Thursday, July 5, 2007

Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye

There was little doubt that when Transformers hit the big screen that I was going to see it. Giant shape-shifting robots are kind of my “thing.” What’s more, after god-awful failures like Ghostrider, utter-let downs like Fantastic Four 2: Rise of the Silver Surfer and the underwhelming Spiderman 3, I needed something to restore my faith in the great-American money-consuming tradition of the summer action-packed blockbuster. Most of all however, Transformers was a piece of my childhood. So when I heard Steven Spielberg would be producing a live-action movie directed by Michael “I –blow-stuff-up” Bay, excitement doesn’t begin to explain my anticipation. So did the film live up to the hype? Was my childhood restored? Below are my scattered thoughts offered as a brief review. WARNING for the squeamish, there be minor SPOILERS ahead…


First off, there were changes from the original storyline. Big changes. But, that was something I fully expected, so no big deal. Yeah the original tale has the Autobots and Decepticons crashing to Earth four million years ago, and not just a few thousand—but eh, who’s counting? The plot of the movie, following the original theme of good versus bad robots with humans trapped in between, went something like this: Decepticons, led by Megatron, and Autobots, led by Optimus Prime, search for ultimate power source called the “Allspark” to which only human kid Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBouf) can lead them. Throw in a shadowy government agency, the entire military establishment, a teenage suburban American romance, blow up a lot of stuff with eye-popping special effects and you’ve got the official summer blockbuster of 2007.

The action doesn’t wait long to start in the film, with the Decepticon Blackout doing a mega-beat down number on a US military base that wets your appetite for destruction. Even when things slow down a bit to introduce the main human character of the film, there’s enough humor and teenage angst to keep you sustained. By the time the full array of mechanical heroes and villains make it into the picture you’re ready for some giant-robot gladiatorial smack downs! But…you first have to sit through silly family-themed-hi jinks of Autobots ridiculously hiding behind a house and a goofy inept government agency called Sector 7. And oh yeah, there’s this secondary competing story about young 20-something techies and hackers trying to decode alien transmissions. While both of these offer comic relief, and connect to the larger plot, they become dead weight in the general storyline. There are brief breaks of action offered by a chase scene involving Autobot Bumblebee and Decepticon Barricade, not to mention a brief trip to the desert where you see gallant U.S. soldiers fight it out with Scorponok. If you’re patient enough to laugh when prodded and sit through it all however, you get the grand prize of a full on battle royale between Autobots and Decepticons that takes place (naturally) in the middle of a populated city. The ending—which I won’t give away—is a bit confusing, and anti-climatic, but if you’ve suspended belief for this long and accepted the idea of giant robots, how much can you really complain about some holes in the plot? And oh yeah, be sure to sit through the first round of credits, as you are set up for the inevitable sequel.

Overall, you’ve got a good movie here. Somewhere between the amazingly realistic special effects and attendant explosions, there’s an actual storyline(or two) to be teased out. I don’t think it’s the best movie I’ve ever seen. It didn't “knock me out." I left the theatre as satisfied as one can be with a Michael Bay film: there was action, there were jokes, and stuff got "blow'd up" real good. Nothing more, nothing less.

Okay, so now that we have my minor review out of the way, on to some "more than meets the eye" delving.

Corporate-bots: Of course I always knew I was being marketed to as a kid by Hasbro toys, and whatever commercials lay between my Transformers cartoon. But leave it to Hollywood to take it to a whole new level. General Motors seems to have cashed in with the movie and managed to do some “transforming” of its own onto the characters. Bumblebee, originally a Volkswagen Bug, is refitted as a Chevy Camaro. Jazz, once a Porsche, is now a Pontiac Solstice. I was waiting to see if Starscream had Boeing written along his side. In the original storyline, the bodies chosen for the Autobots were the result of a probe sent out to find suitable human machinery. These new Transformers seem to owe their physical forms much more to “product placement.”

