99. Transformers (2007)


  • Michael Bay was born to make Transformers.” - Stephen Spielberg
  • “I’m not doing that stupid, silly toy movie.”  -Michael Bay, late summer 2005
  • “Wow.  They’re making a Transformers movie.  They’re going to mess that up completely.”  -Shia LaBeouf, Spring 2006

It was March, 2007, and a storm was brewing.  You knew it was coming.  Something this controversial – there had to be an outcry, both for and against.  Once the news was posted, the fierce debate began.  People on both sides of the issue weighed in, with 648 comments*, all within 72 hours.  No, we weren’t talking about abortion, gun control or Peyton Manning finally winning his Super Bowl.  We were, of course, talking about the new Transformers one-sheet posters.  Not the movie itself, mind you, just a couple of posters advertising the movie.   Eventually, there would be ten Transformers posters released.  Imagine the bandwidth wasted discussing the other eight.

What did the fanboys do before the internet?  Going back and doing some research on Ain’t It Cool News, Harry Knowles’ ubergeek fanboy site, I saw literally thousands of posts dissecting every aspect of Transformers, and they were all months before the movie even came out.  “New Transformers Cut Sheet – Is Optimus Taking Up Too Much of the Page?”  Stuff like that.  Sure, it didn’t start with Transformers (the Harry Potter and Star Wars fan kingdoms probably take the cake), but it’s emblematic of the new culture of overanalyzing EVERYTHING.  If only we spent this much time discussing the genocide in Bosnia.

Of course, I’m part of the problem, too.  I’m not writing an essay about the Darfur crisis or the Occupy Wall Street folks, I’m wasting a few thousand words (and a few minutes of your time) on a movie that came out four years ago.  And a crappy movie at that, many of you would argue.  So as vapid as I might be, at least I’m not a hypocrite.  Maybe after this, we should all go read some George Will or Thomas Friedman.   Perhaps I’ll do a book review of The World Is Flat to clear my conscience.

“Yeah, great,” I hear you say.  “But what about the robots?”  I’ll get to them in a second. 

As the quote up top said, Michael Bay didn’t want to make Transformers.  He’d been offered lots of superhero movies and the like, but he just wasn’t interested in those kinds of movies.  If he was going to invest two plus years of his life into a movie, it was going to be a movie he just had to make.  And Transformers wasn’t it.  I’ll let Michael explain how his mind got changed:

I was not a Transformers fan before I signed on to this movie. I think I was two years older when the toys came out, so I just discovered girls then instead of Optimus Prime.  But I met with the CEO [at Hasbro] and I went through the whole Transformer lore.  I’ve been such a fan of Japanese Anime it just hit me that if I make this really real it could be something very new and different. So I quickly became probably one of the bigger Transformer fans in the world, and I tried to make this movie for non-Transformer fans.  I wanted it to be a little bit more adult, so I’m sure I’m going to get flack for [it].

And flack he got.  An early script was leaked to the internet in early 2006 and, of course, the fanboys went apeshit.  They didn’t trust Bay with their precious cartoon.  So as soon as he could, he wanted to get a teaser trailer out there so the public could know this was serious and not some rehash of the cartoon.  He said it was going to be more adult, and he needed to show us.  Now I, like Bay, was never into the Transformers cartoon, so I didn’t have a huge chunk of my childhood invested in its lore.  But by the reaction he was getting, you’d think it was like Sofia Coppola directing the next Star Wars movie.  I hate to break it to you, guys, but the 80’s Transformers cartoons have not aged well.  As a kid, I loved Tang because the astronauts drank it.  But now, I realize it tastes more like chemicals than orange.  Looking at the cartoons now, it’s become that kind of unintentionally funny thing that the guys at Mystery Science Theater 3000 love.  But what Bay doesn’t get much credit for is that he listened to the fanboys.  Screenwriters (and Transformer fans themselves) Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci actually went to conventions and talked to fans while they were working on the script.  And the normally implacable Bay listened to criticism about the design of the evil Decepticon leader, Megatron, and actually changed it based on feedback from the fans. 

But this was Michael Bay.  He once famously said that his movie Armageddon would “make The Rock look like My Dinner With Andre+.”  What were these kids worrying about?  Michael Bay was going to make the most badass giant robot movie ever.  He loves action.  He loves to blow things up.  Nobody blows up and flips cars/tanks/trucks/planes/walls/trees/Trapper Keepers better than Bay and his stunt coordinator, Kenny Bates.  When other directors are going full CGI, Bay still shoots as much as he can in real life, and then lets the wizards at ILM or Digital Domain do their magic.  He knows story’s important, but that he’s not making Schindler’s List here.  Harry Knowles, king ├╝bergeek at Aint It Cool News, talked about the lack of character development, specifically mentioning the movie Iron Giant and its boy and robot story.  He yearned for more of that in Transformers.  Harry actually writes the line, “Cuz what is necessary isn’t that she get back in the car… but that Shia and that car spend some time together.”  What?!!!!  Dude, it’s Megan Freakin’ Fox!  Quality time with Bumblebee can wait.  Love ya, Harry, but what?!  Were you really expecting a character development piece in a Michael Bay film?  I loved Iron Giant, too, but this ain’t no Iron Giant movie.

