man back. Not so for Alligator fans. Robert Forster does not reprise his gator-asploding role in The Mutation, instead it's up to Joseph Bologna to kill the rampaging reptile. Is eleven years too long to wait for a sequel? When it's as bad as Alligator II, absolutely.
- Lake Placid (1999). Written by David E. Kelley (who created Ally McBeal and co-created Doogie Howser, M.D. with Steven Bochco) Lake Placid resurrected the giant crocodilian sub-genre, and just in time. Lake Placid is funny,1 scary, has several jump-out-of-your-seat moments, and doesn't skimp on the special effects. Easily my favorite killer croc flick.
- Krocodylus (2000). Also known as Blood Surf, this one apparently features double trouble: sharks and a giant saltwater crocodile. Sounds like Deep Blue Sea meets Lake Placid, but probably isn't. Too bad.
- Crocodile (2000). Okay, kids, I'm only going to say this once: do not steal the crocodile eggs. Got it? Good.
- Crocodile 2: Death Roll (2002). When Martin Kove (Hard Time on Planet Earth, The Karate Kid) is the only person you recognize in a SciFi Saturday monsterfest, you're not all that far from the bottom of the barrel. I don't remember much about Crocodile 2, apart from a scene in which Kove and his bad guy buddies are eaten one by one at a pole shack in the middle of a swamp. Then again, what else do you really need to remember about a giant crocodile movie?
- Dinocroc (2004). Science has yet to learn that messing around with prehistoric DNA and recreating giant, carnivorous critters is an inherently bad idea. The men and women in the white lab coats always seem surprised when their bloodthirsty creations are aggressive and hungry and strong (or clever) enough to escape. On the other hand, scientists are great appetizers. Alas, while Dinocroc borrowed the basic plot from Jurassic Park, the SciFi Channel appears to have been borrowed the special effects budget from The Land Before Time XIII: The Wisdom of Friends.
- Supergator (2007). Science strikes again! This time, it's Kelly McGillis in the lab coat and Brad Johnson (no relation) cleaning up the mess. Supergator is a sequel to Dinocroc in everything but name: same plot, same monster, same bad special effects.
- Lake Placid 2 (2007). Brought to you by the SciFi Channel—the same folks who unleashed Mansquito and Hammerhead: Shark Frenzy on the world—the sequel lacks everything that made the original so entertaining. Standing in for the cantankerous, foul-mouthed Betty White is Frau Blücker herself, Cloris Leachman, who plays Betty's crazy sister. Meanwhile, John Schneider (AKA Bo Duke, or Pa Kent for you young'uns) is the sheriff who must save his daughter and her friends (not all of them, mind you) from the giant crocs Cloris has been feeding in her backyard.
- Primeval (2007). Inspired by actual events. That's not the same thing as "based on a true story", but it's interesting to note that Gustave, the giant crocodile depicted in the film, really exists and is thought to be responsible for upwards of three hundred deaths on the banks of the Ruzizi River in Burundi, Africa. Primeval comes in a very close second on my list of top croc (and gator) movies. It's not as funny as Lake Placid, but it's beautifully shot, has some very nice special effects—Gustave is entirely computer-generated according to the "making of" feature on the DVD—and provides an interesting perspective on the origin of the beast. My major gripe: the girl goes back for the dog. Why do they always go back for the damn dog?
- Betty White (The Golden Girls) drops the f-bomb. That's funny stuff, right there. Crass? Exploitative? Sure. But hilarious. [↩]
Big things are happening over at The Secret Lair. Yeah, there's another movie episode, but more impressive than a couple of geeks blathering on about Night Watch and Justice League: The New Frontier is the new masthead1 on the website. Designed by Natalie Metzger, the Lair's official Secretary of Artistic Propaganda, the graphic features a skull-topped mountain looming large in front of the Cleveland, Ohio skyline at dusk, its stony eye sockets glowing malevolently as the masterminds and minions who call the craggy cranium their base of operations toil within the mysterious chambers hidden deep within.
