Payoff is everything.
It’s been a couple of years since I went to see Transformers for a friend’s birthday and walked out of the theater angry. Angry at the flick, and for awhile, angry at myself for caring. After all, I have no great nostalgia for the franchise (I save that for Bravestarr and Bionic Six, which were, and remain, fantastic). It’s simply something I enjoyed when I was five and barely remember. It was a long while before I realized I was okay to be angry, because I wasn’t let down as a fan, but as a simple audience member. That’s when I realized something about storytelling.
The film got off on level ground with me. All I needed was giant robots fighting in the desert, right? Perfect fodder for Michael Bay. As long as there are explosions, and giant robots pounding each other, two things not beyond his ken, everything’s fine.
First came the teaser.
Then the robots are revealed. Ugly redesigns, but whatever. Again, no skin off my childhood. I go to see the film. Sure enough, here comes the creeping menace over the ensemble cast of humans waking up to the threat in their midst. Are there hotshot soldiers? Oh yeah, there are, and whole squadrons getting deleted with lazy sound and fury, and sexy Australian computer programmers, exactly the type the U.S. government trusts with it’s majestic-level security clearance. There’s a creepy scene with an unidentified aircraft trashing an entire U.S. military base for reasons I can’t remember if they exist, and a scary battle with a giant robot scorpion you have to respect.
So far, it’s about as much as you can hope for from a Transformers film by Michael Bay. Nothing wrong with any of this in an action tale, even if I’m watching a note-for-note cover of Independence Day. But when do the Autobots show up? When? I do not care about the plight of the guy from Doom, I care about giant robots beating each other up.
But then you know what? It gets kind of cool where it ought to drag. We get a boy and his car story that turns out to be surprisingly endearing. I’m enjoying it more than I’d expected (and I had expected to enjoy it). It was emotionally investing. After the intimidating cop car chase and the bonding the kid and his car have, not to mention a little progress with the lead dame, I’m into this. This is good, this is cool. But when are the Autobots going to arrive? When?
And then this happens:
Oh well, dig that stirring, heroic theme laid over a difficult maneuver like dropping out of orbit, I’m sure they’ll make it up when they save the world and act like the heroes…they…are?
Go ahead, watch it again. They’re not one introduction in before Ratchet calls out Shia for wanting to bed Megan Fox. And when a robot says something, it’s twice as true because of Science!™ And while that’s nothing for young Sam Witwicky to be ashamed of, he does have to suffer through a “Well, that one’s never going to happen” face from her.
What an unbelievable cockblocker.
See, that’s a big problem. The Autobots have pretty broad personalities: aloof surgeon, weapons-crazed loner…this isn’t a character-driven film. But Jazz’s personality is some millionaire Hollywood dipstick’s command that there shall be one black, cool cat. Not one cool cat played by an African-American (his name is Jazz, after all), but black first and foremost. If this were a Vietnam film, we’ve just been introduced to the medic, the munitions expert, and The Black Guy (Who Dies).
Jazz is a break-dancing, slang-slinging jackass who doesn’t get one line out before he calls the guy they’re asking for help “little bitches.” That’s what sassy black robots do in Michael Bay’s world — or at least some marketer’s idea of what black identity can be effectively, efficiently marketed to kids. He’s hip! (he dances) He’s edgy! (he swears!) he’s about to get murdered as quickly and pointlessly as possible. Megatron couldn’t even spare a contempt-laden slap or a dramatic pause. Because if you pause in Michael Bay’s world, DAMMIT, HUGO, YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG AND WHERE IS THE EXPLOSION WHEN THE ROBOT RIPS IN TWO, you get the idea.
I thought we’d gotten past the token black guy dying in science fiction films, but not really. Not till he can die again. See, at that point, he’d be dying simply because he was a character, not because he was the black character. And when you make the whole of Jazz’s personality Black, it doesn’t matter if he only died because there are only five Autobots and the leader, sidekick and medic need to live. You still killed the Black Character rather than a character who is black.
And make no mistake, Jazz is The Black Robot in this movie. If they rebuild him, he’ll probably have a gold grill and a clock in the middle of his chest, because, hey, it was on YO! MTV RAPS back in 1992.
The character in the cartoon was originally voiced by Scatman Crothers, a man of many talents, foremost being rather cool. He was also something of a jazz man, so there’s that. All in all, a good fit.
But I’m pretty sure all of his cool came from being everything that he was — charming actor, smooth musician, swell guy — and not from the amount of melanin in his skin. And while his African-American heritage was undoubtedly a part of his identity and his formulation as a real person, he did not spring delightfully black from Ahura Mazda’s forehead for the delight of white people. In fact, he had to slog through that crap (most notably as the magical, murdered cook Dick Hallorann in The Shining). But by the time he was working on Transformers, his role was to be a likable character for which his talents were a good fit. More was given to the character and the actor, and more was expected.
