Transformers Without Irony
By Annalee Newitz
THERE IS absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying truck commercials. Enjoying truck commercials can even be a politically innocent act—it does not signify that you secretly lust after fossil fuels. Plus, there's a payoff to admitting that such pleasures can be had guilt-free: You can enjoy watching Michael Bay's latest sci-fi action-fest, Transformers, on its own terms. If you're one of the people who helped the flick earn over $100 million during its opening week, you may not need my help. For those still fighting the urge to cheer for shiny trucks, I offer a few arguments to persuade you.
The first, most obvious case in favor of this movie is that it just looks neat. There are giant robots who turn into, among other things, SUVs, tanks, fighter planes, scorpion things, race cars and, yes, trucks with flames painted on the sides.
It shouldn't be too surprising that CGI is the perfect tool for demonstrating how cars morph into robots. Haven't you always wished that one day your boring old Prius would twist itself into a gigantic alien robot from the planet Cybertron?
Ah, Cybertron. This brings me to my next argument, which is that Transformers is one of those rare action movies about incredibly silly things that take those silly things dead seriously. No doubt you are as heartily sick of knee-jerk irony as the next chump who shelled out cash to see Ghost Rider (OK, so I liked Ghost Rider, but you know what I mean).
There are no great actors in Transformers showing us how distanced they are from the trashy source material by scare-quote acting a la Nick Cage. In Transformers, characters discussing the robots refer to them, with straight faces, as Optimus Prime and Megatron. The good guys are Autobots, and the bad guys are Decepticons. They are all trying to find a giant, unexplained box called the All Spark. Nobody raises an eyebrow at the total goofiness of this scenario. The film's straightforwardness is downright refreshing.
Like other kid-friendly action films, Transformers is low on bloodshed and high on "Wow, that's cool!" Even the film's worst bad guy, a secret government agent played with snarky relish by John Turturro, never kills anybody.
Instead of murderous mayhem, the movie offers us rampaging teenaged hormones, packing the dialog with cute-but-groan-worthy double-entendres about asses and dicks and humping. Not since E.T. has a movie aimed at 'tweens been this honest about how kids really talk. There's a lot of creative cursing, and main character Sam (Shia LaBeouf) spends the entire flick trying to snog his hot pal Megan. Thank you, Michael Bay, for removing rampant death from the action-movie genre and replacing it with dumb masturbation jokes.
What truly surprised me about the movie was that Bay did a fairly good job updating the concept for the 2000s. The film's plot hinges on something Sam is selling on eBay, and there are a few good jokes about how the Autobots learned English on the web. (Surprisingly, this does not mean that they yell "LOL" or "OMG" all the time.) I was deeply amused when the evil Decepticons hunt Sam down via his eBay listing, ambush him and then grab him in their giant metal fists so that they can scream in his face, "ARE YOU USER LADIESMAN217?"
Another way Bay updates the Transformers premise is by connecting the Decepticons with the Middle East. The film has this sort of murky, inexplicable opening sequence that takes place in what we're told is "Qatar, Middle East," where good U.S. soldiers encounter mean, scorpion-shaped Decepticons, which smash the crap out of them.
The Middle Eastern 'bots look bizarrely like IEDs come to life; made of scrap metal and old tires, they hide in the sand and strike at unwary troops who are trying to be nice to the native folks. This is possibly the only part of Transformers where Bay attempts to grasp feebly at political relevance and make something other than a zoomy truck commercial. Of course, he fails miserably. If you want to enjoy this flick without guilt, you will have to ignore the whole Middle East issue.
Also of course, one could say the same thing about living in the United States. Maybe Bay has succeeded in pulling off some social commentary after all. Welcome to the United States: Ignore the Middle East stuff, but stay for the masturbation jokes and cool special effects.
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd whose battle cry is ALL HAIL MEGATRON!
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