So visit the site. Download the newest episode. And if you know what's good for you, tell Natalie how truly magnificent the new masthead is, or the next time you see those glowing eyes it will be in the company of one of our Retrieval Squads.
- Call it a banner, if you prefer, or even a logo; your fancy words don't detract from the sheer coolness of the thing. [↩]
If you're the sort who appreciates post-modern zoetropic presentations, it may be of interest to you that the fellows over at The Secret Lair have made the third episode of their pod-cast programme available for your enjoyment. There is some discussion of the feature films Next (starring Nicolas Cage, Jessica Biel and Julianne Moore) and Dragon Wars (starring Robert Forster and...no one else of whom you've likely heard), both of which have been encoded and are available on Digital Versatile Disc. I'm told that this technology—much like the Marconi radiotelegraph—allows for the enjoyment of a virtual theatre in the comfort of one's own parlor.
SCI FI Wire has a blurb about Shia LeBeouf announcing the title of the new Indiana Jones movie at the MTV Video Music Awards last night.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Sure, it's got a pulpy, movie serial feel to it, but hasn't Harrison Ford already done crystal skulls? Well, no. But yes. Sort of.
Star Wars fans may recognize the cover of Han Solo and the Lost Legacy by the late, great Brian Daley, published way back in 1980.
As long as I'm on the topic of Star Wars, I may as well invoke that old familiar quote: I've got a bad feeling about this. But I'll be thrilled if Lucas, Spielberg and Ford prove me wrong.
"Oh!" Laura said as the trailer for The Last Legion came on halfway through another Thursday night rerun of CSI. "Watch this!" I was a little surprised that she'd be interested in yet another retelling of the Arthurian legend1, but three quick flashes revealed the source of her excitement: Colin Firth.
It's an interesting change for Mr. Firth, who is often seen in period pieces of an entirely different nature (Pride & Prejudice) or in romantic comedies (Love Actually); the closest he's come to an action role that I've seen is kicking Hugh Grant's ass in Bridget Jones' Diary.
"He should be a bigger star than he is," Laura says. I tend to agree, but in my case it's not because the sight of him makes me weak in the knees; he's just a damn fine actor and it'll be good to see how he does in a more rough-and-tumble role for a change. Plus, I'm a sucker for movies that explore Arthurian legend. The only one in recent memory that I haven't seen is First Knight, and only because The Connery Factor wasn't quite enough to overcome The Gere Factor.
The Last Legion opens on Friday, 17 August, and I suspect Laura will soon be making arrangements for a sitter.
Starring Shia LeBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, Rachael Taylor, Anthony Anderson, Jon Voight, John Turturro, Michael O'Neill, Kevin Dunn, Peter Cullen, Darius McCrary, Mark Ryan, Jess Harnell, Robert Foxworth, and Elrond Half-Elven.
Directed by Michael Bay.
Somewhere in the frozen northern wilderness, deep within a remote facility, a mechanical being has slumbered for countless years. His name is Optimus Prime, he is the leader of the noble Autobots, and he is probably in a box in the attic, almost certainly missing one of the blue fists that were stored in his passenger compartment when he made his awesome transformation from robot to flat-nosed Mack truck.
Though I dreamed of commanding massive armies of Autobots and their evil enemies, the Decepticons, I owned only two Transformers toys as a boy: Optimus Prime and Skywarp, a black and purple Decepticon who transformed into a fighter jet. Despite their lack of transforming teammates, Skywarp and Optimus Prime engaged in many an afternoon battle, often recruiting LEGO constructs and other toys to their causes.
Skywarp does not appear in the new Transformers movie, and Optimus Prime is now a long-nosed Peterbilt with kickin' flame job. Also absent is Prime's trailer; the classic toy tows a box trailer that transforms into a mobile Combat Deck containing Roller, a small scout vehicle resembling a Mars rover. In the movie, Optimus Prime is never seen towing a trailer of any kind.
[Note: Freedom from spoilers is the right of all sentient beings. The following contains plot details about Transformers that you might not wish revealed until after you've seen the movie.]
