Transformers (2-Disc Special Edition) Review
First...the bad. Lacking the brash colours of the cartoon, it can be hard for the viewer to tell the Decepticons apart. There's a story about a pair of glasses, which seems a trifling concern with which to call the Transformers to Earth. A romance between Shia LaBoeuf and Megan Fox is, for them being teenagers, a chaste one, as though a school teacher was standing slightly offscreen to separate them on the rare occasions they get too close. Meanwhile, Bumblebee, as well as being blessed with a truly rotten name, has his vocal processors disabled, leaving him communicating, Radio 2-style, with a selection of soft rock, such as Drive by The Cars. There is far too much talk of eBay, Optimus Prime, with his, "My bad!" as he knocks over a garden ornament, speaks like a teenager and one gets the most unwelcome impression that he's going to start texting the other Autobots as they ready themselves for battle. "bmblee u r gr8 m8 pmsl"
Let's be honest here, though, that's not much to complain about. If my ambition was to own a Lamborghini, to complain about the British Leyland switch gear on its dashboard would seem churlish, particularly to do so after hearing the howl of its V12 engine and desperately struggling to keep it on the road. To take issue with the romance in Transformers is rather missing the point of the film, this being about giant trucks, sports cars and jet fighters transforming into robots and fighting it out, rock-em-sock-em style in the skies, on freeways and in amongst high-rise buildings, laying waste to them as though there were made of a particularly flimsy, own-brand version of Lego. The ten-year-old boy in me - not literally, Interpol! - whooped and hollered all the way through Transformers, often in spite of a storyline as clunky as the bits of scrap metal that front-and-side Optimus Prime.
Whatever else it does, Transformers starts well. A MH-53M Pave Low IV helicopter is spotted approaching a military base in Qatar. It does not answer to any requests for it to identify itself. Its pilot maintains radio silence throughout but when a signal is picked up, no one can quite believe it. The helicopter currently en route to the air force base was lost some years before. More than just a rumour, people saw it go down. A group of attack planes take flight to intercept the helicopter, keeping a safe distance from it as they guide it to a landing. Warning messages sound out of the speakers but the pilot seems not to care. Within seconds, the military personnel understand why...the blades of the helicopter are compacted and it transforms into a robot over thirty-feet tall. A giant mechanical scorpion slides off its back, it separating to attack the troops while its host raids the online database within the base. In minutes and with the gunfire simply bouncing off the robots, the raid is over. A small group of special forces escape into the desert while, on the runway, the robot transforms back into a helicopter and amongst the dead bodies quietly takes off again.
In the United States, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is hosting a presentation within his class, not only talking about his famous ancestor, explorer Captain Archibald Witwicky, but also hoping to hawk what's left of his expedition on eBay, including a pair of broken glasses. With some quick thinking from Sam, he is rewarded with an A in the class, and runs outside to greet his father (Kevin Dunn), who promised Sam a car if he raised two-grand and scored three As in his classes. Sam doesn't so much choose a car as take one home that has chosen him, a bright yellow 1976 Chevrolet Camaro. Taking in a party, Sam gives Mikaela (Megan Fox) a lift home but that night, he realises just what an odd car he's picked up. It drives off by itself and when Sam finally tracks it down, sees it transforming into a robot, one that seems to have a particular interest in Sam. Or rather a pair of his grandfather's glasses, into which is burned a map, revealing the whereabouts of the All Spark, something that these Transformers, good and bad, have scoured the galaxy for.
If I were that ten-year-old boy, I'd probably say that Transformers is the greatest movie ever. In fact, had this been released as it now looks in 1981, when I was ten, I'd have said that the only thing that stopped it being the greatest thing ever was that Evel Knievel wasn't in it, which is probably much the same complaint I made about the previous year's Empire Strikes Back. There's even a tacit acknowledgement of this in the movie, when an Espace or something similar screeches to a halt at the feet of Optimus Prime and the little boy inside says, "Cool!" Hiding this away from my own boy to make a Christmas present of it, I have no doubt that there will be much woah!-ing throughout Transformers and that he will sit open-mouthed in sheer wonder at Bumblebee and Barricade - Chevrolet Camaro and Saleen Ford Mustang - chasing one another across Mission City before transforming to have it out UFC-style in an abandoned industrial park. Transformers will be a Star Wars moment for many a ten-year-old boy. Shame, then, about the 12-certificate mind but that's where talk of masturbation will get you.
However, as a thirtysomething, Transformers is less clear cut. As the director, Bay's influence is obvious. Megan Fox takes on the Tea Leoni/Bad Boys role of a big-breasted brunette who gives as much sass as the boys and proves herself useful with - who'd have thought it? - a criminal record and a tow truck. There's a car chase in which Optimus Prime and Bonecrusher, a Buffalo H Mine-Protected vehicle, transform at speed and fight it out on the freeway, which is probably where the film peaks. Bay's infatuation with military hardware and, more to the point, the military is all over Transformers with his getting full co-operation in exchange for tempering his wilder fantasies with something approaching reality. The military were even wary of having Starscream, an evil Decepticon, being cast in the metal skin of an F-22 before they realised, like the big kids who'll be watching this film, that the villains are often more memorable that the heroes. As it happens, Starscream makes for one of the better Decepticons. However, as executive producer, there's also the calming hands of Steven Spielberg on the film with the central story of the friendship between Sam Witwicky and Bumblebee being an echo of that between Elliott and ET. Similarly, there's the quiet suburban streets that will be familiar to Spielberg but which feel alien in Bay's hands, which the director feels itchy to invade with Transformers and special agents and have Optimus Prime trample over.
