Awhile back, when I was first starting these reviews, I had shied away from reviewing Transformers 2. Not sure why I wanted to review it in the first place, probably just because I was looking to bash the hell out of it! But you know what they say about dead horses… However, I recently saw Transformers 3 at long last, and figured that since I had the trilogy under my belt, maybe a review was in order. However, there are two other reasons for why I would want to cover this franchise now. One, Michael Bay’s re-envisioning of this franchise has earned him some serious bitch-slapping from fans and critics alike, and I’ll be damned if I’m not going to get some slaps of my own in! Two, as a kid, I was a big fan of the animated series and happened to notice there were some pretty big differences between the old and the new. And just for the sake of doing something different, I think I’ll ditch the usual formats and try to review all three at once! A tall order, and reviewing Bay movies has been known to be harmful to the grey matter, so wish me luck!
The movie opens with an explanation by Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) of the movie’s big maguffin – that is, the thing that’s driving the plot. It’s called the All Spark, its a mysterious technology that creates living machinery, and is apparently what created the Transformers. And this is why they are coming to Earth, apparently, to retrieve it before the Decepticons can. Because, as is explained later, this is where it landed and whoever has it will decide the fate of Cybertron – the Transformer homeworld which has been devastated by an ongoing war between the two sides. The Autobots want to use it to rebuild, Megatron wants to use it to take over.
This sets up the plot which consists of a race to find it, as well as the character of Sam Witwicky (played by Shia LaBeouf). He’s the unlikely hero who’s grandad happened to accidentally find the location of it when he chanced upon Megatron’s frozen carcass somewhere over the Arctic Circle. Seems Megatron came to Earth back in the 30’s to locate the All Spark has been here ever since, in frozen form. And, of course, his discovery by other humans at this time became the basis for some shadowy group named Sector 7 – a covert intel bunch that has all kinds of info on the Decepticons and is currently in possession of the All Spark and Megatron’s body. When the Decepticons attack, they are doing so in order to find Megatron, the All Spark, and info on Sector 7 (the aforementioned shadowy group). Sam and his unlikely girlfriend Mikaela (Megan Fox) get roped in on the side of the Autobots and fight to stop them and save Earth. Everything culminates in a big shoot out in Mission City where Megatron and the All Spark are destroyed.
Preeeeetty simple! And only marginally in keeping with the original story. But I’ll get into that later. Point is, the plot was never meant to be deep or particularly challenging, just an excuse to get into some big shoot-em-ups with lots of CGI and special effects. And that’s precisely what we got. It didn’t suck, wasn’t great, but there were some tell-tale weaknesses that would become more glaring as Bay went on to make more movies in this franchise. Which brings us to…
Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen:
Let me not waste any time in saying that this movie sucked! Hell, even Bay and LaBeouf said so, but there was one overriding reason for this. Bay had a hand in writing it! Yes, it was during the height of the writers strike that this movie was being produced, which is why the script was so bland, cheesy, overdone, and stupid. It reflected everything Bay brings to a movie through his direction; but since he was working at it from both ends this time, from conception to execution, it was like a Bay movie on crack!
But I digress… this time around, we see the Decepticons bringing in someone new. Seems the Autobots have ancient ancestors known as the Primes, whom Optimus is the last of. They went around the universe harvesting energon which they need to survive, and did so by blowing up suns. Uh… okay. But, since the Primes predated the EVIL Decepticons, they had some ethics about it. For example, they never blew up a sun that had inhabited planets around it (is this some kind of environmental statement here?) But one Prime, “The Fallen”, decided to defy this rule, which was why they brought him down and exiled him to… Saturn? Okay… Ah, and the device used to blow up the sun was hidden on Earth in… the Pyramid of Giza? Again… okay! And the trigger, known as the Matrix of Leadership, they hid by melding their bodies together into a big cage-like thing, which in turn was hidden inside… the ancient city of Petra?
Jesus this is hard! So the Autobots learn that the Decepticons are looking for “The Fallen” at the beginning where they and some human special forces go to Shanghai and take down a Decepticon hiding there. Seems humans (or at least, the US military and CIA) are working with the Autobots and covering up their existence. Wait, what? Why, and more importantly how, are they covering this up? They freaking fought in a major city in the last movie… downtown… during BUSINESS HOURS! How they hell did they manage to cover that up? And this time around, it was ever worse! Downtown Shanghai, population: millions of Chinese with internet access, camera phones, Youtube… Okay, you know what… never mind! I’ll be here forever if I start poking holes now!
