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In the sticky heat of a 2007 Summer’s day, two friends and I felt the wind at our backs as we set sail from Dun Laoghaire to Dalkey on my friend’s boat (cheerfully named ‘The Modeste’). We balked as he swigged from a seemingly out of date bottle of Guinness. We spluttered as we attempted to join him in a cigar. We froze our asses off as we collectively dive-bombed into the deceptively cold Dalkey waters, joking that our icy nipples should give Bono a good laugh.
“Let’s go see Transformers,” my sea-dwelling friend said. “I’ve seen it once already and it’s really good.”
Perhaps it was a case of too much sun and one too many inches of the aforementioned cigar (of course we didn’t finish them) but something about that day caused me to enjoy the first Transformers immensely. In that breathtaking first viewing it was exciting, engaging, funny and ultimately as carefree and foolish as the crew of The Modeste. I even ended up seeing it more than once in the cinema and I definitely owned the one-disc DVD at one point.
A few years later a sequel was made and it was incomprehensible rubbish to the point of being unwatchable. Blaming the writers’ strike, director Michael Bay returned with a third film just two short years later again and this one was as painfully unenjoyable as the last. Forced to abandon the franchise at that point, I refused to ever entertain the notion that the first film was anywhere near as bad as its offspring, nor that the fateful day of sailing somehow coloured my view of its quality.
It did. Transformers is a terrible film and I’m ashamed of myself for ever thinking otherwise.
Like most terrible franchise films, a few slight course corrections likely would have saved the day. Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman’s breezy script (while rife with clichés and ‘homages’ that recall better franchises such as Terminator and of course Star Wars) manages to regale the viewer with the broad strokes of Cybertronian lore while simultaneously telling a halfway interesting human side of the story starring a plucky Shia LaBeouf before he went crazy.
Don’t get me wrong, there are clangers in the script (“[Our baby daughter] laughed? That’s great! You sure she didn’t just fart?”) and very, very little of what any of the robot characters do makes a lick of sense but the film’s basic blueprint would appear to guide the viewer from A to B by an agreeable route. At the very least, the first Transformers has a story that makes sense. It will never win any awards for its narrative but subplots about robots in World War II aren’t haphazardly thrown in in the third act (as was apparently the case in the most recent film).
Where the film fails so notoriously is in the unmistakably obnoxious directing of Michael Bay. Every shot in the film is practically shouted at the viewer, arrogantly cutting every few seconds (never letting you get a good look at anything, least of all an Autobot) with colours so saturated – and stars so hideously sweaty – it’s as if Michael Bay instructed a member of the crew to carefully pour Golden Syrup over every actor and indeed the very camera lens itself. While Shia is Marmite to many, he is unquestionably charming here and acquits himself well in what was effectively his first starring role in a blockbuster (previously starring in smaller fare like Disturbia).
Poor old Megan Fox was clearly never designed to be any more of a special effect than Megatron however, and is awful in every scene. The way she carries herself is so stiff and inhuman that one wonders if she too might be a Decepticon. To her credit, she has actually turned in some good comedy performances later on in her career but judging by the leery, longing shots of her body it’s clear Michael Bay had no interest in her acting abilities. As for the rest of the human cast, most of the actors are trying their best not to be annoying (in fact Kevin Dunn and the late, great Bernie Mac are actually pretty funny), Josh Duhamel doesn’t embarrass himself, but John Turturro is so abysmally aggravating that you find yourself almost grateful for the scene where a giant yellow robot takes a piss on him.
On the subject of the film’s cybernetic ensemble, I’m not the world’s foremost authority on Transformer mythology. I’m about a decade too young to have been a fan of the cartoon. However, I’ve read a few of the recent comics (IDW’s collected volumes are affordable enough and very good) to know that the characters are done a great disservice here. Yes, the film is about toy cars that transform into toy robots. Yes, the idea that anyone in 2007 would be perturbed by inconsistencies between the characterisations seen in this film and that of the cheap cartoon made solely to sell the toys is questionable. Yet, that doesn’t excuse the fact that the Autobots are shown to be bumbling idiots here, rather than the wise champions of justice from the ‘toon.
Bumblebee (seemingly a far more chattier fellow in his other incarnations) is a poor man’s R2D2, badly beeping and booping in an attempt to ride the wave of better bots. Jazz (like many characters in this film and its sequels) is an appallingly racist stereotype. Ironhide makes a couple of Dirty Harry references (always a dangerous, Dad-like decision to make in a film). Optimus Prime (a Christ-like leader in the source material) trips over a back-garden water feature and exclaims “My bad…”. It’s particularly shameful as original voice actor Peter Cullen was brought back to voice the character after a 20-year absence. His voice aged well – the Earthy ripening has made him sound even more impressive than before – and admittedly he does get a few great lines (the opening speech is one of the rare occasions where the film’s ridiculousness works in spades). However, the film lets him down more often than not.
While Bay is seemingly thrilled by the visual opportunities represented by the Transformers, he demonstrably has no interest in making them any more interesting as characters than they were on the cartoon. In fact they are less interesting. For anyone wanting some more substance in their transforming pickup truck stories, consult the aforementioned IDW comics. Start with “ Transformers: The IDW Collection Vol.1” – or the slick Transformers: Prime available on Netflix.
Transformers is far from Bay’s worst film. In fact for all the problems it has eleven years on, it’s possibly still one of his best. It’s at least less embarrassing than Armageddon and less dull than the maddeningly overrated The Rock. But that’s no ringing endorsement. While the broad strokes are definitely there and the robots at least look the part, one can’t help but wonder what could have been. Is it so ridiculous to yearn for a robot film that truly is more than meets the eye? Nevertheless, that Summer’s day in 2007 could have made any worthless piece of junk shine like an Energon crystal.