Thursday, April 01, 2010

Transformers 1 and 2

A few months ago, a friend learned that I like superhero movies but seldom watch any of them. So he loaned me a bunch of DVDs.

As long as I'm enjoying watching these films, I might as well share my thoughts about them.

I'll start with Transformers and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (links go to trailers) because I just finished watching the second.

I suppose that strictly speaking the Transformers setting is not "superhero". But the Transformers cartoon that I grew up watching on Saturday mornings was nothing more than an animated comic book designed to teach young kids how to play with certain toys. All of the elements of a superhero comic were there, for better or worse.

The first Transformers movie was fun. Then I became really impressed after reading about it in Wikipedia.

The entire movie was stupid, but never quite crossed the line to stop making sense. As I watched it I gained a growing impression that the writers were purposefully dancing just on one side of that line. I wondered why would they carefully make a movie that was sensible but so stupid?

Reading online told me the answer: everything was supposed to be from the point of view of a young teenage boy playing with Transformer toys in his room.

Suddenly I understood why the soldiers were serious, the secret agents were wacky, the robots were chummy, the nerds were dweeby, the fight scenes were vague, and so forth. Moreover, the film included many complex things that were ludicrously oversimplified, and many simple things that were made absurdly complex--and now all of those made sense too. The plot and characters did all fit together nicely if viewed through the lens of how an 11-year-old boy might see (and misunderstand) the world.

Spielberg had that vision. DeSanto also valued sharing that young-kid sense of wonder. Collaboration with writers Orci and Kurtzman made it happen. Michael Bay did not want to direct a "stupid toy movie" and added his own flavor to the vision.

I'm very glad this was done. Too many recent action movies are copies of old formulas. Creating such a different and easily misunderstood film in 2007 was bravely done. I cannot think of any other "toy" movie that tried to create in elaborate special effects the kind of stupid story I imagined as a kid?

Sadly, the film has almost zero rewatch-value for me. The action scenes went too quickly for my taste, and I have minimal interest in remembering how clueless I was about the world as a young boy.

I had hoped the second movie would be like the first, only more enjoyable because I now knew from the beginning how to "decode" the purposeful stupidity.

Unfortunately, the sequel abandoned the original film's vision. The technical aspects were improved, but at the cost of abandoning recreating the imagination of an 11-year-old boy.

The fight scenes had a slower pace and involved the environment more, so I could actually see some tactics and combat styles. The characters were less exaggerated and funnier. The Transformers were given better animation, many more close-ups, and a lot more time on screen.

But it also has almost zero rewatch-value for me. There is too much low humor and too little suspense. (Notably, we see the Transformers using up energy, suffering damage, healing damage, and turning on alien machines, but the audience is never given any sense of how this works. For me this ruins any potential suspense: I know that a certain robot is about to be killed instead of merely beat up because the narrative flow demands it, not because of what I see in the CGI battle.)

My nostalgia would prefer that the Transformer films inject what Hasbro created into another generation of elementary school kids. I am saddened that the sequel's extensive low humor, use of stereotypes, and change of vision appear to be shifting the franchise towards a teenage audience.

However, I am still pleased to read that the sequel also did well financially. I expect that those responsible for the film purposefully changed its vision and consider it a successful endeavor. They continue to be big and daring when so many movies take no risks, and deserve their success.

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