Transformers is more than meets the eye. Transformers is a movie in disguise. On the one hand, it’s a typical Michael Bay summer movie, full of explosions, special effects, dumb dialogue, and crowd-pleasing mindless action. On the other hand, it’s the next stage in the evolution of cinema, a metaphor for contemporary pop culture, and a sad snapshot of what the human race has become.
VIDEO: The trailer for Transformers
Perhaps I exaggerate. First, then, the movie — or movies. Despite the inanity, Bay has put together a complicated tale, with several narrative lines, touching on various genres. It starts out as another doomsday-scenario action film, like last month’s Fantastic Four or Live Free or Die Hard, with an unknown, immensely powerful assailant wiping out a US military base in “Qatar, the Middle East — the Present Day.”
The violence, as in Fantastic Four and Live Free or Die Hard, is of the disingenuous, PG-13 kind: mass destruction without blood or dead people. Bay films the action in blurred hand-held shots and rapid-fire editing, eliminating all physical logic and rendering it as abstract as a Jackson Pollock painting. He plays it cute with the present-day references, too; nobody mentions the word Iraq, for example. The “president” appears only as a pair of red socks asking in a Texas drawl for a Ho-Ho from an attendant on Air Force One. And the Secretary of State (Jon Voight) resembles neither Rumsfeld, Rove, nor Cheney, though he does imitate their policies, addressing the threat by making counterthreats against North Korea, China, and Russia while failing to recognize the real problem.
But no one expects political relevance from Bay. So movie number two draws on the teenage-romantic-comedy genre that’s been curiously absent this summer. Nerdy Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf, the Matthew Broderick, or maybe the Pauly Shore, of his generation) lusts after Mikaela (Megan Fox), the hot girlfriend of the reigning jock. Sam’s dad helps him get a beat-up Camaro to add to his sex appeal, and — à la Herbie the Love Bug — the possessed vehicle takes over the wheel and tries to help Sam get laid. All the while, however, it’s setting Sam up for his role in saving the human race. That’s because the Camaro is actually Bumblebee, an autobot from the dead planet Cybertron who’s disguised himself as a terrestrial machine to conceal his monstrous robotic nature. With his fellow Transformers, Bumblebee is here on earth to battle the evil Decepticons . . . Let’s just say they fight a lot and have lines like “I don’t know whether it is fear or courage that compels you, flesh thing!”
So much for the movie. The real story is Transformers as the transformation of cinema. Until now — think Star Wars and its subsequent gold mine of action figures — the movie preceded the merchandising. Now it’s the other way around. The Hasbro line of toys has transformed itself into a 144-minute commercial for itself. Until now, too, product placement has meant a (relatively) discreet cameo — think E.T. and Reese’s Pieces. Now it’s product replacement: Bay has made deals with General Motors to feature the Hummer H2 (the autobot “Ratchet”), the GMC Topkick (“Ironhide”), and the Pontiac Solstice (“Jazz”) as the “secret identities” of the robot heroes.
People seem to love it: the biggest hand at the preview screening I attended came when Bumblebee’s vintage Camaro got a makeover into the 2008 model. And so the Transformers metamorphose from toys for kids into toys for adults, revealing the empty desire and the stunted imagination behind both.