Monday, June 29, 2009

Notes on Transformers 2

I wouldn't have guessed it, but Transformers 2 is the most remarkable blockbuster in years. I don't mean to say that I liked it, just that I can't think of another major release that I wanted to share my thoughts on this strongly. Walking home from the theater, my brother Andy and I had a long, rambling conversation about what we had just seen that continued off and on throughout the day, and I figure that was a good sign that I should write a post. Just two weeks ago, I saw Lars Von Trier's Breaking the Waves, a movie that fascinated me and ran me through the emotional wringer before making me flat out cry like a baby, yet Michael Bay's Transformers 2 is the movie I most want to talk about. I guess that's classic me.

Transformers 2 may have the worst structured, most obnoxious, most infantile screenplay ever used for a mega-budget action film. I cannot stress how unbelievably, fascinatingly awful this film is on the levels of narrative, character and dialogue. I've read complaints that the story is incomprehensible, but that's not the problem. I followed the plot well enough. The problem is that the story is overstuffed and underdeveloped, with a wildly inconsistent tone. As a result, despite the film's fast pace and rather relentless forward momentum, it has no clear direction. Or maybe it's that it tries to go in all directions at once.

Let me try to give you some idea of the film's narrative corpulence. The film is, in turns, a sci-fi/action movie, a comedy, a romance, a war movie, a disaster movie, an homage to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and an Indiana Jones-esque treasure hunt. The film begins with an epilogue set, according to Wikipedia, in 17,000 BC, and ends with a massive, 30 minute long battle in modern day Egypt. The first action sequence reintroduces us to the military characters from the first film, only to shove them off to the periphery for the rest of the film. The real main character is again Sam Witwicky, now heading off to college. His story involves a shard of the All Spark (which if you've forgotten what this was from the first film, you're out of luck because part 2 never bothers to explain it) which turns all of his kitchen appliances into evil transformers and somehow psychically implants data into his head, but before that sinks in it's off to college where a Decepticon (evil transformer) disguises as a girl and tries to seduce him, and then other Decepticons try to abduct him to steal the info in his brain, but the Autobots (good transformers) save him and he goes on an adventure with his girlfriend and college roommate to find an artifact that can defeat the Decepticons, and along the way John Turturro's character from the first film joins them and becomes a good guy this time even though he was an asshole in part 1, and eventually they are teleported to Egypt by a bad transformer turned good, oh and also at some point Optimus Prime (lead good transformer) dies and they have to bring him back to life. (Exhale). Meanwhile, the Decepticons awaken an ancient Decepticon called the Fallen who plots to destroy our sun, and he brings back to life Megatron (bad guy from first film), and they blow up a bunch of cities and go on TV to announce their presence (people apparently don't know transformers exist despite their public brawls in part 1) an action which never seemed to pay off in the film and...

And on and on and on. I'm not barely touching the tip of the iceberg here; there's enough plot for 5 Transformers sequels. It's like watching someone try to spin a hundred plates, only instead of keeping the plates spinning the person lets them fall and replaces them with another plate.

That's not the worst part, though. The worst part is the humor. When Transformers 2 isn't all those other things I mentioned, it is a vile, stupid, frenetic comedy. Probably 30% of this movie is like the worst, most expensive sitcom never made. People bitched about the dumb jokes in the first film, but I would argue it at least fit the film's silly, toy-commercial, adolescent tone. What's amazing about the sequel is the volume of the attempted comedy. (I mean that both in terms of amount and in terms of its auditory properties). Imagine watching a Naked Gun style laff-a-minute movie where absolutely all of the jokes fail. Transformers 2 throws a new joke out every 30 seconds or so, and none of them are funny. The humor ranges from infantile bodily function and slapstick jokes (robot humping a leg, robot farting, robots cracking wise in silly voices a la a bad cartoon, guy who gets hit in balls a lot) to juvenile sex and drug jokes (robot with testicles, mom eating a pot brownie and going crazy and talking about hearing her son "bust his cherry").

Most offensive is the stereotyping. I know Michael Bay has had a penchant in the past for broad stereotypes making wise cracks, but in his other films it seemed more benign. This film feautures a pair of ignorant, obnoxious, trash talking robots who speak in stereotypically black voices and spout off shit about busting caps in people's asses and whatnot. One of the robots even has huge buck teeth, one of which is a gold tooth. I can't believe no one at the studio vetoed this. What next, an effeminate, limp-wristed transformer making jokes about getting rear-ended by other cars?

(One part that did make me laugh: Bay treats us to a shot of two dogs jumping away from an exploding dog house, which works a sort of parody of an image we've seen in countless other action movies).

