I never really got into the Transformers as a kid. When the toys arrived in North America, followed by the cartoon series, I had moved out of my action-figure phase, and well into the obsessive movie consumption that would define my adult self.
But that adult self still enjoys a good throwdown between giant alien robots, so I had modest hopes for Michael Bay’s run at updating the franchise as a photo-real action-adventure epic. Not that I’ve really ever enjoyed any of his movies, but “The Rock” was nicely assembled, and “The Island” demonstrated Bay could even handle the occasional Big Idea, as long as he got to blow a lot of stuff up around it.
Well, lots of stuff blows up in Michael Bay’s “Transformers“. Cars, trucks, airplanes, buildings, even the occasional giant robot. It should be a perfect marriage of auteur and premise — at its core, the Transformers franchise is just an excuse for product placement and robot battles, which in Bay’s hands could be exquisitely realized, exhilaratingly rendered and totally awesome.
Instead, it’s just exhausting, with Bay’s general disregard for such cinematic frills as logic, story, character development and gravity once again reducing a fertile premise to a big, steaming pile of digital effects.
“Transformers” looks terrific; once again, we are reminded that CGI has evolved to the level of seamless integration, and human beings can share the screen with anything a filmmaker can imagine. But filmmakers still have to be smart enough to create a world where those integrations seem possible.
A tractor-trailer that turns into a sixty-foot-tall robot? No problem. But when nobody notices that sixty-foot robot walking around a California suburb, that’s … well, that’s pretty damn stupid.
The Hoover Dam being used as a secret frozen-robot holding facility? Sure, I’m cool with that. Los Angeles being a few minutes’ sprint from said facility, after we’re explicitly told it’s some 280 miles away? Stupid.
Now, it’s certainly possible to be smart and stupid at the same time — a number of Roland Emmerich’s films, including “Stargate”, “Independence Day” and “The Day After Tomorrow” pull the trick off nicely. (It’s probably not a coincidence that “Transformers” steals a key second-act revelation from “Independence Day”, either.) But those movies turn ridiculousness of scale into a running gag of sorts, and remain charmingly fixated on human conflicts.
Emmerich might have done a nice job with “Transformers”, actually — although, to be fair, he might also have botched it the same way he botched “Godzilla”. But he wouldn’t have botched it the way Bay does.
“Transformers” is a Michael Bay movie, which means it’s a film with such severe ADD that it can’t tell its own simple story: Characters just exchange exposition until it’s time to fill the screen with explosions. Bay’s films display no self-knowledge whatsoever and are generally joyless machines, defining character through desire rather than motivation, finding humor only in moments of sexual or racial humiliation (you’re better than this, Anthony Anderson), and ultimately abandoning any pretense of character development for the extravagant rock ’em-sock ’em finale.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s going to be huge. People will line up just to see their childhood toys come to life on a grand scale and knock each other around. But it’s crap. Worse, it’s Michael Bay crap. Why did we ever think it was going to be anything more?