“Are You Sure This Is the Movie?”: The Utter Awfulness of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

This is a guest post that my wife Jennifer wrote up about the “utter awfulness” that was Transformers 2. While I thought the movie was terrible and bad (thus my Twitter review of it being “terribad”), she was much more appalled by the robotravesty that assaulted us IMAX-style than I was. Between her and Roger Ebert’s multiple reviews of the film (dare I even call it a film?), there is nothing for me personally left to say on the subject that I have not already said.

The lights dim in the IMAX theater as we wait to see Transformers 2, and we watch the screen light up and listen to the dramatic voice-over explaining the benefits of the IMAX system. This is my first Transformers experience; I was more into Ninja Turtles and He-Man and She-Ra as a kid, and I never saw the first movie but had heard it was silly fun. So when Beej and I were invited to see the new film with some friends, I figured I’d give it a shot.

The first trailer starts, and it’s for Half-Blood Prince. I have seen it before, but Beej and I still whisper excitedly to each other at seeing it on the huge screen. Then another trailer starts. A cheesy voiceover begins, over some cliché-looking shots of ancient civilizations, and I’m pretty sure right away that this isn’t going to be a movie I will want to see. I see the name “Hasbro” pop up, and, recognizing the toy company, I think, “Oh, it’s G.I. Joe.” But I remember a conversation from earlier in the day, so I lean over to Beej to say, “I thought you said Hasbro took their name off it?”

Beej replies, “That was G.I. Joe.

“Then what is this?”

Transformers,” Beej answers, sounding like he thinks I’m nuts.

“No, what is this trailer for?”

“This is the movie.”

This is the movie?”

And so begins my first Transformers experience, in which I not only mistake the beginning of the film for a trailer, but for a particularly bad trailer. If you haven’t checked out Roger Ebert’s review of the film, I highly suggest doing so.

And you can read more of his opinions on the film, as well as his conversations with commenting readers, on his blog.

I completely agree with Ebert’s thoughts on the incomprehensibility of the story and the repetitive, overblown action, so I won’t retread them too much here, since he says it better than I can. Of the plot, Ebert says, “the three most important words in movie development are story, story, story. This is not a story: A group of inconsequential human characters watch animation.” And Ebert says of the painful onslaught that the movie presents as action, “If you want to save yourself the ticket price, go into the kitchen, cue up a male choir singing the music of hell, and get a kid to start banging pots and pans together. Then close your eyes and use your imagination.” Oh Roger, I think I love you.

Beej hated the movie, too, but said that he was glad we saw it in IMAX, because he at least got to enjoy the visual stimulation of the high-definition action scenes. I disagree. For me, the IMAX screen just made it more obnoxious (and “obnoxious” is the best adjective I can think of for every single aspect of this movie). Instead of just watching the crappiness, I was immersed in it. It was all around me, all I could see, and I couldn’t escape it.

What was even more obnoxious than the physical onslaught of the film was its representation of humanity. Transformers manages to insult every societal group it attempts to represent. The characters are completely defined by racial, age-related, and gender stereotypes, and they’re nearly all deeply stupid and—there’s that word again—obnoxious. Starting with racial stereotypes, there’s a scene in a butcher shop that could have come straight out of 1940s Looney Tunes, complete with a bad teeth reveal. Much has also been made of two of the robots, twins who have gold teeth, talk in ghetto slang, and are obviously supposed to represent hip-hop culture. We learn, in a moment that we’re meant to find hilarious but also obvious, that they can’t read. I don’t feel qualified to really judge this one. Well, I’ll say that the characters were tacked on, useless, and Jar Jar-like in their ability to annoy, but I don’t know whether they were maliciously racist, even though they certainly made me feel icky. There is something to be said for the idea that the real racism lies in seeing two stupid, uneducated robots and assuming they’re supposed to be black. However, I will dismiss one common excuse for the characters: that they were simply meant as comic relief that would appeal to a young child’s level of humor.

Considering the fact that one of the twins calls the other “pussy,” I’m just not buying the “all for the kids” line.

Speaking of pussies (I don’t think I’ve ever had the need to type that awful word before, and now I’ve needed it twice. Thanks, Transformers), I don’t think any of the stereotyping in the movie can hold a candle to the way the film addresses gender. Every male character in the movie is a bumbling idiot who thinks of women as conquests, and the women exist solely to be sexy for the men. And these ideas are most pervasive in the movie’s representation of college life. Pop culture rarely shows even remotely accurate illustrations of college, and I’m used to it. I expect for all the women to either look like models or be shrews with glasses, and for all the men to be either drunken frat boys or pretentious know-it-alls. But the first classroom scene in Transformers shows a front row full of sexed-up women licking their lips and making bedroom eyes at their professor, who reacts by mentioning “Virgo: THE VIRGIN!” while looking at the young women lecherously. And the first scenes with college men reveal that they have a secret internet business in their dorm room, and that they attend college parties to go “hunting” for those sexed-up women.

