by Jay Stringer
Much less than meets the eye.
As with last week’s film, I had a prior relationship with the Transformers franchise. If you’re my age and male, there’s a fairly good chance that a defining moment of your childhood came in 1986 when they killed Optimus Prime. The animated movie twisted my fragile little mind in ways it’s never recovered from. Not only did Optimus die, but so did many others. Some begged for mercy, some got blown away at point blank range, and some got thrown to sharks. Metal sharks. Oh yes.
The only way I can explain it with a modern example would be to imagine that HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL 4 was written by Quentin Tarantino and featured the established characters taking shotgun blasts mid-song.
And Michael Bay had made good films. Well, one good film; I still enjoy the hell out of THE ROCK. So I wasn’t dead against him helming the franchise. The first film turned out to be fun. Not great, and very flawed, but it had enough charm in it to skate by. When the inevitable second film started, I hoped maybe things would improve, maybe they could learn from the mistakes of the first one while keeping the charm.
The first film put a lot or hard work into making us care about two of the robots, and did a good job of it. That was the extent of the effort though, none of the other Autobots or Decepticons were characters we could route for, and once they all started fighting the film lost its way.
Did the sequel fix any of these problems? Well, if I tell you that it’s one of the few films to make me angry whilst watching it at the cinema, that’ll give you a clue.
So much has already been written about the failures of the film. Two racist stereotypes, a pair of giant balls and stoned parents. What is there left to slate? I can accept any amount of bad ideas in a film as long as the writers put in the hard work to make me buy them. And what was making me angry in the cinema that day was that the writers clearly didn’t put in the work. So, rather than spend the article ranting about the more infamous decisions, I want to focus on a few examples of bad writing.
First lets start with the back-story. Thousands of years ago a group of transformers roamed the galaxy draining the power of stars in order to power Cybertron. When one of them decides to destroy our son, and so kill all life on Earth, his brethren decide to stop him. Do they do this by ganging up on him and overpowering him? Nope. Do they decide to do this by locking him in some timeless prison from which he would need to engineer a film-inducing escape? Nope. Do they destroy the device that drains the sun, making it impossible for it ever to be used again? Nah.
What they decide is the only logical approach, is for them to stand around the key to the machine and, ummmmm, die. Yes. In order to stop one villain, they decide to leave him alive and free whilst sacrificing themselves. Wouldn’t you just love to be in on that meeting, to see how that decision was arrived at? I wonder how many drinks they’d had before deciding that was logical. The same binge may have lead to them signing their names in the surface of Mars, or stealing a very big traffic cone.
So on such a shoddy premise, the film was always going to struggle to stand up. But it only got worse from there. Shortly thereafter the protagonist, Sam Witwicky, finds a piece of the allspark. The allspark was what drove the plot of the first film, a device so dangerous that an alien race went to war over it. Realising the potential danger, does he destroy it? Does he hand it over to Optimus? Nope. He gives it to his girlfriend, one of the people he would least want to put in danger. That makes total sense. No…wait….it makes no sense.
Then we get to the biggie. In 1986 Optimus Prime was killed at the end of the first act. It was the biggest death of the film, but it set up the story, and it was in a film where death meant something. In TRANSFORMERS 2, death means nothing. Early on in the film we see Megatron -the villain who died at the climax of the first film- resurrected. So the very start the film tells us that death is not permanent. Twenty minutes later they kill Optimus prime and expect us to care. To compound that, the film keeps asking us whether or not Optimus can come back. It’s meant to be the question that drives us to the third act, but we already know the answer. If Megatron had not been resurrected, then the middle of the film would have carried some tension. Bring him back in the third act or as a teaser for the third film. Even stranger, another robot sacrifices himself so that Optimus can use his parts as weapons. But his sacrifice means nothing, because death means nothing.
Problems like this run throughout the film. There is an entire lack of internal logic in any shape or form. We see the heroes flying over foreign airspace to drop off Autobots –effectively WMD’s- and then ten minutes later we see the same military saying it can’t fly over that airspace without asking permission. Did they not watch the film, just a few minutes before?
At the start of the third act two of the humans find themselves stood next to the great pyramid of Giza. They’re hiding from the Decepticons, and yet think nothing of the fact that they are hiding behind heavy-duty construction vehicles. What, did they think the Egyptian government were bringing them in to renovate the pyramid? Maybe adding a spare bedroom or a garage? I don’t know about you, but I’ve always thought that what the pyramids really need is a swimming pool.
Not done with reviving the robot characters from the dead at the drop of a hat, the films also shows the resurrection of a human character. Somehow –and it doesn’t seem to matter how- the long dead Primes from the start of the film decide to bring Sam Witwicky back from the dead so that he can then bring back Optimus. Quite why they couldn’t just bring back Optimus themselves, or how ancient robots have the power of human life, is unimportant. In fact it seems to be the most logical part of the film.
Some films are good, some are bad. In most cases, I believe, we can see that bad films are made with good intentions. The Director doesn’t set out to make a bad film, the writer doesn’t set out to write a bad script. These films often have something about them that we can enjoy, be it a hackneyed charm or a noble idea. But some films seem to be made by people who don’t much care whether their story makes sense. Some directors just want to blow up robots, and some writers just want to cash a cheque.
And the real trouble is that these films make 800 million worldwide. Clearly, we pay to see them again and again. So who’s to blame, us or them?