Tuesday, September 2, 2008

'Transformers' Is Comprehensively Awful

(For a review of Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen, please click here.)

I remember reading a message board discussion of this movie about a year ago and being utterly blown away by several people sincerely arguing that it might be the best movie of the year. I hadn't even seen it yet, but I was fairly certain that no one could possibly generate a thought like that unless they also still considered getting a Happy Meal and then a Chuck E. Cheese pizza the only lunch and dinner options on their birthdays.

Still, I thought it'd be fun in a turn-brain-off, watch-thing-blow-up way. It's not. Transformers is a blockbuster of dong-huffing. It was written, directed, acted and scored as if the one question above all that everyone on the crew asked themselves was, "In this scene, am I doing enough to make sure this movie huffs the greatest number of dongs?" If Transformers were a car company, its slogan would be, "Dong-Huffing Is Job #1." If every disaffected Korean youth with a surname starting with D were given free paint cans and unlimited alone time in the garage, there would still be significantly less huffing of Dongs than in this movie. This movie is comprehensively awful.

A movie of this caliber doesn't deserve the care of a flowing, crafted review. That level of attention only encourages the people who make something like this. Like children to whom you finally relent and give a cookie when they shriek and wail, you're only giving them incentive to do something similarly terrible again. Instead, the two hours and 20 minutes of cinematic abuse merits bullet points, at best.


A Brief List of Everything Wrong with This Movie

Your leading man: Shia LaBeouf! You know how you could watch River Phoenix in the beginning of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and just know that with those looks, acting chops and the Spielberg imprimatur he was going to be an outstanding actor for the next four decades? Watching this movie is nothing like that. Watching Shia LaBeouf gives you the same sense of long-term career permanence and simmering dread you'd get from watching Regis Philbin on the Joey Bishop Show in 1967.*
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* — Seriously, what is it with Spielberg and Shia LaBeouf? According to that bastion of trustworthiness, Wikipedia, Spielberg cast him in Disturbia, Transformers, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Eagle Eye. I most sincerely do not want to be tagged with an anti-semitic label, but I can't help but wonder if Spielberg keeps pushing this kid because he is an up-and-coming Jewish actor who's doesn't downplay his ethnicity. It can't be because he's interesting, especially talented or even all that good-looking: he isn't any of the three. Spielberg has always come off as such a consummate family man, so you can't picture Shia being a bastard child of his. I think the reason why I want to chalk it up to a kind of tribal or religious bond is because I've agreed with so many of the decisions Spielberg has made as an artist over the years that I want to ascribe his irrational ones to something I already consider irrational. (Religion seems to be to be abandoning oneself to irrationality, while self-identifying with a group based on ancestry — over which you have no control — seems similarly irrational.) I guess in this case I want Spielberg to really love this kid because of a sense of community he feels obligated to give back to, because, if he's acting on what he considers to be objective reason, the only other option is that he's finally gone off the deep end. Given the schmaltzy ending of Saving Private Ryan, given the forced and affected tenderness of AI, given the walkie-talkie CGI in ET, given the fact that he keeps wanting to work with Tom Cruise and thought War of the Worlds was a good idea, it's sort of easy to see where that might be possible. I'm just afraid that this LaBeouf fixation indicates one of my all-time favorite directors is doing his best to keep up with his buddy Lucas in becoming a stupid and crazy afterthought determined to crank out one abortion after another.
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The entire production oozes the expected high-concept schlock you've come to know and dread. Though pretty much the most confusing and terrifying shit imaginable happens to everyone in the movie, the only time the word "shit" is used is when a robot accidentally kills itself. It's comic relief. Then it's supposedly appropriate, instead of when you would expect someone to say it, when all kinds of horrifying alien violence destroys their lives.

The comic-relief suicide robot spends most of the movie running around emitting "oh, numm numm blargh blubb blubb" noises. Evidently it was programmed by Jerry Lewis to try to do a Jar Jar Binks impression.

In addition to the colorless language associated with "high concept," the plot exudes the typical pain-by-numbers feel. When Shia explains how his great-grandfather went insane, raving about a metal man he discovered in the arctic 80 years ago, you know that that metal man will turn out to be a Transformer, and the artifacts Shia's holding up will drive the plot. Meanwhile, as the Pretty Girl Way Out of His League looks on while he gives his class presentation, you know that he will make out with this girl after they share two hours' worth of danger, after bonding over cars, which she will unexpectedly know lots about.

This is movie #417 in which the U.S. Government has yet another super-secret branch of intelligence, founded decades ago, with a name like "Sector 7." Also, Sector 7 agents are known for delivering wincingly bad lines about their "ridiculous government salaries." Hahaha, what other super-secret sinecures will those tax-and-spend liberals dream up next?!?!?

To combat the greatest danger it has ever faced, the U.S. Government enlists the help of youthful misfit computer hackers who have to "hack" the alien signals. Their utterly boring adventures account for about a quarter of the movie, complete with blinkered persecution and incarceration at the hands of the same U.S. Government that hired them. What a horrible misunderstanding — how will they ever get out of this one?

