Saturday, May 21, 2011

Transformers (2007, Michael Bay)

Transformers (Two-Disc Special Edition + BD Live) [Blu-ray]In an early Pauline Kael piece, she picks apart the disingenuity of Dr. Zhivago-style epics:  films that dress up in big sister's clothes, putting on airs of "realism" in the hopes that in three or so hours of bloated screenplay we will just... feel... something.  She goes on to discuss how these films, which remind us of an ill-tempered child pushing every button in the elevator, are mistaken for masterpieces because of their ability to manufacture calculated responsiveness.  In the early 21st-Century, the biggest blockbuster receipts come from films as bloated and as calculated as these '60s epics, but something is lost.  It is not for lack up budget or even lack of effort.  It certainly is no lack of footage; the first two Transformers movies and-- on the other (same?) side of the coin-- the first two Twilight movies total 546 minutes which is at least two and a half movies too long considering no real stories lie within.  It's a strange phenomenon that these films are stuffed with little more than minutes; couldn't more money be made as shorter run times lead to more showings?  It's as if the length overcompensates for shallow narrative: it's an epic because by the time you got out of the theater your ass and mind were equally numb.  You're begging to feel something.  The billion dollar pictures of today are made for the kid in the elevator.

There is a certain sublimeness to Kevin James waddling around with a KFC bucket over his head in Grown Ups.  That isn't to say that Grown Ups is a more grown up film than Transformers (though I suppose that might be true), it's just that Grown Ups was upfront about its (sub)mediocrity.  And no, it didn't do it particularly well and no, it didn't reach beyond the low bar (even boom mics are exposed), but it was even a long comedy (102 minutes) that had the decency to get us out of the theater when it was done being stupid.  Kevin James wearing a chicken bucket is a kind of broad stupid gesture that I can accept as an immediate (sic. low-brow, slapstick if you must) acknowledgment that even empty cinema and comedy have potency in a quick visual gag.  I don't need to see an extended sequence completely non-central to the narrative of a run-down Camaro speaking through early-'80s soft-rock MOR directly mimicking the action on the screen.  There is no room for subtlety in the Transformers script because it bears the dilemma of both making the audience feel clever while drawing from references every 13-year-old can catch.  So we are pitched a bunch of overtly sexual quips ("Can I ride you home?" "It squirts the fuel so you can go faster") that fail even as double entendre because no one would ever talk that way (much like Sam would never really listen to Player).  The film's idea of humor substitutes the referential (sometimes self-referential with an Armageddon gag) for written jokes.  The dialogue of the Transformers is, in almost every case, knowingly reflexive.  What they say has no bearing on their surroundings, nor does it fall into what we understand as discourse; they are one-liners to remind the audience that they are watching a movie, over and over again.

To call Michael Bay incompetent is unfair: such a statement suggests that he doesn't know exactly what he is up to and that the film isn't in its own way technically proficient.  What the film lacks in pacing and suspension of disbelief has more to do with laziness than inadequacy:  The film is a real paradox in that its action is built on premature ejaculation, but overstays its welcome, taking forever to get off the ground.  Bay knows there is no need for a tight script as long as you hit your action beats.  The introduction to the Autobots happens at the cool, calculated one-hour mark-- not because the front end was loaded with exposition, but because pockets of often indecipherable action float it along within a familiar framework.  It's lazy, but forgotten when big machines start clanking around.  The commotion is anything but truly kinetic, but rapid cuts and Dolby Digital can make up for that.  We forget that Sam endangers Mikaela rather than plays hero with his empty bravado of "get in the car.  Trust me!"  Like Ironhide misquoting Dirty Harry, it sounds like something that came from a movie, but doesn't follow. 

Though the film stands as a financial success based entirely on its special effects, several visuals are treated haphazardly.  Its sound and visuals have an ballsy gusto overwhelming to its target audience who then overlook the fact that at times Optimus Prime looks nearly forty feet tall and then the film will devote an expensive CGI close-up of him picking up a pair of glasses who's scale suggests he's closer to twelve feet.  Robots causing destructive mayhem has been cool since Fritz Lang's Metropolis, but they often represented the mores of their surrounding culture.  The Cold War and advancing technologies brought fear of dehumanization and extinction that gave power to The Day The Earth Stood Still and TerminatorTransformers isn't a reaction to advancing technologies it's an acknowledgment of it.  It takes more than an eBay reference to offer up social commentary, and the film's lack of dread (or even real conflict) is due to the action taking place for the sake of action and nothing more.  It's a film in form and function that settles with feeding its audience tripe because it knows it will be gobbled up.

Look no further than every significant non-robot character in the film to know who it was marketed toward.  Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox play seventeen-year-olds, but it's the mother who jokes about masturbation.  Prime's personality is said to reflect a 40-something, but the film has the Autobot's knowledge of human language come from the Internet.  Really?  Jazz's stereotypical African American vocal inflection and use of gang signs comes from reading webpages?  Worse: exactly two characters use the term "bitch."  One is the black-coded Jazz delivering one of his about two lines in the entire movie and the second is Bernie Mac who calls his own mother a bitch right after he calls her "mammy."  I suppose the misogyny is softened following the racist joke.  And I'm not even going to start on the Anthony Anderson character (who hates his Mammy grandmother, too).

Transformers is a film where high-schoolers save the planet, 22-year-olds foil the Secretary of Defense and robots want to shoot parents because they just don't understand.  The film is as right-wing as anything Bay has ever made, but even the military side-plot takes a backseat to Anderson's fat cousin playing Dance Dance Revolution.  Also, Bumblebee pees on a cop.  Bay is not an incompetent filmmaker, he is a vile one.  He markets the youth, panders to the youth, and spoon-feeds them racism and misogyny in the name of "good fun".  We're told to leave it alone because it's a "kid's movie" of "eye candy".  It's a movie, apologists argue, formed out of youth culture when it is very carefully manipulating it.  Transformers is an ugly, ugly film that gets a pass by parents because of how shiny its robots are.  Is Bay just being lazy?  No, that would be its sequel. -- ½* / four stars

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