Transformers (fight 3 of 3)

In which Michael Bay gives us the titanic struggle between hero and the villain. After he’s done showing us a Mountain Dew machine come to life, of course.

3) Optimus Prime vs Megatron

The Fighters:

  • Optimus Prime, still the heroic leader of the Autobots and still voiced by Peter Cullen.
    • Armed with: Oddly, Prime’s awesome energy sword is nowhere to be found in this desperate struggle, very odd considering how it was used in his previous fight and how much action it sees in the sequels. He does produce a gun from somewhere in his fuselage, though. Alternate form is still a big truck.
  • Megatron, tyrannical leader of the Decepticons. Freshly awoken from suspended animation at the Hoover Dam (!). Voiced by an almost unrecognizable Hugo Weaving, better known as Agent Smith from the Matrix series.
    • Armed with: a powerful fusion cannon, which like Optimus he just sort of generates out of his own body. His alternate form is some kind of Cybertronian jet. In the cartoon he just turned into a big gun. Oh well.

There’s also Sam Witwicky, a smart-aleck teenager who’s holding the Allspark, played by Shia LeBeouf. Various other good & bad Transformers are battling it out in the background, along with the US military. And a bunch of civilians whose day is getting ruined.

The Setup: The pursuit of the Allspark has come to a head in downtown Mission City, a fictional burg of at least moderate size located somewhere in the American Southwest. The bad guys are there to destroy their remaining opposition, but they’re also trying to retrieve the MacGuffin from Sam’s puny flesh hands. The heroes are fighting outnumbered against the Decepticons, and things get worse when big daddy Megatron arrives. Optimus Prime pulls up in truck form not long after (but unfortunately too late to stop his nemesis from killing Black Robot Jazz), and Bay’s camera gives the virtuous Autobot a full tongue-bath, drawing out the transformation for an oddly long time and panning around him as triumphant music swells. Cheesy, but it works.

Similarly, I genuinely cherish the cliched moment when hero & villain lock eyes, and call out each other’s names: “Megatron.” “Prime!” With just one word each, the actors’ different deliveries manage to say a lot about their respective characters: Optimus’ voice is full of anger & grim determination, Megatron greets his old rival with a tone of sadistic relish. Let’s do this thing.

The Fight: Megatron opens with a bold move by turning back into his jet form (the inverse of what Barricade did) and charging forward; Prime grabs on from underneath and they crash through a building that is quite deliberately shown to be full of people. Sucks to be them. Once back on the ground the villain returns to robot form and they bash each other around while trading dialogue. Some of the lines don’t really make any sense*, but some work quite well, such as the villain punctuating a blow with “Join them in extinction!” (“Them” being humanity.)

[*Megatron: “Humans don’t deserve to live!” Optimus: “They deserve to choose for themselves!” Uh, what? We deserve to choose whether or not we live? Seems like that choice is a no-brainer. Are these two having separate discussions or is this whole exchange some kind of fumbled abortion metaphor? Because like Shia LeBeouf’s boxers, that’s not something anyone came to this movie for.]

Soon enough they both pull out their guns and start trading shots. Cybertronian guns are kind of weird and inconsistent in this film series: sometimes they are about as damaging/lethal as real guns are against real people (tearing holes through them and such), but other times they seem to just chip a few hit points off the target and push them backward. Anyway, this seems to be the latter case, because Prime’s gun only irritates Megatron whereas the bad guy’s fusion blast sends Optimus flying through the air to hit a building. He grunts and doesn’t get up; one Wiki summary says he’s knocked unconscious, but it’s kind of hard to tell with robots.

Either way he’s out of the action for the next several minutes, which are largely filled by Megatron chasing down Sam. Prime manages to rescue the boy just in time, but in a way that sends all three of them falling several hundred feet. The fight nominally resumes when the two aliens recover, but at this point it’s pretty much over, because Optimus is much weakened and mostly gets tossed around by Megatron. There’s some more decent dialogue: “Now it’s just you and me.” “No, Prime, it’s just ME!”

Eventually the hero can no longer move, and it’s up to the Air Force to carpet bomb Megatron, though that only slows him down enough so that Sam can kill the Decepticon by holding the Allspark right up the his chest plate. See, the device’s energy can bring normally inanimate machines to life, but when held close to a living Transformer’s heart, it kills them. Sure, why not.

This is not as infuriating as the movie’s first pathetic excuse for a “fight,” but it’s still very disappointing. The showdown basically happens in two different stages, the break being after Prime is flung away by Megatron’s cannon. The first part is cool but ends just as it starts to pick up steam; the second part barely registers and mostly consists of the film’s great “hero” getting his butt kicked, to the point where it’s up to humans to save the day. (This is extra strange considering how the film’s previous fight went out of its way to sell Optimus’ supreme combat abilities, as do the movie’s sequels.)

This is more evidence that in Michael Bay’s Transformers series (or at least in this movie), Optimus Prime is actually not the hero, Sam Witwicky is. Sam and the US military. The Transformers are pushed to the sideline in a franchise with their name on it. So from that angle it’s understandable that the fleshy, non-transforming characters get to steal so much of the spotlight, but I ask yet again: Did you come to a Transformers movie to see a story about a bunch of humans?

To be sure, there is a lot that’s competent and effective about this whole sequence, even if much of it trades on the characters’ established legacy. But what ought to be the centerpiece of the action here trails off quickly, and finishes unsatisfactorily. If this was Iron Man and it was their one minor stumble after a parade of successes, I’d be more charitable, but it isn’t so I’m not. I sat through over two hours of unfunny jokes and lame “romance” just to get here. I watched Optimus Prime step on a suburban mom’s flower bed and say “my bad.” I do not feel generous.

Grade: C-

Recommended Links: It’s kind of astonishing just how many errors this movie made.

Interesting AV Club essay about the works of Michael Bay.

The movie I’m counting on to succeed where Transformers failed.

Coming Attractions: Turns out a “serious” filmmaker can make a better action movie than the action filmmaker, if he puts his mind to it.

Don’t look THAT surprised.

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