It was inevitable that the Transformers—even the iconic Optimus Prime—undergo another sort of transformation when Michael Bay brought them to the big screen. Unfortunately, diehard fanboys (myself included) are reluctant to look away from the red Tech Spec decoder filter through which we view the mid-1980s, and the slightest change—no matter how practical or necessary—is seen as sacrilege. When it was announced that Michael Bay would be directing Transformers, it was (if I may be allowed to mix my pop culture metaphors) as though a million voices suddenly cried out in anguish.
In all fairness to Mr. Bay, I think we overreacted a bit. True, Transformers has pretty much all of Bay's trademark qualities—lots of explosions, plenty of slow motion,1 an overwrought love story—but it also has a satisfying number of "hell yeah" moments, excellent armaments, a sweeping sense of grandeur, and giant robots that transform into cars, jets, tanks and helicopters in the blink of an eye at a hundred miles per hour.
For centuries, the Transformers have been searching the universe for the Allspark, a cube with "the power to create worlds and fill them... with life." Megatron, leader of the evil Decepticons, is also missing, and nearly forty years ago the Transformers first encountered humans in the far reaches of space, an encounter that ultimately led them to believe that both Megatron and the Allspark are on Earth.2
One of the biggest fears in the fanboy camp was that Michael Bay would make Transformers more about the human characters than the Transformers themselves. Whether Bay could reasonably be expected to make a movie in which the human point of view takes a backseat to a much, much taller perspective is a debate I happily leave to more diehard fans than myself. There's no question that a pink, squishy homo sapiens named Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf) is the primary protagonist in Transformers, and while this opens the door to humans grabbing more screen time than the robots, it also allows for two very effective sequences in which first the Decepticons and then the Autobots reveal themselves.
Intending to search the United States military computer network for evidence that might reveal the location of Megatron and the Allspark, a Decepticon named Blackout disguises himself as a Sikorsky MH-53 Pave Low helicopter and lands at a military installation in Qatar. Transforming into a towering robot, Blackout proceeds to kick almost every camouflaged ass in the vicinity. My only complaint about Blackout's attack is that—when compared with his fast-moving, diving, dodging, spinning robot brethren—the Decepticon seemed more like a lumbering heavy mech from Battletech than a Transformer; the attack was impressive (I loved Blackout's radial electromagnetic pulse weapon), but had a very different feel from the remainder of the action in the movie (which is not always a bad thing).
After the assault in Qatar, an Autobot scout named Bumblebee infiltrates a used car dealership disguised as a rusted yellow Chevrolet Camaro3 and is purchased by young Sam Witwicky. Sam soon learns that his Camaro has some strange quirks, not the least of which is the fact that it drives itself and transforms into a giant robot.
Sam, like most humans, fears what he doesn't understand; fleeing from his demonically-possessed car, the boy stumbles across a police car whose mission (as seen emblazoned on its rear quarter panel) is "to punish and enslave". Sam soon learns that his Camaro isn't the only giant robot on the planet when the Saleen-modified Ford Mustang police cruiser transforms into the Decepticon known as Barricade. What follows is a combination car chase and robot battle with rocking guitar riffs accentuating the screeching tires and metal-on-metal body blows. When the soundtrack kicked in, a voice in the back of my head shouted "Hell yeah!" and I couldn't help but grin as the chase began.
Another such moment occurs after Mikaela (Megan Fox), Sam's girlfriend-to-be asks why, if Bumblebee is such a bad ass, he disguises himself as a piece of crap beat up Camaro. Bumblebee responds by pulling over and ejecting both teenagers, leaving them apparently stranded. A moment later, the Autobot returns, and as the camera pans over the sleek, yellow lines of his new form—a prototype 2008/2009 Camaro—Tomoyasu Hotei's "Battle Without Honor or Humanity" fills the auditorium.4
Following Sam's escape from Barricade, the remaining Autobots fall to Earth in their "protocomet" form and, after selecting their various forms—Ironhide (Jess Harnell), a black GMC Topkick ; Jazz (Darius McCrary), a silver Pontiac Solstice; Ratchet (Robert Foxworth), a yellow Hummer H2; and Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), the aforementioned blue-and-red Peterbilt semi—reveal themselves to Sam.