Regardless, things really starts to happen when the Decepticons get to Megatrons body and reactivate it. Wait! Wasn’t he dead AND placed at the bottom of the Laurentian Abyssal where nothing can withstand the pressure? And how could they even revive him after he was killed – NEVER MIND! Okay, so they reactivate him and bring him back so they can get “The Fallen” off of Saturn, find the Matrix key, destroy the sun, harvest the energon, conquer the universe. Right! But the Autobots are similarly looking for the key since they need it to reactivate Prime after he was killed by Megatron. When Sam finds it, it turns to dust, he dies in a VERY long fight scene in the desert, and goes to Autobot heaven where they tell him his deads have earned him the right to use the Matrix since it can only be used by proven leaders! He miraculously comes back to life and then revives Prime with the thing. It is taking all my restraint not to poke holes in THAT one!
So Prime is brought back to life, kills The Fallen and beats up Megatron, the sun destroyer is blown up, day is saved, end of story! Oh, and I should mention that the entire inciting event to all this was when Sam found a piece of the All Spark on his clothes which zapped his brain with the last known coordinates of the Matrix of Leadership. Yeah, one tiny piece somehow stuck to his clothes for a whole summer and he didn’t once notice. Needless to say, this whole plot is yet another case of a race to find the lost whatever, the location of which is hidden in symbols that only Sam has access to.
The movie was panned and bashed by virtually everyone who saw it, critics and fans alike. But luckily, the strike ended and Bay got to making a third which, if all went well, would get things back on track…
Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon:
I was a little curious about the title beforehand and could only surmise that Bay didn’t want to get sued by Pink Floyd’s estate, hence why the dropped the obvious “Side” from the title. However, that theory is complicated by the fact that they said Dark Side of the Moon and even referenced Floyd in the movie, a couple of times! But since I know nothing of copyright law, I’ll just assume that this rule only applies to titles and not dialogue. Whatever, point is, it’s a stupid name, but the movie itself was definitely better than the second. Unfortunately, that’s about the nicest thing anyone could say about it.
It’s starts by going back to the beginning, to Cybertron during the last phase of the war. The Ark (something that comes from the original series) was headed out on some kind of salvation mission, was shot down and ended up crashing on the Moon. The entire Space Race between the US and the USSR was therefore a covert attempt to reach the wreckage and get a hold on the technology. This was done, and a shadow conspiracy has existed on Earth ever since. Seems humans the world over were collaborating with Decepticons since they discovered the wreck of the Ark and were preparing some plan for them (a clear allegory to Munich there!) As soon as the Autobots find out about the wreckage, and the fact that humans have known of it for some time, they become eager to get to it and open it up for themselves.
Essentially, the Ark was carrying a weapon of sorts, a matter gateway that can pull objects across light years of space. Optimus’ predecessor, Sentinel Prime (voice by Leonard Nimoy) was also aboard the ship and is the only one who can activate it. He was supposed to use the weapon to win the war for the Autobots, but instead had made a deal with Megatron where he surrendered and would let him use it to rebuild Cybertron. Since he was deactivated and the only way he could be revived was with (again!) the Matrix of Leadership, the Decepticons decide to lead the Autobots to it and wait for them to revive him, which is when they make their move. Wait, if he was defecting, why did the Decepticons shoot him down? Didn’t they get the memo? Tagline: Don’t shoot this ship down, it’s working for us? Whoop, sorry! I digress…
As we get to the midway mark, Sentinel betrays the Autobots, sets up the gateway, and hundreds of Decepticon reinforcements which have hiding on the dark side of the moon are let loose and attack Earth. Oh, and we learn that the real purpose of the gateway is to bring Cybertron to Earth – right into our orbit no less! – so they can use the human race as slaves to rebuilt it. Wait, wouldn’t putting a massive planet directly into our orbit cause unbelievable seismic disturbances and basically destroy our planet? Sorry!
