Why Transformers 2 is not a terrible movie

Or: Roger Ebert takes himself too seriously.

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On my old blog, I wrote an analysis of the original Transformers movie in light of memetic theory. It bore the title, “Do you really think we can trust the Decepticons?”

It was common in eighties action cartoons, like Transformers, to have an episode where the “good guys” and the “bad guys” team up to defeat a common foe. It happened in He-Man. It happened in GI-Joe. It happened in Transformers. One could presumably imagine a conversation, not necessarily with Captain Picard and Jeff Goldblum (who is not quite dead yet), in this episode of Transformers. The penultimate line in the image, the dramatic crux upon which the entire exchange rests, would be delivered completely without irony. As a child, I would have been too caught up in the drama to notice this lack. Or even to understand that there probably ought to be a snicker or a guffaw.

I read Roger Ebert’s review of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen after I saw the movie. Though I suspect that if the order were reversed, I might have made a concerted effort to enjoy it even more than I did. In fact, in light of some of the reviews, I find myself looking for reasons to like the movie. I don’t know why I dislike Ebert so intensely. I mean, it’s obvious that he’s not seeing eye to eye with me ever. I mean, can everyone agree that he’s utterly incorrect about Star Trek?

Everything Ebert says is true: the plot is nonsensical, the characters are vapid and shallow, the movie is loud. The question: what’s wrong with that?

I guess it’s a question of expectations. I was expecting something on par with the first movie. What I got was something that actually corrected several of the problems with the first movie. I went to the film expecting (and desiring) a 2.5 hour robot slugfest. And you know what? Michael Bay delivered. This shit was crazy!

In the first film, it was difficult to see much of the action. In this new iteration, he did a few things to make the action more intelligible and i applaud him for it. First of all, he chose his environments with more care. The scene where Optimus dukes it out with Megatron and Starscream in the woods was great because the camera could sit farther back, and the robots stood out against the vegetation. It was easily one of my favorite scenes in the film.

His use of slow motion was nice as well. This gave us an opportunity to see, in detail, the results of some of these blows. I mean, a giant robot has to put some pretty tremendous power behind a punch. I could barely contain myself when Bumblebee stripped that dog robot down to its spine, or when another robot got its face ripped in half.

A friend of mine pointed out afterwards, using the word “Cronenbergian,” the use of fluids and ichors and sinus invasion with some of the robots. It was seriously that creepy in spots.

I liked the look of the robots. In particular, his use of very small robots was cool. Hordes of tiny robots are to giant robots what hordes of scorpions are to grizzly bears. They are all terrifying, but for very different reasons.

There are obviously a ton of plot holes and problems with this film. It’s not a “great” film. It’s not even a “good” film. But it certainly isn’t terrible and it’s for this reason that the film manages to succeed. It has excellent pacing for it’s length. There was always something happening and I wasn’t bored. I was looking for a particular type of entertainment and I got it.

This movie shows that a movie doesn’t have to be great in order to deliver on a promise.

The question of why this movie is far superior to the Wolverine movie of earlier this summer is much more complex. They both appeal to the same primitive emotions. They both aim at the same goal: a re-imagining of an old franchise. But somehow Wolverine felt like it was written by a fourteen-year-old. Transformers 2 felt like it was written by an adult for the fourteen-year-old in all of us. Except Roger Ebert.

Look at that old pretentious fuddy-duddy:

Assumed to be fair use.

Assumed to be fair use.

Sayonara

Star Trek: An Analysis

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I went and saw Star Trek. It’s good. Not great. Not even the best Star Trek film. But I liked it. And that being said, the debate about whether it is or is not Star Trek is a little absurd. The thing that really impressed me about this movie is that they did something that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a franchise like this. They managed to maintain narrative continuity while changing the past. Old Spock from the future is not from the same future that New Spock will one day inhabit. It will be a totally different future with all sorts of different adventures and, probably, a lot more sex.

This means that they can produce a number of new films (probably somewhere between three and four) set in a new alternate world that remains cohesive with the original series and films. It’s actually a pretty elegant solution to a problem with origin stories. Look at the disaster that is the Wolverine movie. They tried to make a film that outlines Wolverine’s back story but also introduce some sort of new story, and they find themselves in the position where they try to do far too many things with one film. I mean, the film I wanted to see was Wolverine in his youth, fighting all sorts of wars, living in Victorian Canada, etc. That would be interesting. Better yet, they should have had Ang Lee direct it; he’s got lots of experience with Victorian films and action films. Combine the two and we’ve got something very interesting.

“I say, Logan, those are some very sharp claws you have?”
“Why, yes, I believe they are. Why, did you know, that I can slice through metal with these?”
“Indeed? What are they made of?”
“Oh, it’s this wonderful new material called ‘adamantium.'”
“I say, that is fascinating. Will you be coming round for tea this afternoon?”
“I do think that sounds delightful.”
“Wonderful, I’ll have the butler make up some cucumber sandwiches.”

That’s the film I wanted to see. Instead we got garbage that was obviously written by fourteen-year-olds.

Instead of falling into these usual pitfalls, we got something unique, quirky, and altogether new. They rewrote the story, made it something fresh, and included some things that old Trekkies can relate to without having the opportunity to be overly critical about plot continuity. Zachary Quinto’s Spock is not Leonard Nimoy’s Spock, but he captures the same essence of what it is to be Spock. Since he’s the only one we see on screen with his future (and former) self, he’s perfect for comparison, but I’d even say that Chris Pine manages to pull out a pretty convincing Shatner without actually being too Shanter-ish. I mean, the only one who can really do Shatner and not be a parody is Shatner. He makes the character his own, while managing to convince us that he is, in fact, James Kirk.

Simon Pegg was brilliant.

Another thing that’s truly remarkable about the film is the fact that it is not a parody. It does not poke fun. Perhaps it’s the fact that Star Trek has already been parodied to death that made something like this possible. It couldn’t be a parody. It’s been done. They were forced to do something new. Something that really seemed like serious science fiction in the vein of Star Trek became inevitable. And that’s what it is: standalone science fiction in the vein of Star Trek. It is not the original series. It’s not TNG. It’s not the original films. It’s an entirely new beast and whether or not it’s actually Star Trek is beside the point. The film is damned fun to watch and has a lot of things going for it.

The first time I encountered the idea of alternate realities was Back to the Future II. You know, the one where Michael J. Fox goes to the future and buys the sports almanac and then future Biff Tannen (not unlike future Spock) steals the Delorean and brings himself the sports almanac in the past so that he can get rich and not be an old loser. In fact, it’s pretty much the same plot as Star Trek, now that I think about it.

In many ways, by making this an alternate reality film, they’ve freed themselves of the constraints of a franchise held in the clutches of legions of anal retentive fans and fact-checkers.

As a parting word, I think it would be best to say up front, that while I am not a “Trekkie” I did once go to a Star Trek convention and found myself sitting right next to John Delancie. Yes, that John Delancie. But that’s a story for another day. Suffice to say, I was too star struck to say hi, but I did get his autograph.

The film is not without its logical flaws (why exactly did they send Spock with quite so much of the doomsday goop?), but it just goes to show that a solid narrative style, reasonably good acting, and a fun tone can keep any story from falling flat.

Discuss.