g r o t t o 1 1

Peeve Farm
Breeding peeves for show, not just to keep as pets
Brian Tiemann
Silicon Valley-based purveyor of a confusing mixture of Apple punditry and political bile.

btman at grotto11 dot com

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Sunday, July 8, 2007
16:59 - There is no God, and Michael Bay gets to keep making movies

(top)
Okay, you're going to have to bear with me on this one.

I didn't go into Transformers with very high expectations. Indeed, I was confidently expecting, from everything I'd seen in trailers, for it to suck epically. And in the first five minutes, where the first thing you see is an Osprey full of soldiers over the desert of Qatar, telling each other stories of their wives and babies and white picket fences back home, followed in short order—to not the greenest of movie cynics' faintest surprise—by a catastrophe that leaves their entire unit exploded into tiny little bits, one gets to sit in one's seat and smirk at how perfectly according to plan the sucking is going.

There are some incidences of plot irregularities that you could pilot an Infinite Improbability Drive through. The classic "wook-wook-waak-waak-waaghk" transforming noise gets deployed early on, sticking out like a giant novelty sore thumb from a movie-reviewer-cliché-factory gift shop next to the overblown modernized sound effects that fill the rest of the movie's soundscape. Some callback one-liners manage to work ("One shall stand; one shall fall"), while others really don't ("More than meets the eye"—though at least that one gets played for camp value). The whole movie is probably the biggest-budget GM commercial ever aired, what with the Autobots ditching their traditional forms (not even a solitary Countach) in favor of Hummers and Solstices and the upcoming new we-can-do-the-Mustang-thing-too Camaro. There were some cases of uncalled-for recycling of names from the classic cast that dorks up some cherished canon elements, like "Devastator" as a stand-alone tank rather than a Voltron-style combination robot (though the reanimation of Wreck-Gar and his Junkions' parroting of human TV memes through a minor plot twist involving Bumblebee was an oddly sentimentally touching bit). And as I've mentioned before, the robot designs are way way way way way way way way way way way way way way way way way way WAY way way way way way way way way way way way way way way WAY way WAY WAY WAY WAY WAY WAY way way way way way WAY WAY WAY WAY WAY WAY WAY WAAAAAY WAY WAY WAY WAY WAY WAY too complicated. I mean, honestly: they moved a lot better on-screen and had a lot more character than the trailers lead one to expect, but they could have made it look convincing—and instilled the characters with far more recognizability and humanity—without the gratuitous asymmetry and ten gazillion exposed bits of jagged metal all over everything. There was no reason on Earth or Cybertron for them to waste that much effort on designing and animating these indistinguishable, unappealing monstrosities.

But you know... that's about the end of my list of things I found objectionable at all about this movie.

I've got to be honest here: I had a freaking ball in the theater today. This movie is far more focused on the human characters and their dramas than the original was, even to the point of not listing any of the voice actors until after the entirety of the human cast. And this allowed the movie to spend more time on some well-developed character humor, in quite a number of genuinely wickedly funny scenes (the first of which being the used-car dealer and his mother, followed shortly by a scene that swipes at outsourced cellphone service call-centers and assured me that the first such scene was no fluke). I found myself laughing out loud far, far more throughout this movie's two-and-a-half hours than I expected to, and certainly a lot more than I did at the original—neither movie was really intended to be comedic, but then there's always room for humor in a drama or action movie (cf. Titanic). Besides, the Autobots may have had way too much physical texture, but their character was all intact and nicely restrained and modulated, thanks in no small part to Peter Cullen reprising his classic Optimus Prime delivery: narrator-y, but with a grandfatherly warmth and sense of human fallibility that you'd never get out of a Jim Cummings or a Lawrence Fishburne. (Plus it's good to see Charlie Adler get a crack at a bigger chunk of the Transformers pie than the bit roles he played back in the day when his career was young. Though whoever decided to put Hugo Weaving in as Megatron... whew. You sure that was money well spent? I can't help but think he was a bit wasted there; if he doesn't watch out, he'll become this generation's Leonard Nimoy.)

The fans, crucially, seem to be receiving this movie a lot better than the critics are, and I can see why: the critics aren't necessarily children of the 80s who grew up with transforming robots lined up on shelves in their rooms, or locked in perpetual combat tableaux on top of dressers and bookcases. This movie is rife with shout-outs to those kids who have been jealously guarding that side of their past and holding it close to their chests for nigh on twenty years now, and more of those shout-outs work spectacularly well than don't, though they'll be incomprehensible to a critic not of the in-the-know set. The updating of the robot cast, overblown design aside, is convincing enough—particularly when the robots are in their car forms, awash in testosterone and wreathed in V8 noises and '07-vintage cop-car bleeps and light-shows—that you find yourself buying it all over again, and you stop wishing Michael Bay finds some excuse to explain the bizarre premise of just why these robots transform into things to begin with, and you find yourself just as glad he leaves that plot point just as much of a mystery as the original cartoon did. You find yourself gradually opening up to this new telling of the tale, and by the time the Autobots and Decepticons are locked into their epic struggle in the streets of Los Angeles and Optimus Prime comes screeching out of an alley and oversteers with chirping and skipping tires onto the street, you realize that this movie's got enough heart in it to evoke some of that old-time religion. Genuinely great-looking camera shots abound, and Bay took the time to show the kids looking down the face of Hoover Dam—just because it's a cool view—against Prime's uncertain but optimistic voice-over about humanity's redeemability, and that little fifteen-second clip, which deftly illustrated the premise and texture of the original that so many of us identified with way back then, balanced out about 30 minutes' worth of senseless explosions.

It's not without its flaws, by any means. But I can't lie about something so toweringly important as a new Transformers incarnation. And the truth is that Michael Bay gave me more for my money than I've expected out of this franchise in decades. I love it when I'm pleasantly surprised.

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© Brian Tiemann