da jesus versus the macguffin in a no-holds-barred cage match

Michael Bay gets closer, with every film, to apotheosizing the pure pop art object. In an odd way, his films mirror the supposedly serious work of Matthew Barney — both start from an ostensibly narrative framework but dissolve it, happily, in a series of entrancing and ultimately meaningless surfaces. Barney’s work is mostly clever digging at the psychology of disgust, whether sexual or visceral. Bay’s work, though similarly illogical and dreamlike, aims at the immediate satisfaction of narrative desires, minus the narrative. Transformers runs us through a series of scenes, vignettes, set-pieces, and clever exchanges, each satisfying in its own way, yet adding absolutely nothing to a coherent whole.

Here is the opening narration, accompanied by shots of the Transformers’ home planet engulfed in war and the placid blue marble of Earth.

Before time began, there was… the cube. We know not where it comes from, only that it holds the power to create worlds and fill them… with life. That is how our race was born. For a time we had lived in harmony, but like all great power, some wanted it for good… others, evil. And so began the war — a war that ravaged our planet until it was consumed by death. And the cube was lost to the far reaches of space. We set forth across the galaxy hoping to find it and rebuild our home. Searching every star. Every world. And just when all hope seemed lost; message of a new discovery took us to an unknown planet called… Earth. But we were already too late.

Too late for what? Who knows? The last line gives us a tingle of apprehension, but it never leads to anything. The whole narration, indeed, makes no sense given what happens in the rest of the film. If this cube could be used for good or for evil, why does its energy only give birth to evil when it comes in contact with earthly technology? A cell phone exposed to its, um, rays and stuff immediately turns into a tiny, vicious insectoid, armed to the teeth, with murder in its electronic heart. It’s a creepy scene, and the cell-monster is appropriately scary, but how is that related to the cube of the opening narration? It’s not, of course.

It turns out the cube must be destroyed, and it’s strongly hinted that Optimus Prime, everybody’s favorite big rig, will have to sacrifice himself by stuffing the cube into his own core, thereby (somehow) annihilating it. So we are set up for that, but then it turns out that the cube is the size of the Federal Building, far too large to fit even into Prime’s considerable chest. Well, no problem — when our heroes show up the cube conveniently collapses into something the size of a football. (In defiance of the law of the conservation of matter and energy, it is also about the weight of one, the better for Shia LaBoeuf to run around with it tucked under his arm.) OP takes a serious zapping at the hands of the evil but largely persona-less Megatron near the supposed “climax” of the film, and we know that this is when the big guy will sacrifice himself; unable to defeat Megatron in combat, Prime’s ready to ingest the, um, cube of ultimate evil, thereby preventing… you know, something. He asks Sam (LaBoeuf) to shove the cube into his chest, knowing it will kill him. But then Sam gets the clever idea of shoving it in Megatron‘s chest instead. The evildoer has a total meltdown, and the cube is destroyed — two problems solved at once! … What? It was that easy all along?

I hope you followed that, because it took considerable concentration for me to. Not to mention regurgitating it. But everything in the film is like that — physical and story elements play a part for a moment, then are given some new part to play, careening from scene to scene, never adding up to anything.

The surprise is not that Transformers is a stupid, plotless movie. The surprise is, given Bay and writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman’s absolute lack of interest in assembling the various parts of their movie into anything even remotely like a whole, that a large number of individual scenes actually work. Despite their complete divorcement from not only story logic but also any sense of the unity of character, the comic scenes in the film — especially the ones not reliant on giant-robot slapstick — seem to work quite well. In particular, tiny sparkling bits from some other movie, a coming-of-age comedy, occasionally float past us in the froth. Sam’s mother quizzes him about masturbation, only to be told emphatically by both Sam and his dad that “That’s father-son stuff!” A few moments later, when, for Transformer-related reasons, it’s revealed that Sam has an actual girl in his room, the tension evaporates; both mom and dad are pleased to see her. And somehow this is exactly right — masturbation is taboo, especially for moms, but the fact that he’s smuggled a girl into his room, which ought to concern his parents, instead puffs them up with pride.

