Thursday, July 5, 2007

Movie Review: Transformers

Am I the only one who thinks it's creepy to make out while a sentient car is watching?

Transformers, directed by Michael Bay. Written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. Produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura. Executive Producer Steven Spielberg. Starring Shia LeBeouf, Megan Fox, and Josh Duhamel. 2007. Runtime 144 minutes. Rated PG-13. USCCB Rating is AIII--Adults.

See other reviews here.

This movie is too long, its action sequences are excessive and loud, and its script is mindless, convoluted, and overly crass.

Since the original Transformers cartoon was basically a big advertisement for plastic toys that break easily, it's probably appropriate that the live-action movie should be a big advertisement for General Motors products. I have a lot of things to say about the movie, but through it all, keep in mind that the film's real, ultimate message is that you need a 2008 Chevy Camaro so that hot girl will make out with you on the hood.

The plot, if it can be called that, goes something like this. Young Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf), a likable kid with a funny name played by a likable actor with a funny name, is a geek who thinks he needs a car to finally get the attention of Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox), a teenage girl who looks more like a thirtysomething supermodel (actual actress's age, to my shock, is only 21 as of this writing). Sam convinces his dad to buy him a crummy 1974 Chevy Camaro, which he chooses over a yellow Volkswagen Beetle also sitting in the car lot.

As it turns out, the Camaro is more than meets the eye, for it is actually a robot from outer space, the Autobot Bumblebee, who has been sent to Earth to find Sam, who has an artifact, passed down from his great grandfather, containing a map to the Allspark, a powerful cube capable of transforming ordinary electronic devices into sentient robots (just go with it). Incidentally, Bumblebee was back in the day a Volkswagen Beetle, so I found the conscious rejection of the cute and lovable car of old in favor of the new rougher, tougher Bumblebee a little disheartening. It's also representative of this movie, which is rougher and tougher than the old cartoon, and not in a good way.

As we soon learn, the Autobots are good robots battling against evil robots called Decepticons. The leader of the Decepticons has the transparently evil name Megatron and was apparently frozen in the arctic for some reason until--*yawn*--the government discovered him and hid him away as part of a conspiracy (hints of Independence Day). Now the Decepticons and Autobots have come to Earth, disguised themselves as our vehicles, and begun a race to find the Allspark and determine the fate of the galaxy.

After a number of loose-ended subplots I won't mention, Sam Witwicky makes friends with the Autobots but has a run-in with the Men in Black (led by John Turturro) who have been covering up the existence of Megatron and the Allspark, which they have buried in the Hoover Dam. The Decepticons show up and shut things down, freeing Megatron. The Autobots show up as well, and the heroes actually decide on purpose to move the Allspark and the forthcoming battle to a nearby megatropolis, apparently for the purpose of maximizing casualties. And would somebody tell me how Los Angeles got so close to Hoover Dam?

Since this is a Michael Bay movie, the action sequences are long and loud, but the battles between Autobots and Decepticons do contain some genuinely impressive robot-fu. In particular, Camaro Bumblebee gives cop car Barricade a sound thrashing in the movie's first half, and the final city battle includes plenty of soldiers firing guns, big robots doing leaping somersaults, stuff exploding, and a one-on-one battle royale between Megatron and Autobot leader Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen). It's cool, but I can't be completely enthusiastic about a film that permanently damaged my hearing.

Now about the crassness: I count two urine jokes, one masturbation joke, two porn-magazines-under-the-bed jokes, one lewd gesture, and countless sexual innuendos, mainly about what characters have under the hood. Since the movie is largely about robots, the filmmakers apparently decided to bring the human characters down a notch by objectifying the film's only significant female, Mikaela Banes. Early on, a minor character calls her a "ho," and throughout the movie, the camera is constantly ogling her exposed midriff, her exposed cleavage, and her exposed fake eyelashes. Shortly after they meet, she asks Sam, "Do you think I'm shallow?" I immediately said yes, though it was mainly the cinematographer's and costume-designer's fault. The character of Mikaela is analogous to the movie as a whole--fun to look at, but not very deep and not very important. What particularly weirds me out is a scene in which Mikaela is in Sam's bedroom (for an innocent reason having to do with saving the world) when Sam's parents burst in. Rather than freak out that their teenage son has a scantily clad woman in his room, they congratulate him. What's wrong with this movie? Did I accidentally walk into American Pie?

