by GEOFF GEIB
I don’t hate Michael Bay. Like fellow pop-culture pariah Brett Ratner, Bay suffers unjust criticism from a world that agonizes over enormous box office receipts without the corresponding ‘genius’ tag, and really, not even Orson Welles could be Orson Welles all the time.
I feel it’s important to state this at the outset so my impartial standards of judgment are understood. Bay’s best work, The Rock and The Island, are absolutely absurd, with an outrageous, excessive visual style and sharp casting. Most importantly, they had a real sense of fun about them, and while none of Bay’s films match uber-producer Bruckheimer’s greatest confections (Con Air and Gone in Sixty Seconds) they are generally watchable (Pearl Harbor being the notable exception to the rule).
It’s Bay’s fundamentally earnest nature that makes his films work. His movies are wretched excess to the tenth power framed against a sunset in slow motion, but they also uniformly unfold in a straightforward, sincere fashion. Unlike so many of the modern day corps of filmmakers, Bay never breaks the fourth wall. He makes movies, God help me but it’s true, in the classical sense. They are self-contained works that operate in their world blissfully free of any wink-wink, nudge-nudge post-modernist claptrap.
Unfortunately, this proves to be his undoing with Transformers. If ever a film deserved to be treated with a sense of its own ludicrous nature, it is a movie based on a twenty-year old cartoon about a bunch of alien robots who impersonate Hondas and need the help of teenagers to ensure the survival of the universe. The script obliges, playing as a literal translation of the cartoon – embarrassingly trite and on the nose dialogue, bizarre behavior, massive inconsistencies, zero character development beyond ‘smart’ and ‘brave’ and a weak plot. The script understands (let’s all pray it was intentional) it is a homage at the same it is a parody.
The actors are wildly erratic, but one look at John Turturro, a fine actor, turning in one of the strangest, hammiest takes on our fascination with federal conspiracies says everything about their interpretation of such ludicrous material.
The problem is Bay. He’s not in on the joke. For all intents and purposes, he could be filming a remake of Kramer vs. Kramer with his insistence on wringing out genuine emotion from the most preposterous, idiotic and juvenile predicaments. This is the classic Bay style, but it just doesn’t work here. I like slow motion missiles narrowly missing beautiful women in flowing dresses as much as the next guy, but just as Oliver Wendell Holmes argued in Schenck v. United States, there’s a time and place for everything.
It’s a disaster, and when the dust settles, you realize it’s also that most egregious violation – a movie about alien robots deciding the fate of the world that is very, very dull. That should never, ever be allowed to happen.