Transformers

I watched the Transformers movie last night with H in the theatre. This morning I read a few reviews; I should probably stop reading them. They only make me angry.

The reviewers don’t get it. They understand the basics – that the Transformers were first a popular line of toys back in the 1980’s (oh, how ancient one must have been to be alive in such a storied time!) and the film’s success is dependent on adults recalling fond childhood memories as much as new generations.

The reviewers also understand, usually, if they haven’t formed an impenetrable adult shell that is unable to transform back into a child on occasion – that the combination of giant robots and cars/planes sells itself. Who wouldn’t want to have a car that turned into a robot? And there is, of course, the glee inherent in wanton destruction by said robots.

And the reviewers may even understand, if they’re really lucky, why Optimus Prime is so popular. Prime’s first appearance got solid cheers from the audience I was in (so did Bumblebee, of course). This is despite the fact that in a film filled from end to end with every piece of equipment currently operated by the U.S. military, Prime, true to all his comic and TV depictions, is about two inches away from being a pacifist. He is from the era of Knight Rider, the A-Team, and the Equalizer, where the good guys actually bothered to try and avoid killing, maiming, and torturing civilians, and used force only when necessary. This is why despite Jon Voight doing his best Donald Rumsfeld impression, and the inclusion of plenty of patriotic imagery, the movie was completely unable to associate the Autobots with the Iraqi war. The comics used to explore the consequences of Prime’s compassionate leadership style; I’m glad to see it is still around.

Still, generally what all the reviewers tend to do is use the film for target practice. It is lowbrow, suitable only for 5 to 8 year olds (which are always boys, strangely – H likes Transformers), lacking any plot, and essentially a long commercial for GM products and the toy line.

They do not note more subtle points – that Bumblebee and the Autobots, for all their good vibes, are clearly aliens, and that the Decepticons are even more alien, with Megatron almost completely so. Yet all of them are just human-looking enough for empathy. The special effects people did a great job on all of them.

The reviewers may or may not note that the movie doesn’t explore the Decepticons much (beyond Blackout’s hilarious “Hail Megatron!”) perhaps assuming there is no depth there anyway. Fans of their previous portraits will know that they’re a well-developed, backstabbing bunch of moral defectives (Starscream springs to mind), but that portrait needed to be painted again.

Why? Because in the end the Transformers is a highly effective morality play – sensible good vs. unrestrained evil, teamwork vs. selfishness, positive worldview vs. negative worldview. We get some of this in the movie in the conflicting attitudes toward humans, but I sensed much had been cut from an already long piece. Optimus and Bumblebee in the film are good role models for outlook and behavior. Prime can be incredibly cheesy, but if you’re a 40+ foot robot that turns into a Peterbilt and regularly decapitates evil robots of similar size, I say you get to be as cheesy as you want. “Freedom is the right of all sentient beings,” with sentient beings encompassing sex, race, creed, and species, is a more advanced morality and philosophy than most humans ever achieve, and kudos to the man for being able to say it calmly while being throttled by Megatron.

The “boy and his car” angle was inspired – the humor was pretty good, too. In the sequel, though, let’s see more moral quandaries, something that introduces real tension. The Transformers are ideally suited for such stories, especially when Megatron is usurped by the other Decepticons (every five minutes or so) and has to change his behavior. More backstory, such as how Megatron and the Decepticons became corrupted, would be fun. A longer tussle between Prime and Megatron would be good, too. They used to really go at it in the TV series; Prime would have brushed off all the other Deceptions by himself (or Megatron would have brushed off all the other Autobots) just before.

The first half of the movie was better than the second. Some of the plot became strained. Why did they flee with the MacGuffin into a heavily inhabited city? Why not use the MacGuffin on Megatron BEFORE he woke up? For that matter, why didn’t Prime keep the MacGuffin so he could use it as he saw fit? In other words, there were some MacGuffin problems. I was also mildly dissatisfied with the fast editing and the amount of robot fighting; less editing, more robots, I say (H said this was to cover up bad CGI, but I’m not so sure). And for a movie that seemed to be about Bumblebee and his pet human, they were separated for the last 15 minutes or so.

But I’d see it again.

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