The Autobots arrival, perhaps more than any other part of Transformers, induced a thrilling sense of nostalgia and is another of those "hell yeah" moments. Even Michael Bay patting himself on the back in the form of an excited boy remarking that the protocomets falling to Earth was "more awesome than Armageddon" did little to diminish the ineffable sensation of pure, unadulterated fanboy bliss I felt when Optimus Prime adopted the form of a passing semi-truck and then moments later transformed into the familiar, towering robot for the first time.
Then Optimus Prime spoke and my inner fanboy's head exploded. Prime, as it turns out, is something of a Fanboy's Paradox: we cheered at the news that Peter Cullen—who provided Prime's voice in the first animated television series as well as the 1985 animated movie—would be reprising his role as the Autobot leader. Cullen's voice is every bit as intrinsic to the character of Optimus Prime as is the distinctive design of the robot's head and face... and that's where the Paradox begins. The Optimus Prime of old has no mouth; a very distinct faceplate covers the lower half of his face. Bay's Prime still has the faceplate, but it slides back to reveal—horror of horrors—robotic lips on robotic jaws!
I can only speculate as to the justification for this travesty, but I believe the intent was to make the character seem more human and give him the ability to emote. Whatever the reason, it just didn't work for me. Did Darth Vader need a mouth to emote? No! It was all accomplished through body language (thank you, David Prowse) and excellent voice acting (thank you, James Earl Jones). Of all the changes that were made to the characters, this is the one that my inner fanboy refuses to accept; he cannot imagine any practical scenario that justifies slapping a mouth on Optimus Prime.
On the flip side of the mouth issue, we have Megatron, who was voiced not by Frank Welker, but by Hugo Weaving. This would have been an excellent casting choice but for one tiny little detail: Weaving's voice has been electronically filtered to the point of being unrecognizable. It's a shame, too, because Megatron would have benefited greatly if Weaving's personality had been able to pierce through the heavy effects; a little of Agent Smith's delightful scorn for humanity from The Matrix would have gone a long way to bring character to the Decepticon leader.
Moving right along...
Back in the desert of Qatar, it seems that several soldiers escaped Blackout's assault on the military base. As they make their way across the scorching landscape in search of a phone, they are pursued by Scorponok, a scorpion-like Decepticon who burrows beneath the sand and attacks just as the soldiers reach a small village. Using a borrowed cellular phone, Sgt. Lennox (Josh Duhamel) contacts the Pentagon and calls for air support as the remainder of the soldiers attempt to fend off Scorponok's onslaught.
The Decepticon shrugs off the aerial assault until he finds himself at the receiving end of a barrage from a Lockheed AC-130H gunship, which circles high above and fires high-caliber incendiary rounds. The camera shot of the gunship banking over the village with its side-mounted guns blazing tickled my reptilian brain even as the thunderous report of the Howitzers rattled my ribcage. Bay may not be subtle, but he does big and loud very well.
Eventually, a Decepticon named Frenzy5 locates Megatron and the Allspark and sends a message to his sneaky comrades—Starscream (Charlie Adler), a Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor; Devastator, an M1 Abrams tank and Bonecrusher (Jimmie Wood), a Buffalo mine protected vehicle—all of whom have been quietly biding their time for most of the movie.
Frenzy successfully sabotages the cryogenic system that keeps Megatron (designated "Ice Man" by Sector 7, a top secret government agency)6 safely in stasis. With the assistance of Bumblebee, Sam removes the Allspark from beneath the Hoover Dam (where it has lain since President Herbert Hoover ordered the dam be built around it in 1931) and flees the awakening Decepticon leader.
Autobots and Decepticons clash in the fictional Mission City, where Megatron and Optimus Prime go head-to-head in a winner-take-all battle for the championship title. There are plenty of explosions and the property damage is impressive; twenty-foot-tall robots make big dents when they run into things like skyscrapers.
