Transformers: The Case Against
An essay by: Witney Seibold
“I miss you more than Michael
Bay missed the mark,
When he made ‘Pearl Harbor.’
I miss you more than that movie missed the point,
And that’s an awful lot…
Why does Michael Bay get to keep on making movies?
I guess ‘Pearl Harbor’ sucked
Just a little bit more than I miss you.”
-Lyrics from “Team America: World Police” “If you stop going to bad movies, they’ll stop making bad movies.”
On the 4th of July, 2007, director Michael Bay’s new film will be released. It’s called “Transformers,” and it is based on a series of entertaining robot toys which hit markets in 1984. The toys were so popular (indeed, I had some rather elaborate Transformers myself) that they warranted an animated series that ran from 1984-1987, a 1986 animated feature film, and several spinoff series through the ensuing decades. The most recent incarnation of the toys is now a huge-budget, summer blockbuster “event film” brought to us by the same guy who made hugely bloated summer action monstrosities like “Armageddon,” “The Rock,” and “Pearl Harbor.” I plea with you from the bottom of my heart: Do not see “Transformers.” Don’t see it on opening weekend, don’t see it in theaters if you can help it, don’t buy the video, no matter how many discs they shove into it, don’t buy it on pay-per-view when it hits cable. Don’t give this movie a penny.
O.k. O.k. I know such a direct plea sounds like typical anti-populist backlash to something that is obviously already going to be seen by millions the world over. Little I say and do will prevent legions of teenage and twentysomething (and, knowing our generation, thirtysomething) fanboys with disposable income lining up on opening weekend to pay hard-earned cash on tickets. Such backlash is typical of anything that becomes too popular or too overexposed. I’ve seen (and indeed, to some extent or another, participated in) similar backlashes for “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Matrix,” and, most loudly, “Star Wars.” Specifically its recent prequels.
And eventually the new “Transformers” move will fade away. In four or five years, new ugly over-hyped summer blockbusters will be occupying people’s minds, and this very debate on “Transformers” will seem churlish, quaint, and foolish. Even bringing it up at this point in its history – the point right before the wave is about to break – seems like nothing more than an excuse to ruffle some fanboy feathers; to start online flame wars, and to appear intellectually superior to the rabble by refusing to accept the juggernaut, and proving that the luddites are right.
It’s all I can do to assure you that my opinion is not merely reactionary. I have written hundreds of film reviews and dozens of length essays on films of varying stripes, from snotty art-house foreign meditations, to hyperactive computer-animated talking animal blockbusters, and I’ve seen great and horrible in both genres. I’d like to think I’m open and accepting to all types of films, remakes of ‘80s toy product-induced cartoon shows included.
But I still want you to promise me that you will stay away from “Transformers,” and here is why:
1) You’ve seen Michael Bay’s other movies, and he does not have a good track record. Aside from the three mentioned above, Michael Bay is also the mastermind behind the two “Bad Boys” movies, and “The Island.” Every one of them is an oversaturated, overmarketed storm of light and movement that exemplifies everything that is cheesy and self-important about the action genre. Inappropriate explosions, grisly deaths that are meant to be humorous, character motivations that even Charles Bronson would have trouble deciphering. I know there are people out there who are fans of “The Rock,” and even of the “Bad Boys” movies, but I know no one who can get behind “Armageddon,” a film often cited as one of the worst of the last two decades. And I defy you to make it through the “You’re gonna be a daddy” moment in “Pearl Harbor” without throwing up just a little.
2) “Transformers” represents a bad trend in remakes. TV shows have been adapted into films before, with spotty success. Some of the shows that have been adapted have been stellar, but every film version has yet to surpass the quality, originality, or importance of the original. And some of the originals haven’t been all that stellar. “Charlie’s Angels,” “Bewitched,” “The Honeymooners,” “Scooby Doo,” “Firefly,” “Star Trek” (ad infinitum), “The Dukes of Hazzard,” “The X-Files,” “The Brady Bunch,” even cult comedies like “Mystery Science Theater 3000” and “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” have their own films. Every film version and original show have a gap between the quality of the show and the importance of the film. “Transformers” represents the largest gap yet. It is the show of lowest quality paired with the film of highest perceived importance (which is gleaned from a combination of the “buzz,” the marketing, and the budget).