It wouldn’t be so bad if the examples of these stereotypes were offered only occasionally within the film. In Transformers, though, they’re reinforced over and over again without any contradiction. From the first shot of Megan Fox’s backside bent over a motorcycle (and yes, I understand that the main target audience is young men; I’m just pointing out the consistency of the message), it is clear that the only value the film places on women is men’s desires. Even the robots see Mikaela, Fox’s character, as a sex object. When a small Decepticon (one of the bad-guy robots) meets Mikaela, his first reaction to her is to say that she is “hot but not very bright.” This robot later, after being won over by Mikaela, starts humping her leg. That’s right, the female lead has her leg humped by a robot. The only other young woman who gets significant screen time is a college student whose single-minded mission is to seduce Sam. She is soon revealed to be a Decepticon (with breasts!) who is trying to get close enough to Sam to probe him. So not only are human women only good for sex, but even female robots’ main purpose is the seduction of men. The film’s only depiction of an older woman (in the form of Sam’s mom), shows that the sexed-up young women can look forward to growing into irrational, hysterical middle-aged women. I’ll admit that I laughed at Sam’s mom’s antics, because the actress is talented and has great timing. The film also attempts to even the score by having the mom refuse to let go of Sam as he leaves for college, while the dad refuses to let go as he tries to save the world. It’s only the mom, however, who ends up shrilly screaming with baby shoes wrapped around her neck.

In stereotyping women as nothing but sex objects, the film also stereotypes men as seeing women as nothing but sex objects, both in how the male characters act and in the filmmakers’ assumption that this is what male movie-goers want to see. The men in the movie are completely at the mercy of their sexual whims and they all really like to make balls jokes. Beej was also annoyed at the whole subplot of Sam’s hesitance to say “I love you” to Mikaela. His response in the theater was to whisper to me sarcastically, “Yes, because all guys are afraid of commitment.” I discussed the issue with a co-worker, and he pointed out that, in addition to catering to generalization, this plot point contradicts Sam’s personality. His neurotic, insecure nature would have led him to say “I love you” all the time, while Mikaela’s more guarded personality would have made it harder for her to open up. But instead of examining realistic character development, the filmmakers opt for the hackneyed, easily recognizable plot of “girl wants commitment, boy hesitates.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that writers have to avoid every possible stereotype associated with every category a character fits into. Not only would that would stifle creativity, but initiating social change isn’t Michael Bay’s job. The writers of Transformers, however, didn’t bother to give their characters any characteristics other than the stereotypes, and because of this, they don’t act like actual human beings. Which resulted in me not caring about them at all. I’m a fan of science fiction and fantasy, but not because I automatically like anything that has wizards, dragons, or robots. It’s because of the thrill of seeing relatable and likeable characters in extraordinary situations. I felt vindicated on Buffy’s behalf when, after years of ostracizing her, her classmates finally came to her aid just in time to kill an ascending demon at graduation. After watching Peter Parker struggle so hard to balance his various responsibilities, I cringed for him when Doc Ock almost killed him on that train. And I cheered when Mal spread the truth about Miranda, finally winning a battle against the organization that had defeated him and robbed him of his faith. By placing realistic characters in heightened realities, Sci-Fi/Fantasy has the potential to explore human interaction and create metaphors that speak to how we live. But when characters seem to make all decisions based on questions like “How would a really sexy co-ed react to this?” or “Has it been more than five minutes since I’ve made a balls joke?,” a potentially fun and appealing story becomes, as Ebert puts it, “A group of inconsequential human characters watch[ing] animation.”

My favorite character by far in the movie was Bumblebee, the robot that doubles as Sam’s car. Unlike the humans around him, Bumblebee actually exhibits a decent range of believable personality traits. He is loyal and courageous, but also insecure and needy. He is legitimately funny when he plays “Your Cheating Heart” at a tempted Sam and is actually quite poignant when he splices together famous movie lines to impress upon Sam the importance of their mission (though you get the feeling that the writers had to use these lines because they couldn’t think of anything poignant themselves). If only the other characters could have possessed even these surface complexities, then I would have had something to root for during those too-long robot fights.

Needless to say, if this was the movie that the folks at Hasbro deemed good enough to keep the company’s name on, then I highly doubt I’ll be in line for G.I. Joe.

So what do you folks think? I didn’t even touch on the dog humping or the robot scrotum, so there’s plenty of material left. I’m especially interested in hearing opinions on the representation of men in the film, since I get the feeling that I’ve missed some of the insulting aspects of that issue.