What little human interest there is involves a subplot about the main character's girlfriend thinking he cheated on her, but it's all really a misunderstanding etc etc. The same shit you've seen in a million other movies and TV shows. Even if it wasn't all so obnoxious already, you'd end up hating all of the characters by default because Bay has apparently directed the cast to shout all of their lines at the top of their lungs, as fast as they can. It's all so loud and breathless that there were many times I frankly could not understand what people were saying.

So yeah, narratively speaking, Transformers 2 is a mess. It is stupid, sloppy, and borderline offensive.

And yet...

I can't dismiss Transformers 2. Not completely. As much of a big fucking mess as it is, some of the film is spectacular. And not just in the sense that they had a lot of money to throw into special effects. Many sequences in the movie are notably, memorably well constructed on an audio/visual level. Some moments even approach brilliance.

It got me thinking a lot about the old content vs. form debate. (XTC vs. Adam Ant). The way I see it, most film critics train their focus nearly exclusively to the content, i.e. plot, dialogue, character. In most reviews I read, the form is ignored or given little more than lip service. Just look at all the recent Star Trek reviews that rightly praised the pleasurable elements of the plot and performances, while mainly ignoring several distracting flaws in the visual storytelling. This kind of reviewing is understandable to the degree that it is much more difficult to discuss, say, the editing or camera movements of a film you've only seen once than it is to discuss the storyline. I know I'm guilty of it myself when talking about movies.

Yet it sometimes strikes me that we've gotten to the point where many reviewers place the importance of story over that of storytelling. How many times have you read complaints along the lines of "it was well made but lacking in depth" in a review? Shouldn't "well made" count for more than that? Doesn't being "well made" add depth to a film?

I'm not arguing for pure formalism. I want movies to have a great story, great characters, great dialogue, all that. (Especially if it is a film in a more traditional style, or conforming to a certain genre). But none of that stuff is unique to film. You can tell a great story with great characters in a book, in a song, in a comic, as an anecdote, and so on. The mix of sounds and visuals, framing, camera movement, editing... this is the stuff that makes films special. The way the story is told is at least as important as what is being told. Form is as important as content. Or, perhaps, form IS content. How the camera films a character speaking (and why the filmmakers chose to do it that way) is as important to the meaning of the film as what the character is actually saying.

I've seen plenty of smaller films, be they art films or experimental films or whatever, that de-emphasize narrative concerns and play up the form, but it's not really common in our mainstream. American mainstream films are very much plot driven. Over the years, I've dreamed that some day someone will make a great action movie (or whatever) that completely eschews logical narrative in favor of formalist spectacle. We've gotten a little closer, with films like Shoot 'Em Up, but even that one still feels the need to hit obligatory plot points and character scenes, so we're not there yet. I've joked with my friends that I'd like to see Hollywood make Aliens vs Termintors, a movie that would be all action, special effects and spectacle with no dialogue or discernible characters. Even better would be a movie with no recognizable plot at all that simply treats us to a series of breathtaking visuals of carnage.

What I'm saying is, there are moments in Transformers 2, when the exposition is put on pause and the emphasis switches to action, that seemed like the movie I've dreamed of.

Not everyone will grant me this, but Michael Bay and company have crafted some excellent action sequences in Transformers 2. I wouldn't call any of them exciting or thrilling, but on the level of spectacle and visual pleasure there is amazing stuff on display. The frequent complaint I've read about Bay's action is that the cuts are too fast, and the subjects of the shots (especially in the case of the transformers) are often filmed too close-up and thus become incomprehensible. Bay has been guilty of that in that past, I remember that being a problem some times in the first Transformers, but I don't really think he makes that mistake here. In fact, compared to some of the fast-cutting action scenes we've had of late, be they well constructed (Bourne Ultimatum) or hard to follow (Quantum of Solace), Bay admirably holds a lot of shots for more than a split second. And rather than over-using close-ups, I had the sense that he often pulled the camera back to cram as much spectacle in to each shot as possible.

Now, personally I'm a bigger fan of the Spielbergian school of action, which is clear and concise, and is less dependant on sensory overload. It also places more emphasis on being character driven, the idea being that if we care about the characters then we are more emotionally invested in the action and hence it becomes more thrilling. When people complain about not giving a shit about the action scenes in Transformers because they don't care about the characters, I understand what they mean. Nonetheless, in Bay's finest moments, he uses sound and image to create sequences that are absorbing and sometimes awe-inspiring. We could argue the merits of spectacle; personally I think it can be a powerful use of the medium.

Some of the reviews I've read for Transformers 2 complain that there was too much action and not enough story. Ironically, the action scenes are the only parts of the movie that work narratively. For example, there is a transformer fight scene in the woods that has a beginning, middle, and end, has a clear goal and purpose, has rising and falling action. I felt it was constructed in way that that the audience understood who was doing what and where, we understood where tiny Sam was in relation to the giant robots, and it effectively cut back and forth between his attempted escape with Optimus Prime fighting the Decepticons.

