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.