The Indefinable Ugliness of Transformers Movies

I don’t like Michael Bay’s Transformers movies. I have made no secret of this. I have been trying to rewatch the second movie for almost two years, just so I can rag about what an absolute disaster it is. It’s so bad that I literally have trouble paying attention.

But his movies also have the distinction of being bad movies that I don’t enjoy riffing on. I actually enjoy quite a few bad movies – Van Helsing, GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, Battlefield Earth, Battleship, Hellboy 2019 – specifically because I enjoy riffing on them and mocking how lousy they are, or occasionally because I want to turn my brain off and watch splosions. Even Twilight has some small amount of enjoyment for me, in that I love pointing at it and yelling, “See? See? This is garbage!”

But I don’t derive any enjoyment from the Transformers movies, and I’m not sure why. They are undeniably bad – almost every aspect of them is at best deeply flawed, and I could write a book on everything wrong with them. There’s plenty wrong. But I had to think about why they are somehow worse than, say, the highly derivative Battleship, which has a similar level of ineptitude, but somehow doesn’t feel quite as bad.

And honestly, it’s kind of hard to put a finger on, but I think it’s just that they feel… ugly. Not visually ugly, although personally I do find them unpleasant visually (why is everyone in the first movie so sweaty?). No, there’s an ugliness in the soul of these movies. An ugliness in the heart. It’s a universe where it feels like nobody is actually good or admirable – we have antagonists who are motivelessly evil, and we have heroes who… don’t feel like good people.

Do you remember the climax of the movie The Two Towers, when Samwise Gamgee made a stirring speech about how there was good in the world, that it was worth fighting for, and that things would get better eventually? It felt like an extension of the worldview in those films, that there was light and goodness in the world, and that there were noble people who would defend it….

… and the Transformers movies kind of have the opposite effect. There is nothing stirring about these movies, because every character feels like the product of a mean-spirited mind. This is seen in most of the characters – so many of them are either presented in a mean-spirited light (most African-Americans) or they are jerks themselves.

But it’s most displayed in the way that Optimus Prime is depicted. Across the Transformers Optimus is an inherently heroic character – he’s noble, protective, and cares about all life. But the Optimus of the movies is brutal, once ripping a Decepticon’s face right off without a single qualm. He threatened a Dinobot with death if it didn’t serve him and let him ride around on its back. And of course, he gets brainwashed into doing evil stuff, because who wants to see him being heroic?

I’m not saying that Optimus has to be perfect, nor am I saying that there is no room to explore darker themes with heroic characters. But Bay’s handling of Optimus feels like… he’s scoffing at the idea that someone can be good, noble and heroic. Which is probably the case, because in my experience, people who are loathsome tend to really despise people who are good, and believe it’s all fake and those particular people are really corrupt underneath. And, well, Michael Bay is pretty awful as a human being.

So anyway, those are my thoughts about how mean-spirited the Michael Bay Transformers movies feel, and how they differ from other terrible movies.

Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

Okay, something I have to get out of the way when discussing the live-action reboot of the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”: the redesigns of the Turtles are pretty awful. First, they decided to make them big — the Turtles are reimagined as being at least six-and-a-half feet tall, but they move in a strangely weightless manner… because CGI.

Secondly, the designs are far too busy. You can see every bump on their skin, which is pretty unappealing. Furthermore, very Turtle is slathered in characteristic adornments and pieces of clothing that do nothing but distract. Why is Raphael wearing a belt with other belts hanging off it? Why is Leonardo wearing wooden chest armor? Why is Michelangelo carrying around a pair of sunglasses that won’t fit his head?

Thirdly, their faces… look kind of like stretched noseless human faces. It trips the uncanny valley meter.

But even if you can get past the weird appearances of the Turtles, the live-action “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” reboot is not a very good movie. The Turtles’ origin story is filled with inexplicable holes, and the characters are thinly-developed at best — including the Turtles themselves, but most of all the villain, whose motivations can be summed up as “he’s rich and he wants to get richer.”

Reporter April O’Neil wants to tackle serious reporter stuff, like the gang wars that are being thwarted by mysterious vigilantes. But alas, nobody takes her seriously because she’s played by Megan Fox. But one night when the terrorists known as the Foot Clan attack some random people in a subway, she encounters those four vigilantes — giant mutant turtles who also happen to be elite ninjas. And get this: they were her childhood pets. Not kidding.

April’s search for the Turtles — and an explanation for how they ended up mutant ninjas — leads her to the obviously evil Eric Sacks. When the Turtles capture April so that they can explain their origin story to her, she inadvertently leads the Foot Clan directly to them — and I wish I could say that their sworn nemesis Shredder attacks, but in this movie he’s not so much a bitter foe as…. some guy they don’t really know.

