Damn, why can’t I be as funny as those Superbad guys? All I gots is this stupid All Spark.
As I sat down for Transformers last week, I, perhaps naively, retained some slight hope that the long-gestating film adaptation of my second largest material childhood obsession (trumped only by Star Wars) might not be a total wash. The possibility that some executive production help from Steven Spielberg could temper all of Michael Bay’s worst instincts, or lack of talent, seemed a plausible (if not altogether likely) outcome—perhaps Transformers might attain, if not pop transcendence a la the best of Steve, a state of mild watchability for its entire 144 minutes.
Somewhat surprisingly, it does brush by something like the latter, but don’t let that get you thinking for even a brief second that there is anything close to being “good” about Transformers. In fact, by all objective measures, it’s pretty lousy. That said, and this is an awfully perverse view that will be shared by none, Michael Bay’s cinema has gotten so machine-tooled in its utter anonymous badness that watching him try to piece together things like characters, narrative, or coherence only to fail miserably and constantly resort to diet fascist footage that feels cribbed directly from National Guard recruitment video, almost–almost–creates its own kind of pleasure.
Of course, the real attraction of Transformers isn’t really watching Bay play hide-and-seek with the filmmaking process, but rather the promise that huge robots will fight, break things, break each other, and nearly miss breaking our fragile human heroes. This is, admittedly, a somewhat elemental (i.e. idiotic) attraction, but one that summertime has largely failed to deliver consistently in recent years. Bay, always ready to answer the call (though having failed utterly with The Island), sets out to deliver us from blockbuster malaise, but only makes it halfway, and is ironically hobbled mainly by his star attractions. The Transformers themselves, rendered with all the minimal weight CGI can muster, remain nearly illegible blurs of angular steel occasionally punctuated by a glowing eye or gaping maw making most of the action sequences inchoate. If Bay was pushing for the mechanized abstract, then maybe I give him less credit than he deserves—it’s often lovely to watch even in its utter disconnect from narrative or intentionality. But somehow, this all seems unlikely.
It doesn’t help that the screenplay by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (friends who, according to a recent puff piece, were driven to screenwriting by the classics of the Nouvelle Vague…) aren’t really interested in making the robots into characters, preferring instead a lengthy detour into the stunted sex life of a poorly played (can the Shia LeBeouf thing be over, please?) teen geek. This focus really isn’t what I paid eleven bucks for, and it probably goes without saying that the film is at its least interesting when Autobot Bumblebee exists merely, and interminably, as a beat-up Camaro.
So, instead of honest laughs, I sniggered and snorted derisively for a few hours and saw some things explode. And instead of truly Spielbergian beats, we have four-story robots hiding behind trees while our hero addresses his parents’ accusations that he’s been locked in his room masturbating (doodz, he was looking for grandpa’s glasses which contain the geographic coordinates of the All Spark!). Yet, I’ll admit a certain amount of mollification in one of Optimus Prime’s brooding, baritone monologues about the freedom of sentient beings (usually framed against a vast expanse). As disagreeable as the whole thing may be aesthetically and politically, I can’t say that it’s the worst way to spend an afternoon, even if a major conjoining of plot strands does hinge, improbably, around eBay.