Transformers2So, I was halfway through watching TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN in a theater in Toronto when my wife called me.  My father-in-law, who had been ill, was not doing well and she really wanted to leave for Los Angeles to see him.  RIGHT…NOW!

Sensing the urgency in her voice, I left the theater in the middle of the film.  This was last Wednesday.  I just got back last night.  The good news is the my father-in-law is doing much better.  The better news is that I didn’t have to watch the rest of TRANSFORMERS 2.

Okay…that’s a cheap shot and lazy writing.  As long-time readers of this space know, I’m a stickler for story logic.  I hate when things happen in scripts because the writer wants or needs them to happen, and not because the story has earned the right for that event to happen.   Even up to the halfway mark, TRANSFORMERS was so rife with unexplained events, illogical plot points, bad characters development, and by-the-numbers dialog that I had started squirming in my seat.  Before my wife called me I literally couldn’t wait for this movie to be over.  Characters were doing things and acting in ways completely inconsistent with what was happening around them, all for the sake of the joyride that this movie was supposed to be.  I felt like if the writers didn’t care what was on the screen, why should I?

It was on the plane to Los Angeles that I got to thinking about the movie in greater detail.  It dawned on me that TRANSFORMERS might be something more than just another bad movie.  The writers were the same guys who wrote the new STAR TREK, one of my favorite movies of the year.  What the…?   How could they have written both?

Were they really this bad and STAR TREK was one of their broken clocks (under the idea that even a broken clock is right twice a day)?  Maybe STAR TREK was polished (uncredited) by better uncredited polishers than TRANSFORMERS?  It’s possible.

I then looked at the talent behind the camera.  Michael Bay.  Steven Spielberg.  Don’t these guys know how to tell a story?  Of course they do.  I’m spitting distance from nobody.  Don’t they know at least as much as I do about structure, character, and story logic?

And then I started to think, what if the illogical action, the unmotivated character turns and reactions, even the awful and unfunny comic relief characters…what if they were the herald of a new sensibility in storytelling?  I’m not kidding.  What if TRANSFORMERS 2 is actually a NEW FORM OF STORYTELLING?

I remember watching MY BEST FRIEND’S WEDDING and marveling at how concise the setup was: Scene 1, Julia Roberts says that she has a deal with a friend to get married if they’re both single at the age of 30; Scene 2, Julia Roberts goes home and gets a phone call from said friend saying that he’s getting married and wants her to come to the wedding; Scene 3, she’s on the way to the airport to break up the wedding.  Back in the old days there’d be 10 minutes or so spent on establishing the Julia Roberts character; what she’s like at work, the state of her love life, her life as a single woman.  And after a few scenes you’d hear about the deal with the friend.  And a few scenes later she’d get the phone call.  And a few scenes later (after some agonizing) she’d be on the plane.

But here was all of that story development delivered one, two, three.  I was elated! It felt to me as if the filmmakers were saying “Hey!  We’ve had 100 years of cinema.  We all know what’s going to happen, so let’s just get there and have some fun.”

Could the braintrust behind TRANSFORMERS be doing the same thing?  “Screw the logic!  This is the biggest action movie of the year.  DEAL WITH IT!”  Perhaps the seeming willful abandonment of logic is not laziness but a new paradigm of storytelling?  Let’s call it “rollercoastering.”  When you get on SPACE MOUNTAIN, you don’t need to know how the damn thing works.  As a matter of fact, you want the rollercoaster to do wildly unexpected things that seem to defy the logics of mechanics.  I’m upside down!  I can’t see the track!

Perhaps TRANSFORMERS doesn’t have logic because the filmmakers felt it doesn’t need logic.   People are going to this particular ride for the lights and special effects around the rollercoaster car, not the track beneath it.  And certainly, TRANSFORMERS isn’t being punished at the box office.

Perhaps logic in an action movie five years from now — having seamless story structure in a $200 million dollar SFX extravaganza —  will be the exception and not the rule.   Or there will be a new category of action blockbuster for those who crave the thrill and care less about story.   Actually, there already is a category of movie like that.  Porn.  Another cheap shot, I know.

Regardless, it will be interesting to see how other big-budget blockbusters handle storytelling moving forward from this point.  Is TRANSFORMERS the start of a rollercoastering trend — a new paradigm of storytelling — or just a bloated, poorly written movie that is the right movie for the right audience at the right time?

I don’t know, but I’ll be watching to see how it pans out.  Bottom line is that my father-in-law is doing better, and one of the storytelling conventions that hasn’t been beaten out of me is the happy ending.

— Jeffrey Alan Schechter

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  1. David Goulet July 7, 2009 at 11:54 am #

    Your happy ending is better than the one in the movie. As for those battling bots, I still find they are visually too “busy”. I can’t make heads or tails out of them — perhaps they are using the same “let’s defy logic” approach to the cinematics as they are the story? Maybe I just need to stop sitting so close to the screen.

  2. Dave Candage July 7, 2009 at 1:34 pm #

    …and on top of all that, I have another question that might fit here and might not. i have often seen movies that, when over, I thought “I could have done better” or why did they even do this movie? I often see a what I think is a good concept poorly executed. I want to know what happens. Do the producers and financiers not see that it sucks or is it that there are so many cooks in the kitchen that it just gets messy?

    Why do good concepts often end up so bad?!

    in Maine

  3. Nick July 7, 2009 at 2:15 pm #

    I’m going with poorly written movie.

    The only brain trust involved here, I think, is the one that continues to figure out in a slimy way that you really can compromise heavily and still make lots of money. I don’t think that says much for the industry, and it’s certainly not saying much about the audience – and about how they regard the audience. The only reason I can enjoy the thrill of space mountain is because the roller coaster is secured solidly to the logic of the tracks – the frame and structure.