“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is… not a terribly good movie. One of its biggest flaws is that it is less a story about the Turtles than a story about April O’Neil. Oh, the Turtles are important parts of the story, but the main arc is actually April’s — and so is pretty much the entire first act, in which the Turtles’ roles are basically cameos.

It also has a plot that is both simple and full of holes — it has all the hallmarks of several rewrites (Splinter and Shredder recognize each other despite never having met), and has some head-slapping idiocies (Splinter teaches the Turtles ninjutsu… from a picture book). The central conflict with Sacks especially feels like it was neutered somewhere along the line, given that the villain role is split between two people. And, you know, the fact that Sacks’ motivation is very stupid.

All the characters are pretty thin. This is especially shown in the Turtles — they each have one stereotypical character trait and not much else. Donatello is a nerd, Leonardo is vaguely leaderesque, Mikey seems like a budding sex offender who wants to kidnap April and keep her tied up in a dungeon, etc. Raphael has the most uneven characterization — he basically is just angry for most of the movie, only to vomit up the rest of his characterization in thirty seconds at the movie’s climax.

That said, most of the voice acting is pretty good, especially Alan Ritchison as Raphael and Tony Shalhoub as Splinter. The exception is Leonardo — for some reason, they decided to dub over Pete Ploszek’s voice with Johnny Knoxville, who sounds like a very unheroic fortysomething with an alcohol problem. As for the humans, Fox is not terribly good as April, but not unbelievably bad either, while William Fichter is profoundly meh.

“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” tries to give a new spin to the Turtles’ origin story, but the thin characters and abundant plot holes make it more of a chore than a delight. Also, Mikey is creepy.

Review: Transformers (2007)

There are certain things that are just objectively true. Water is wet. The sky is blue. The Pope is Catholic. Gingers have no souls. Michael Bay’s Transformers movies are incredibly bad.

And while the first live-action Transformers movie is not the mind-blowing trainwreck that many of its sequels would become, it’s still a terrible movie. It’s a bloated, sluggish mass of sexism, racism, ‘splosions and horrible comic relief, overflowing with characters that annoy me to the point of frothing madness. It’s a movie that seems to stretch forever until my patience is on the verge of snapping… but not quite dull enough to actually be called boring.

A teenage boy named Sam Witwicky (Shia Labeouf) finally gets his first car – a used yellow-and-black car that somehow blasts out the windows of every other car on the lot. No, it’s not possessed – it’s just an alien robot in disguise. Which is better, I guess.

At the same time, mysterious shapeshifting robots are attacking a U.S. military base on Qatar, downloading classified information and attacking various noble, two-dimensional soldiers. These hostile alien robots, known as Decepticons, are actually trying to locate and attack Sam because they want the old family heirlooms that he’s trying to sell on eBay. Specifically, they want a pair of old broken glasses that belonged to his ancestor. Yes, he thinks he can get a lot of money for broken antique glasses. Sam is not very smart, you may quickly see.

Fortunately, the details of this are explained to him by the leader of the good alien robots-disguised-as-motor-vehicles, Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), who are on Earth to find a MacGuffin that is vitally important to both sides of their civil war. And the glasses are the key to finding it for… stupid reasons. However, Sam and his maybe-girlfriend Mikaela (Megan Fox) soon run afoul of a secret government agency that has known about the Transformers for a very long time. And, well, things get messy plotwise.

Michael Bay’s Transformers is one of those movies where almost everything seems to be wrong with it. The actual plot of the film is a bloated, lumbering, stumbling mass of incoherent conflicts that all eventually crash together, and it seems to last forever. It’s only about two and a quarter hours long, but it feels like being dragged facedown behind a slow-moving car on a ten-mile-long gravel driveway.

And it’s dripping with racism (the only non-buffoonish black person is a soldier), sexism (the camera does everything but lick Mikaela) and an uncomfortable level of military fetishization. The entire subplot about the soldiers in the desert could have been written out of the story, and we would have gotten a much leaner film. But Michael Bay has to crowbar soldiers in there somehow!

But the worst part of the movie is, I think, the characters. Michael Bay seems to write three kinds of characters:

  1. Noble and perfect soldiers.
  2. Hot girls who are really smart so objectifying them (“Criminals are HOT!”) isn’t creepy.
  3. Violently annoying idiots who do stupid stuff in order to be funny.

Those are the only kinds of characters in these movies. And that last category accounts for 95% of the characters, including almost all of the giant alien robots. Optimus Prime is presented as a wise and noble leader here, for instance, but he consistently bumbles through just about every situation – when visiting Sam’s house, he and the other Autobots stumble around causing as much damage and being as noticeable as possible. Because funny.