The sequence that stood out for me in the Mission City battle was not between Optimus Prime and Megatron, but between Starscream and the Air Force. When Sgt. Lennox and Tech Sergeant Epps (Tyrese Gibson) call in aerial reinforcements, Starscream slips into the ranks of the incoming Air Force Raptors and wreaks incredible havoc, transforming from jet to robot and back again in mid-air while taking out one F-22 after another. By the time the Air Force pilots realize that one of the Raptors flying with them isn't supposed to be there, it's too late; Starscream (Megatron's second-in-command and always a bit of a screwup in the animated television series) has decimated the fighters. Unfortunately, the sequence is over far too quickly, and Starscream—displaying his characteristic cowardice—disappears during the final battle.
For all its explosions, collateral damage, and aerial acrobatics, the battle in Mission City also highlights two of my major problems with Transformers: the robot design and the hyper-kinetic camera work. Both serve to make the action very difficult to follow.
When in their robot modes, most of the transformers look very... busy. There are a lot of sharp angles formed by hundreds of pointy pieces of metal, all of which tend to make one robot very much resemble another. Optimus Prime, Bumblebee and (to a lesser extent) Ratchet stand out due to their distinctive coloring, but the remainder of the robots are silver and black and don't have features that would help in distinguishing one from another.
The problem is exacerbated by camera shots that are shaky and a preponderance of quick jump cuts from one point in the action to another. The end result is certainly a battle between two or more giant robots, but it quickly becomes difficult to tell which robot is which, what exactly they are doing, and who (if anybody) is winning.
When Bay does allow his camera to linger, it is almost always on the exceptionally curvy Megan Fox. During Sam's clumsy attempts to gain Mikaela's affections, the camera doesn't so much pan over Fox's body as drool over it. As I've noted before, Michael Bay isn't much for subtlety, and nowhere is that more obvious than in the final sequence of the movie, in which Sam and Mikaela are making out on Bumblebee's hood while the other Autobots linger nearby like fuel-injected voyeurs, courtesy of Ford and General Motors. The scene is established by a blatant shot of Fox's ample upper chassis that pans to reveal LeBeouf and the Camaro on which they both reclined. Subtle it wasn't, but I was struck by a sudden desire to visit my local Chevrolet dealer.
Despite its flaws, I enjoyed Transformers. Granted, at times it seemed like Michael Bay couldn't decide whether he was making a romantic teen comedy or the sequel to Black Hawk Down, but all things considered I was quite pleased with the final product (certainly enough to pick up the inevitable two-disc Platinum Deluxe Collector's Edition DVD set7 when it is released later this year). I don't believe any irreparable damage has been done to my precious and fondest childhood memories, and I think the next time I visit my parents I may rescue Optimus Prime from his dusty cardboard containment cell so I can share some of those memories with my young apprentice in the near future.8
- If you find yourself in a Michael Bay motion picture, you should be resigned to that fact that you will be getting in and/or out of a vehicle in slow motion at some point. As surely as Joanie loves Chachi, Michael Bay loves slow-motion vehicle ingress and egress. [↩]
- These events are described in Ghosts of Yesterday, the official prequel novel to the movie, but I don't particularly recommend reading it. [↩]
- At the dealership, Bumblebee parks next to a classic Volkswagen Beetle, which was his vehicle form in the original iteration of the Transformers in 1984. [↩]
- "Battle Without Honor or Humanity" was used in trailers for Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Volume 1. It is a very recognizable song, filled with cymbal crashes and bold trumpet, and especially apropos when Bumblebee's yellow finish with bold black racing stripes is compared with the movie poster and DVD cover for Tarantino's movie, both of which feature a field of yellow bisected by a thick black vertical line. [↩]
- Frenzy is a small Decepticon who disguises himself as a CD boombox. A quick shot in one of the movie trailers shows the boombox beginning its transformation, which gave me a glimmer of false hope that Soundwave, one of my favorite Decepticons, would make an appearance. Frenzy is a poor substitute, usually coming off as a vulgar interpretation of Johnny Five from Short Circuit. [↩]
- When Ice Man is revealed, the movie contradicts events that occur in Ghosts of Yesterday. In the novel, Sector 7 arranges a convoy to transport Ice Man from the Arctic Circle to Arizona in 1969, a convoy that is ambushed by Russians; in the film, a Sector Seven operative tells Secretary of State Keller (Jon Voight) that Ice Man was moved to the Arizona facility in 1935, shortly after Captain Archibald Witwicky (William Morgan Sheppard) accidentally stumbled across the frozen robot on an Arctic expedition. [↩]
- Transforms into matching drink coasters! [↩]
- Okay, and I want to see if I can remember how to change him from semi-truck to robot and back. [↩]
Transformers: Ghosts of Yesterday by Alan Dean Foster is "[t]he story you must read—before Transformers rockets to the big screen!" Until I saw the book on the shelves of my local independent bookseller, I hadn't been aware that there were prerequisites to seeing Michael Bay's big screen treatment of my favorite childhood transforming-robot toys,1 but I certainly didn't want to show up at the theater bright-eyed with cash in hand only to be turned away at the box office due to my own ill-preparedness.
