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Transformers: Michael Bay Finally Gets It Right

Written by: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer

ImageThe Transformers sequel is due out in a couple weeks.  To get ready, why not take another look at the original?

If I call Transformers Michael Bay’s best movie since The Rock —if not ever—is that damning him with faint praise? Or am I saying that he’s finally found his way back to summer movie Nirvana again? Or both?

It’s impossible to talk about Michael Bay without talking about the phenomenon of the Summer Movie. Steven Spielberg—the undisputed, all-time Summer Movie champ—essentially retired with nothing left to prove in 1993 when he “grew up” and made Schindler’s List (he goes back to the well every once in a while to show he’s still got it—e.g. War of the Worlds and, presumably, Indy 4—but his heart doesn’t really seem to be in it any more). Two years after Spielberg’s “retirement,” Bay came out with Bad Boys, and he’s been the king of summer movies (or at least, the Crown Prince to frequent Bay producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s King) ever since—although a lot of people see him as more of a tyrant than a benevolent king like Spielberg was.

Everybody knows the elements a Summer Movie is supposed to contain. In order of importance:

1. Mind-blowing, state of the art special effects.
2. A big, dumb storyline where the Fate of the World hangs in the balance.
3. Characters just interesting enough to make us care, but nowhere near interesting enough to make us think.
4. A certain self-knowing attitude that acknowledges that the filmmakers know this is a big dumb movie, usually manifested every couple of minutes with a good joke.

It’s the last two elements that have been missing in Bay’s movies since The Rock . Actually, they were missing in Bad Boys, as well (I know, I know, the Bad Boys movies are supposedly “comedies,” but the humor in them is so forced and strained as to make them comedies in theory only). Bay has never really been able to take a deep breath and relax as a director. He’s always beaten audiences over the head with pounding scores, fussed-over slow-mo shots rapidly spliced together, and a teeth-gritting, control freak’s insistence that we’re all having “fun”—all pointing to a personality behind the camera that is psychotically paranoid about even one member of his audience’s attention drifting away from the movie for even a split second. Bay’s heart has always been in the right place—he desperately wants everyone to have “fun” at his movies, and he’s gotten a bad rap as being a hack—I assure you, it is not easy to make films on the gigantic scale that he makes them. The problem is that he’s never been able to remove those quotation marks from the word “fun.”

ImageThe Rock stands out in his filmography probably despite his best intentions to cram Summer Fun down our throats.  It had a great premise, a pretty decent script, the Bruckheimer formula hadn’t gotten as stale and clichéd as it eventually would, and it boasted two lead actors caught at the perfect moments in their careers for a movie like it. Sean Connery was still virile enough to be believable as an elderly bad-ass, and the comic chops he perfected as Henry Jones were still serving him well. And Nic Cage, well…it’s easy to forget that before The Rock, Nicolas Cage was a quirky, comic actor, and a lot of the joy in watching The Rock pre all the overwrought Cage/ Bruckheimer atrocities to come was watching him squirm while being forced to do all sorts of Action Adventure stuff.

But the overriding point is that with the notable exception of The Rock, Bay has consistently failed to deliver all four elements of the perfect Summer Movie, despite his undeniable talents and all the resources in the world at his disposal (Did I read that more money was spent making the movie Pearl Harbor than actually fighting the Battle of Pearl Harbor, or do I just want to believe I read that?).

Thank god, then, that Transformers finally finds Bay discovering how to let a summer movie be truly fun—with no quotation marks anywhere near the theater. Thanks for this accomplishment need to go far and wide. First and foremost, to Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, for sure, for turning in a script that balances all the CGI action with a very relatable story of a likeable teenage guy (Shia LeBeouf) dealing with his coming-of-age via his new car, struggles with his likeable but clueless parents, and the “hot chick” in his class  (Megan Fox). Sure, it’s pretty standard Americana, but it works. Not only has everyone gone through it (or is currently going through it, or is about to go through it), but it makes the absolute target demographic for a Summer Movie (kids and teenagers) the hero of the movie in a “believable” (at least by Summer Movie rules) way. Watching Transformers kind of makes me wish I was still a kid and could spend hours of play pretending the Transformers were my friends.

In a typically big, multi-ethnic, market research-mandated cast, several actors rise to the occasion to enliven the Summer Movie material with big, lovable performances. First and foremost is Shia LeBeouf, who shows a likeable comic sense as the slightly awkward teenage hero (which bodes well for Indiana Jones 4). Then there’s his clueless but loving parents, hammed up perfectly by Julie White and Kevin Dunn, particularly in a comic sequence where LeBeouf attempts to hide both a girl in his bedroom and several Transformers in his backyard from his parents–who suspect the reason he’s all sweaty and flustered when the burst into his room was because he was masturbating. It’s a sweet piece of light, Noises Off-style physical comedy, the likes of which have never been seen in a Michael Bay film before. And best of all is John Turturro, who takes the standard super-serious, humorless secret government agency guy and plays him way over the top, turning him into a joke the smarter-than-the-adults teenagers can make a fool of and show their superiority to….Summer Movies are for the kids, after all.

Hiding somewhere in all this is Steven Spielberg, who executive produced the movie, along with Bay. The role an executive producer has in a film’s creation is impossible to pin down, of course, but the lightening of Bay’s iron-fisted touch and the appeal to the kid in everyone fairly screams Spielberg. His fingerprints are all over this baby, and let’s hope that the lessons he taught Bay (or at least the lessons I’m hypothesizing he taught Bay) sunk in deep, and we can expect to see a kinder, gentler Bay from here on out.

Of course, it goes without saying that the real stars of Transformers are the Transformers themselves, so much credit for the success of the film is due to the technicians who created them in their computers. They’re state-of-the-art CGI, and they sound the way Transformers should sound, and they’re cool as hell.

All this said, Transformers is obviously a very disposable piece of entertainment that will start fading from your memory even as the closing credits start to role. It probably won’t stand up to sustained viewings. But let’s not ask too much of Transformers. It delivers the Summer Movie goods, and that ain’t nothing to sneeze at.