3) You are being taken advantage of. If you saw a preview for a film about giant robots that can turn into cars or planes fighting a war on Earth, but was not based on a cartoon show and toys you remember from your youth, would you go? Perhaps you would, perhaps you wouldn’t, but you’d be able to look at the preview objectively, and judge whether or not such a film is worthy of your time. As it is called “Transformers,” though, something happens in the minds of everyone over a certain age. Our nostalgia switch flips, and we grin, recalling the halcyon Saturday mornings of our youth, as we ate sugary cereals, watching the Transformers yell and transform. Then we’d run out to school to chatter about which Transformer was blown up, and which should have been. The producers of the film version know about the switch, and, more than anything, more than quality, more than premise or drama, they’re leaning on it, and they won’t let go until you’ve given them money. If you have nostalgia for the show, I recommend going back and watching the show itself. Your memories will always be dear to you, I understand, and you may discover that the original show is not as good as you remember (and it isn’t). But know why you want to see “Transformers.” Is it the thrills, or is it just a need to recapture your youth.
4) A strong box office means more is coming. If you’re willing to pay for the “Transformers” move on opening weekend, and I know a lot of you are, it means you’ll have to devote yourself to a sequel or two. But that’s not so disturbing as the thought that more old boy-cartoons of the ‘80s will be dusted off and wastefully shoved at us. If “Transformers” succeeds, perhaps Hollywood will feel a need to make a live-action space-opera of “The Thundercats.” Or there will be an R-rated war epic of “G.I. Joe.” And there is no end. We may even see a “Pirates of Dark Water” film. “The Silverhawks” will grace the screen. Will someone dare make a film version of “Challenge of the Go-Bots?” How about a film version of the cartoon based on the RPG “Dungeons & Dragons?” Oh wait… we already had that film. Are you prepared to welcome another “Dungeons & Dragons” film into the world? Because that’s what you’ll be doing when you pay for Transformers.”
5) You are being tricked. This is more a complaint about summer blockbusters in general. The first time I felt this was when I saw “Lara Croft, Tomb Raider;” let me see if I can describe the feeling to you. I saw ads all over town for this film. It boasted a cast of well-know, and in some cases good, actors. It promised caves and tombs and adventure in the “Raiders of the Lost Ark” mould. And, given the amount of money that was put into advertising, I felt that there certainly must be some credence to their claims. Oh how wrong I was. As the film finally unspoiled before me, full of lazy setups, bad dialogue, and confusing action sequences, I felt more than just let down after my high expectations. I felt tricked. Like the studio had made me think it was going to be good, and then intentionally made it bad just to spite me. Ha-ha, they seemed to me saying, we have your money already, you can’t get it back. “Transformers” will do this to you. They’re making it look good, but it can only be a disappointment. Those familiar with the toys and the show will be upset by the purity-violating changes that must be made, and those not familiar with the toys or the show will be upset by the strange story and presumptive nature of the character; i.e. they probably won’t be able to follow what’s going on. So there you are. Five good reasons to stay away. Will you? Well, the decision has already been made; this essay, as I have said, will have no impact on anyone’s decision to go see the film. You already know how excited you are about “Transformers,” and that excitement will judge where you will be on the evening of July 4th. But if what I’ve written has had any impact, then I can at least make this small plea: I ask that you wait. Wait until the third of fourth week of its release. Wait until it’s on basic cable. Wait until it’s off of the new release wall at the local video store. Wait until January 2009 to see “Transformers.” You’ve waited this long, what’s another eighteen months? That way, you’ll have seen it, Michael Bay will have rightly suffered, the studios will learn a valuable lesson about exploiting our childhoods, and we can be treated possibly, very possibly, very very possibly (but not bloody likely), to dramas that are creative and challenging.
Where will I be on July 4th? Seeing Werner Herzog’s new film.