Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Transformers

I have a tattoo of the Decepticon logo on my arm. I've had it there for about ten years. I got excited when I heard they were making a movie, even though I knew it would be a mixed blessing.



Michael Bay's made some really bad movies. He's also had a couple hits: Bad Boys, Bad Boys 2, and The Rock. The way the movie industry works, this means lots of people are still willing to gamble on him.



The funny thing about Michael Bay is that people will probably start to use him as anectodal evidence that Hollywood underestimates the importance of screenwriting. The Rock in particular already shows up in screenwriting books as an example of how to write a great screenplay. I've watched one sequence in The Rock at least ten times - the half-hour stretch from Sean Connery's initial onscreen appearance, to his escape in San Francisco, to his eventual recapture. It's one of the best examples you'll ever find of character and action being perfectly intertwined, so much so as to become almost indistinguishable. It's so good that instead of watching the rest of the movie, when it's over, I just rewind and watch that particular sequence again.



But the big irony of The Rock is that its fundamentally anti-governmental, anti-militaristic story, peopled with characters brutally wronged by evil men in positions of undeserved authority, plays out against the backdrop of flag-waving jingoism that boggles the mind with its sheer baldness. There's a contrast there, a stark contrast between the imagery and the script, between the theme and the visual backdrop, and when you count all the American flags, military vehicles, heroic soldiers, and respectable Presidents in Michael Bay's other movies, it's pretty easy to guess where that contrast comes from. You kind of even have to wonder why he bothers making movies at all. He seems like he'd be much happier working for the Pentagon.



This obsession dominates the new Transformers movie, so much so that an Australian signal-processing expert who works for the Pentagon, looks like a supermodel, and dresses like a horny teenager gets more screen time than Optimus Prime. The actress who actually plays a horny teenager gets more screen time than all the Transformers combined. She even gets a scene which is supposed to play like an old-school nudge-nudge-wink-wink 60s sex comedy, but instead just comes off as pornographic.

I can't blame Michael Bay for being into hot chicks, but that's one of the perks of being a director: if you have any game at all, you can fuck the hot chicks who work for you, and then when it's time to make the fucking movie, you can get over it and make the fucking movie.



It's like, yeah, she's sexy, sexy is good, but we paid to see giant robots, for fuck's sake. As sexy as she is, she is neither giant nor a robot. It's like you go to get a gourmet meal and they give you a Picasso. That's great, Picasso, who can complain, but it's not like you can snack on a painting. Staring at Megan Fox partially undressed is definitely entertaining, but it's not entertaining in the same way that seeing giant robots is entertaining, and we paid to see giant robots.

What's really silly about all this is that even when we do get to see giant robots, they aren't the giant robots we know and love. Even though there are still people doing amazing work with the original Transformers characters.



The Dreamwave comics are fucking gorgeous.



More importantly, they're clearly the work of people who loved the original series.



You have to wonder about that. For the movie, they threw away the designs of the original series, and even many of the most popular characters. Bumbleebee isn't even recognizable as Bumblebee. Optimus Prime might look different, but he's still basically the same guy. Bumblebee is just a different character who happens to have the same name and the same color paint. Why would they even do that? People aren't going to see Transformers because they loved Armageddon. They're going to see Transformers because they loved Transformers.

The standard answer is, "That's Hollywood," except the truth is, it's not Hollywood. I'm obviously kind of going to town on Michael Bay here, but it's not Michael Bay in my opinion. In fact the movie's got some straight-up evil government characters who the Autobots literally piss on, so if anything I'm being unfair to Michael Bay here.

For years, I've kept up to date on Transformers by lingering in toy aisles at Walgreens and googling Transformers on eBay. Pathetic? Probably. But here's what I learned: Hasbro has been doing this for years.



When Dreamwave released their Transformers limited series about five years ago, it blew up in terms of popularity. It was way more popular than anticipated, and Dreamwave quickly got a deal from Hasbro to do a real ongoing series. (Comics have limited series and regular series, kind of like a mini-series and actual show on TV.) But when they launched the ongoing series, they also launched a series using new characters with new designs as well, corresponding to the toys that were in stores at the time. It was so lame it would actually make you limp if you read it. Just looking at the covers could paralyze your leg.

I'm pretty sure they had to do that shit series as a condition of their deal with Hasbro to do the real series as well.

Meanwhile, over in Japan, where the Transformers are owned by Takara - the company that originally designed them - there's no shortage of toys celebrating the original designs.



Hasbro changes the designs every year because even after twenty years, they just can't admit how much they suck compared to Takara.

Everybody who knows what Creative Commons is, or has heard the Negativland U2 story, knows that corporate ownership of intellectual property limits the potential of culture at large. It's pretty obvious that this usually happens because a corporation wants to retain or exert some kind of power. The "insidious corporations" angle on that kind of thing is obvious, and if you pay any attention to copyright debates on the Web, the "insidious corporations" angle is so obvious and overplayed that it's almost a little tiresome. It's like, yeah, corporations, evil, yadda yadda yadda. We got it already.

The reality is that corporations can be evil, but in Hasbro's case at least, they're often just petty, insecure and disappointing. If there's any argument for overturning copyright law, it's that it's illegal to make a Transformers movie without Hasbro's approval, despite the fact that Hasbro itself doesn't respect the original characters and designs, or the passion that those original characters and designs evoke in the legions of nerds like me who have attached all kinds of personal significance to them. I mean think about it - my tattoo is probably illegal. My tattoo probably qualifies as trademark dilution. If Hasbro sued me to have it forcibly removed, under current US law, they'd probably win.



The Transformers shouldn't belong to people who resent their success because it makes them look inferior to the Japanese company they are in fact totally inferior to. The Transformers should belong to the people who love them. If they did, the new Transformers movie would be a much better movie.



It's still lots of fun, though, at least the first half. Go.

3 comments:

  1. Awesome post, and (obviously) I totally agree. :)

    My left shoulder and your arm are totally going to have to fight, though. I've had my tattoo for almost 7 years and I think yours is larger, but we can still scrap for geeky fandom supremacy!

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  2. The eyes don't look right on your tattoo.

    And I am not a fan of Bay but using the original characters would either severely limit their movements or look really fake. Still that is no reason to omit viking horns from Bumblebee.

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