The Cynical Optimist probes the Transformers trilogy


More Than Meets The Eye

“Before time began, there was the Cube. We know not where it comes from, only that it holds the power to create worlds and fill them with life. That is how our race was born. For a time, we lived in harmony. But like all great power, some wanted it for good, others for evil.

And so began the war. A war that ravaged our planet until it was consumed by death, and the Cube was lost to the far reaches of space. We scattered across the galaxy, hoping to find it and rebuild our home. Searching every star, every world. And just when all hope seemed lost, message of a new discovery drew us to an unknown planet called… Earth.”

Michael Bay’s 2007 film, ”Transformers”, grossed $709,709,780 worldwide and is one of the top 50 highest grossing films of all-time. The film currently sits has a 7.2 rating rating on IMDB, while the popular movie review aggregate site, Rotten Tomatoes, gives ”Transformers” an overall freshness rating of 57% while 89% of audiences loved it.

Brian Mader of reviewed the film favorably, “When Transformers is going strong early on, it’s the grandest — in every sense of the word — entertainment in years.”

Elizabeth Weitzman of the New York Daily News said, “There is so much action packed into every second of Transformers that by the time it’s over, you may be tempted to go outside and give the box office another 10 bucks.”

More critical reviews, like Manohla Dargis of The New York Times, labeled Transformers as a “movie of epically assaultive noise and nonsense.”

Merriam-Webster defines the word “blockbuster” as “one that is notably expensive, effective, successful, large, or extravagant” – something, such as a film or book, that sustains widespread popularity and achieves enormous sales.

Regardless of critical response, ”Transformers” is without question one of the most iconic blockbuster films of our times. Directed by Michael Bay, under the tutelage of Executive Producer Steven Spielberg and brought to life by George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic, Transformers was a film destined for blockbuster greatness – filled with all of the crowd-pleasing, critic-cringing elements that are inherent in the summer movie genre.

The film is pure entertainment, at the cost of the lofty artistic values of character depth and plot development. It’s a celebration of “look what I can do!” moviemaking. It is a movie for children, and for the child in all of us – filled with enthusiasm, imagination and jaw-dropping awe at the impossible made real.

I believe we long for stories in which we, as a species, are humbled by superior beings and advanced civilizations. We love to marvel at the destruction of our own world – the cataclysmic, post-apocalyptic realities brought on alien invasions and zombie hordes.

I can speak only as a 26-year-old man who was once an eight-year-old boy in saying that Transformers delivers on nearly every childhood dream I once had. Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf) is the perfect vessel for nostalgia to travel through.

Hopelessly awkward, Sam uses wit and humor to cope with his own inadequacies and the endless embarrassment of his parents. We meet Sam at a pivotal time in his post-pubescent growth – his first car, his first real girlfriend Mikaela (Megan Fox).

And once we develop that connection with Sam, we dream of discovering that we ourselves are special – part of an age-old war between Autobots and Decepticons. We imagine the eight-year-old versions of ourselves, protected by Bumblebee – fighting alongside Optimus Prime to save the world — and it is as glorious as movie magic can be.

It is through this fever dream of nostalgia that we are able to forgive the more dopey, dumb aspects of the narrative – we are living vicariously through pure imagination realized on screen. It is our ability to relate to stories and characters that makes us human, the art of metaphor – of personification – that helps us understand ourselves.

When Bumblebee and Sam are separated, we feel as if something has been taken from us – a piece of our own childhood. Similar to Spielberg’s ”E.T”., when Elliot and E.T. are separated and the extra-terrestrial is tested by government agencies. We feel as though we have been victimized, and we long for that bond to be restored.

Critics are often preoccupied with the artistic merit of a film and seldom take time to appreciate the cultural and emotional impact of a film – believing that a film can only be impactful if it is a work of great artistic integrity – but think back to the stories of your youth, the movies you watched – the bedtime stories that filled your dreams with wonder – and consider the impact of Transformers on today’s children.

Children connect with stories in a different way – they help them understand a world that is beyond them – a world ran by adults filled with responsibilities and mundane mediocrity. Optimus Prime is a God to them – a representation of heroism, of ultimate good – and they dream of fighting by his side. That kind of pure emotional power goes beyond any review score or star rating.

For a young man, it is a dream-come-true as well to see characters I’ve known for 20+ years come to life on screen. To a child of the ’80s, Optimus Prime and Megatron are as mythic and iconic as Zeus and Hades to a child of Ancient Greece.

To see our childhood Gods awakens something within and for two hours, we are allowed to put our worries and responsibilities away and revel in the grand spectacle that is living, breathing nostalgia.

“With the All Spark gone, we cannot return life to our planet. And fate has yielded its reward: a new world to call home. We live among its people now, hiding in plain sight, but watching over them in secret, waiting, protecting.

I have witnessed their capacity for courage, and though we are worlds apart, like us, there’s more to them than meets the eye. I am Optimus Prime, and I send this message to any surviving Autobots taking refuge among the stars. We are here. We are waiting.”

Transformers : Revenge of the Fallen

“Earth, birthplace of the human race. A species much like our own, capable of great compassion and great violence. For in our quest to protect the humans, a deeper revelation dawns: our worlds have met before…”

Bay returned as director and executive producer for ”Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen”, which was released on June 24, 2009 and went on to gross over $832 million worldwide. The film currently sits has a 5.9 rating rating on IMDB, while the popular movie review aggregate site, Rotten Tomatoes, gives ”Transformers” an overall freshness rating of 20% while 76% of audiences liked it.

Roger Ebert, Michael Phillips and David Denby aggressively criticized the film. In 2010, it had the dubious distinction of earning seven Golden Raspberry Award nominations and winning three: Worst Picture, Worst Director and Worst Screenplay.

