See It Instead: Transformers 4 – Age of Extinction
Sometimes a movie comes along and makes you aware of an itch you never knew you had. Perhaps a review piqued your interest, or you’d rather stay in and pay yourself $10 for a small popcorn and watch a movie on the cheap. Perhaps you’re valiantly struggling through your queue on Netflix or Amazon Prime, and need a wise, cultured voice to direct you to where the real movie viewing gold is hiding amidst the resurrected TV series and serial killer biopics. Well, look no further. See It Instead is here to take today’s new releases and guide you to what you should really be watching.
Transformers – Age of Extinction
My disgust with Michael Bay products is pretty well documented. His empty-headed explosion fantasies have less cinematic merit than the Jackass series of films. Perhaps hoping to distance themselves from the critics of the franchise, the latest iteration has dropped the 4 from it’s promotional material and touted the replacement of Shia LaBeouf with Mark Walberg as the featured human protagonist. I’m sure some will be fooled into thinking this is a reboot, or at least a step in a new direction for a series that has been painfully generic in its visuals and action. Don’t you believe it. Ten second into the trailer we see it’s the same old song and dance, with painfully bad acting (“Hey, I think this car is a transformer!” shouts Marky Mark in his worst southy accent) and the SAME DAMN ACTION sequences that Bay has used in every damn movie. Ridiculous car chase and WHAM the car totally flips through the air and transforms into a robot that does a sweet shoulder roll! Because we haven’t seen that 4 times now, and physics still doesn’t work in Bay’s mind. Oh no! The military doesn’t trust autobots and the human protagonist has to win their trust, when suddenly an outside menace makes them team up! That was the premise to all 3 of the other movies!
This movie is going to be the same train wreck of incoherent dialogue, glittery and flimsy CG twitching around so fast you can’t see where they cut corners animating it, and explosions. Lots of explosions. But hey, at least they added a giant robot dinosaur to this monstrosity…that breathes fire…you know what, Michael, we call those dragons. Not dinosaurs. Dear God. See these movies instead. Please.
The Serious Pick: The Transformers – The Movie (1986)
This is the Transformers movie I grew up with, and is the only one worth watching. As a culmination of the animated series, it does it’s job excellently: in the first 20 minutes, the two warring factions of Autobots and Decepticons have a bloody and decisive final confrontation, complete with the death of several iconic characters (who are gunned down in cold blood by Megatron while begging for their lives) and the apparent mutual destruction of the two leaders. Megatron and Optimus Prime go eyebrows to knuckle in a savage battle that feels like it takes both hours and seconds to watch. They brutalize each other, and are both mortally wounded. With both sides leaderless, the war is temporarily over…just in time for a galactic evil named Unicron (voiced by Orson Welles) to attempt to eat the robot home-world of Cybertron.
In order to clean house (and sell more toys) the studio was told to get rid of most of the original robots and introduce new characters that would then carry on the Transformer’s series. I must say, they did so with gleeful relish, as most of the characters die gruesome (and mostly heroic) deaths. Even that punk bitch Starscream gets his due reward. The sending off of beloved robots is less a tearful goodbye, and more a manly Viking funeral, complete with fire. Add to all this a terrific cast of voice actors, some hold-overs from the serial cartoons, and some brand new (such as Orson Welles, Eric Idle, and Leonard Nimoy as the new Decepticon leader, Galvatron); a tight and exciting plot that races around the galaxy, giving the Transformer universe some much deserved depth; and a fun soundtrack that features Weird Al Yankovich and Stan Bush’s iconic “You’ve Got the Touch”, and you have a complete package, well worth seeing instead.
The lighthearted pick: Short Circuit (1986)
1986 was apparently a good year for robots. This comedy features a military kill-bot named #5 who wanders off the base after being struck by lightning. The errant bolt grants #5 some limited sentience, and he goes on a journey of self discovery, that only minimally involves lasers and explosions. He is befriended by Ally Sheedy’s character, who mistakes #5 for an alien, because apparently she had never seen a Nintendo, and therefore did not know what a robot would look like. She gives #5 a tour of the good old US of A, helping him to absorb knowledge (and the requisite pop-culture to allow him to make timely in-jokes) and further sculpt his nascent sentience. Just as Sheedy realizes #5 is property of the US military, said military arrives, fresh with new kill-bots, to reclaim (or destroy) their way-ward death machine. The soulless bots are no match for a wise-cracking #5, who proves that well timed one-liners is all it takes to overcome overwhelming odds. Hell, Arnold could have told you that.
The visual and technological aspects of #5 elevate this pleasantly childish romp above merely “Pinocchio with a laser pistol.” The visual designer who helped create Tron and Blade Runner also gave his visionary talent to constructing as realistic a robot as 1980’s technology could allow. As a puppet, #5 is seamlessly articulated and great fun to watch. His interactions with Sheedy and Steve Guttenberg’s head scientist character are a genuine pleasure, but it is his interactions with the foreign lead tech, played by Fisher Stevens, which adds the added dimension of cultural insight. As two “aliens” to American culture, the two constantly play off of expected stereotypes, and are a great team, and this probably was the decisive factor behind why the two appear together in the sequel, Short Circuit 2.
The Unconventional Pick: *Batteries Not Included (1987)
I was hoping that this movie also came from 1986, but alas, it was bumped to 1987. Still, the late 80’s had a hell of a run when it came to robots from another planet. Whereas Short Circuit is very much in line with Pinocchio, plot wise, this family-friendly tale is a fairly dutiful remake of The Elves and the Shoemaker. Two elderly tenants, Faye and Frank, of a slum building in the East Village barely make ends meet running a small Cafe. As the two have gotten on in years, the building has slowly succumbed to age as well, and very little works, despite the desperate tinkering of Harry, the reclusive handy-man the pair let live in the basement. Enter the Fix-its, extra-terrestrial robots who have apparently crash landed on Earth, and have stowed away in the apartment building. The pair of diminutive repair-bots repay their landlords by fixing anything mechanical, which grants a golden age of prosperity to Faye and Frank. The problem is, the local property developer was hoping that the two would fail, so their property could be bought and redeveloped. To this end, the developer hires thugs to harass the two, and eventually, to attack and demolish the building. Helped by the Fix-its, the tenants regain their dignity, and fight back.
Batteries Not Included functions well as both a morality tale and a slice of life look at inner city microcosms, similar to Robert Townsend’s Meteor Man. Jessica Tandy and Hugh Cronyn are the elderly couple, and bring much warmth and humanity to story, and also shed light on the angst of aging, losing one’s ability to be self-sufficient, and the pitfalls of even a happy marriage. Few movies these days, even last years Oscar contender Nebraska, are willing to dwell on the day-to-day life of the elderly as anything but a punchline, and it is a shame that we haven’t seen anything treat the issue with the respect and attention it deserves since Tandy passed away.