Friday, January 2, 2015
Why I quit on Transformers
I was a huge Transformers fan growing up. I watched every episode of the 1984-87 cartoon series, read a lot of the Marvel comic series, collected a bunch of the toys and went to see Transformers: the Movie on opening night. Like a lot of you I was beside myself when Optimus Prime died in the movie. And then it all came to an end right around the time I grew out of playing with toys. There were a few attempts at reviving them, mostly through bad new cartoon series. When they announced a live action film that would be hitting theaters in 2007, I was nostalgic, hopeful, and skeptical all at the same time. It seemed more like a 'we go nothing else to try' kind of move than anything else. So I went to the theater with low expectations, figuring it would suck but holding out some hope that it wouldn't. And I was pleasantly surprised. It wasn't perfect, but I felt it was mostly good. The robots looked good, there was a plot to follow, and despite some cheesy attempts at humor it mostly stayed in its lane and delivered. So life was good, and I was ready for more. And then we got.....Revenge of the Fallen. Oy.....
What should have been a chance to pick up where the first one left off, introduce some new Autobots and Decepticons, and keep it moving was instead a bloated mess with stereotypes (the Twins - don't ask me, ok?), a ridiculous overstuffed plot, too many subplots, you name it. It was by all accounts a bad movie. But it made a boatload of money so that meant we were going to get a third one. And we got it. After enduring the mess that was Revenge of the Fallen, I was in no real hurry to see Transformeers: Dark of the Moon. I didn't go on opening weekend like I did with the first two, but I eventually made it to the theater to catch it on the big screen before it's run was finished. I didn't expect much this time around, and that proved to be the right way to go. Dark of the Moon was better than Revenge of the Fallen but it had all of the same problems. Too long, too many subplots, too much failed humor, and we also got to deal with Megan Fox's so so at best acting being replaced by a Victoria's Secret model. No offense to Rosie Huntington-Whiteley but anybody that makes Megan Fox's acting skills look great by comparison shouldn't be cast in any movie, ever. The movie was just kind of there to me, but it made another boatload of money which meant we were going to get more.
By this time I was just about ready to check out. After a bad sequel and a mediocre third chapter both killed at the box office there was zero incentive for director Michael Bay to change anything. With realization, I decided I was done.....until I saw the trailer at the Super Bowl. Bay had to know a lot of us were at the end of or rope with him because he dug deep and gave us the Dinobots. So of course, I was back in. That is, until I heard the running time: 165 minutes. After two 150-plus minute monstrosities, 165 minutes meant we were just going to get more of what dragged down the second and third films. So I finally pulled the trigger...and bailed. And I don't regret it, either. From what I heard it as exactly what I thought it would be. And it made another boatload of money, so we're going to get even more in 2016 or 2017. But I'm done. You guys got it. I'm not going there with you anymore. What went wrong? Here's what I think:
Too much humanity, not enough robot talk
If you were to make a top ten list of the problems with all of the movies after the first one, this would could occupy numbers one through five. We get almost aero insight into any of the Transformers personalities through four movies each lasting over two hours. And that's even worse when you consider that in both the original cartoon series and the recent Transformers: Prime series (which was very good, by the way) they were able to do so. The Starscream-Megatron-Soundwave relationship is one of the most important elements of the series and got zero attention. Starscream the openly jealous would be usurper, Megatron the leader so arrogant that he keeps someone like that around instead of just blasting him, and Soundwave the ever reveren and loyal follower - that's Shakespearean level angst and drama at play that cartoon creators were able to portray onscreen but big budget filmmakers decided wasn't worth exploring. The Autobots had their share of varied personalities as well - there were reluctant warriors mixed in with gung ho action junkies, young punks and old veterans, straight and narrow types and wild ones - but all we really got was Optimus Prime's Superman-Captain America act, which is fine but come on.
At the same time we got lots and lots of screen time and dialogue for Sam Witwicky, his girlfriends, his parents, and the various government-affiliated characters that we really didn't need. Yes there needs to be some interplay between the two species but the humans are supposed to be there for a few minutes and get out of the way to let the robots do their thing. After all, we came to see giant robots that turn into things fight each other and not people talking about it. I understood dwelling on that in the first movie to set everything up, but once we had the principal humans identified and in place we didn't need to see Sam's college life, his overbearing parents, etc. I don't need to see all the internal bickering and territory marking going on between the government and the military types. That's the kind of thing you do in episodic television and not a movie, which is basically a one shot that place over a couple of days and is the culmination of things and not a buildup. There's way too much buildup going on around humans which gets us all the ridiculous subplots, and even though the closing battle scenes were the huge blowouts we were hoping for, they could have saved us a good 20 to 30 minutes waiting for that. Of course all of the 'too much people stuff' is connected to what I think the other big problems are...
The movies are too long
The first film was 144 minutes, which is pretty long for a movie to start with, and it only got worse. The second and third films were in the 150s, and the fourth one was over 160 minutes long. That's ridiculous for anything that's not an adaptation of a previous story. The sequels should have been shorter, not longer. You give the two groups something to fight over, have some small skirmishes, and the close with the big battle at the end. It's not that hard really. That's why the first one worked fairly well. You had the Allpsark, which the both factions were able to determine was on Earth somewhere. The Decepticons had been in hiding and the Autobots were just getting there. They both narrowed things down to Sam having the clues to where it was and sought him out. The government got hip to it and got involved, and you end with the big blowout final battle. But the sequels were doing too much. They needed a reason to keep Sam heavily involved so you had the ridiculous subplots with him being infused with visions about where some important things are, which meant the Deccepticons had to chase him down again and the Autobots had to protect him again. And then they threw in the Optimus Prime 'death' to add drama and provide yet another thing for Sam to do. And oh yeah, they had to revive Megatron but give him a boss, the Fallen, who jobbed (wrestling term for taking a loss) in short order to the revived Optimus at the end. And that's just the second movie. This and the first problem are fed largely by my last issue...
Too many name actors
Movies like Transformers are not for cast full of big name actors, or they shouldn't be at least. Why? Because big name/well respected actors and actresses have to be put to use or else there's no point in bringing them in to start with. The first movie had JonVoight and John Turturro, who have been around for a while, and Shia Lebouf who at the time was an up and comer with a few hits under his belt.. The rest of the cast, save Tyrese and Josh Duhamel weren't particularly well known. By the time we got to third movie you had John Malkovich, Frances McDormand, Ken Jeong, and Patrick Dempsey along for the ride and cameos from Bill O'Reilly and Buzz Aldrin. Can you say overkill, ladies and gentleman? This is not the Avengers, where you have big, iconic roles that require actors and actresses of stature and presence to properly fill them. You could very easily cast mostly no names or people with a niche following with a big name or two sprinkled in.
Every last one of those people has to have something meaningful to do for the time they are on screen, which means concocting some scene and some dialogue for them that takes away a few minutes here or there that could be spent better developing more important things. Dempsey and McDormand had key supporting roles that could have been downsized or not included at all. And shifting to Mark Wahlberg for the lead role in the fourth movie meant that you had an A-lister in the lead role.....which means that he's going to dominate the movie with his story instead of what we want to see (hint: the fighting robots). Remember, the humans are supposed to b the background noise here. They run from the robots, try in vain to fight the robots, and a few of them help the good guy robots win. That's it. We don't need half the movie or more spent on their quest to find meaning for their lives. But of course, that's what you have to do when you aim your casting net too high. This ties into problem number one, of course.
So there you have it folks. That's why I quit on the Transformers franchise. I'll get around to watching Age of Extinction sooner or later but when Transformers: We Make too Much Money to Stop hits the theaters in 2016 I won't be there.