Here’s what makes Transformers great and why guys like Harry Knowles just didn’t get it.  Transformers is a close to perfect popcorn movie.   By that I mean that it won’t change your sensibilities or make you contemplate the world we live in.  What it will do, however, is take you on the “rollercoaster ride of the summer” and “never let you go.”  And while those phrases have become clich├ę, making the perfect summer blockbuster isn’t as easy as it looks.  Bay started in commercials, with one of his iconic ones being the Aaron Burr Got Milk? commercial.  He had thirty seconds to get you attention, get his message across, and most importantly, get you to remember it.  Imagine that thirty second freneticism spread out over a two hour movie.  That’s why you’re physically tired after a Michael Bay movie, but in a good way.  Sure, you’ve got to put your smartypants hat away for a few hours and just go with the flow, but if you see Transformers with the right attitude, you will enjoy yourself.

Okay, that’s enough talk about everything but the actual movie, but what about the robots?

“Before time began, there was the cube.”

These are the words that open Transformers.  Delivered in a rich baritone by Peter Cullen, who voiced the original Optimus Prime (which I didn’t know, but the fanboys were so excited about), Michael Bay throws his pile of chips in the middle of the table, confidently leaning back with a grin as if to say, “All in.”  By that, I mean that if you can get past that cheeseball line spoken with such gravitas, you’re going to be just fine.  If you can’t, then you might as well stop the DVD player right now and go watch The Pianist.

Michael Bay doesn’t get enough credit for his casting, and this is why.  There isn’t much time for character development in his movies, so he needs you to care about these people quickly.  For some characters, they’ve got five lines to impress you or get you to care about them.  Let’s take Josh Duhamel’s Captain Lenox as an example.  Within minutes of seeing him onscreen, you care about him.  First he shows that he’s just one of the guys, talking trash with his fellow Army Rangers.  Then, you see him as a loving father and husband, video chatting with his wife and newborn daughter that he’s never met.  Within another minute, he’s treating a local Qatar boy with respect, showing he’s not some mindless, racist grunt.  So in just one minute and nine seconds of screen time, Bay (and Duhamel, and the writers) have established a well-rounded character that you will care about for the rest of the film.  Again, it goes back to his commercial roots – Bay got your attention with Captain Lennox, got you to care about him, and gave you things to remember.  All in a minute and nine seconds.

And the movie is littered with great character and comedic actors who make the most of their screen time. Bay cast the brilliant Bernie Mac as car salesman Bobby Bolivia, and actors Kevin Dunn and Julie White as Sam’s parents.  In much the way Jack Black was instantly memorable in High Fidelity, White and Dunn endear themselves to you within seconds.  Anthony Anderson is hilarious as a computer hacker and John Voight is the John Wayne of Defense Secretaries (and I mean that in a good way).  Say what you want about the stunt casting of Megan Fox’s stomach, but she gives Mikaela a charm and toughness that go beyond her 8 minute abs.  The only real misfire, in my opinion, is JohnTurturro as Agent Simmons of Sector 7.  He’s one of his generation’s most talented actors, but he just is a bit over the top and out of place in Transformers.

But the biggest casting coup was Shia LaBeouf as Sam Witwicky.  Before Transformers, Shia had only had a few bit parts in big movies – the funny kid/sidekick.  Shia is quick on his feet (I haven’t seen someone run this good on screen since Tom Cruise) both physically and mentally.  Bay likes actors who can improvise and go with the flow, and Shia is a natural.  Sure, the real stars of Transformers are the robots, but if the actual people had acted as robotic as, say Jake Lloyd in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, then Transformers would’ve gone pear shaped real fast.

Much like one of his mentors, Jim Cameron, Bay runs a film crew much like a military operation, and it shows in virtually every frame.  He’s got all the actors running all over the place, getting smacked around and having various sizes of debris rained on them.  He’s tough on his cast and crew, and doesn’t really care if you have a problem with it.  At least Cameron feels a little remorse for the hell he puts his actors through.  Bay – not so much.  Unlike Cameron, Bay shoots fast.  While most directors will do about twenty setups a day, Michael will do about sixty, on average.  He’s going to go fast, and if you can’t keep up, well then you’re just asking for aan ass chewing – and he won’t hesitate, because you deserved it.

