[A version of this review appeared in Science Fiction Film and Television 1.1 (2008), 163-167. Which seems a very long time ago.]
It all began with Barbie dolls and Gene Rodenberry. In 1964, noting the success of the former (launched by Mattel in 1959), Hasbro designed the G.I. Joe dolls for boys, inspired by characters from the Rodenberry-produced series The Lieutenant (1963-64). In Japan, Takara’s success with Combat Joe, licensed from Hasbro, led them to develop another line of dolls, launched in 1972, called Henshin Cyborg, with visible internal atomic power units and cybernetic systems. A spin-off line called Microman, smaller and less expensive to produce, featured robots who ‘disguised themselves as toys’ (they were released in the US as Micronauts). Their component parts were interchangeable, and some of them could be shapeshifted into vehicles. In 1984, Hasbro bought the rights to the latter variety, combined them with another line of Japanese toys (Takara’s Diaclone, which featured human-piloted robots and vehicles, including Car-Robots), and brought in Marvel Comics to help produce a narrative universe for their new line: The Transformers. There followed toys, comics, a television cartoon series (1984-87), an animated movie (1986), more toys, more comics, more cartoon series (the Canadian and Japanese Beast Wars spin-offs (1996-99 and 1998-99, respectively), the Japanese Robots in Disguise (2001)), some novels and video games, some cross-overs with the American G.I. Joe and British Action Force comics, three seasons of Japanese/American co-produced cartoons (2002-06), more toys, more comics…
Alternatively, it all begins on the planet Cybertron, devastated by a war between two kinds of giant, metamorphic robot: the Decepticons, who are evil because they look that way, and the Autobots, who are not evil because they do not (and when they get to Earth, they transform into down-home, good ol’ boy muscle cars, semis and monster trucks). The Decepticons are led, by the genocidal Megatron, the Autobots by the pompous Optimus Prime. During the war, something called the Allspark (or The Cube) was lost. Its exact nature and purpose are unclear, but both the Decepticons and Autobots have been searching the galaxy for it, so it must be really really important. It is, of course, on Earth.
Back in the 1930s, The Cube (you can hear the capital letters when people say it) was discovered on the border between Arizona and Nevada, prompting President Hoover to order the construction of a giant dam on the Colorado river in which to conceal it. Three decades earlier, in either 1897 or 1895 (the film gives both dates), polar explorer Captain Archibald Witwicky (William Morgan Sheppard) accidentally discovered Megatron, frozen beneath the arctic ice. It is unclear what happened in the interim, but once Hoover Dam was under construction, the US government (somehow) transported the giant robot there, where it has been kept in ‘cryo-stasis’ (somehow) and mined (somehow) for a range of reverse-engineered technologies. But most of the backstory comes later. Once the introductory narration about the Transformer war and The Cube is over, the film starts in Qatar (which mysteriously has mountains), with an attack on a US military base by a Decepticon intent on infiltrating US Defence systems. Only a handful of soldiers, who seem to be in both the airforce and the army, escape. The film also starts in Nevada (if we pay attention to geography) or in California (if we pay attention to licence plates), with Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouff), the explorer’s hapless great, great grandson (or great grandson – the film keeps losing count), who is desperate to get a car so he can get a girl, specifically Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox). He ends up buying a battered yellow-and-black Camaro, specifically Autobot-in-disguise Bumblebee, who has in fact sought him out. These lines converge at the Hoover Dam. The audience is fastidiously introduced to all of the Decepticons – unlike many of the human characters, they all have names – and then the humans lure them to a busy intersection in Mission City (which seems to be both 20 miles away and in California, with parts of a Los Angeles skyline and at least one building from Detroit) for a final showdown with the Autobots.
Director Michael Bay brings to the film precisely what one would expect: images which seem to take place behind a brittle veneer; sometimes shockingly poor taste in music and broad comedy; the inability to imagine women (or, actually, people); the homoeroticism; the barely concealed homosexual panic; the jingoism; the cynical patriotism; the racist stereotypes; the world that consists almost entirely of the US; the version of Manifest Destiny which allows for occasional distrust of big government and secret agencies; the passion for really cool pieces of kit, especially guns and other military equipment; the bloated running time; the box-office success. As one imdb user commented, although probably not in the way I read it, ‘To me this film is the imagination of a little kid put to screen’.
Such features of Bay’s films require little explication – for the most part, they are not even subtextual (at last, a WMD in a Middle Eastern desert!). Rather, as my nitpicking suggests, I am interested in considering here a rather different aspect of the film: its use of digital technologies (digital editing, image manipulation and CGI effects), for which Bay’s Transformers themselves provide a compelling metaphor.
The film’s teaser trailer, released in Summer 2007, depicts the Beagle 2 mission to Mars. After the probe lands (‘we were told it crashed’, a caption tells us), its rover rolls out onto the surface, broadcasting the view from its camera eyes (‘its final transmission was classified top secret’). A shadow falls where no shadow should be; a giant robot, silhouetted against the sky, slams down its fist; static (‘it was the only warning we would ever get’). As a hook narrative, it was very effective, building suspense and ending with a flash of revelation which functioned simultaneously as a refusal of revelation (the shot of the silhouetted Decepticon is almost too quick even to register).
The film, of course, cannot be so coy. It has nothing to reveal. Vehicles transforming into giant robots and slugging it out with other giant robots are, as narrative and spectacle, its sole raison d’être. But somehow it gets it badly wrong. Part of the brilliance of Neill Blomkamp’s 2004 advert for the Citroën C4, in which a car transformed into a robot and danced to the music playing on its stereo (it and its successors can be found on youtube), was that the transformation happens at a pace and on a scale that the viewer can follow: you can see where the tyres or the end up in the design of the final robot. In contrast, Michael Bay’s Transformers change impossibly quickly, going through multiple intervening iterations and shifts in mass at the blink of an eye, retaining in their final form only stylised fragments of mechanism.
If this merely represented a loss of the clunky charm of the toys and the comic and cartoon characters, it would not necessarily be a bad thing. However, during the climactic battle between Decepticons and Autobots, it is often impossible to tell which robot is which. Because it has nothing to reveal, the film obscures its visual spectacle – it all happens too quickly, in disconnected fragments – so that it can occasionally puncture this digital blur with some rather more effective shots of the robots in graceful slow-motion. It is a programmer’s aesthetic, performing impenetrable feats before slowing everything down to the comprehensible, the workstation’s-eye view. It revels in the detail of the individual frame, as played back, rewatched and marvelled over during its production.
But, of course, this is deceptive. Watched on frame-advance, the actual still images are filled with motion-blur so as to avoid the stop-start effect of traditional frame-by-frame stop-motion animation; and in the transformation scenes, the recognisable bits of the vehicles mostly do just disappear from view.
Perhaps it was inevitable that a digital-era Transformers movie, with a production budget of US$150 million, would go this way: the Transformers themselves, like digital technologies, offer a powerful fantasy of mutability. This is evident not just in the computer-generated imagery, but also in the manipulation of digital images (removing safety wires in action sequences, and so on) and in digital editing (because every cut is reversible, none of them carry weight). In this sense, what the Transformers actually reveal is the extent to which digital filmmaking on this scale has produced a regime in which signification is more important than coherence: the primary function of a city intersection, or foreign land, is to look like an intersection or a foreign land, and only the money-shot characters need to have names. It is more interested in parts than in wholes, and fantasises complete control over outcomes. Which, it turns out, is not unlike the imperialist project for which Bay’s films cheerlead.