TRANSFORMERS (2007)

“What I look for in a script is something that challenges me, something that breaks new ground, something that allows me to flex my director muscle.”–

DIRECTED BY: Michael Bay

FEATURING: Shia LaBeouf, , Jon Voight,

PLOT: Giant robots attack a military installation. Shia LaBeouf buys a muscle car, but it’s actually a giant robot in disguise. A team of good giant robots from outer space battle a team of bad giant robots from outer space for control of a Rubik’s Cube.

Still from Transformers (2007)
BACKGROUND:

  • The movie Transformers was so successful that it launched a toy franchise and a Saturday morning children’s show.
  • Against the studio’s wishes, director Michael Bay deleted thirty minutes of explosions from the final cut, then added an additional hour of character development. A yet-to-be-released director’s cut incorporates all the explosion footage that was shot, and runs for over four days.
  • Jon Voight was once a respected actor.
  • Shia LaBeouf is a pseudonym which roughly translates from the French as “Made-up name the beef.”
  • Within five months after receiving her paycheck for Transformers, Megan Fox declared bankruptcy. Reportedly, she spent all of the money on unlicensed Mexican plastic surgery, including $500,000 for an experimental procedure which would have installed an expression on her face.
  • Stephen “Schindler’s List” Spielberg executive produced, haters.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Oh, how about just a freakin’ awesome muscle car transforming into a bad-ass killer robot, is all.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: One of the basic tenets of Surrealism is its insistence on juxtapositions and transformations of unlikely objects. As poet Pierre Reverdy said, “the more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be — the greater its emotional power and poetic reality.” In Un Chien Andalou, we see breasts that turn into buttocks; is this any stranger or more poetic than souped-up yellow Camaros that turn into giant missile-shooting bipeds?


Original trailer for Transformers

COMMENTS: Although some snob critics disparage the work of Michael Bay merely because it is loud, guilefully exploitative, militaristic, juvenile, shamelessly commercial, tacky, kind of dumb, and often seems to be nothing but an endless alternation between product placement, vulgar jokes, and explosions, it is my contention that they have been fooled by the superficial noise and flash into missing the pop-depth of this most American of filmmakers. Take Transformers, the lone attempt at a Surrealist movie in Bay’s extensive and profitable corpus. Transformers features many layers of reality: cars that are actually robots that are actually aliens that are actually toys. The apparent nonsense of this movie—the impossible mechanics of an automobile that can unpack itself to become a two-story tall biped—appears because this story erupts from a young boy’s dreams. A boy who is old enough to realize that Megan Fox is hot, but not old enough yet to realize that she’s more interesting than a bitchin’ Camaro that can turn into a robot. Transformers is richly wired into the Jungian architecture of transformation, which has been a key part of universal mythology since long before Ovid wrote Metamorphoses. In ancient times, it was thought that gods might turn into rapist swans; today, why not cars into battlebots?

With absurd wit, Bay creates a rich web of shifting imagery in which his modern transformation myth plays out. Throughout the story, Bay peppers the film with explosions—the ultimate entropic transformation of shaped matter becoming chaotic shrapnel.  One of the evil transforming Decepticons becomes a golden scorpionbot thrashing through the desert, invoking Egyptian mythology. Our hero, Sam Witwicky, undergoes the eternal transformation all young men who undertake the Hero’s Journey go through, from nerdy neophyte (and self-conscious virgin) to suave man of the world (and presumptive chick-conqueror). Less obvious is the transformation of Megan Fox’s character, who begins the film as virtually an object of lust but reveals herself to be a competent mechanic and criminal, almost human. “Do you think I’m shallow?” she asks Sam. Bay is baiting his critics with this sly line of dialogue. “I think there’s a lot more than meets the eye with you,” Sam responds, and of course the astute viewer realizes the same truth may be spoken of the film itself. Transformers is not merely a summer blockbuster intended to bleed money from nostalgic adult fanboys while selling new toys to the next generation of suckers, but a gnostic postmodern treatise on the very notion of transformation.

