Saturday 25 June 2011

From the archive: "Transformers"

It would be easy, this summer in particular, to mark down Transformers as the worst thing that could happen to the cinema. The latest Michael Bay opus, based on a once-popular range of toys, is very long and very noisy, and aimed squarely at the adolescent crowd who make up the multiplex audience these days. Every penny they hand over at the box-office brings us closer to the prospect of a Gobots revival. This, surely, is not good.

For anyone too old for, or not old enough for the popular culture of the late 1980s, Transformers were toys that could be changed from one form to another - trucks into rockets, or toasters, or vaguely humanoid shapes, or vice versa - and they were much beloved of myself and my fellow nine-year-olds. (Yes, you have me to blame in part for the movie.) They were sold under the slogan "More than meets the eye", a potential tagline even a film as audacious in its one-dimensionality as Bay's wouldn't dare to use. Turning toys into protagonists has consequences for humanity: watching the actors being tossed around by Transformers, or caught in a robotic paw during Bay's triumph of the machines, you might start to worry who indeed is now controlling whom.

The cause of all this to-ing and fro-ing, within the film, is a new round of hostilities in the intergalactic war between two tribes of Transformers, on hold since 1987, when the American public became distracted by Garbage Pail Kids and My Little Ponies. The evil Decepticons - evil name, evil robots - and our friends the Autobots have ended up in the backyard of well-meaning dork Sam Witwicki (Shia LaBeouf), in search of the genetic code that one or another of their robotic forefathers has hidden in the lenses of Sam's Arctic explorer grandfather's glasses. (Don't ask.)

The opening stretch is all military hardware in the desert; we then switch to frantic activity around NSA computer screens, mobile phones being used to record last wills and testaments, a Transformer busting out of an X-Box. Bay's film has machines where there might once have been human ingenuity or courage; at points, it feels like watching the contents of a Comet warehouse scrap it out for two hours. None of the soldiers killed in the Decepticons' attack on Earth is named, much less mourned, but Bay wants to move us to tears when Autobot Bumblebee has his pistons crushed. In this ultra-metallic world, even the flesh-and-blood objects of desire are defined by a stud through the nose (Rachael Taylor) or an easy facility with car engines (Megan Fox).

At the risk of taking Transformers way more seriously than it actually deserves, humanity is here relegated, subsumed, secondary. Or at least the grown-ups are: Optimus Prime has a big rallying speech before the final battle insisting - à la Whitney Houston - that children (i.e. those with disposable income) are our future, but Jon Voight, Roosevelt in Bay's Pearl Harbor, is here demoted to Secretary of Defense, where he gets to do a lot of post-West Wing walking and talking along corridors, and ends up nodding "good... right..." to ideas suggested by a Marine played by Josh Duhamel. John Turturro, as a weaselly secret service agent, gets pissed on by a robot, stripped to his underwear, and handcuffed to a lamppost. And these are just the white characters: the first half of Transformers displays notable suspicion or outright contempt towards Spanish-speaking soldiers and Asian call-centre operatives.

There's even a sense Bay doesn't trust himself, at least not around actors: he appears to have taken the hands-off approach around LaBeouf and his screen parents, and their improvisations - a reassertion of human input - form some of the lightest, and best, scenes in the film. Mostly, the director stays well within his limits, contenting himself with moving metal behemoths around. The action sequences seem almost matter-of-fact, the logical consequences of a grown man playing with his toys; it's Bay sitting in his sandbox again.

Unlike in executive producer Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds, or in that pre-eminent technohead James Cameron's Terminator films, there's no real threat of apocalypse in Transformers, because the camera is never troubled by signs of human life to wipe out. The closest we get to it is a porky teenager - a keen consumer himself, by the looks of things, and yet another of the film's on-screen representatives of its target demographic - whose first response to the carnage in the skies above him is "this is a hundred times cooler than Armageddon!" To in any way appear to work, Bay's films need to be judged on the cool scale alone. "Cool, mom!," squeals a child to his mother during the finale, trying to poke us into a similar outburst. Yet Armageddon didn't need to prompt us so; nor did 2005's The Island, which even suggested Bay might be developing the sense of humour essential to any truly worthwhile blockbuster.

If I retain a sneaking admiration for Transformers, it's for three clear reasons. The film preserves a certain novelty analogous to the toys, which gives it an edge in the current workplace. (It's not a sequel in the strict sense of the word; the cartoon, on which this is a vast improvement, doesn't count.) My expectations may have been low going in. And it's a rarity among 2007's event movies, in that it delivers exactly on the promise of the trailer, which may be the most important selling-point of all for its audience. That preview promised artless sound and fury, signifying nothing very much at all, and that's precisely what you get.

Unlike the Decepticons, Bay's film is wholly upfront about what it is: a big, dumb movie about some fairly rubbish, long-defunct merchandise, and a logical commercial proposition, making perfect business sense from the decision to revive near-obsolete ephemera from our collective cultural scrapyard. The one line of dialogue that sticks is given to Sam Witwicki in his very first scene, intended to define our hero (and perhaps our director, too) as an amiable entrepreneur - rather than, say, a huckster with no sense of heritage whatsoever - who's simultaneously hawking his late grandfather's belongings on eBay and in class: "It's all for sale."

(August 2007)

Transformers screens on Channel 4 this Sunday (July 3rd) at 7.20pm.

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