It's Transformers week everybody!
Indeed, unlike you lucky people across the Atlantic who've had a whole seven days to digest Michael Bay's latest installment of metal mayhem, for us cinema folk here in the UK Transformers: Age of Extinction is hot off the press. I've not seen it yet. (Admittedly, the robustness of the word "yet" in that sentence is questionable). To tell you the truth, I'm not a great admirer of Bay's adopted franchise. It all started in 2007.
Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is a stereotypical boy teenager. He's into cars, girls and late-19th century exploration. Perhaps that last attribute isn't the most applicable to a male adolescent, but it's part of an eccentric mosaic that sets Sam apart from the rest. It could simply be a feeble plot point, but who am I to judge. Certainly, Sam has a crush on his classmate Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox) but the only way he's going to get her attention is with an engine.
Turns out his new car is a Transformer. There's a multitude of other stuff going on - political struggles, technological misfire, a band of surviving soldiers in Qatar (that's in the Middle East, by the way), the arrival of evil Decepticons, the arrival of friendly Autobots - but at its most basic, and this film is rather basic, Transformers is about giant robots punching and kicking and wheeling each other.
Director Michael Bay cannot contain himself. His immaturity spills out across the screen from the get-go: a gravelly, deep voice kicks off proceedings ushering in the overly macho tone; an array of snazzy camera angles each act as a sales pitch for the next military helicopter; it only takes six and half minutes for the first (and second, third, fourth) explosion to shake the screen. Bay absolutely has a way with visuality. He's able to create carnage that looks impressive and that sounds impressive. But it's all very movie trailer-esque, as if we're watching a feature length advert for the next blockbuster only its stuck on a loud, grating loop.
Substance would take a back seat if the back seat still existed - Megatron probably crushed it. He, or it, is the villain. Adversary of the human-appreciating Optimus Prime who arrives promptly with his band of misfit car pretenders to save the day. They're robots though, and they're not blanketed in enough development to make us care. Nor are the human characters and, although the likes of Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox (she's far from the worst thing in this film) amass their very best collective effort to generate some sort of viewer connection, one doesn't exist.
It could be that goings-on shimmer with an unhealthy sheen of artifice. The CGI looks good but ultimately acts as a momentary veil over the real problem: shallowness. There are four female characters dotted throughout the almost two and a half hour runtime. That's about one for every six male. (At least, males with lines). We've got two mothers who seldom appear, a smart analyst played efficiently by Rachael Taylor who's treated as though she's dumb despite being the smartest of the pack, and Megan Fox who's role is almost entirely based on her cosmetic allure. The US President doesn't make a full-body appearance but we do hear him mutter some chauvinist line to a flight attendant - oops, there's a fifth female.
There's arguably an even larger issue at hand here and it's to do with us, the audience. But what audience? It's eternally tough to care about giant car shape-shifters because they do little else but fight, so in that sense Transformers might not be for me. I'm not into meaningless vehicular Smackdown, that's fine. It's a kids film then, one for the younger boys and girls who do get a genuine kick out of that sort of thing. Only there's Megan Fox bending over car bonnets. And hold on a minute, those child-friendly robots have started swearing now. It's only mild here, but the defamation of what once was a children's 80s cartoon flick and toy line is catapulted into the next stratosphere in Transformers 2 and 3. There obviously is an audience for the franchise, it's already made over two billion dollars worldwide, but the respect between filmmaker and his viewership is seemingly only half-mutual. (Come on Michael, we know Qatar is in the Middle East).
The aforementioned runtime is also unnecessary, particularly when scenes involving irrelevant clothes removal and lamppost handcuffing take up five minutes of screen time. This is the director at optimum indulgence. It's more boring than annoying.
In Michael Bay's material world where only good-looking people exist and big booming fireballs carry more weight than sturdy narrative, Transformers is probably a masterpiece. In the real world, it's a film that alienates the young audience it should be targeting in favour of a guaranteed cash prize.
Early on Mikaela's jock boyfriend says, "Oh no, this is not a toy". He's talking about a car and he's completely right. Transformers ain't a toy anymore, the innocence is gone.
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