Technically, we’re journalists. And until anyone proves otherwise, that means it’s our task, nay, our duty, to write interesting things about films.
Now, watching the first four Transformers films in one day may not qualify as interesting to most of you. It barely qualifies as a conscious decision once you hit hour six and everything starts to resemble that recurring nightmare you used to have where giant robots fire babies down tubes. But, ahead of the release of Transformers: the Last Knight, it is the fate that me and Calum Baker have chosen. So…
Calum: Transformers, eh?
Tom: Transformers. Blimey. I felt before we’d even started that my DVDs coming in a paper bag suggested we were doing something illegal and probably immoral.
Calum: It was worse than that. It was illegal, immoral and impossibly confusing.
Tom: And this is just the first film.
Calum: See I thought the first one was alright. It actually had the Spielberg stamp on it [Spielberg was Executive Producer]. But I had no clue who Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) was. In his very first scene he’s a smart-ass, and enterprising, and technically kinda clever, but after that he’s suddenly just a typical nerd, who happens to be played by a very charismatic actor.
Tom: Agreed, though I think it’s worth saying how great Shia is in the first film (and he’s the best thing about the later films too). He’s got a kind of goofy charisma and he can command attention surprisingly well considering he’s acting opposite 500ft robots. You can see why Spielberg saw him as a natural successor to the Indiana Jones mantle.
Calum: It may be the best lead performance in a Michael Bay film, although Kevin Dunn (Sam’s dad) gives the best performance full stop in the second one.
Tom: I can’t say I noted that performance in particular (the films became a blur very quickly), but the dynamic between Shia and his onscreen parents was probably my favourite thing about the series. As someone who only knew the films from reputation growing up, it’s weird to think the character “drama” was actually my favourite part of a Transformers film!
Calum: That was completely it. Spielberg defined the first one as being about a “boy and his car”, but there’s a real disconnect at the heart of Bay’s style that sort of destroys that. In Spielberg’s hands, we’ve had similar stories become masterpieces but Bay struggles to integrate the spectacle and the story.
Tom: Bay certainly knows how to shoot bombastic action, but I felt so little emotion towards the robots it was unreal. I think it was just something about their bland, hyper-digital design.
Do you have any specific comments on the first film? If you can remember what happened…
I love the line “It’s a robot… Like, a super advanced robot.” The first one had the best sense of abject silliness, and a lot of the times the humour really worked. Everything develops logically; it’s long, but surprisingly Bay allows everything to breathe and build up.
Tom: Yeah I was mostly on board until the final fight, which just dragged on far too long. It’s that painful blockbuster mindset where studios/filmmakers feel like they have to give audiences bang for their buck and cram in action for action’s sake.
I do want to bring up one thing that really nagged me about the film’s politics. Most specifically, the fact that in a mid-noughties climate, just a few years after 9/11, a city is the chosen battleground for the climax. And I mean literally chosen. The preceding sequence is at a secluded army base in the arse end of nowhere: “So let’s take the cube to the nearest population centre to maximise collateral damage!”
It makes so little sense I have to think it was an intentional comment on the war on terror or the nature of modern conflict. You end up with skyscrapers destroyed, debris raining down on the streets… Is it some kind of cathartic replay of 9/11 as harmless blockbuster fun, or did literally no one on the film twig the symbolism?
Calum: “Harmless blockbuster fun” may be what’s confusing you. It seems clear to me from the subsequent films (and also dear old Pearl Harbor) that Bay genuinely really thinks this is epically serious. Not seriously epic. Epically serious. So you’re probably right it’s a deliberate reference to 9/11, but rather than a satire on the War on Terror it’s literally a po-faced display of The Horror! The Horror!
Tom: I think you’re right. And I think there may have actually been some good points to be made about war and duty somewhere along the road, but it’s all ruined by the fact the Decepticons are so motiveless, as you mentioned. All the Transformers in fact. They seem to be ruled by an overwhelming impulse to slaughter everything they see, even the Autobots who appear to actively fight that urge. There are numerous times one of the good guys goes to casually blow up a random human and has to be stopped by Optimus. It’s kind of chilling really.