Movie Jazz is voiced by Eddie from Family Matters, another cast of characters supposedly working together who do aught but tear one another down to make themselves feel better. But fark, at least give that lame show this credit: the characters were broadly written social stock types rather than broadly written racial ones. Do you think a nerd like Steve Urkel could exist even as the comic relief in the world Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer hath wrought?
But I’m sidetracking; the racial caricature is an incredibly awkward moment and hopefully we’re all better than that crap, part of the larger distaste for the scene. If Jazz is an embarrassment, he is one unto himself. For ultimate humiliation, you can’t top Ironhide pointing a cannon in Sam’s face and asking, “Are you feeling lucky, punk?” which is what Dirty Harry Callahan said to the Scorpio killer moments before blasting him into film legend with a .357 Magnum. That was so awesome thirty-five years ago.
This homage is for the kids.
…wait a minute. Emasculation, cockblocking, obscene characterization of black people, pointing guns in the face of a young man who only wanted to take out a pretty girl…Everything makes sense now! this isn’t Transformers, it’s Bad Boys 3.
In that scene, two cops bully a timid 15-year-old before sticking a gun in his face. They played for that comedy in the land of blood-weeping hemorrhoids where Michael Bay is from. I knew that, but didn’t really expect the same kind of cynicism in the scene pandering to kids when alien robot buddies come to sweep away ultimate evil. Dammit, I waited an hour for these guys to show up and when they finally do, they’re a bunch of bullies and surreal minstrels.
I’m fine with jerk characters. My favorite character in comics is Guy Gardner, an utter blowhard who would disagree with me on any number of matters if we met in real life. Why? Because he’s a blowhard with style and fundamentally, a someone you can count on in the clutch.
How can you not be charmed by that smirk?
Plus, dig those covers.
And dammit, man, what’s the point of an epic budget and six screenwriters, if you’re not even going to pay off your own story? We spent an hour feeling legitimately threatened by these silent killers blowing up our best and brightest, pursuing our nation’s youth (who weren’t even necking at Inspiration Point), and presumably getting poor mileage during a fuel crisis — in short: building a credible threat, and wondering, “When will the heroes show up?”
And the most maddening part of the movie is when those jackasses finally do. They’re bumbling idiots when they’re not outright hostile.
There will also be gunplay involving carrots.
The Autobots have a job to do and they spend another half-hour creeping around the suburbs trying not to get caught. Just stay in car form. Seriously just try it. Stop being adorable for ten seconds and act like soldiers. Then one of them pees on a weiner bureaucrat, which is audacious when Joe Six Pack does it, but coming from a 20-foot-tall, invulnerable robot, is a little like me pulling pranks on a cockroach. I was informed these robots would be ass-kicking, and the biggest threat to them for the length of a normal film is being spotted by some embarrassing parents.
Every piece of information you give to the audience, they’re going to use. If your premise put forward to me the viewer is that things look bad now, but it’s all going to be okay when the autobots arrive, do not spend two whole minutes convincing me what a great idea it would be to rochambeau three out of four of them.
It’s uncanny to me they made Bumblebee so endearing, and then wrote the rest of them hideously annoying. It’s like we started out closer to Pixar’s actual effort and ended up in cynical Dreamworks territory: “Look, America! Dance dance, catch phrase, fart; buy our merchandise, you fat McDisappointments.”
I’m sorry, but you don’t spit on the American flag, you don’t put chocolate on fish, and you don’t make Optimus Prime cluelessly slapstick. Because the Autobots aren’t really in a rush to find the macguffin, and once they do, they should have shoved that lousy all-spark into Megatron’s chest immediately, giving both parties what they wanted. That thing needed to be destroyed anyway; it turned our nation’s beloved vending machines into homicidal maniacs, and even worse, marketing agents.
All I wanted was giant robots beating each other up, and all I got was a bunch of breakdancing, roller-blading junk piles who couldn’t keep straight exactly how/whether they should use/destroy the contested object. Honestly, you have to work harder to screw that up than you do to get it right.
And I’m pretty sure it ended with Sam boning Megan Fox on his friend’s chest. While the other robots watched.
Look, it’s a kid’s flick. I get that. And kids and stupid adults are going to be impressed by smooth catch-phrases. But not all kids. And I’m pretty sure if your introductory scene involves sexual innuendo, swearing and decapitation by plasma cannon, you’re at least mindful of the adults in the room. You tried to have both parties, and you didn’t get either; all you needed to do was write one good, clear, simple core scene, and it’d have impressed both kids and adults. Instead of writing to what’s shared: the wonder of the heroes’ arrival, you glued wacky posturing for kids to brutal posturing for adults. And that recipe doesn’t work.
Payoff. Payoff, payoff, payoff. Pay off your premises or go home.