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Why Transformers Got Panned

John on July 2, 2009 at 9:41 am

If you’ve read the reviews, you know that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen got panned by critics, even as moviegoers flock to theaters to see it. Yahoo Movies roundup shows critics giving it a C-. Users on the other hand gave it a B+. Over at Rotten Tomatoes — which is one of the places I always check for movie reviews — the “Top Critics” gave it 18%. Meanwhile the RT Community (regular users) gave it 68%, a huge difference!

transformersLast night I saw the film at my local multiplex and, having seen it, I now understand why the critics hated it. It’s sorta, kinda conservative.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a big, brash piece of Summer film making. Subtlety is not on the menu here. This is a pure Michael Bay. Everything on screen must explode sooner or later, usually sooner. But underneath all that there is something resembling a moral and here’s what it is… (Note: mild spoilers ahead. Won’t ruin your enjoyment, but will give away some plot points.)

The evil Decepticons (the bad robots) discover that the secret to gaining power will come from using a giant machine to destroy earth’s sun. But the key to the machine has been lost and only Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) has the clues to find it. So the Decepticons — in a plot device stolen from The Dark Knight — tear up a few cities around the world and then put Sam’s picture on every TV screen on the planet. They demand that he be turned over immediately or else.

All the regular people in the movie — the soldiers, the good robots, Sam’s parents — think this is a terrible idea. But in a key scene, the President’s representative (Obama’s name is mentioned in another scene) tells one of the soldiers that all options are on the table, meaning they may hand Sam over if they can find him. The soldier responds with something like “don’t you get it, you can’t negotiate with the Decepticons.” But the representative is unmoved.

As in Dark Knight, the connection to our current situation vis a vis terrorism is immediate. Though they may not have had it in mind during production, the connection to the situation in Iran came immediately to mind. Are we really going to negotiate with people who beat down their own citizens with clubs. Apparently we are.

The movie takes a dim view of this. Movie reviewers, who are as reliably liberal as reporters in general, no doubt noticed it and didn’t like it. But as with The Dark Knight, moviegoers don’t seem to see the problem.

Unlike Dark Knight which was a clear and fairly deep allegory to our current situation and George Bush in particular, Transformers is really just a popcorn movie. Still, I think it would be getting much better reviews if President Obama turned out to be the hero rather than the foolish guy rushing off to an undisclosed location when things get ugly, as he does in this film.

Oh, and the critics are wrong. It’s a fun film. A bit long, but still enjoyable Summer fare.

Update: From the NY Times review:

Mr. Bay is an auteur. His signature adorns every image in his movies, as conspicuously as that of Lars von Trier, and every single one is inscribed with a specific worldview and moral sensibility. Mr. Bay’s subject — overwhelming violent conquest — is as blatant and consistent as his cluttered mise-en-scène…

[T]here’s nothing to the reference to President Obama being whisked out of danger instead of standing tall like Optimus Prime and the rest of the robotic heroes. But that’s the perverse genius of Michael Bay. Despite the tediousness of his stories and inanity of his visual ideas, he always manages to keep you laughing and shaking your head in disbelief at the outlandishness of his cinematic spectacles, with their orange explosions, armament fetishism and even their noxious stereotypes. The man just wears you out and wears you down, so much so that it’s easy to pretend that you’re not ingesting 2 hours and 30 minutes of warmongering along with all that dumb fun.

Here’s the opening line from the Washington Post review:

With its fascist sensibility, assortment of smutty asides, illiterate gold-tooth-wearing homie robots and the hero’s brainless mother, much of “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” is simply despicable. So complaining about one’s physical discomfort seems petty. But given the relentless din, the Leni Riefenstahl-inspired music and the headache-inducing visuals, OSHA should probably be investigating the conditions under which human beings made this thing. Or the conditions under which they watch it.

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