Speaking of blinkered, John Turturro is completely wasted as a Sector 7 agent who's more concerned about bureaucratic protocol than about not dying at the hands bombs, flying orbs of fire, guns, giant crushing footsteps, something that looks like sharpened flying DVDs and/or "unexpected comedy option death." If they made a summer blockbuster called Katrina: The Stormwater's Edge, his character would say something like, "If you didn't want to live 30 feet below sea level next to a 150-year-old wooden dike, maybe you should have filled out this ream of forms. Now, look at this badge—LOOK AT IT! You know what that says? That says I can do what-ev-er I want. And what I want to do is staple." His work in this movie can't even approach the respect and range of a role like his sneaky butler in Mr. Deeds. Seeing Turturro trying to find something to act with in a movie this bad is akin to a concert violinist going down on the Titanic and being told to please not play anything.

• Only Bumblebee and Optimus Prime have a recognizable design. The rest are virtually indistinguishable, which is a pity, because their characters are equally as indistinguishable.

Every single other transformer looks like an anthropomorphic junkyard.

Fights are filmed up close and in shaky-cam mode, an inexcusable choice in a nearly 100% CGI environment. The choice makes sense in the Bourne movies, where the unsteady framing makes hand-to-hand combat appear more authentic by removing the clear, stable shot of choreographed moves, and where the scattered and unstable perspective makes the danger of being in a fight more immediate for the viewer. But in this movie, the details of each fight could have been totally controlled. When you can depict any thing you want, going for expedience by presenting off-center, jangling details of figures that are already confused jumbles of machinery taxes the audience, robs fights of any sense of coherence and displays a sloppy absence of artistic ability. People walking into this movie only cared about seeing three things:
1. Seeing cool-ass robots.
2. Seeing them beat the crap out of each other.
3. Seeing cool chases and dogfights. (See the following point.)
Instead what they get to see what might as well have been two wads of the crushed car Oddjob killed a dude in being dropped on another crushed car Oddjob killed a dude in, only presented in such a way that they couldn't tell which carwad got dropped on which other carwad.

It's a movie about super-advanced alien robots who can change into cars and jet planes, and every car chase and dogfight sucks so incredibly much that their incompetence dazzles and astounds more than the chases/dogfights themselves. Coming up with an analog for how badly the filmmakers dropped the ball on features so elemental to the plot taxes the imagination. Probably the only way you could equal this level of disappointment would be to see a classic underdog story about a Super Bowl game, only one team is manned by Pop-Warner players, and the other team consists of 11 Pakistani cricketers. Then they play Boggle at each other.

This is the most important exchange in the movie:
Some Transformer Who I Can't Identify Because He Looks Like the Set of Sanford and Son: Why are we fighting to save the humans? They're a primitive, violent race.
Optimus Prime: Were we so different? They're a young species. They have much to learn. But I've seen goodness in them. Freedom is the right of all sentient beings. You all know there's only one way to end this war.
I actually welled up a little. In fact, I would have written this blog entry sooner if I hadn't just gone to Cafepress.com to get my new bumper sticker:
OPTIMUS PRIME SAYS:
DON'T CUT AND RUN.
AUTOBOTS IN IRAQ TILL THE JOB IS DONE.
Still, to a certain extent you have to admire that somewhere a writer had the ability to write those lines with total sincerity, while yet another person had the personal composure to read those lines, approve them and never once give in to the justifiable hunger to prop that writer's eyes open like Alex in A Clockwork Orange and force him to read an omnibus of American rhetoric while beating him ecstatically with a flail.

The entire movie looks as if a small tribal boy under the age of 16, whose sole exposure to film, dramaturgy, acting, government, combat, romance and history came from Bruckheimer movies, was ordered to write and direct a summer blockbuster based on them, without its being a satire.

• Even that doesn't describe it. Imagine, if you will, the movie Airplane! Then imagine Airplane! if the acting, directing and screenplay were all the same, but all the jokes were cut out and the plot was one hour longer. Then imagine scoring this new version Airplane! with the sort of music used to induce dropouts to join the Marines. Then imagine promoting the entire thing with absolute, humorless sincerity. The movie so singularly fails at every thing it attempts that you can only think of it as a poor abandoned parody in search of both wit and the genre that spawned it.

It's boring. Really, it is. A movie about the threat of apocalypse at the hands of evil machines that can turn into literally any other type of machine manages to be unentertaining in almost every possible way. I wrote a third of this while the movie was still playing.

Hey, if you thought that was great, check out that "we're already writing a sequel" ending!

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Et tu, Mr. Destructo? is a politics, sports and media blog whose purpose is to tell jokes or be really right about things. All of us have real jobs and don't need the hassle that telling jokes here might occasion, which is why some contributors find it more tasteful to pretend to be dead mass murderers.