It is inescapable that this movie is basically a glorified ad for General Motors. Every one of the Autobots is a General Motors vehicle, and every one of them is in showroom condition even after the battles. On their grills, they proudly display the famous Transformers insignia, and they also proudly display the famous GMC logo right beneath it. Particularly obnoxious, after Mikaela complains that Bumblebee is a "crappy car," Bumblebee spins around and drives off. Then he drives back, to triumphant rock music, as the new 2008 Camaro, which the camera gleefully ogles much as it earlier ogled Mikaela's breasts. Expect to see this clip ad nauseum in future TV commercials.

The movie ends with Sam and Mikaela and Bumblebee on a romantic overlook. Sam and Mikaela are sprawled across the car's hood, making out. Weird. I mean honestly, would you make out on K.I.T.T. or Herbie? I wouldn't. Teenagers making out on the hood is a classic image of the link between sex and automobiles that has become a permanent part of the American consciousness, but it's also an image that's always led me to ask, "Wouldn't the windshield wipers be uncomfortable?" Besides that, I have reached a point where I really don't want to see teens making out on film, especially when nothing resembling legitimate romance has preceded it.

And one more beef before we get to the meat. While Megatron and Optimus Prime are fighting, Megatron says in villainous fashion, "These humans don't deserve to live!" to which Optimus replies, "They deserve to choose for themselves!" Choose what? Whether or not they want to be blown up by Decepticons? What kind of a lame choice is that? What kind of a lame comeback is that?

But enough of that. A week or so ago, I happened to be watching The Colbert Report, which is not one of my regular viewing habits. It's not a show to be taken seriously, but Stephen Colbert was complaining that Transformers was a bad movie for teaching that our salvation against evil invading aliens lies at least partly with another group of aliens. Before responding, I will mention that this notion has precedent: does everyone remember V?

If you squint at it funny, you'll see that Transformers makes a reasonable analogy to some Christian teachings. It depicts a cosmic war for the fate of humanity happening, for the most part, out of sight. Alone and unaided, the humans in the movie are doomed in the face of the Decepticon onslaught; they succeed in the end only with the help of the Autobots, but that does not mean the humans get to stand back and watch. On the contrary, they take an active role in the battle. This is similar to how we understand grace; without it, doom is certain, but people must cooperate with it and allow it in order for it to be effective. Some of the human characters in the film, out of ignorance, fear, or malice, attempt to frustrate the Autobots from achieving their goal of protecting humanity and in that sense do very nearly hand themselves over to the Decepticons. It is only through cooperation--that is, allowing the Autobots to do their work--that victory is ultimately achieved.

Viewed in this light, Optimus Prime's lame-o comeback takes on new weight. Humans do have a choice. Of allowing themselves to be annihilated by Decepticons? Yes, in a manner of speaking. They have the option of continuing in sin, yet they also have the option of cooperate with grace, but only if they are willing to do the hard things asked of them instead of taking the easy way out. One of those hard things is accepting the Autobots even though they're frightening.

And that brings us back to that command about childlikeness. In the movie, it is only the children who are trusting enough to approach the Autobots without fear. After an Autobot lands in her parents' swimming pool, a young girl holding a stuffed toy walks outside and stands before him calmly as he climbs out, only asking him, "Are you the tooth fairy?" And during a big fight on a freeway, when a couple of battling robots land nearby and people everywhere are panicking, another young girl turns to her mother and says, "Cool, mommy!" And of course, the two teenaged characters do a better job getting along with the Autobots than do most of the adults. This reminds us of another aspect of childlikeness, the aspect of trust, which is often difficult in the face of life's troubles and in the face of a holy God who can be quite frightening himself.

But the positive points I've worked in don't make up for the crude, foolish, and unoriginal humor the moviemakers have worked in. It's a sad thing when our children's stories have become too disgusting even for tasteful adults. No thank you, Michael Bay, for bringing the fun and innocent Transformers into the nasty and ugly twenty-first century.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Transformers:

Myth Level: Medium-High (epic battle, something akin to a coming-of-age, quest)

Quality: Medium (cool effects, lame script, hard-to-follow action)

Ethics/Religion: Medium-Low (rude and crude with good stuff you have to dig for)

Filmography links and data courtesy of The Internet Movie Database.

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