Welcome back to my “Good Things About…” feature, where I attempt to find some redeeming qualities in some of the worst superhero/sci-fi/fantasy/geek culture movies of all-time. This time I set my sights on the spectacularly awful ‘Transformers’ franchise, directed by public enemy #1 at the Geek League of America, Michael Bay.
The Transformers films from Universal Studios and Producer/Director Michael Bay are without question, one of the worst film franchises of the young 21st century. How painful is the experience of sitting through one of these films? Well, I once described it thusly:
First, get two friends to duct tape your hands and feet to a chair, then, when you’re nice and snug, have them stick a funnel in your mouth and pour 70 or 80 boxes of sour patch kids and sno-caps down your gullet until you are vomiting uncontrollably. Next, tape two powerful LED flashlights to a pair of eyeglass frames and put them on with the light shining directly into your retinas, while one of your friends smashes a pair of cymbals right next to your ear and the other alternates between punching you in the side of the head with brass knuckles and sticking a taser into your groin.
That’s not just hyperbole folks, these films truly are that awful. None of them have a coherent narrative or a plot that even attempts to make sense — the films are simply a series of chases after numerous Macguffins whose impact on the plot varies from scene to scene. It’s a film franchise starved of character development, yet fattened by sexist, racist, misogynistic, juvenile, masturbatory bombast that appeals to the lowest common denominator. However, this is a “Good Things About…” article, and by golly I put on my blast goggles, stared through the countless explosions, and sifted through the rubble to dig up four redeemable qualities in Michael Bay’s Transformers flicks:
4.) Sam & Bumblebee
First and foremost, I should state that right from the opening minutes of this series, the narrative focus is all wrong. The Transformers films should be about, you know, The TRANSFORMERS, and not the humans scurrying around taking up precious screen time with their horrible problems like their parents eating some pot brownies, or having to carry a conversation with Megan Fox. But, I digress.
This entry regarding the relationship between Sam and Bumblebee is strictly relegated to the events of the first film, because at least that one at least made an attempt to have some semblance of character development. It’s hard to believe, but Shia LaBeouf was actually affable and likeable in the first Transformers film. His Sam Witwicky was a Peter Parker type: a smart, dorky kid who just wanted a cool car to impress the hottest chick in school. What he ended up with was a beat-up old yellow and black Camaro that turned out to be a damaged and lost alien robot in disguise.
He quickly became Sam’s protector in the insane intergalactic conflict erupting all around him, and because Bumblebee’s vocal systems were destroyed, he could only communicate with Sam through gestures as well as through snippets of radio broadcasts sent through the dashboard. It made for a nice “boy and his loyal dog” dynamic that carried through the remainder of the film (and on into the sequels). Sam & Bumblebee’s relationship was one of the few quiet, honest, and charming aspects of a film series otherwise dominated by loudness and crudity.
3.) Michael Bay
Holy hell, it was difficult to type that. However, it’s the truth. Michael Bay, while being one of the worst things about these movies, is also one of the best. It’s a fascinating and frustrating dichotomy — frustrating, because Michael Bay is actually a very talented director with all the technical acumen in the world and a good eye for sumptuous imagery. The problem lies in his editing choices, where he places and moves his camera (way too close to the action, and too “shaky”), and of course, his juvenile predilections for gratuitous T&A, racist caricatures, and lowbrow humor.
Bay climbs out of those dark shadows from time to time, bathing the audiences’ eyes in gorgeous sunsets, beautifully framed shots, and – when he pulls the camera back and stops shaking it – some of the most dazzling, adrenaline-fueled action sequences ever committed to celluloid. He’s also quite adept at utilizing digital 3D technology. The sequence in Dark of the Moon where the 3D camera is placed on the helmet of a military base jumper diving out of military aircraft is one of the most visceral, vertigo-inducing scenes I have ever witnessed in a movie theater. If Bay ever tones down his adolescent fetishes and gets a solid screenplay to work with, watch out — I may have to take back everything negative I said about him.
2.) The Special Effects of ILM
Say what you will about the content of these flicks (and boy, I’ve said a lot), but the special effects work by George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic on the transforming “robots in disguise” is groundbreaking, envelope-pushing stuff. The transformers themselves may be terribly designed, but they way they are constructed and seamlessly integrated into environments is nothing short of astonishing. If you believe the eggheads behind the computers (and I do), each transformer’s change from robot to vehicle and vice versa is carefully engineered so that every panel and moving part is accounted for in the transformation process. That’s just insane.
I also don’t recall a single scene in any of the Transformers film where I thought to myself, “This looks terribly fake,” or “This CGI is awful.” Everything looks expertly rendered, lit, and composited. Of course, most of this spectacle is devoid of any meaning, but no one annihilates city blocks, collapses skyscrapers, or creates robot-on-robot metal carnage like the folks at ILM.
1.) Peter Cullen as Optimus Prime
Michael Bay didn’t get much right, but there is one thing that he hit a bullseye on — he got Peter Cullen to voice the heroic leader of the Autobots, Optimus Prime. I could be wrong about this, but I’m fairly certain that in every incarnation of the character across all different mediums (TV, film, video games, etc.) no one else has ever voiced the character.
Like Kevin Conroy with Batman, or Mark Hamill with The Joker, Cullen is synonymous with the Optimus Prime; his distinct voice conveys the valor, honor, and sense of duty that the Autobot leader embodies. There were rumblings when the first Transformers film went into production that Bay wanted a “name actor” to voice his Optimus, but Bay quickly (and wisely) realized that would be a horrendous mistake and did the right thing by the fans, who probably would’ve lynched him otherwise. Cullen’s classic “AUTOBOTS, TRANSFORM AND ROLL OUT!” still gives me chills when I hear it, even if it is in the middle of a crap-tacular, tedious dud like Revenge of the Fallen. That’s just how awesome Peter Cullen is.