Transmorphers: Fall of Man (US-2009; dir. Scott Wheeler)
Somewhere midway along the continuum between “Good” and “Bad” in the subgenre where giant robots are depicted as alien invaders lies the 2009 Asylum film Transmorphers: Fall of Man. Shadowing Bay’s Transformers and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen in its title and the (limited) transformational qualities of the alien mechanoids, the film also manages to echo elements of the Terminator films, as an ex-soldier becomes, John Connor-like, the leader of an underground group of survivors.
Transmorphers: Fall of Man stars Bruce Boxleitner of Babylon 5 fame, here playing an ordinary cop who gets caught up in a fight against invading hunks of animated metal. Boxleitner brings a certain professionalism to the proceedings, though his performance is largely unexciting — which isn’t inappropriate as before too long his “lead” status is overtaken by Shane Van Dyke’s ex-soldier — an unlikely “world expert” in drones and robotic warfare, we’re told. Jennifer Rubin gives an eccentric performance as Dr Jo Summer, in a role that keeps drifting off into irrelevance. Other actors, especially Alana DiMaria as the cop’s noticably pink daughter Madison, do a serviceable job with limited potential. The actors aren’t really a problem.
Ostensibly, Transmorphers: Fall of Man paints a vast, apocalytptic panorama as the alien robots descend from space, cripple human communication networks, defeat the military, destroy cities and crush humanity, reducing it (in a largely undramatised fashion) to groups of ragtag resistance fighters hiding in the tunnels beneath an urban wasteland — this being the future depicted in the first Transmorphers film. I say, “ostensibly”, because the final result doesn’t feel apocalyptic.
For me the real problem is Shane Van Dyke’s script, which never properly adapts itself to deal with the discrepancies of scale left in the wake of the inevitable lack of funds that is the base line of most Asylum blockbuster-style films. Though some critics of The Asylum see the company’s films as cynical — exploitation of the worst kind — more often their chief problem is the inability to fully reconcile ambition with budget. Yet ambition in itself is a honourable thing, surely.
The film begins promisingly as a series of small-scale incidents with larger implications. There’s an effective sequence in which a character who persists in using her cellphone while driving is killed by the mysteriously morphing object itself — unexpectedly proving the maxim that using your phone while driving is a Bad Idea. Similar is the moment where an obnoxious driver is thrown from his car by the suddenly sentient vehicle. An effective car chase sequence between the cop and the self-motivated car leads to the first revelation of What Is Going On for many of the less perceptive characters. Thereafter alien robots begin plummeting to Earth, people die and those who realise what’s going on are considered crazy until it all comes into the open in a vaguely apocalyptic fashion.
After that, however, things get patchy. In the earlier scenes director Wheeler shows what can be done on a small budget, creating a sense of growing doom and offering a visual expansiveness that at times looks quite classy. There’s even some relatively telling CGI that is enhanced by the small-scale perspective of the storyline at this point. What is harder to do on a small budget is directly create a convincing sense of large-scale action. As our heroes are forced to fight back and the apocalypse spreads, credibility becomes strained beyond breaking point. We can’t help but notice that the military of the world’s mightiest nation seems to be represented by maybe a dozen soldiers with guns and that the destruction is rather minimal. Even the appearance of a very big robot is spoilt by lack of perspective given to it as we mostly see it outlined against a blank sky — not, during its much of its main rampage, in relation to the buildings or the humans. On top of that, the world is curiously devoid of the masses even before the robots get a chance to wipe them out. There’s no panic, no effective visualisation of the inevitable chaos and destruction. From this point on, the “apocalypse” becomes something we’re told happened and we don’t get to convincingly see.
It seems to me that if you have a limited budget you must adjust the script to accommodate it. You don’t tell the story of those who are supposedly at the centre of the action. You tell the story of folk who are, say, on the edge of the conflict, so that you can suggest what you can’t afford to show. When your characters are supposed to be in the thick of things suggesting those things just doesn’t work. Instead conviction is destroyed and the audience’s critical faculties take over.
It’s also a good idea to have a tightly unified plot. The dramatic focus of Van Dyke’s narrative through-line for Transmorphers: Fall of Man is all over the place, changing direction three or four times before leaping from the climactic moment when the heroes save the day to an immediate “humanity is doomed” scenario that seems to come out of nowhere. The classical unities — of action, place and time — were espoused by Aristotle long ago as essential for creating effective drama. His tenets may not work in the context of blockbuster Hollywood films (not without severe modification anyway), but they are certainly worth remembering as limited budgets make restrictions inevitable.
So, no, Transmorphers: Fall of Man isn’t what I’d call a successful film. I wasn’t bored by it and it is pretty good by low-budget standard, but it could have been so much better if it had managed to contain its ambition within a carefully constructed storyline instead of trying to fudge its way past limitations hoping that no one would notice. Not a complete failure, though, it comes over as much glossier and more expansive than its predecessor, with good production high-points rising up from among the low ones. But those who found Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen overblown and indulgent are unlikely to see Transmorphers: Fall of Man‘s pared-back apocalypse as an effective alternative.
Addendum 1: The Origins of Giant Robot Cinema
Robots form a significant subset of the giant monster genre, from the first giant-rampaging-robot flick, The Mechanical Man [aka L'Uomo Meccanico] (Italy-1921; dir. André Deed), in which the mad-scientist’s robot wasn’t all that big — through to this year’s blockbuster Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen (US-2009; dir. Michael Bay), where the alien robotic lifeforms get more and more massive as the plot disappears. Leaving aside the primacy of Karel Čapek’s 1921 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), where the term “robot” was first coined, a major component of the giant robot subgenre is Japanese mecha, which in turn was influenced by the Martian machines of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and (possibly) assorted science fiction stories from the heyday of the pulps, including Robert A. Heinlein’s classic Starship Troopers (with its descriptions of piloted battle armour). Most significantly, however, it can trace its direct origins to Mitsuteru Yokoyama’s 1956 manga Tetsujin 28-go [later incarnated as Gigantor] and to the work of Go Nagai.
In full-blown mecha, the huge machines are controlled by biological pilots. Animator Go Nagai, whose work helped define the genre, once commented:
I wanted to create something different, and I thought it would be interesting to have a robot that you could drive, like a car. (Wikipedia entry)
The result was the hugely influential Mazinger Z.
Later, of course, the alien robots of Transformers would abandon the idea of a pilot by becoming independent lifeforms but would retain the car part of the equation by spending a fair amount of time disguised as vehicles of various kinds.
Addendum 2: An Example of the Giant Robot as Daikaiju
Another significant early film in the giant-robot-as-giant-monster subgenre is Kronos: Destroyer of Planets (US-1957; dir. Kurt Neumann). In this scifi exploitation flick a huge, non-humanoid machine arrives from outer space and begins pounding its way across the cities of the world, consuming the world’s energy. Neumann didn’t have the budget for full-on daikaiju eiga [giant monster film], but he certainly had the vision. Kronos is like a skyscraper-sized animated box with pretensions to being Godzilla, trashing its way through city-scapes with considerable mechanical, and metaphorical, glee. Somehow the inadequacies of the city-smashing SFX of Kronos don’t undermine the sense of apocalyptic danger conveyed by the film as a whole. Odd that, and maybe worthy of study by contemporary low-budget filmmakers.