The movie I just saw has just about as much connection with The Transformers as it does with Gremlins, Barton Fink, and Vertigo.
I was going to make a comment a while ago "Why do Autobots have AM radios?", having seen the one trailer that's been out there of the junky old Camaro whose radio tuned itself. (Hey, I saw that in "Greatest American Hero", come to think of it.) At one point, maybe half an hour into the movie, the female lead makes the same point.
Something like: "If he's such an awesome robot, why does he turn into such a junky Camaro?", at which point, the alien goes into a two-wheeled "ski" stunt (hello, Night Rider), scans a passing car (Tron? Automan?) and recreates himself as a late model, kick-ass Camaro.
If only this movie could pull off the same stunt. Or, to paraphrase: "If this is such an awesome movie, why does it suck so much?"
I tried, I tried REALLY HARD, to go into this movie without hoping it would feel connected to the television cartoon. I have no illusions that the cartoon was quality narrative, or that the physics made sense, or that it was any more than a means to sell Hasbro/Takara toys. The cartoon, I'll admit, was bad in several ways. If this movie was going to be bad, it could at least have been bad in the same ways - I would have appreciated that.
Instead, the movie found new ways to be bad.
- I'm sure I've seen this before - over and over again, the elaborate stunt shots, from the freeway with the exploding bus, to the helicopter transforming in the city streets, all seemed familiar. I know that the robots in the movie scan the existing vehicles and emulate their appearance as a means to pass for terrestrial vehicles, but this movie really felt like it was assembled by aliens who analyzed existing blockbuster movies without really understanding what they were looking at.
- teenaged angst - Ok, the movie is PG-13, which means that 12-year-olds will see it. And, I guess, those are the target audience for the new generation of toys. Collector geeks of my generation can't be counted on to buy a whole new collection of plastic gewgaws in sufficient numbers to support Hasbro's continuing operation. Fine. So, I guess the teenaged hero and his teenaged love interest and his teenaged problems with his parents are appropriate for the audience. But if it's going to be in the movie, it should belong there. As it was, it felt poorly integrated, and doled out in obligatory chunks. "Hey, we need to establish the chick's backstory!"/"Er, Ok, I'll throw three lines in while the bad Feds are interrogating them, is that enough?"/"Actually, let's pull it back to two, what do you think this is? Hamlet?"
- John Turturro needs to pay his mortgage, too - I liked him in his early movies. He was Adrian Monk's brother, in a good bit of casting. He was in O, Brother. And now he's the oddly monomaniacal middle-management pedophiliac super-secret federal agent.
And a robot pees on him.
- A battle with FIVE armies? - If you watched the old Rankin-Bass animated Hobbit movie as a kid (of course you did. Smaug? Gollum? Glen Yarbrough?) you may remember Bilbo being amazed that the dwarves and the humans and the elves and the goblins (er, orcs) and the eagles were all getting into a fight on the same battlefield. I think this has become the new standard, to the detriment of modern action movies. Spiderman and sequels had too many villains, which made the storyline convoluted. Pirates of the Caribbean 3 had so many significant characters, each with their own competing agendas, I never got the opportunity to root for the good guys. There were no good guys, just 8 different ways to pull the narrative.
Likewise, we've got the good and bad Transformers, we've got the military grunts, we've got the secret fed folks, the high-level government folks, the kid, his parents, the kid's love interest - oh, and there were also some hackers, I guess. Simplify, people. The chick with the accent was cute, but she didn't sell the credentials of her character - supposedly one of the sharpest SIGINT analysts in the US. (And I'm sure there's a good explanation in the character's backstory why this chick with the accent who looks 20 is one of the United States' best decryption assets - where she came from, when she came to the US, what her background in massively parallel computing architectures is, but if you can't take the time to establish the character, maybe you could streamline the script a little bit.)
- Are you playing them videogames? - The chick isn't the best at what she does. She's got her ace-in-the-hole, the uber-hacker. Who, of course, lives with his grandmother. The SIGINT chick has to push a cousin out of the room who had until that point been playing some sort of Dance, Dance, Revolution game. Of course, the master hacker was able to immediately get clues that the combined official US computing forces could not. And, as soon as he figures out the important clues, his grandmother storms into the room to chastise him for playing games. Recall, though, that two minutes earlier, a cousin was loudly playing games in the same room, but drew none of Grandma's wrath.
Also, immediately after Grandma's done with her comic relief bit, the government shows up to take the good(?) guys into custody. If only the government could be counted on to show up in a timely matter later on in the movie, when they know they need to confront the bad guys.
- My car's alive - one thing that the old cartoon did, to varying degrees of success, was have the robot forms of the transformers retain identifiable bits of the vehicle (or whatever) forms. This was, I'm sure, not an intentional goal, but instead a practical necessity of making real toys. So the Autobots typically had torsos that looked like the front end of cars, and the Decepticons typically had torsos that looked like the fuselages of jet fighters. In this movie, there's no such constraint, it seems, so alien technology can fold and unfold with arbitrary complexity. Optimus Prime doesn't look very much like a semi tractor, Jazz doesn't look like... what was Jazz again? Well, there's my point - all of the Autobots looked about the same in robot mode.
And the Transformers can reshape themselves at will (recall the Camaro scene, above), so any damaged Decepticons can reform themselves when necessary, but the good guys remain pinned under heavy objects for extra dramatic tension.
- Eyes of Blue, Two by Two - good guys have blue eyes, maybe green. Bad guys have red eyes, possibly yellow. Black may work for bad guys' eyes, depending on the presentation. A bad guy with glowing blue eyes only confuses the audience.
- Dear God, stop the sequel before it starts - at the end of the film, there are two very clear hooks for a sequel. Well, three, if you include the fact that the entire planet doesn't get blown up. What? Too much of a spoiler? Sorry.
Ok, so who should see this movie? I wouldn't recommend it to small children - it's PG-13 for several good reasons. I wouldn't encourage any fans of the Transformers franchise go to see it. Maybe if you think you'd like to see an action movie, but you haven't seen any action movies before, you might enjoy it. Or maybe, you're trapped in a movie theatre after a natural disaster hit, and it's either this or an Ernest outtake reel, and you have to watch something.
Stick a fork in my eye, I'm done watching movies.