Why do these scenes work? Certainly the film hasn’t earned such an easygoing, funny relationship with this family. But the actors commit to the moment, and surprisingly Bay himself seems to take the comedy of the scene seriously. It’s not a throwaway — the scene is well-blocked and well-rehearsed. It’s a scene that ought to blend seamlessly into a very funny movie about these characters — just not this movie.

And the whole film is like that. We are used to characters showing up in action movies just to move the plot forward. Some are more interesting than others, but we accept their quirky behavior and improbable characteristics because, after all, somebody has to explain how you can get dinosaurs out of tree sap, and somebody has to get past all the computer locks in the Nakatomi building vault. What’s interesting about Transformers is that Bay&Co. have gleefully jumped past that old architecture — irrelevant, wacky characters as supports for the plot — and into the brave new world — characters and scenes which forward no plot, MacGuffins all, yet set adrift, Sam Witwicky no less than the cube, all equally pointless, all sewn together with the inarguable emotional logic of anime, where characters pose in absolute stillness for long seconds, then hack each other to bits, for reasons as fluid as loyalties in a dream. Do we need the 19-year-old Australian beauty who works for the NSA and is improbably also friends with Anthony Anderson? Do we need John Turturro hamming it up as the ultimate Man in Black? Do we need to know that Mikaela’s dad had a criminal past? Indeed, is there anything in this film that could even reasonably be marked, “Point A” or “Point B” — let alone actually lead from one to the other? Who cares? Each scene, each bit of business, succeeds or fails on its own. And a surprising number of them succeed. When Josh Duhamel tries to make a phone call in the middle of a firefight, it’s sort of, kind of, plot-related, although the whole battle scene never really pulls together. But where does this come from?:

[Captain Lennox is trying to call the Pentagon while Epps is firing at Scorponok]
Captain Lennox: I need a credit card! Epps, where’s your wallet?
Tech Sergeant Epps: Pocket!
Captain Lennox: Which pocket?
Tech Sergeant Epps: MY BACK POCKET!
Captain Lennox: You got ten back pockets!
Tech Sergeant Epps: LEFT CHEEK! LEFT CHEEK! LEFT CHEEK!

The Laurel-and-Hardy silliness of Lennox trying to fish in his friend’s pocket for a credit card while the other man is fighting for his life is not to be undervalued. But do we have any sense, whatsoever, who these characters are? Does Captain Lennox ever rise to the level of ludicrousness? Or is his fumbling behavior ever allowed to act as counterpoint to some ultimate act of heroism? No, of course not, you goose. The scene just sits there, fat and perfect and pointless, like everything else in this deliriously nonsensical film.

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2 Responses to da jesus versus the macguffin in a no-holds-barred cage match

  1. chris says:

    You make this sound like such a great slice-of-life film … and yeah, this stuff is hard to pull off. (Think of The Day After Tomorrow, where all the character moments were just ridiculous.) It’s a good thing to call out. The AV Club complained about the Shia masturbation scene – as in, "Why is someone calling Shia out for masturbating when we’re waiting to see the robot trucks" – but you make it sound pretty intriguing.This also reminds me of Armageddon, which was a surprisingly well-made blockbuster and nailed all of its paper-thin characters. It also included references to a lot of famous American photographs, like the shot on the cover of Robert Frank’s The Americans, or that famous shot of the light streaming into Grand Central Station. There was no reason for it – they just went the extra mile, I guess.

  2. The Camel says:

    Mind you, I’m not saying it’s a good movie — it’s pretty terrible, and for every moment that works there are two that just fall apart completely. But I think it’s interesting that even a director with, manifestly, nothing on his mind, can, as you say, go the extra mile in some small things. Bay started out in music videos, and you can see that he’s got quite a way of creating vivid tableaux and short narratives. I’m not sure you can stitch forty of those together and call it a movie, but that seems to be the trend. And I think it’s interesting that sometimes terrible commercial flicks wrap around and touch the back side of the avant-garde — because aren’t a lot of avant-garde films based on precisely this ellipsizing approach to narrative, showing only what’s interesting, with the dull methodologies of "story" considered only dimly?

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