Near the beginning of Transformers: The Last Knight, Viviane Wembly (Laura Haddock) dismisses the fantasies of her young female students: brawny, beautiful, men fighting for freedom and righteousness are a myth, created so as to give us hope in ourselves, hope in something greater than the mundane. It’s stupid to give ourselves examples of heroes, because the world simply doesn’t work like that.
Except, sometimes it does. Sometimes it does humanity good to have heroes, to have an inspirational rallying point for our hopes, ideas, and goals. In the end, that’s all the Transformers series is, wants to be, or needs to be: a silly story about good and evil, which untimely rests on its excesses to make a point about its simple truth: good can beat evil, and there’s an inherent good to watching that happen, to emotionally participating in that moral victory.
There has arguably never before been a Hollywood film series as consistent as the Transformers saga. From Bond to Indiana Jones, Star Wars to Harry Potter, never before has one series of films so singularly reflected a cohesive and consistent vision. This alone is no mean feat, and it is due in significant part to the genius of the narrative’s auteur, Michael Bay (I’m not alone in calling him a genius, either: http://www.slashfilm.com/anthony-hopkins-calls-michael-bay-genius/.)
Consistency isn’t necessarily a mark of talent (though it can be), but it does allow us to holistically evaluate the merits of the series without falling into the danger of over-generalizing. And as a whole, the series offers consistently excellent cinematography, engaging mis-en-scene, strong performances (we’ll get to that!), and genius (I said it again!) directing.
These movies look incredible. My number-one complaint with most Hollywood cinematography involves the depth of the compositions – they’re so flat! Not in these films. Each frame operates on multiple levels, both as an aesthetically pleasing image and as an efficient way to convey narrative information. Moreover, the cinematography never falls into the trap of bland mono-chromatic monotony. The films burst with bright, highly saturated colors, with camera movement and light flares operating in conjunction with each other to convey a sense of realism through color. The films are stylized, but not alienating; the color serves to bring the audience into the story. Not to mention, Bay does an incredible job of using composition to convey a character’s emotional status. Even when there are technical errors (the 4th film’s grain structure is all kinds of wack), the beauty and momentum of the images, the passion in each frame, carry the narrative effortlessly.
Directing is honestly just a sum of all elements involved, but I wanted to specifically point out the merits of how Bay handles action in these films. He’s the best in the business. On one level, he often juggles 5-6 story threads happening at the same time, effortlessly establishing time, location, and consequences. In his action sequences, we cut from scenes of battling robots, to the protagonist chasing some goal, to the love interest doing something (usually something empowering and active, by the way), to soldiers doing something, to bad guys scheming, to military folks at a command base, then back to the robots. Through it all, the chaos and the destruction, each plot point is established, the geography of the locations is clear, incredible and inventive action is displayed, and it only ever feels overwhelming in the best sense of the word.
The Transformers films never fall victim to the insidious disease of “if we shake the camera enough, blocking and special continuity won’t matter.” There’s a clear trajectory to each action beat, the cameras are kinetic but never sloppy, and even though the line is crossed all the time (the 180 rule), Bay is able to explore scenes from every perspective without disorienting the audience. That takes an immense amount of talent and care.
I don’t want to bad-mouth any film in particular, but I’ll say this: while recently watching a very successful big-budget blockbuster, I was shocked and appalled at the acting, particularly in relation to the VFX and SFX. Looks of mild fear during “life or death scenarios,” or just half-assed scenes of “running for your life.” It couldn’t have been clearer that the actors were merely “running” in a comfortable room between naps in their trailers.
That can never be said of the Transformers films. Those actors are sweaty, they’re dirty, they’re bloody, and they’re participating. They’re living it. Michael Bay may be a tyrant and a workaholic, but he gets performances.
Even more importantly, the performances in his films are mostly unexpected. Why pay an actor to interpret a role that anyone can do? So many big-budget films play it safe. The characters may be well-written, but the actors never take any risks. They’ll starve themselves, or take on a daring role, but the choices within that context are so bland … crying, not crying, yelling, whispering. Yawn. Not in a Michael Bay movie. Juvenile? Sure. Silly? Yep. Boring? Never.
Before we get into most people’s biggest complaint (story!), I wanted to point out that the production design consistently conveys futuristic authenticity, the coordination between wardrobe, camera, and production design melds seamlessly, and these films have some of the best sound design ever recorded.
Script and Story:
No, the scripts for the Transformers films aren’t Shakespeare. But neither are the scripts for masterpieces like “The Tree of Life,” “The Master,” or even “Tokyo Story” or “The Leopard.” Likewise, I can’t imagine that reading the script for “Ail: Fear Eats the Soul” or even “JAWS” would be that much fun. But the atmosphere of those films brings an almost transcendental evolution, raising the mundane to the profound. Analogously, the trite narratives featured in Transformers, good vs. evil, basic hero’s journey stuff, provides nothing more than a framework for the true intent of the film: thrill, passion, hope. In a narcissistic and cynical world, Transformers offers audiences a silly plot: one in which we can easily thrust ourselves, easily lose ourselves, and live in a world of thrills, in a world of danger and bravery. We spend our lives in the safe haven of the first world, and Transformers offers audiences an opportunity to feel the passion of adventure. If the cost of that is a bland screenplay, consider me sold.
We’ve been so conditioned by film critics to “know” what a “great” film is: what it looks like, what it feels like, how it handles itself. But I’ve noticed that criticism of the Transformers films tends to build on itself; in the theater, everyone is a fan. Laughing, gasping, holding their breath. It’s not until after the movie, in the cold light of reality, that people criticize the films. Maybe that’s because the films don’t stand up to scrutiny, but maybe that’s just an effect of group think, or a let-down from such an adrenaline-fueled experience in the theater.
At the end of the day, these gloriously messy films achieve greatness because they do exactly what all great cinema must do: they entertain, they enliven, they engage. Art aesthetically explores the human condition, and in order to do that, it must adhere to its prime directive: it must entertain. How can you instruct inattentive students? A film cannot engage a bored audience. So many films try for greatness without ever considering if they’re even good, while the Transformers films find greatness as a function of being good. Through technical excellence and narrative competence, these “popcorn” films offer a shot of life, a visceral experience of *experiencing*. Say what you want about them, but in a packed movie theater (and those showings are packed), every single person is held captive by the reality of the world they’re experiencing on screen. We might be divided politically, our nation may be belligerent with yours, but for the few precious hours that we have together in the cinema, we’re all fighting as one.