But the human characters are the worst perpetrators – entirely for the LOLZ, many of them run around jabbering and screaming, stuffing their faces with food and making annoying sex jokes. Shia Labeouf’s Sam is perhaps the most obvious example, since his yammering and shouting is front and center, but his parents are the most obnoxious examples. These are characters specifically made to be funny in their stupidity, but instead they feel like a cheese grater on my nerves. John Turturro’s character isn’t much better; he exists to be peed on by Bumblebee and lech on underage girls.

The best thing I can say about Transformers is that if you switch your brain off… all the way off… you might enjoy the explosions and sexy women. Might. A very big might. But if that isn’t enough to justify over two hours of movie, then this film will be Chinese water torture.

A rant about Transformers (Michael Bay edition)

I am presently watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, the second of Michael Bay’s unspeakably bad Transformers movies. It has taken me a week and a half to drag myself through even part of its two and a half hours, and I haven’t even gotten to the wrecking balls scene. Yes, the infamous scene that is considered one of the worst scenes in the history of mainstream film.

And honestly, one thing that these movies should never be is boring. They have giant robot fights, explosions, constant talking and action… but it feels like it drags on forever. I have watched all the Peter Jackson Middle-Earth movies, and every single one of them felt shorter than both of the Transformers movies I have watched, even though I’m pretty sure they’re all substantially longer.

And I think the reason for this is simple: I hate all the characters.

Michael Bay seems to write three kinds of characters:

  1. Soldiers.
  2. Hot girls who are really smart so objectifying them isn’t creepy.
  3. Violently annoying idiots who do stupid stuff in order to be funny.

Those are the only kinds of characters in these movies, I swear. And that last category accounts for 95% of the characters, including almost all of the giant alien robots.

I think I realized this when the Autobots first revealed themselves to Sam Witwicky, and they started saying stupid things for the LOLZ. For instance, Ratchet just randomly announces that Sam wants to have sex with Mikaela. He has no reason to do this. It’s incredibly cringy and stupid. He simply says this stupid statement because… it’s meant to be funny.

And unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. Once Sam goes home to find his glasses, Optimus Prime and all the Autobots come over to his house while his parents are sleeping. Now, Optimus could have ordered the Autobots to remain in the street outside in their vehicle forms, waiting for Sam to uncover the glasses and bring them out to them. That would be the kind of intelligent decision that you would expect from the wise, calm leader of the Autobots.

But that wouldn’t have provided several minutes of irritating comic relief! So instead the Autobots remain in their giant-robot forms, bumbling around causing property damage, making noise, and Optimus jams his enormous face up against the windows just so he can nag Sam a little more effectively. This does not make Sam find the glasses any faster, by the way – it actually slows him down considerably, because he has to stop to tell Optimus to stop doing what he’s doing. Because it’s funny when Optimus acts like a doofus!

And of course, almost all the human characters are annoying comic relief – the biggest perpetrators, of course, being Sam’s parents. I wanted to shrivel up in the second movie when Sam’s mother eats pot brownies and, like all stoned people, becomes hyperactive and loud, and starts yammering about him losing his virginity to total strangers. Because haha funny.

And I swear, it feels like every character is like this.

I’d be okay with the characters doing funny things if it were like the comic relief in the Marvel movies. At least nine times out of ten – excluding the Fat Thor gags in Endgame – the jokes are in-character and do not involve the characters doing stupid things in order to produce the joke. Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark was absolutely hilarious, and he didn’t need to constantly do stupid things that make no sense in order to entertain us.

But in Transformers, it isn’t like those. Most of the jokes require people to be stupid and act like morons. And if it doesn’t amuse you to watch people running around screaming…

… or stuffing their faces with doughnuts…

… or jabbering at each other…

… or making juvenile sex jokes…

… or farting…

… or humping…

… or leching on underage girls…

… you’re going to sit there like a stone, getting progressively more irritable as this seemingly endless parade of annoying idiots are flung in your face. Some of these characters literally have no personality aside from their stupidity – I can identify exactly one thing that Ratchet did in Transformers aside from make that stupid sex joke. And that’s not just because I have trouble identifying anybody aside from Bumblebee and Optimus Prime.

And apparently this type of writing is contagious if you want to copy Michael Bay. It is an integral part of his storytelling, it seems. Years ago, I saw the movie Battleship (and have been regretting it ever since), which followed the Michael Bay formula so closely that many people thought it should have been a Transformers movie. What stuck out at me was that except for the Japanese commander and the veterans (only two of whom speak), I loathed every person in the movie. They weren’t constantly doing idiotic things for comic relief, but they were so obnoxious. The main character could not have been less endearing if he had worn a necklace of baby heads and a dead puppy for a hat.

Anyway, the too-long-didn’t-read edition of this rant is simple: the Transformers characters are as likable as scabies, and as funny as a wildfire. If, as I do, you find them to not be amusing, then these movies will be absolute torture.