Go Army!: In the original cartoon, I hardly recall the militarization of the storyline. Mostly you had giant robots and a few humans (mechanics) who were the main characters. In this movie however, the U.S. armed forces are prominently displayed. From our fighting soldier boys in Qatar to the feisty “Rumsfeld-esque” Secretary of Defense (Jon Voight), the U.S. military gets top billing. The audience is treated to close-ups of Osprey air crafts, F-16 fighters, gunships and enough military lingo to make you think Tom Clancy was ghostwriting the script. The devastating firepower of these machines rival, or mimic, that of the giant robots. And when such force is called upon, we get to see every command make it down the line in crisp, well-disciplined, no-nonsense fashion. It’s a well-known fact that the U.S. military is often needed in these movies for both consultation and the use of equipment (from aircraft to tanks), and can often pull their endorsement if they feel offended in the smallest way. It's a marketing tool, plain and simple; a quid pro quo deal they have with Hollywood. It’s not surprising that today's military would see an action movie that is geared towards teenage boys as a perfect opportunity for propagandizing—especially since the real-life military is not currently presented as nearly as glamorous. I half-way expected an army recruiter to meet me on my way out the door. As I watched a stunning shot of what looked to be an AC-130 gunship fire heavy armor piercing rounds into a Decepticon's hide, and listened to the audience gasp in delight, I couldn’t help but think that in real life, the receiving end of that barrage is usually made up of flesh and blood, which is alot messier than metal. And I wondered if I was just watching a movie, or the U.S. military's equivalent of cartoon camels used to get kids to take up smoking.

Race Matters: Summer blockbusters are sometimes interesting windows into the racial atmosphere of America, as they attempt to appeal to not only a mass audience but that coveted young white male demographic. Sadly, Transformers offered nothing new or even remotely promising on that front. What we learned was that Latinos are to be mocked (repeatedly) for speaking Spanish—as if this was some new alien language and culture of which the average American were not aware. The scourge of cellular phone outsourcing—English challenged East Indian customer service reps—are just as annoying for brave American soldiers trying to save the world as they are for you in trying to clear up a problem with billings. And African-Americans…well…where do I begin? First, make sure the only black people of prominence in the film are two comedians—one known for playing a hard-edged cursing machine (Bernie Mac) and the other for slapstick physical humor (Anthony Anderson)—and an R&B/actor (Tyrese Gibson). That way we can learn that older black males generally call older black women their mother’s age “bitch”—and no wonder, as such older black women regularly flip people off. We also learn that even intelligent black male hackers are scared of the “poh-lice” and can’t help but be a buffoonish side-kick who manages to make even minor co-star Tom Lenk (formerly Andrew of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame) look more dignified. Add an Autobot, Jazz, who upon listening to the radio to learn human speech, greets us in a booming African-American voice (Darius McCrary) with the universal language of blackness “what’s crack-a-lackin’ bitches?”—a far cry from the bluesman eloquence of Benjamin Sherman "Scatman" Crothers, who originally did the character’s voice and gave meaning to his name. And oh yes, be sure to pepper a lot of the humorous moments with references of perceived black popular culture uttered from white lips (symbolic minstrelsy, which is what makes them funny in the first place)—from “bros before ho’s” to 50 Cent references. When that's not enough, re-stage a scene out of COPS with a rotund screaming black male running from the law. The only redeeming character of color in this film is Tyrese, whose role as the “black army guy” is to shoot things and exude "cool." Not even Keith David was trotted out to play the usual tough-as-nails U.S. Defense Dept top brass. Black women, or any women of color, don't exist beyond minor cameos.

In the end my criticisms of the movie are more so social and political than they have to do with the storyline or cinematic effort. Yet a film is the sum of all those things—the plot, the acting, the visuals, the script and the social atmosphere (intended or not) it reflects. And while Transformers was a good movie, as far as blockbusters go, it didn't restore my childhood. When I first heard of them as a kid—sentient machine changing robots from a planet called Cybertron, split into opposing factions of Autobots and Decepticons, who now used Earth as a battlefield—I was an instant fan-atic. I watched the American version of the cartoon religiously and could recite stats on the characters: the megalomaniac Megatron; the arrogant and ever-ready to plot a coup, Starscream; the noble leader Optimus Prime; the younger more relatable Bumblebee. And nobody could tell me that my man Soundwave—with his attendant mini-bots like Laserbeak and Ravage—wasn’t the baaaadest cat in the galaxy! Constructicons. Dinobots. Insecticons. I was down with it all.

This Transformers movie however, even with all its wonderful new gadgets and special effects, didn't have that magic. And mind you it wasn't the mere change in storyline; there are whole Transformer Universes after all which all co-exist alongside each other. This movie is but the latest incarnation. Maybe it was the militarization of the storyline, the corporatization and the neo-Sambo roles handed out to black actors that dulled the glimmer of the movie for me. Maybe it was the tarnish that always happens once Hollywood puts its over-the-top touches on an original idea. Or perhaps it's just the inability of any film adaptation to compete with nostalgia. Don't get me wrong now, I'm happy a film was made. And I'm sure many will enjoy it for what it is. But for me that first generation of Transformers retains the title as the definite article—untouchable by our modern CGI, unaffected by the hyped special effects of never-ending explosions, minus a corporate agenda, unwilling to use racial and ethnic stereotypes for the sake of popular American "humor"—and in its own unique two-dimensional way, remains forever immortal.


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