The theme of transformation is as much a staple of weird movies as it is of classical myth. The “identity shift” cycle that begins with Persona, where one person mysteriously changes into another, is a prime example. More to the point in this case is Bay’s obvious inspiration for Transformers: 1989’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man. Tetsuo features a man who gradually accumulates a shell of metal parts, including a drill bit penis, eventually turning into a man/machine hybrid. At the end of the film, he engages in a battle with another man who is also transforming into metal, much as heroic Autobot Optimus Prime faces off in combat against evil Decepticon Megatron at the climax of Bay’s film. Transformers, then, is a sort of inversion of Tetsuo; instead of men changing into machines, here we have machines who take on the qualities of human beings. Whereas sees men turning into machines as a bad thing, a symbol of the horrific alienation brought about by the excessive mechanization of modern life, Bay’s sunnier disposition views the transformation of machines into men as a good thing—cars that turn into robots that speak in jive talk! It’s fun!

The other obvious transformative touchstone that influences Bay is the work of . Cronenberg helped found the subgenre of “body horror,” built around the fear that our own bodies will transform and betray us: cancerous metastases taken to nightmarish extreme. These transformations often take the shape of machine parts developing from out of normal human organs. In Videodrome, for example, a hand changes into a gun, and a new orifice develops in the protagonist’s stomach, where videocassette tapes can be inserted. Such mutation is fearsome to Cronenberg, because it is uncontrolled. Bay, again, reverses the polarity of the transformation, from negative to positive, from unspeakable horror to absolute awesomeness. Bay’s machines transform at will, rather than through epidemic mutation, and therefore they are cool as hell, instead of hellish.

Of course, like all great movies, and especially all of Michael Bay’s movies, Transformers is ultimately a Christ allegory. It is no accident that “Jesus” and “Opitmus” both end in “-us,” or that “Christ” and “Prime” share a long “i” assonance, or that “Optimus Prime” translates as “best and first.” Both heroes are omnipotents who transform: Jesus from God to man, and later from bread to flesh; Optimus from alien robot to sixteen-wheeler. Both come down from the heavens to help Earthlings. Both are willing to sacrifice themselves for man’s salvation, whether the enemy be sin or enslavement by Decepticons (remember, Satan is also known as “the Great Deceiver”). Yet, Optimus Prime is superior to Christ because, although he’s perfectly willing to die for the good of humanity, he’s far too bitchin’, and too necessary to the inevitable sequels, to actually perish. Optimus Prime’s immortality is not some wishy-washy hippie spiritual metaphor; it’s literal. He is Bay’s messianic conception of a souped-up, ass-kicking savior for the postmodern age. All hail the new metal!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

zooms over rich philosophical territory about humans and our unerring need to find the personality in mechanical beings…  ends with a faint whiff of melancholy.”–Lisa Kennedy, The Denver Post (contemporaneous)

“…a wildly absurd, visceral fantasy…  Bay manages (with help from producer Steven Spielberg?) to both take this absurd pulp premise seriously and have a blast with the absurdity of it all.”–Sean Axmaker, Seattle Post-Intelligencer (contemporaneous)

“…the most apt instance of a machine directing machines since Kubrick filmed 2001: A Space Odyssey…”–Fernando F. Croce, Cinepassion (contemporaneous)

IMDB LINK: Transformers (2007)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Honest Trailers – Transformers – An analysis of the film from Honest Trailers

KRE-O Transformers: Take Us Through the Movies – Legos [TM] summarize the Transformers [TM] movies

When Orson Welles Was a Transformer – Slate’s John Swansburg takes the radical position that a 1985 cartoon film starring the voice of  as “Unricon” was a better film than Michael Bay’s Transformers

DVD INFO: Michael Bay has two films in the Criterion Collection—Armageddon (buy) and The Rock (buy)—but sadly, the DVD titans have yet to get their hands on the rights to his weirdest film, Transformers. It would be fascinating to hear a commentary track from this notoriously shy, quiet and humble auteur explaining exactly why he chose to make the last half-hour of the movie an indecipherable blur of too-fast-for-the-human-eye-to-follow computer generated scenes that looks less like a battle between giant robots than a tornado whirling through a junkyard. In the meantime, we will have to make do with the extras-free Dreamworks  DVD (buy).

(This movie was nominated for review by absolutely no one. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

7 thoughts on “TRANSFORMERS (2007)”

  1. You clueless philistines. Michael Bay? Bah. No filmmaker will ever match the meta-awareness, multilayered symbolism, and unrestrained explicitness of Uwe Boll. I mean, what other director makes films aimed at an audience he openly despises?

    1. In terms of sheer difficulty, exploring and analyzing a Uwe Boll film is on par with writing quantum mechanical proofs.

    1. I suspect Mr Smalley is working on a second website dedicated exclusively to the whole series.

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