Whenever aliens invade our planet, the vaunted resources of humanity’s technological aggression pale in comparison to their greatest “weapon”: luck. Sure, the heroes of those films will preach about courage, history, and the innate goodness of humanity… but in the end, humans are just really lucky when it comes to aliens.
The invaded humans of Michael Bay’s Transformers are not only lucky, but like Oprah audiences, score nifty GMC cars in the process. Sad for Will Smith, the humans in Independence Day (or ID4) just got a whole lot of combustible monuments, shot-down jets, and a drunk redneck tail-spinning in F/A-18 Hornet. But when it comes to balls-to-the-wall alien invasions, which movie’s humans do a better job of not relying just on luck and special FX to make a good film?
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The Defending Champion
I remember seeing Independence Day when I was 13, standing outside in the sweltering heat of Florida to glimpse aliens trashing all of humanity’s pride in about five minutes. Really, ID4 is the quintessential blockbuster movie. The film follows a group of eclectic humans hailing from radically different backgrounds as they unite through determination and chance to fight an aggressive alien invasion that cripples Earth within minutes. Packed with as much patriotism as the National Anthem, ID4 serves up an apocalyptic extravaganza that shows, in the end, the United States of America will apparently always save the world.
Someone needs to tell Michael Bay that the ’90s are over. Transformers is an interesting movie in that it almost plays like Team America:Transformers Edition. Team America overused the cookie-cutter characterizations, overwrought scores, and contrived action moments of the ’90s and created a parody of many cliche action films — most of which Bay himself directed. Transformers seems to be Bay’s response to Team America, and it’s a very firm middle-finger. Transformers never turns away from slo-moing the action to show two characters, silhouetted by misty light, gazing upon each other or the battlefield as the music swells to speaker-rattling volumes. Apparently, the humans in Transformers are not only extraordinarily lucky on the battlefield, but also know how to pose during a disaster — an important weapon. Not only that, but Bay shows no shame in homaging many of his other films — Armageddon, The Rock. It makes you roll your eyes.
Ironically, the Transformers themselves possess more personality than the humans, each human being functioning as a plot point. Sam, the hero teenager of the film, is well-acted by Shia LaBeouf — however, it’s not that much to act with in the first place. He cracks jokes, looks shocked, and ogles a girl who is so unbelievably out of his league (not to mention a girl shoehorned into the illogical role of a bombshell mechanic beauty with a juvie record). It’s all so… convenient. This is not so much the case In ID4, where the characters at least seem more like people with real interests in the matter at hand and who are going through tragedy. ID4 has a sense of loss to it, as the President of the United States angsts over his dying wife who’s carried to safety by the stripper girlfriend of the heroic Air Force pilot. Everyone has an internal issue — whether it be fear, passivity, laziness, or arrogance — and by confronting the alien invasion, each overcomes the issue. For whatever reasons, this works and resonates emotionally with the audience in a somehow real, if perfunctory, way.
ID4 has some thrilling action sequences, better conceived and more ambitious then those in Transformers.They are still a treat to watch. Bay knows when to start an action scene, yet forgets how to shoot it as most of the robotic action is a flurry of closely-cropped mechanical parts flying about the screen. You really can’t tell who won the fight until — as always — the music swells, the camera swoops down and around in slo-mo, and Sam and his bombshell companion stare up in awe at the towering figure of the winner — then you know.
The other large differences between these two films is the direction of the plot. In ID4, the aliens want one thing: the extermination of the human race. It is so beautifully simple and matches the genocidal attack at the film’s beginning. Also, this attack shows that they can and pretty much already have started doing it and increases the suspense. Add on that we are invested in the characters and their personal dangers and the alien’s plan is back grounded, and its simplicity irrelevant. In Transformers, Megatron wants to use the Allspark to raise an army of machines from humanity’s technology. Quite the invasion, right? Wait, but Megatron crash landed on Earth over a hundred years ago and instantly froze… so was Megatron going to animate the light bulb, or the rudimentary camera into something fierce? He’s never even seen current Earth technology! This all becomes very obvious, considering that the characters in this film are played mainly as jokes and don’t distract from these plot holes. But hell, as Optimus Prime monologued: “Humans should be free, freedom’s good, everyone should be free, yada, yada, yada…”
It’s pretty obvious that the winner has to be your traditional blockbuster with all the right characters and emotions to go along with it. That would be Independence Day and its slug-fest with an alien menace. Although Transformers is an awesome concept, its severely flawed execution by Bay makes for a rather underwhelming experience. Riddled with plot holes and flat characters, Transformers never gets into gear and move with that energy and danger Independence Day did with such ease. In the end, those neon green lasers of Independence Day blast away everything, including sentient robots hellbent on the destruction of mankind through animating 19th century cotton gins.