I think Paramount and Dreamworks dropped the ball on this; in all the Transformers pre-release hype—trailers, GM and Burger King tie-in commercials—there's not a single indication that the audience needs to read a book before they can watch the movie. I can only imagine the scene that will play out over and over, all across the country (if not the world) tomorrow evening:
"One for Transformers, please."
"Have you read Ghosts of Yesterday?"
"Ghosts of Yesterday; it's the official prequel to the blockbuster film. Have you read it?"
"Sorry, no one sees the movie until they read the book. Next, please!"
"Wait a minute! I want to see Transformers!"
"Sorry, kid. Rules is rules. You gotta read the book. Step aside, please. Don't make me call security."
The real tragedy is that Ghosts of Yesterday isn't an especially good book. The story revolves around a top-secret space mission that coincides with the 1969 launch of Apollo 11, the not-at-all-secret space mission that first put a man on the moon.2 While the world watches Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin make their historic voyage to
a Hollywood soundstage Earth's only satellite, a secret government agency known as Sector Seven covertly launches Ghost One, an experimental spaceship derived from alien technology. The source of the technology is "The Ice Man", a giant mechanoid being, one of two alien artifacts held in secret by the United States government.
During its maiden voyage, Ghost One encounters an unexpected phenomenon on the far side of the sun: a wormhole that transports the ship and its crew to an unknown area of outer space, where they encounter two warring factions of sentient mechanical beings who have been exploring the vast reaches of the universe in search of a lucrative merchandising deal.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, the powers-that-be decide to move The Ice Man from the frozen Arctic wastes to balmy Arizona, where there's absolutely no chance he'll thaw and wreak havoc on humanity; I mean, just put that thought right out of your head, it's all perfectly safe. Unfortunately, it's 1969, and no one's thought to end the Cold War just yet. The Russians, perhaps a little annoyed that we're about to beat them to
a soundstage in Hollywood the moon, arrange for a little accident en route to Arizona.
It's not a terrible story, but it felt empty to me. Maybe Transformers—perfectly suited to toys and comic books and animated television series—just don't translate well to the realm of pure prose. Foster makes almost no effort to describe the giant robots, other than to say that they're giant robots. There seems to be an unspoken assumption that if you're reading the book you know what a Transformer looks like so there's no point in wasting words describing them. And while the story certainly sets the stage for the movie, it really doesn't accomplish much of anything else. The human characters, for the most part, are just sketches with little opportunity for any true development; of the Transformers themselves, only the Decepticon Starscream and the Autobots Optimus Prime and Bumblebee get much in the way of "face time", but they're in constant battle with one another and the only part of their characters that really comes across is the fact that they'd like to destroy their enemies.
I'm glad I read the book, if only because now I'll be able to stride proudly up to the box office and say, "One for Transformers, please, my good ticketmonger! I have completed the required reading and am fully prepared to enjoy an evening of motion picture entertainment!"