Comments

  1. We Fly Spitfires

    Awesome review. A surprising thing about it (I wasn't actually surprised it was crap!) was just how bloody boring it was. I'm almost in shock about that. I think Bay must be very talented in some sort of fashion though in order to make a movie about giant robots that boring. It's quite a feat.

    Soundwave was my favourite character. I just love the voice 🙂

  2. Jennifer

    Exactly. The excuse people use for it is "it was just a fun action movie, lighten up." I love fun, silly action movies (like the first Pirates), but this wasn't fun. I found myself zoning out several times because nothing in the movie mattered and I had been so turned off by the ridiculous characterizations. Not to mention the fact that they would spend a good 2 minutes showing each robot transformation. To me, that effect was coolest when it was assimilated into a scene where other things were going on, because it came across as casual and effortless (and, to me, more interesting). Instead, what we got was "Hey, look at this metal do stuff for a few minutes, and maybe you'll forget that there is no story here."

    I know a lot of people consider this sort of analysis to be elitist (a word that is thrown around way too much these days, anyway). But I wasn't expecting a sophisticated, world-changing film. I do expect filmmakers to at least try to make movies that are good examples of their chosen genre.

  3. Sharon

    Great Review. My teen daughter saw the movie and came home ranting about gender stereotypes, but I went to see it anyway. That's two+ hours of my life I'm never getting back.

    But I'll still be in line for G.I. Joe. Because, c'mon… knowing is half the battle! 😉

  4. Beej

    Yeah, I didn't go in expecting a cinematic masterpiece. I went in expecting something that was mindless fun, and I got that minus the fun. I love being able to shut my brain off for a couple of hours and juts watch things 'splode, but this one was ridiculous.

    If I had a dollar for every time Jennifer and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes…I'd have like forty bucks. I generally don't like professional movie reviews, and I don't usually let them influence my thoughts on a movie, but Roger Ebert really did sum up how this movie is the cream of the crap.

    Oh, and I still think Megan Fox is greasy. She can be exceptionally hot when she's not trying, but her lips in this movie were too puffy, and she kept /trying/ to be sexy. And that's not sexy.

    Some of my favorite movies are made by Judd Apatow, so I can appreciate good, solid profane humor. But there was nothing solid about "look at the robot, he's humping the girl/has balls." There's a difference.

  5. Jennifer

    Sharon: I'm glad to hear that your teenage daughter is already recognizing things like this. Too many young women are too afraid of being labeled "feminazis" to ever speak up when something is legitimately insulting.

    And I forgot one of the worst examples in the movie: that even when a woman has a useful skill, its importance still lies in its sexiness. When Mikaela saves Sam and Super Obnoxious Sidekick by hotwiring a car, the sidekick's response isn't "Thank you for saving our lives with your mechanical skills," but rather, "You can hotwire a car? That's so hot!" So even when a woman gets to take an active role, the focus is still on her attractiveness to men (or robots). It was like the filmmakers were determined to not let ANY positive representation accidentally slip through. The sexism is so pervasive that I have a hard time believing that it's coincidental.

    I had asked Beej early on in the movie if there were any female robots. I wasn't too worried about it, since it's iffy on whether a robot should have gender, but since they had adopted human male voices, I was curious. Then the temptress Decepticon showed up, proving that the robots do apparently have gender. Finally there's a female Autobot . . . for about 3 seconds before she's blown up. Seriously, Beej whispered to me, "Look, a female rob–aaaaaaaand she's dead."

    I don't expect (or want) filmmakers to simply wedge in superficially strong female characters just for the sake of "girl power." I generally find that annoying. But good grief.

  6. Beej

    Personally, I'd rather have then leave out even attempting to show positive female representation than do it half-way or insultingly. For example: the entire movie of "Twilight." There was so much potential to make the film more than the novel was, what with a female director and all. But still, it fell into the same stereotypical, generic gender roles as Transformers 2: women being objects whose sole reason for being is to attract/seduce men.

  7. Anonymous

    I really think all you paid and unpaid critics need to get a F'n CLUE. Transformers is not gone with the wind, nor was it made to garner Academy support. This movie like most action flicks are made for 1 thing, PURE ENTERTAINMENT. I loved the movie, the non stop action is what appeals to people like me. It isnt Shawshank Redemption nor will it ever try to be but that doesnt mean its bad.

  8. Beej

    The problem is that the movie was not "PURE ENTERTAINMENT." It wasn't a fun movie to watch, and the "non stop action" was not nearly high quality enough to gloss over the fact that there was no kind of actual depth. Were this a movie like "Crank" or "Shoot 'Em Up" where it bills itself as being nothing but garbage action, then I'd be okay. My problem comes in that this movie half-way tried to have a heart, but had no idea how to do it without falling into gender and racial stereotypes and seeking out the lowest common denominator.

