This is supposed to be Hollywood’s year off. Everywhere you look we’re watching sequels and conclusions of trilogies – At World’s End, Ocean’s Thirteen, Shrek The Third and, any minute now, The Bourne Ultimatum. Movie reviewers from various media are having great fun pointing this out. Such comments have not, however, been levelled at what’s arguably the least original movie of the year so far.
In fact, perhaps the most interesting thing about the hype surrounding Transformers is the frequency with which the term ‘fanboy’ has come up. You know fanboys – those silly, mateless, dateless jerks who collect Spiderman comics and keep their toy lightsabres in the original packaging and e-mail each other in Klingon. I find these guys as funny as the next man, or would do if I’d ever actually seen one, which I didn’t at the midnight showing I attended. It was full of dating couples, groups of friends and one bloke vociferously trying to talk a mate out of going to university. In any case, I certainly wouldn’t call myself a fanboy. I’d call myself a cultural historian. And as such I think I’ve spotted what makes the movie such a mess.
The Transformers were odd in that they were the only one of the holy trinity of ‘80s action-figure franchises to spring from a non-American source. GI Joe was a post-WWII hangover from colonial America’s nationalistic syncretism, He-Man the result of a botched contract to produce Conan The Barbarian toys. Transformers came from Japan. They were, at least initially, mecha animae, the thin end of the same pulp-Orientalist cultural wedge that has since given us Robotech, Battletech, Voltron, Pokemon, Ghost In The Shell and an entire sub-genre of surreal cartoon pornography. When, on first meeting his robot buddy, the hero of Transformers breathes “it must be Japanese”, he’s being more truthful than he seems to realise.
Animae characteristically pushes certain themes and tropes to the fore – supernatural friends, martial mysticism, prepubescent superheroes, secret weapons, what colour the heroine’s knickers are. Transformers pays lip service to a few of these, but most of it takes a much newer and certainly incompatible form, that of the monument-eating ‘90s disaster flick. That’s a genre with its own preoccupations – Jungian insecurities, military history, adolescent heroes, the executive branch of American government. When I say Transformers isn’t much like the Transformers, I don’t mean they look wrong, but that they’ve been foolishly mis-deployed. Put simply, if you can imagine someone taking the characters in Kill Bill Volume One and trying to write them into Independence Day or Deep Impact, you’ll have some idea of what the writers of Transformers have tried to do. It doesn’t work.
With the heavy cultural theory out of the way, we can now have some fun pointing out the more peripheral faults of Transformers. The comic relief is as relentless and dorky as that of The Phantom Menace. The generally excellent Bernie Mack makes a complete tit of himself. The emaciated heroine is likely to set John Campbell off about eating disorders again. The script hobbles along like a marathon runner with a pulled muscle; Optimus Prime doesn’t turn up until halfway through, and subplots are left mouldering for so long that when we finally get back to them, the participants have actually dozed off. Linkin Park get pride of place on the soundtrack.
And the Transformers don’t look right. Indeed, they don’t actually look like anything. I’ve heard director Michael Bay explain that his version of Optimus Prime is created from over ten thousand separately computer-animated parts, which is impressive until you realise the result of such complexity is a shambling, amorphous pile of machinery. His colleagues suffer the same fate – I’m not sure Megatron ever even transforms into any recognisable object. At its worst this recalls the bloated, noxious stupidity of King Kong, which is the last thing anybody needs.
As a final criticism, it ought to be said that Transformers is also unwisely dated. It’s full of references to eBay, The Strokes and cellphone cameras that are going to look just silly in ten year’s time. Even worse, it buys into current social trends such as depicting the US President as a torpid yokel and featuring a bunch of good honest soldiers being dishonoured by sinister secret agents who mistreat their prisoners. If you’re going to make a great big disposable action joyride, which is all this is, then surely you don’t want to get bogged down in attempts at topicality, especially if you’re drawing them from something as toweringly earnest and dry as Fahrenheit 9/11.
Michael Bay hasn’t, as the now standard charge has it, raped my childhood with this failure. What Bay has done is mishandled his material, shoehorning firmaments of one genre into the framework of another. And those of us who weren’t careful enough with their Transformers as children know what happens when you try to force them to move in a way they weren’t designed to – they break. The analogy only goes so far, however. Somewhere in my parent’s storeroom there is a box containing a dozen maimed robots. I remember them fondly. I am not sure, once the media loses interest in giggling about ‘fanboys’, that anybody will remember this movie at all.