He’s been called all sorts of unprintable names, often to his face, but he doesn’t care.  What he does care about is working hard and making the best looking, most exciting, fun movies he can.  So sue him.  He figures that he’s been around for a while now and if you don’t know what you’re getting into when you sign on to do a Michael Bay movie, then it’s your own damn fault.  While fighting the big fight scene at the end of the movie, they put bulletproof safety material around the camera.  Even Bay, who’s standing fifty feet away, is wearing protective goggles.  Shia LaBeouf, the lead of the movie?  He gets to run through it all holding a prop cube.  His protection?  A brown sweatshirt, I guess.  But if you’re an actor willing to work hard and take your lumps (literally, it seems), then Bay’s your guy.  Shia summed it up well in an interview with GQ magazine:

He is the sickest action director on the planet.  He’s not Elia Kazan [brilliant director of On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire].  And he knows it. He's precise and he's specific and he's determined; he's outrageously committed. He never flinches in a firefight. He's always there for you; when the going gets tough, he never flinches. He's helpful; he's confident; he's a risk-taker. But he's also completely unreasonable and irrational sometimes and emotional and aggressive and demanding. He's my coach; I love him; he's my captain.  When we’re at work, there’s no huggy, kissy shit.  You know what he is?  New York.  If you can make it on a Bay set, you can make it on any set.

“BUT WHAT ABOUT THE ROBOTS?!!!!!!!!!”

Okay, I did that on purpose.  I specifically waited this long to talk about the robots to show that Transformers is more than just those amazing looking robots.  Without a strong foundation of a film surrounding them, the Autobots and Decepticons would’ve been mere eye candy.  Sure, Michael Jordan is the best player of all time, but he didn’t start winning championships until he had a solid supporting cast around him.  The robots in Transformers shine even more because they’re in a great movie, rather than them being the movie.  I so desperately want to make a “more than meets the eye joke” here, but you get my point.

From the first moment when that rogue helicopter’s blades stop on a dime, then fold back as the whole thing disassembles and turns into Starscream at the beginning of the movie, your mind spends the rest of the movie trying to catch up.  Even when they run things in slow motion, you still can’t really comprehend the intricacy and work that went into each transformation.  And that’s exactly the way Michael Bay wanted it.  He wanted the fanboys to get the movie on Bluray and slow the speed waaaaay down, analyzing every frame.  Bay wasn’t going to waste all of that amazing work by ILM by simplifying things for the audience.  He wanted you to shake your head in disbelief, because that’s exactly how it’d be in real life.

Bay wanted Transformers to be real.  And think about it, in real life, when a Camaro goes speeding past you at eighty miles an hour, everything’s a blur and you can barely get the color, much less a license plate.  Now imagine that car’s 750 individual pieces transforming it, at an alarming rate and with a complexity that is assuredly alien, into a thirty foot tall yellow robot that’s shooting huge projectiles at another thirty foot tall robot.  Screw the license plate, where’d that hubcap go?  Your mind would be spinning and your mouth would undoubtedly be open, followed by a vigorous shaking of your head.  What the hell just happened here?  It’s that feeling that Bay wanted you to have, because he wanted you to feel like you were IN the movie, not just watching it.

The task was enormous.  In a story in PopularMechanics titled “Transformers:  The Best Special Effects Ever?”, Jeff White, the digital production supervisor asked the $100,000 question.  “How are we gonna get this thing from a car into the robot and back in a believable way?”  Bumblebee’s 750 parts, if laid end to end, would stretch a half-mile long.  Someone had to get them to make a car, and then get them to make a robot – and every single frame in between!  According to the story, for just a section of a Bumblebee transformation, visual effects art director Alex Jager had to “break apart a fender close to the ground to unleash Bumblebee’s arm, then disassemble a brake disc attached to the arm before shifting it out of the way, [with it] eventually end[ing] up on his shoulder.”  My brain hurts just thinking about it.

Now imagine instead of 750 hand-modeled parts, you had to deal with 10,000.  That’s what the ILM crew had to take into account for Transformers.  Oh, and that was just for Optimus Prime!  Not only that, but they had to give Optimus real character that you could see and feel.  So yes, hating fanboys, they gave Optimus lips.  Because if his voice just looked like a blinking light emanating from a hole in his face, it would’ve looked inane given the complexity of the bots they were creating.  But cheer, fanboys, because the voice that came from those lips was the voice of actor Peter Cullen, who did the voice of the Autobot leader in the cartoon series.  To add a suitable menacing gravitas to the head of the Decepticons, Bay decided to shake things up and use Hugo Weaving (Mr. Smith from the Matrix movies) as the voice of Megatron.  Once they saw the movie, even the most ardent opponent of change had to admit that Weaving did a stellar job as Megatron.  The result for all of this hard work garnered the ILM gang an Oscar nomination for Visual Effects.  That they lost to The Golden Compass is the Oscar version of Milli Vanilli winning the Grammy for Best New Artist.  It’s just a crime.

