Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn’t impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there’s I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward and a good time.
Cultural infamy: Despite making enough money worldwide to bail out a mid-sized American bank, Michael Bay’s two Transformers movies have become convenient whipping boys for critics who want to decry the intellectual bankruptcy of the modern summer blockbuster. Besides spending more than $350 million on movies based on an ’80s cartoon series—which was itself based on a line of toys—Bay and the rest of the bunch behind 2007’s Transformers and 2009’s Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen have been accused of emphasizing frenetic action and special effects at the expense of clear plots and memorable characters. The movies are regarded as broad and uncouth, to the extent that even Roger Ebert—often a soft touch when it comes to crowd-pleasing spectacle—called Revenge Of The Fallen “a horrible experience of unbearable length,” and suggested, “If you want to save yourself the ticket price, go into the kitchen, cue up a male choir singing the music of hell, and get a kid to start banging pots and pans together. Then close your eyes and use your imagination.”
Curiosity factor: Movie critics are a perverse, contrary lot. We get bored easily with “quality”—in particular the kind of quality that any schmoe with a ticket can recognize—and so we often gravitate to the obscure or the disreputable. We like to stake our claim to movies and auteurs that haven’t been picked clean by an army of film-studies grad students. If enough professionals and civilians alike publicly assert that a given director is one of the worst ever to holler “Action!”, I can guarantee you that there are critics anxiously prepping 2,000-word defenses of said director, to run in some alt-weekly or online magazine. So, yes, there are critics out there who love Michael Bay, and will stand up for the Transformers movies.
Me, I’ve been a Bay-hater since Bad Boys. I find his movies needlessly loud and usually incomprehensible, and aside from the fun I had laughing at the ridiculousness of Armageddon and The Island, Bay’s work has always been pretty excruciating to me. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve softened toward filmmakers I used to hate—sort of like the way the politicians we despise seem less onerous after they leave office—and I’d been wondering whether I’d appreciate Bay more after taking a long break from his films. And I’ll be honest: Every time I saw those giant robots punching each other in the Transformers commercials, my interest was piqued. (Hey, I’m a guy.) I’d missed both Transformers movies in theaters, but when the sequel came out on BD/DVD last year, I received both discs for review. So here we go.
The viewing experience: The first Transformers begins promisingly, with a sense of the epic scale of the interstellar battle between two shape-shifting robotic factions—the Autobots and the Decepticons—followed by an exciting desert battle on Earth that maps out the stakes of the story. But then Transformers introduces its hero, a Peter Parker-like teenager played by Shia LaBeouf, and the movie hits a lull. It takes another hour for the plot to kick back in, while we watch LaBeouf fumble around suburbia, get picked on by his classmates, flirt with his secret crush Megan Fox, and buy a car that turns out to be a faulty, mute Autobot named Bumblebee. For a director known for his quick-cut action sequences, Bay tends to direct oddly bloated movies, filled with pointless detours and motor-mouthed improvisation.
Granted, that does make his films more distinctive than most action fare. Not many filmmakers would leave in a scene as silly as the Transformers bit where Optimus Prime and his band of giant Autobots crouch around the edges of LaBeouf’s house, trying to keep his parents from noticing them:
And granted, Bay doesn’t have a problem with giving an audience what they want. You came to Transformers to see big machines colliding? Bay treats you to an extended freeway chase with the robots in vehicle form, and an extended punch-out with the robots knocking each other through buildings. (Never mind the human collateral damage.) And for pure kitsch coolness, it’s hard to argue with Megan Fox brandishing an electric weapon against a runty little ’bot:
But Bay’s taste level remains pretty suspect. For a movie with a premise perfect for kids—complete with little remedial life lessons about how humans are really the ones with “more than meets the eye”—Transformers is lousy with jokes about masturbation, robot urination, and unfunny ethnic stereotypes, as in this scene, where our fighting men are connected to an Indian customer-service dude:
As for Revenge Of The Fallen, I’ll say this: the movie doesn’t waste as much time as its predecessor. Here, the plot kicks in quick and stays kicked-in, following LaBeouf as he leaves home for college and his studies are disrupted by his all-consuming visions of ancient runes and mathematical formulas. Turns out he’s just a pawn in a plot to destroy the Earth and revive the Decepticons’ ancient imprisoned leader—a plot that culminates in an all-out Autobot/Decepticon/LaBeouf battle that takes up the better part of the movie’s final hour.
In addition to the action overkill, Bay seems to have taken the success of Transformers as a license to pump up the vulgarity level. The racial stereotypes—a jive-talking robot here, a slack-jawed Asian there—were widely remarked upon when Revenge Of The Fallen was originally released, but really they’re of a piece with the rest of the movie, which is relentlessly crass. One tiny robot calls Fox a “crazy bitch” and humps her leg. Another farts. Another has giant balls. Where the first film mocked Bush-administration yahoos, the second spoofs ineffectual Obama-crats. And in a sequence that any saner director would’ve cut right away, LaBeouf’s mother scarfs some pot brownies:
Again, it isn’t that the low comedy here is a problem in and of itself; it’s that it doesn’t really seem to fit into a movie best enjoyed by 10-year-olds. Just as with the first film, the second is at its best when its trotting out cool toys for kids and kids-at-heart, like this scene of nanobots assembling into a larger machine:
Of course, that scene also points to a larger problem with both Transformers movies: When the machinery really starts moving, with all its whirring gears and shiny surfaces, it’s hard to tell what’s what. Heck, when the machinery starts talking, it seems out of place. The robots’ voices never seem to sync up with the humans who are talking to and around them, in large part because Bay encourages his actors to ramble. That’s always been Bay’s biggest problem: He seems to be in love with everything he shoots, and leaves it all in even when it doesn’t make any sense, or shatters the illusion. He could stand to take the advice of John Turturro’s character in Revenge Of The Fallen: “Condense. Plot. Tell it.”
How much of the experience wasn’t a total waste of time? About 25 percent, I’d say. Look, I’m not made of stone. I like seeing big mechanical beasties level whole city blocks. (For a while anyway.) And I’m not immune to the charms of tongue-in-cheek lines like “NBEs… Non-biological extraterrestrials. Try and keep up with the acronyms.” But these movies are so damn unrelenting that even the highlights quickly get overwhelmed. They’re garish, they’re tasteless, they’re smugly self-satisfied… they’re Michael Bay movies.