In defence of Transformers: Why it’s Michael Bay’s masterpiece
Director – Michael Bay
Cast – Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson
Rotten Tomatoes rating – 57%
“A movie of epically assaultive noise and nonsense.”
- Manohla Dargis – The New York Times
“Transformers may be the most spectacularly stupid film ever made…”
- Tom Long – Detroit News
“Michael Bay doesn’t merely pander to the lowest common denominator, he redefines it by lowering it.”
- Ken Hanke – Mountain Xpress
So why defend Transformers? The movie made lots of people very rich. It sparked off – no pun intended – a huge franchise, ignited careers (including Shia LaBeouf’s), probably earned even more in merchandise sales, and nudged director Michael Bay’s - ahem - transformation into a proper egotistic maniac along by another movie.
Here’s the problem: Transformers is a movie that deserves more than just – and this was the best it could muster – begrudging appreciation. It deserves more than an obligatory thumbs-up for its special effects or a reluctant dismissal as a guilty pleasure. It is much more than that. It is a monumental example of the kind of film it is. Here’s why.
The main reason why Transformers is such a great movie is not the nifty effects or the brilliant action. Most people found the humans in the film a distraction. They wanted giant robot mayhem, which, make no mistake, they get in a loud 30 minute chunk towards the end. But why does everyone ignore the humans? You may be surprised, but if you look closely, Transformers is hardly the action spectacle it’s pretending to be. It is, in its heart of hearts, a touching coming of age love story in the style of John Hughes and Steven Spielberg.
A Mary Sue, or Gary Stu for males, is a character that’s often described as one who saves the day through unrealistic abilities. Sam Witwicky aka Username LadiesMan217 is hardly that. Shia LaBeouf plays Sam like a real teenage boy, with real problems and real parents and real goals. He has no special abilities, and is armed, like Harry Potter, with only the greatest qualities any hero could ask for: Loyalty and courage.
And most of it is thanks to LaBeouf, who has the comedic chops (“I take PayPal. Cold hard cash works too.”), and can bring the dramatic heft when he wants to as well. The best example being the scene when he entices Megan Fox’s Mikaela Banes to join him for an adventure much like Ethan Hawke in Before Sunrise with the expertly delivered “50 years from now when you’re looking back on your life don’t you want to be able to say you had the courage to get in the car?” Quite the quotable line, wouldn’t you say?
We all know action movies are guilty of short-changing their female characters but Transformers breaks all those molds too. Observe Mikaela Banes. Not once is she the damsel in distress. Not once does she have to be saved - in fact she’s the one who’s usually coming to Sam’s rescue - adding to the realism of his character while at the same time enhancing her own. She’s the one who refuses to take a direct order from Josh Duhamel to back down in the climactic battle. She’s the one who straps Bumblebee to the back of the truck and blows Decepticons to kingdom come. If you still have doubts as to how completely badass she is, look no further than one of the first lines she has in the entire movie: “Oh God, I can’t even tell you how much I’m not your little bunny.”
A hero’s only as good as the villain they say, and Megatron makes for an unusually unique one. His motivations are murky, but his presence more than makes up for it. Like Hannibal Lecter, he has minimal screen time. Believe it or not, he speaks his first line (“I am Megatron!”) with only another 30 odd minutes of the movie remaining. But yet you still remember him, don’t you?
Transformers was as sacred for the ‘80s kids as Star Wars was to the previous decade and not everyone was psyched about Michael Bay taking the reins to their childhood. Transformers may not be his best work, but it certainly comes in the top two. How many directors do you know who can juggle half-a-dozen large-scale actions scenes at once? His sweeping and swooning camera is as unmistakably his as a bloody Mexican standoff in a Tarantino movie.
Despite the bombastic nature of his filmmaking, Bay has an ironically small-scale attention to detail. His gift for constructing scenes and unmatched ability to create momentum out of thin air is incredible. Just take a look at that final act. For more than an hour and a half, Bay had been focusing on the characters, developing the plot. We don’t even see the Autobots until an hour has already passed. He pays equal attention to each of the three major plots, working at them like a master, enticing us with the possibility of a convergence, which, when it finally happens, is one of the most rewarding moments of the film. We’d been waiting for all these characters to join forces because let’s face it: There’s nothing greater than an on-screen team up.
Listen to Steve Jablonsky’s Arrival to Earth here
Bigger directors have failed to create a relationship that can even come close to that of Sam and Bumblebee, and they’re dealing with humans. In Bumblebee, Bay has managed to create this generation’s R2. And how about that spine-tingling score by Steve Jablonskly? Not only is it a great piece of film music, but even after 20 goes, it still has the power to send chills up and down your body.
You can’t deny Spielberg’s influence here (he is an executive producer after all). From the anamorphic lens flares that his other disciple JJ Abrams loves so much to that warm old trope of children finding an alien in their backyard; the aura of Speilberg is there for all to experience. Michael Bay may not be as delicate in his storytelling as him, but the heart’s all there.
The main problem with Transformers is that it has been eaten alive by the crappiness of its own sequels. The whole series has blended into one. The undoubtedly atrocious Revenge of the Fallen and Age of Extinction (Dark of the Moon was really good) have consumed the original into their metallic cesspool. But Transformers is still a special movie. It will always remind us, no matter how many horrible sequels Michael Bay churns out, that we are a primitive and violent race, a young species with much to learn.
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The author tweets @NaaharRohan