But it wasn’t just the visual side of cars changing into robots (and vice versa).  They didn’t transform silently.  Just as important as these transformations looking real, they needed to sound real.  That task went to veteran sound designer Ethan Van der Ryn and his partner, Mike Hopkins.  Wired magazine interviewed Van der Ryn, about those great transforming sounds.  They used brakes, scissor lifts, clashing swords, a faulty car window, a garden hose and even his dog to make them.  The resulting sounds meshed so well with the visual effects that you thought to yourself, “Of course that’s how it would sound.”  The sound team was also nominated for an Oscar, losing out to worthy opponent, The Bourne Ultimatum.  But don’t feel too bad for Ethan – he’d already won two Oscars by the time he did Transformers: for King Kong and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

The last piece of the puzzle in any big movie is the music score.  You need something that sounds as majestic and exciting as the images that appear on the screen.  Longtime Bay collaborator Steve Jablonsky’s music adds a richness to the soundtrack, giving the music cues a strong foundation.  He learned under the tutelage of his mentor, Hans Zimmer (Gladiator, Inception, The Lion King) – start slow but forceful.  Then the music builds and adds layers and intensity.  The trick with any score is to make it memorable, but not to distract from the visuals on the screen.  Jablonsky succeeds in Transformers.  He’s written a score that works perfectly in the movie, but is also music that you’d go out and buy the soundtrack just to listen to it on its own.

From start to finish, Transformers is an unapologetic action movie blockbuster.  That’s what Michael Bay wanted to make, and he succeeded at almost every turn.  You might never get a Schindler’s List out of Bay, but it’s okay, because he doesn’t want to make a Schindler’s List
So after all of this trying to convince you doubters out there that Transformers is indeed a great movie, you still may not like it.  Do you really think Michael Bay cares?  Of course not.  And that’s what I love about him.




* God help me.  Yes, I counted them.  All in all, I probably spent an hour and a half researching, just for a joke.  So am I any better?  Probably not, but at least I don’t write something like: “LAME unless they showed that girls tits from the trailer my god she is hot.”  Yes, that’s one of the 648 comments.

+ If you don’t get the reference, look it up on Wikipedia.  You’ll get why that’s a really funny line.




WRITER’S CORNER

I tried and tried to find a copy of the script for this movie so I could pay tribute to Roberto & Alex’s work, but the lawyers at Paramount and Dreamworks have done a very good job scrubbing the internet clean of all traces of that originally leaked copy of the screenplay (as well as all others).  So without that, I’ll pay tribute to another writer.  Yep, it’s Vern from Ain’t It Cool News’ fanboy collective. 

While I see Transformers as a perfectly crafted summer blockbuster, Vern disagrees.  Vehemently.  You can read the whole post here, but I’ve picked out some of my favorite gems that made me LOL.
·         I definitely wanted to see [Transformers] out of morbid curiosity, but felt it would be morally wrong to pay for it. I paid to see GHOST RIDER because I thought it would be funny, and I still feel guilty about it.

  • I definitely wanted to see [Transformers] out of morbid curiosity, but felt it would be morally wrong to pay for it. I paid to see GHOST RIDER because I thought it would be funny, and I still feel guilty about it.
  • It’s like God made up The Transformers just to get some use out of Michael Bay.  But Bay told God to fuck off and went and made a movie about people [instead]. 
  • But I think the Lord would agree with me when I say, Jesus Christ, if this is what you guys consider exciting action sequences, I don’t even know how to relate to you anymore.
  • I know it’s not fair to drop the B&R bomb – it’s like comparing people to Hitler in political discussion.  But Transformers is honestly approaching Batman and Robin proportions of horribleness.
  • So in a way, that does explain to me why some people might enjoy this.  Some people like to be whipped and peed on.
  • I can't remember the last time I saw a movie that left me this befuddled that it actually existed.  Now I now how your parents felt when they took you to see [the Transformers cartoon movie].  "Well, I guess this is what kids like now.  Huh..."

Vern, my man, you are quite funny.  A bit full of vitriol (and a potty mouth – hey, I got kids here), but very, very funny.


Here's my video for Transformers, with the scenes that best depict why it's a great movie.




 And next up on my list, #98 - The Birdcage....