Naturally, the Autobots were thought to have been killed when Earth voted to get rid of them and stuck them on board a ship bound for deep space which the Decepticons then blew up (more attempts to channel the spectre of Munich!). But they tricked everyone by bailing out early, and are therefore on the scene just in time to help out the beleagered US special forces and mount a counter-attack. What follows is another long, drawn-out fight scene in downtown Chicago where they manage to stop it all from happening. They destroy the gateway’s controls, which not only sends Cybertron back, but also all the attacking Decepticons… somehow. Megatron then decides Sentinel is getting too big for his britches and helps Optimus kill him, Optimus then kills Megatron, and Sam and his girl are reunited and everyone stands heroicly in front of an American flag for a slow-motion shot! Yaaaaaay! Optimus makes his usual closing remarks, roll credits, and the franchise is over!
Okay, now that I’m free to poke holes, here’s a categorical list of what sucked about it!
Bay is not known for his subtlety, depth, plots, pacing – well anything really! But with this franchise, he also demonstrated his total lack of originality. In all three movie, things begin with an action sequence that hastily introduces the plot, which always revolves around some kind of object that must be found since it which will bring victory to whoever finds it first. The rest of the movie is just a big race to get to it with a whole lot of stupid jokes and annoying characters slipped in between action shots, culminating in a big, over-long fight scene which is tantamount to action-porn.
Yes, its exciting; not because we care about the characters or have become the slightest bit emotionally invested in things. No, it’s strictly because the visuals are visceral, the explosions are big and the destruction on a grand scale. Oh, and did you notice how in all three movies, the good guys always show up in the nick of time to save someone? Again, its most glaring and obvious in the third where it happened repeatedlty. Things get real tense right before the bad guy’s about to deliver the death blow and then, just in time, Optimus, Bumblebee, or someone else flies in and saves the day, and always in slow motion.
Hell, even the action scenes are the same in all three movies! In movie one, you have an early fight scene where US military forces take on the Decepticon “Scorponok” in the desert around some village. Sand flies, buildings explode, bombs go off, there’s lots of debris and a shitload of pyrotechnics. Then at the end, you got another big fight scene in downtown Mission City (in beautiful, British Columbia), and its more of the same. Explosions, wreckage, and a frenzy of yelling and shooting. In movie two, we get a fight scene in downtown Shanghai at the beginning followed by another, really long fight scene in the desert towards the end. This is the same thing that happened in movie one, just inverted. In movie three, at the beginning, we get a fight scene outside of an abandoned city (Chernobyl) for a change, but by the end, we get YET another fight scene in a downtown area – this time Chicago. It drags on and on, and is just another orgy of explosions, debris, and all kinds of over-the-top action.
In the first film, the action scenes were pretty tolerable, even fun to watch! But by movie two, they’d been done. By three, they’d been done to death!
2. Frenetic Pacing:
Like I said, Bay is not known for his even pacing. He likes to get right into things with an action shot, rush through speeches and character development, then get to another action shot. He keeps constantly moving even when the scene calls for exposition, comic relief, or what have you. And the purpose is obvious. Draw the audience in, get them hooked early, keep em hooked with a mad rush to the climax, then blow their minds with an orgasmic action-packed ending. In that respect, you might say he’s like a shark. If he stops, he dies, or rather the movie does because everyone will see just how paper thin it is! Maybe that’s a bit harsh, but it is not exaggeration to say that everything in his movies are slaved to the need to go fast. And it doesn’t end until the very end, where there’s an epilogue that lasts mere seconds.
Hell, even the dialogue is rushed, everyone just spitting out lines set to a montage of images and action music. This was present throughout the franchise, but by the third installment, it was like Bay had decided to speed things up even more. The entire first half of the movie was painful for me to watch because I felt like I was watching some overamped kid on meth bouncing off the walls and shouting the whole time. This is best exemplified by Shia LaBeouf, who spent most of the first half of the movie screaming, fidgeting, running around, or hitting things, and his action scenes hadn’t even happened yet! I seriously had to pause it again and again because it was making my heart race and my brain bleed! The only time things felt like they were slowing down was during the big action sequence at the end. I’m not kidding! Here, and only here, did the incredibly fast pace feel natural, or at least tolerable.
All in all, the only time Bay slows things down for even a second is during an action-scene slow-motion shot, and the only purpose here is to make the audience go “whoooaaaaa!” But I doubt anyone was doing that by the third movie. Maybe the first time it was cool, but the more you see it, the less cool it gets. Eventually, it just feels tiresome and cliche.
(I lied, can’t do it all in one post! To be continued…)