The general consensus is that ”Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” is a noisy, underplotted, and overbearing special effects spectacular that fails to capture the heart and human touch of its predecessor.

Quickflix’s Simon Miraudo stated the film “plays more like Pearl Harbor 2, from the heavy-handed seriousness to the clumsy racial stereotypes (a couple of ‘ethnic’ robots seem to have walked straight out of the Kirk Lazarus School of Racial Sensitivity).”

UGO’s Jordan Hoffman’s review concluded, “Think of this film as like the first one multiplied by ten. Everything that was good is better and everything that was bad (the relentless stupidity of its story) is worse.”

For all intents and purposes, ”Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” was an unmitigated disaster. The film became a case study, much like the ”Star Wars” prequels, on how to completely destroy the integrity and goodwill of a franchise. Beloved characters like Bumblebee took a backseat to new bots like Skidz and Mudflap, who insulted the collective intelligence of audiences with blatant racism and offensive dialogue.

It also insulted the source material and the dedicated fan base of ”Transformers” enthusiasts with a nonsensical storyline and a complete disregard for respect to the characters. For it’s shear scope and mammoth use of special effects, it’s hard not to be just a little bit taken with this film.

Connecting the ”Transformers” mythology with Ancient Egypt is especially exciting, but the insistence of focusing on Mr. and Mrs. Witwicky’s absurd escapades and John Turturro’s continued ridiculousness wore a flimsy script even thinner, and all the childhood nostalgia and excitement born out of the first film was replaced with more explosions and bad dialogue.

Allow me to present this wonderful exchange by Skidz and Mudflap, a pair of twin Autobots who are the Transformers equivalent to black face performers:

Skidz, Mudflap: Yo, Leo!
Leo: This thing’s gonna give me a heart attack, I swear.
Mudflap: That’s ’cause you’s a wuss.
Leo: You guys forced me into that car, right? So…
Mudflap: I think he’s scared!
Skidz: Hey, Mudflap, what are we gonna do with this shrimp taco?
Mudflap: Let’s pop a cap in his ass, throw him in the trunk and then nobody gonna know nothing, know what I mean?
Skidz: Not in MY trunk!
Leo: Yo, bumper cars? I’m hearing you, okay? I’m right here and I can hear you! No one’s popping any caps in any asses, okay? I’ve had a HELL of a day!
Mudflap: Boogy-boogy-boogy-boo!
Skidz: Why don’t you get a haircut with your bitch ass?
Mudflap: Go whine to your boyfriend!

Riveting. Simply riveting. At another point in the script, Mudflap (complete with gold tooth) calls Leo a pussy – that’s a great word for young boys to learn and use to degrade others. Ask a child, however, and ”Revenge of the Fallen” is as worthy of love and admiration as ”Citizen Kane” or ”The Shawshank Redemption”.

In the sequel, Optimus Prime dies during an epic forest battle – breaking little hearts all around the globe – only to be resurrected through a mystical energy and Sam’s sheer determination. Prime comes back turbo-charged and helps lead the Autobots to victory against the ultimate foe, Devastator.

While the film contained some genuinely cool elements and action sequences, it was an unfortunate wrong-turn in a series that could have been every bit as memorable as the blockbuster franchises before it.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

That brings us to Michael Bay’s upcoming third installment, ”Transformers: Dark of the Moon”. There’s a lot riding on Bay’s latest (and perhaps final) ”Transformers” film. It’s his chance to right the wrongs of Revenge of the Fallen and win back the approval of fans and critics alike.

Capone of Ain’t It Cool News has seen the film and posted a positive review, stating it is “easily [the] best entry in the Michael Bay-directed franchise.” The film boasts an impressive supporting cast including Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Alan Tudyk, Patrick Dempsey, Ken Jeong and the voice talent of Leonard Nimoy as ancient Autobot leader Sentinel Prime.

The basic plot synopsis goes a little something like this: The Autobots learn of a Cybertronian spacecraft hidden on the Moon, and race against the Decepticons to reach it and learn its secrets, which could turn the tide in the Transformers’ final battle.

The film continues the connection between the Transformers universe and Earth mythology, bringing in elements of the space race, the Moon landing and JFK’s presidency. Capone also mentions that “the clever script manages to find new ways to place Transformers into world events, including one particularly nasty ‘accident’ at the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl.”

Of course the film features the continuing adventures of Sam Witwicky, who has now graduated college and is desperately searching for his first real job. For better or worse, Sam has a new girlfriend, Carly (supermodel Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), as Megan Fox wasn’t asked to return for the third film after some disparaging comments she made about director Michael Bay.

As for the Autobots, they have become a firm fixture of the United States military. When Optimus Prime finds out the US government was aware of the Cybertronian technology on the Moon this whole time, he isn’t pleased. Optimus revives Sentinel Prime, leading to a Chicago showdown between a small group of humans and a massive alien robot army.

The twins, Skidz and Mudflap, are no where to be found in this film – and it seems like Michael Bay and the creative team behind this film have made every effort to follow a strict “Do’s and Don’ts” list to ensure Dark of the Moon isn’t a disaster.

Bringing in Leonard Nimoy, as well as classic characters like Shockwave, Wheeljack, Laserbeak show effort in trying to please fans. I guess we’ll find out on July 1st if Bay succeeds, or if the Transformers franchise is totaled by ”Dark of the Moon”.

For more information about ”Transformers: Dark of the Moon”, check out Alicia Malone’s exclusive two-hour interview with director Michael Bay:

Michael Bay Interview: Part One

Michael Bay Interview: Part Two