    Not to sound gushy, but I’m grateful for people like you – people who care enough about story, and the logic of story, that you’ve come up with some fantastic software to help people like us, struggling writers who want to learn craft and about quality. There has to be a standard, even if it has been around for 100 years. We’d had soap around for longer than that , but that doesn’t mean we should all start bathing with cabbage. 🙂

    Some things are just meant to stay around.

  4. totallywrite July 7, 2009 at 4:23 pm #

    “There has to be a standard, even if it has been around for 100 years. We’d had soap around for longer than that, but that doesn’t mean we should all start bathing with cabbage.”

    This is now officially my new favorite quote.

    Thanks for the kind words, Nick. I agree whole-heartedly with what you’re saying. I’m not sure if TRANSFORMERS is trying to create a new paradigm or not, but it’s going to be interesting to see what follows in the wake of its success.

  5. Boswell July 8, 2009 at 12:19 am #

    My guess is poorly written. It’s this simple. You’re watching TV and see some terrible accident with a train. How do you feel about that? Sympathetic, sure, but accidents happen every day. Then you realise your girlfriend was on it. Now how do you feel now? Are you still thinking of switching to the sports results?

    Action is only really involving, if you care about the people involved,

  6. David Goulet July 8, 2009 at 10:35 am #

    Adding to the discussion here. Music videos can tell a full story in as little as four minutes because the structure is understood. Watch Audioslave’s vid for Doesn’t Remind Me — it hits all the Contour/TW marks. So perhaps if a 2 hour tent-pole at least hits a glancing blow to those same marks it can still satisfy our story reflex nerves.

    Making movies based on the condensed music video paradigms is old news, but perhaps the new paradigm is not music vids but video games. Gamers appreciate some story structure, but only enough to sweeten the gaming action. Funny, action was formally used to sweeten the story, now it’s the opposite.

    As gaming eclipses movie watching (as it has in Japan) perhaps movie makers will appropriate gaming’s paradigms?

    In most games you can replay your latest dogfight or shoot-out with the bad guys. Maybe Transformers 2 is the replay of Mr. Bay’s recent gaming session.

  7. Alyssa Kupila July 9, 2009 at 11:15 pm #

    I did quite enjoy this film it defiantly deserved its praise, it is commonly seen that when a movie is made its sequel does not live up to be as well done as the first though this one i find is easily tied with the first. Some people may say that the 2nd was better but that’s only because they watched the first one so much that they could recite it word for word. unfortunately i did find some faults in the Revenge of the Fallen film, commonly i got déjà vu. when some of the actors would speak a certain sentence i quikyl recognized it from the first film you could do a voice overlap and they would match, and this did not happen 2 or three times there was at least 10 parts i could have pointed out, as well some of the fotage was very familiar, such as when the deceptacons are approaching earth it looks very similar to when the autobots come to earth in the first film. though all in all it was a great film though there was much more crude content so it was quite enjoyable for an audience who could understand the crude and sexual jokes made.

  8. Tracy August 4, 2009 at 1:49 pm #

    The other possibility might be due to time constraints. Not sure if this is 100% accurate, but I read in the paper where they were under the gun to finish the script just before the writer’s strike. Add to this, the new rigid “release day” structure, which allows for less and less rewrites, and you can see where getting the story solid becomes more and more of a task.

    I tend to analyze (okay, over analyze) every movie I watch, and I couldn’t help but do the same with this film. I need to see it again, but I do feel that all the elements were there – just jumbled up and disjointed. For me, I feel that the central theme of “letting go of the past and moving forward” was more “tell instead of show”. It felt like there were two schools of story telling – one that trust the audience and one that believes in spoon feeding – and these two thoughts are at contrasting (borderline dueling) play at different times throughout the film. Maybe this indeed speaks to your theory that there is a new belief that the thrill IS the story, while there are those still holding onto basic, solid story structure.

    I might even argue that the bones of the characters were there, but pieces of flesh and skin were absent. In terms of plot, when it comes to a movie like this, it’s really hard to argue what does and does not makes sense. After all, it is a movie about transforming, alien robots, who come to earth and disguise themselves as transportation vehicles – and to be honest, just the premise alone has one stretching their imaginations pretty thin. That’s another issue or potential problem, the fact that the original story/premise is built around animated objects, and the films attempt to add humans as co-protagonists. Who is this story REALLY about, and why should I spend the next 2 hours caring? I cared about Wall-E. I cared about the Iron Giant. I cared about the Little Toaster. Though, I’m not sure I really care about any of the Transformers (okay, maybe the old one – he was personified and had a backstory).

    Like I said, I could really go on and on analyzing this film, and not so much for putting it down, but for learning from both what worked and did not work for me, the audience member.

    I’d love to hear more of what you thought in detail, that is, if you plan on finishing the film. While I walked out of the theater not completely satisfied, there were moments I was entertained.

    Oh…, and I find Contour to be a productive and really strong software! 🙂

  9. Midas September 25, 2009 at 1:31 am #

    Your jokes about not having to see the rest of the movie, and the new form of writing (thrill over story) and it being porn – may be “cheap shots and lazy writing” (your words, not mine) but it was still more entertaining than what I saw of the first Transformers movie. Normally I love a good big budget Hollywood action movie with some sci-fi thrown in, but I couldn’t get through the first Transformers, and didn’t even bother with the second one… I really hope these thinly written projects don’t become the norm – special effects are so boring if you don’t care at all about the characters or the story… unless of course it’s porn, but even then… who doesn’t want a little context? Oh, and a happy ending.

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