Directors: Tim Story / Michael Bay
By Roderick Heath
I had me an old-fashioned fantasy double-feature by watching these back to back. Alright, yes, I’m a nerd—a nerd with a strong bladder. Or more accurately, I have nerdish leanings; any hard-core nerd would sneer laughingly at my lack of knowledge in all but Doctor Who, where even though I haven’t watched the show in 15 years, I bet I can still flay most challengers in detailing the political structure of Gallifrey. Nerdishness is, of course, the proving ground of intelligence, where the young and bright test their capacities for information regulation, retention, and systematisation by using information of no consequence whatsoever.
Of course, the way so many of us love to soak up the myriad detailing of the Marvel comic universe or the Star Trek Federation is an old human impulse; the intricate web of ancient Greek myths used to be familiar to goatherds and kings alike, and everybody rolled up to see what new and even, like, kinda deep twists guys like Euripides and Aeschylus could make out of comic book characters like Achilles and Ajax in their blockbusters.
So our affection for this stuff isn’t just juvenility run amok—it’s attachment to the mythic. Now, having justified my total geekout, I can move onto state that I was about the only person, it seems, to nakedly enjoy the first Fantastic Four. It was the sort of candy-coloured, weightless confection for which the idea of the comic book movie was invented, standing in thankful contrast to the overstuffed, ever-more-tedious seriousness of Batman Begins and Superman Returns et al.
I’m not so dazzled as to pretend Jessica Alba can act, but the jokey appeal of the era’s leading pin-up girl done up in girl scientist dress, indicated, as in the 1950s, by having her wear glasses and heels rather than being clad in sweatpants and pierced to the nipples like any modern self-respecting geekette is a good laugh in the spirit of Julie Adams being stalked by the Creature from the Black Lagoon or Faith Domergue contending with It Came From Beneath the Sea. Ioan Gruffud, long beloved in my household for his incarnation of Horatio Hornblower, is always welcome, though his Reed Richards is pretty plastic in more ways than one. Most entertainingly, Chris Evans as the egotistical, show-offy Human Torch and Michael Chiklis as grumpy, stony Ben “The Thing” Grimm struck sparks off each other.
Rise of the Silver Surfer maintains this blithe mood of inconsequential fun, with the added appeal of Marvel’s most seriously cool character, the Silver Surfer himself, embodied by Doug Jones, who played the fish guy in Hellboy and the faun in Pan’s Labyrinth, and voiced by every fanboy’s man-crush, Laurence Fishburne. The Surfer doesn’t actually get to make much of an impression as a character, but Jones and Fishburne manage to conjure some pathos out of the sadly purposeful Surfer, serving a galaxy-sized dust cloud called Galactus that likes to eat little green planets like ours as an appetizer, on the promise that he stays the hell away from the Surfer’s own planet. The Silver Surfer is perhaps the most referenced comic book character in movies, from Richard Gere’s obsession in Breathless (1983) to Quentin Tarantino inserting him into Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Crimson Tide (1995). Why? Like, he’s Zen, dude, like all surfers, plus being silver, he doesn’t have bling, he is bling.
The Fantastic Four films have worked for me also because Tim Story knows how to direct them. He keeps everything short and simple—the new film clocks in at barely an hour and a half. The auteur of Barbershop also maintains a tone of faux-naïf zip that perfectly captures comic book aesthetics. like when, in the action finale, our heroes, battling Dr. Doom, fight along the length of the Great Wall of China and then crash-land in the middle of Tokyo in the sort of geography-defying leap that comes straight off the printed page.
Transformers comes from material that’s closer to my bosom; yes, when I was seven years old I obsessed over the animated series where the goody Autobots rumbled each week with the wicked Decepticons, courtesy of the glorious tradition of Manga comics and associated toy marketing. The Autobots having crash-landed their spaceship on Earth, decided crash permanently, whilst the Decepticons, still in possession of their home planet Cybertron, occasionally, like litigious neighbours you want to hide from when they knock on your door, came down to create havoc. Manga inspires such strong affection amongst devotees because of its bold designs, its strong tradition of character and story, and its solidly sci-fi inspired realms, much more so than American comic books, which usually borrowed sci-fi ideas to justify power fantasies. Transformers was notable chiefly for having a well-defined bunch of robots as its heroes, with vigorously defined personalities; Last Mohican-ish noble leader Optimus Prime, hep-cat Jazz, venal Starscream, malevolent Megatron.
Which is the prime failing of Michael Bay’s mammothly expensive and stratospherically noisy film of the series; despite some nods to lore, Transformers lacks…well, the Transformers. The Autobots don’t even turn up until more than an hour into the film. Most contemporary action films have degraded exposition; Transformers makes almost the opposite crime of stretching one hour’s worth of plot and character set-up into two and a half hours, and still doesn’t really give me what I want.