(Of course, I've only seen the film once, and it's not on DVD so I can't get any screen grabs, which makes it difficult to build a strong argument on this point.)

There's other good shit, too. I especially enjoyed the sequence where a bunch of marbles roll into a top secret base and transform into a little flying robot to steal the All Spark shard. It's a cool looking and engaging sequence. If it was released separately as its own short film, I could see people praising it. Trapped inside the behemoth of Transformers 2, stuff like this tends to go unnoticed.

My favorite parts of the film were when it strayed entirely from its dopey humor and ADHD plot, threw logic out the window for good measure, and focused on audio/visual spectacle, a spectacle sometimes so strange and intricate that it was borderline surreal. Scenes at the Fallen's home base, somewhere up in space and decorated with weird, goo-filled sacks that seem to birth new transformers (or something) almost felt abstracted from the rest of the film. Best of all might have been where Sam has a near death experience, and inexplicably finds himself in some sort of robo-Valhalla, a scene which is unexpectedly majestic and beautiful. (And brief).

And I took great pleasure in looking at the robots themselves, watching them unwind and unfold. I loved watching the appliances in Sam's kitchen transform into deadly robots. And I loved the way the dangling metal slats off of one robot's face suggested a robot beard. And plenty of other details like that. You could argue that this is more of a testament to the film's huge special effect budget. Certainly I'd agree that much of the credit goes to the FX team and not to Bay himself. But let's not diminish the amount of creativity in this film just because of its budget.

The film becomes less defensible in the final act. On the one hand, the climactic, epic action scene that wraps the film up seems like the kind of plot-free mayhem I was earlier praising. Pity that it involves the worst action in the entire film. Mostly it consists of repetitive explosions and punching robots, with little sense of progression or momentum. It's tedious. And the final battle between Optimus and the Fallen is brief and anti-climactic.

Ultimately Transformers 2 is not the great narrative-eschewing extravaganza I've dreamed of. There are transcendent moments, no doubt. Like I said, I don't always need a good story or characters to love a movie, but Transformers 2 spends way too much time and energy on it's uninvolving plot, uninteresting characters and unsuccessful attempts at humor. I'd be willing to overlook these problems if the film wasn't so insistent on shoving them down my throat. Somewhere in the 2 1/2 hours of Transformers 2 there might be a 90 minute movie I can get behind. In the final analysis, I'm fascinated with the film, but I can't support it.


Patrick said...

Over the years, I've dreamed that some day someone will make a great action movie (or whatever) that completely eschews logical narrative in favor of formalist spectacle. We've gotten a little closer, with films like Shoot 'Em Up, but even that one still feels the need to hit obligatory plot points and character scenes, so we're not there yet.-
That made me think of why I ended up enjoying Crank 2 so much and why you might too even though you didn't like the first. That one goes out of its way to ignore traditional narative in order to create spectacle, even at one point sacrificing the drama of a scene, which is okay because its impossible to care about anyone in it. I did read one review that mentioned that in the begining the autobots viciously hunt down and murder some decepticons that are just chillign out so I was already leaning towards catching a matinee.

Dan said...

Don't get too excited, this isn't nearly as fascist as Bad Boys 2.

Anonymous said...

For a formalist action movie freakout, see Speed Racer.

Dan said...

Okay anonymous poster, you've sold me. It's going on the Netflix queue.

Anonymous said...

Awesome. You kind of have to approach it the same way you would TF2 i.e. just ignore all the things that a supposedly savvy movie watcher would find objectionable and meet it on its own terms.

Have you been back to see TF2? Re-watched it today, somewhat more prepared for its audiovisual assault, and I was amazed how much I enjoyed it. I simply ignored all the dumb stuff (of which there is plenty, obvs.) and regressed to like age 10. The bit where Megatron travels from the ocean floor to his home planet pretty much blew my tiny mind. And the battle at the end, which I found exhausting the first time round, was fluid and thrilling. It makes me wonder how many pleasurable experiences I have cheated myself out of by being a priggish nerd.

... said...

btw I found yr blog via Vern.

Dan said...

I'm never sure what to think about "made me feel like a kid" arguments for movies like these. On the one hand, I understand the desire to feel that kind of magic again. On the other hand, when I was a kid I was a little dipshit with bad taste who liked everything he watched. So feeling like a kid again might really be a step in the wrong direction for me.

I think I'll probably revisit Transformer 2 on Blu-Ray at some point, because there are real pleasures to be had, but I'm not expecting it to be a game-changer. Even if I give all the stupid shit a pass, I don't think I could ever overlook the blatant racist stereotyping. In fact, I probably should have discussed that more in my original post.