    When a movie tries to be something (a good, fun, simple action movie, in this case) and fails (because it was boring, cliche, and offensive), then yes, it means it's bad.

  9. Jennifer

    You may notice that in an earlier comment I said, "I wasn't expecting a sophisticated, world-changing film. I do expect filmmakers to at least try to make movies that are good examples of their chosen genre."

    It's fine that you thought the movie was fun. I, however, didn't find it fun and wanted to write out why I felt so disconnected from it.

  10. Longasc

    I thought it was funny, but is it not pretty sad that this movie was all about presenting a very sexy Megan Fox, who really looked dumb as she was deliberately reduced to pure looks and being a sex object?

    Who above the age of 6-7 actually cares about the robots, this movie was probably made for 10-14 year olds, and for everyone above that age the only thing that was left was looking at Megan Fox.

    I loved the first Pirates of the Caribbean, the next two were not nearly as good. This movie did not have a great story or plot either, but it had wit and charm, mainly due to Johnny Depp's performance.

    Who cares about CGI effects nowadays? Modern movies are often cut so hyperfast that I can barely see them or follow the movie at all.

    I would not blame Transformers 2 for being shallow, though. Nobody expected more than that. I wonder that you were shocked by the sheer amount of triviality shown. 🙂

    But I also wonder why Hollywood totally forgets about people who want a bit more than this. Then they would lure not only a very young male audience and their girl friends into the cinemas.

    I might have gone to the cinema tonight, but they offer nothing worthwhile to me and my friends at the moment. Transformers 2 was quite okay, but one really feels a bit ashamed for watching this. Just too juvenile.

  11. J.Ayers

    I think Jennifer and Beej hold completely valid points in regards to their ideals. If it is the excessive stereotypes that bothered them, then so be it. I, however, am one of those jerks that say "I don't enforce stereotypes, I just see them." Yeah, that tends to be one of those excuses people make to get away with prejudice jokes. Regardless, I won't lie about who I am, and I found tons of that stuff hilarious.

    However, the point I want to make, isn't that all of that stuff is bad (or good), but that I find it interesting that it was those characteristics in the movie that stuck with you. When my wife and I came out of the theater, she had tears in her eyes and I had a huge sense of loyalty and pride. She took away things like, even in a dangerous sci-fi oriented world, it can be hard just to say "I love you." While what I saw was Sam learning what it is like to truly hope and believe in something, and how awesome it was to see my childhood hero, Optimus, to NEVER back down, and be willing to pull the trigger when needed. Life lessons that I actually got from him in the cartoon when I was 5 years old.

    Kudos Jennifer on a well written review. For those who are like minded on your end of the spectrum, this is a very good read.

    And then from us Transformer geeks, hush up, it was a great movie! 😉

    Just kidding…

    No seriously, hush up, it was a good movie. Ha!

  12. J.Ayers

    Oh, and in regards to We Fly Spitfires:

    Soundwave was voiced by Frank Welker, a voice acting god! One of the main reasons I loved this movie so much. The voice he used is different than the one he used for the original Soundwave in the cartoon, but it is still one of his staple voices. Welker was actually the original Megatron in the cartoon.

    Currently he does Fred and Scooby for Scooby Doo 🙂

    Along with Peter Cullen as Optimus, and Hugo Weaving as Megatron, this was a voice acting nerd's (as in me) dream movie.

  13. Tesh

    The "it's just a fun movie" washes no better in my home than "it's just a game" as an excuse for poor quality and offensive content. Garbage in, garbage out.

  14. Beej

    You will absolutely love the post I am working on right now, then, Tesh. It deals with that on a much deeper scale.

  15. Tesh

    Mmm… looking forward to it. I'm obviously biased since I work in games and I'd like to think I'm doing something useful with my life, but I really do think that there's a lot more to them than mindless escapism, and that they have very real effects on people.

    All too often, for the worse.

    And as a cog in the machine, I really wish that the industry itself would be far more than it is. It's just no fun working in a gutter.

Trackbacks

  1. […] recommend to everyone. It’s not quite as good as Star Trek for summer movie fare, but it blows Transformers 2 out of the water. Like what you just read? Why not get free email updates and never miss a […]

  2. […] Jenn pretty much sums up all of my feelings on Transformers 2 in her review, but let me go through my reasoning behind why the elements she discusses are detrimental and have no place in a movie that is just “mindless, silly fun.” While there are many stereotypes in the movie: men are scared of commitment, women’s utility is directly proportionate to how attractive it makes them, college professors are pompous windbags only out to sleep with barely legal co-eds, the one I’ll use as an example here are the two jive-talking robots (complete with gold teeth and articulated illiteracy!) in the movie passed off as comic relief. […]