The Transformers have come to Earth looking for the All-Spark, an alien cube (even they don’t know where it came from) that has the capacity to generate living DNA from any material, even machines, which is how these shape-shifting robotic extraterrestrials got started. They’ve destroyed Cybertron in civil war, so both sides want the device to regenerate the place. Megatron came down a century earlier, got himself frozen in the Arctic, and was found by an explorer whose glasses—and this makes no sense—got imprinted with the navigational details to Earth. Obviously, these also become an object of need for the Transformers. Currently, they’re in the hands of the explorer’s great-grandson (Shia LeBeouf) who’s trying to sell them in his quest to buy a car to help him get laid. As you do. He does get the car, which turns out to be Autobot Bumblebee, his stalwart defender and cheeky helpmate in said mission to get laid.
Since Armageddon, no one in Hollywood has proven as adept as Michael Bay for channelling the aesthetic of 1950s B war movies—and not in a cool way. His portrayals of military and government types always splits evenly between whoop-your-ass caricatures and tinny incompetence, and too much of Transformers seems to aspire to a kind of contemporary, pseudo-patriotic relevance as the initial attack on a Qatar inspires a group of Special Forces soldiers to trek across the desert stalked by a robot Scorpion—an explicitly Soviet reference in the land of Al Qaeda. Bay trucks in familiar, boring, Republican, visual fetishism, like loving helicopter shots of Washington, backlit shots of pilots mounting aircraft, et cetera, fit for an Army recruiting ad. Even when I was a kid, it wasn’t lost on me that the Autobots’ guises were all civilian or helpful—Optimus is a haulage rig, and others were ambulances, rescue vehicles, Volkswagens—and the Decepticons militarist—Megatron a gun, the rest tanks, jet fighters, police cars. Bay’s fascist chic is completely at odds with this conscientious symbolism. In comparison, Rise of the Silver Surfer is cynical about militarism. Andre Braugher portrays a jerk of a general whom Reed reams in a memorable turn-the-tables speech about the joys of not having been the quarterback, and who subjects the Surfer to a Guantanamo-esque session of torture. Which is not even to touch on Bay’s uncomfortable, instantaneously digestible ethnic types; his black characters especially are loud almost to the point of minstrelry. Story plays his gentle embracing humanism with a deft lack of self-consciousness.
But this isn’t Bay’s worst failing. For an “action” director, he’s notoriously poor. His camera jerks and wobbles and rolls and leaps, and what so much time and money and anticipation have been spent on (38 hours of animation per single frame) is lost in his shitty filming; Story looks like Spielberg compared to this guy. The plotting is incredibly senseless, borrowing dashes of Terminator 2, The Thing, and Independence Day before having our heroes decide for no particular reason to go and hide the All-Spark in the nearest city from where it’s previously been kept secret, basically so Bay can stage his 45-minute-long action finale in an urban area. Bay seems determined to make the action look more like Black Hawk Down than Clash of the Titans. (Ray Harryhausen, come back!) Even the moment we all look forward to, when Optimus and Megatron rumble, is garbled and anticlimactic. The finale tries to grind us into dust with spectacle, yet provides none, and when the film finishes, it feels like it’s only just getting started. By comparison, the Silver Surfer’s final man’s-gotta-do determination to go kick some Galactus ass is much more fitting.
But I don’t want to wail on Bay completely. His pacing numbs the faculties, and he has a gift for hyped-up comedy, largely absent in his worst films, like Pearl Harbor and The Island. He often populates his films with screwball-style pairings of bickering types who engage in endlessly facile pop-culture riffing. His usual neurotic, fast-mouthed, geeky-cool hero is here embodied by LeBeouf, a rising young star and it’s easy to see why. Like Nicholas Cage in The Rock, Le Beouf works to hold this film together by sheer eccentric personality. The part of Edible Young Miss who is his object of desire is filled by Megan Fox, who certainly lives up to her name, and even brings some substance to her part as neighbourhood hottie with a dark secret and a magnificent torso; her act of heroism in the finale is one of the few coherent, cheer-along moments. The best touch is retaining several of the voice actors from the original series, like Peter Cullen, the voice of Optimus. Hugo Weaving (V for Vendetta) is a newcomer, providing Megatron’s hissy menace. Best of all is John Turturro, who plays a cracked government spook clearly inspired by Jeffrey Combs’ brilliant turn in The Frighteners. Whatever they paid Turturro, he was worth it and more.
Bring on the sequel, but please, next time bring the Transformers themselves and leave Michael Bay at home.