Calum: I’d barely noticed that, oddly. Though I guess it’s in plain sight. The first film’s tagline is “Their war. Our world”.
Tom: It’s particularly ironic given Optimus is heralded as some kind of peacemaker-in-chief. In reality he’s just an idealistic waffler in love with the sound of his own voice, who’s all too willing to turn a blind eye to his compatriots’ wanton slaughter.
Calum: He’s basically presented as the Gandhi, MLK, whatever of the galaxy, but neither of those guys had a habit of beating the utter shit out of their enemies.
Bay’s basically a general who technically plays by the rules but bides his time before being “forced” to do something darker. Not just through the Optimus character, but with the whole story approach. “Give ’em some character stuff… yeah, OK… personal conflict… gooooood… that works… for… now… BOOM! THIRD ACT! LET’S DO THIS SHIT!”
Tom: What did you think of number two, Revenge of the Fallen? At one point I just wrote down “Matrix of Leadership” because I couldn’t quite believe it was the name of a MacGuffin and not a wanky management technique.
Calum: I would counter with the fact that these are (theoretically) children’s films. These films commit far worse crimes: what are your thoughts on the racial politics? You’ve been fairly forgiving so far but this… uh…
Tom: I think my standards are so low after watching all four that a jive-talking Autobot voiced by a white guy didn’t feel worthy of comment.
Calum: I mean, my first note for the first film was, “a great introduction to a world where all black people are loud and cowardly (and unscrupulous).” And it gets worse over the series. Now, Tyrese Gibson is one thing – but what on earth drew Anthony Anderson, more recently star and writer of the groundbreaking sitcom Blackish, to appearing in this? And don’t say “money”.
It’s fair to say the series doesn’t deal in subtlety, and those kind of broad stereotypes are part of it. An inexcusable part, but I think that’s how the filmmakers’ minds were working. That loud, crass tone is part of its desire to be the perfect product for teenage boys. The series certainly gets away with a lot of robot-on-robot violence that would be an instant 18 with humans involved. I mean in one film Optimus just pulls a robot’s head off with its robot spine trailing behind! It’s savage!
Calum: Haha, I think Rambo did something similar in his third film. This whole “(pre)teen humour” thing definitely finds its greatest extent yet in Revenge of the Fallen where Mrs Witwicky wanders around a campus having accidentally got high. And it’s just the most cringe thing in the world.
Tom: I also found it fascinating how they consciously rebooted the series with Age of Extinction to keep pace with their initial audience. Those teenagers who flocked to the first film are nearly ten years older, so appropriately Shia is replaced by Marky Mark (Wahlberg) and when teenage girls get ogled, the response is protective rather than celebratory. It’s a tacit admission that their audience has aged, though certainly not grown up.
Calum: That’s true actually; and again, there’s a good sense of silliness that was sadly diminished.
Tom: So I’d like to finish off with your favourite and why?
Calum: It was previously the third one (Dark of the Moon), but now it’s actually the first. I’m not an evangelical Spielbergian but it’s got the purity of his classic work. It’s a lesser Super 8 in many ways. How about you?
Tom: Mine is probably Dark of the Moon. I think it stood out by virtue of being a bit different. The first act is basically a workplace drama satirising high-end corporate life, and Shia does some great work in that section. It also has the only climactic battle where I can remember key moments. The sequence where the skyscraper collapses, forming a kind of bridge, is properly inventive and a step above what you normally get.
It also features Shia essentially having a breakdown onscreen, in one of the most unhinged blockbuster performances in years. It’s a little uncomfortable considering his real-life troubles around that time, but it makes for a properly unpredictable and captivating screen presence.
(Editor’s note: The day after completing this marathon, One Room With A View received an invite to the press screening of Transformers: The Last Knight. Tom and Calum were both “busy”.)