As exciting as some of Transformers is, it is, at two-hours-twenty, much too long. Bay is clearly having a ball on the film but what he considers fun will have an audience urging the film to hurry on. John Turturro has a comedy cameo as a military tight-ass, who gets 'lubricated' by Bumblebee, but neither this nor his short reprise later in the film is particularly funny. The same can be said for the Autobots clunking through an oddly deserted suburbia and playing hide-and-seek outside of the Witwicky home. This probably lasts no longer than five minutes but it feels like fifteen and one wishes that Bay would simply blow something up. The air of the comedy is as though it was written by someone without a sense of humour, something that I never suspected Bay of having and which he makes no case for here.
But again, these are minor complaints. Starscream flies into Mission City, transforms into a robot for a fight and, mere seconds later, jumps back into the air, transforms into an F-22 again and disappears off into the blue. Perhaps not quite as jaw-dropping a moment as the Galactica dropping through the atmosphere in S3 of BSG but fairly smart nonetheless. It all comes down to that ten-year-old thing again, in which a simple view of the world just wants to see giant robots wreaking havoc. In this Transformers delivers, never better than when taken in three-quarter-hour viewings, which is, in those of those odd moments of synchronicity, about as much as I suspect that I could take in the company of Michael Bay. Art as a reflection of life...
The HD-DVD is clearly something that Paramount will help support the format but this DVD is none too shabby. With the first disc containing the film and little else - there is a commentary and a couple of trailers but nothing more - there's plenty of space on the disc for a good encoding of the film and Paramount don't disappoint. Much better than one might expect given the amount of CG in the film, which usually has the effect of the picture being softened so as not to have the computer graphics standing out, Transformers is as sharp as any major studio picture with a noticeable glint to the Transformers and to the backgrounds, it's certainly one of the best-looking major releases this year, with all credit going to Bay for pushing ILM and Digital Domain to root his robot fantasy in amongst the everyday surroundings of school, suburbia and a giant secret laboratory deep within the Hoover dam.
Paramount are also to be credited for this transfer, which is bright, colourful and full of detail, even to the extent that my tired old PC managed to come up with a half-decent set of screenshots. On the rare occasion that it does, I reckon the disc under review will look outstanding on any setup and so Transformers does, with the crisp, clean picture doing a marvellous job with regards to the CG effects. However, as technically flawless as it is, Transformers is a showcase for Michael Bay's frenetic style and as good, on my limited beige box, as these screenshots are, it was hard work to get even eight clear shots with many still frames looking smudged with the action.
The DD5.1 audio track is also really very good. Again, there's plenty of detail with the audio mix making good use of the space that the soundtrack can occupy, with the disc using all six channels to noticeable effect. The rear speakers not only provide ambience but boost the impact of the fight scenes, bringing the crunch of metal out of the front speakers to the rear as, on the freeway, Optimus Prime and Bonecrusher tumble from the foreground off the screen. However, in as much as the soundtrack is clear, there isn't sufficient use of low frequencies, with the Transformers sounding more like a pair of cheap Korean imports shunting one another in a low-speed collision than thirty-foot-high robots from the planet Cybertron. I had expected each strike to carry more weight but the rather flimsy snap of metal on metal suggests that Kia, who don't so much manufacture cars as mould them out of tinfoil, have some presence on the planet Cybertron.
Commentary: Michael Bay stops short of claiming to have developed a sustainable fusion reaction, of terraforming Mars and of sleeping with my wife and being father to my children but, as he says, he's only had a short career and perhaps hasn't just got around to all of that yet. Without a word of introduction, Bay is straight into Steven Spielberg phoning him up to offer him the Transformers movie, of the American military offering him almost everything bar a couple of nuclear missiles and of several members of the Axis of Evil surrendering at the mere thought of the combination of Michael Bay and the US Air Force. The producers of Die Hard 4.0 certainly did, changing their release date, which clashed with that of Transformers, just as Michael Bay told them they would.
Then again, he sounds exactly like you would expect the man who made Armageddon and Bad Boys I and II to sound, excited, talking non-stop and claiming to have thought about robots more than anyone else on the entire Earth for the last year-and-a-half. Which is, I can only imagine, a lot of thinking about robots. Although, if I were to believe Bay, all that thinking about robots is only a small part of what he achieved during the making of Transformers. He high-fives with Spielberg, gets to work with almost everyone on his wish list - or, rather, they tend to come to him - and dismisses the effects work on the Star Wars prequels, giving us a breakdown in parts to illustrate how much more complex Optimus Prime is over General Greivious. All that might be the case and while a little humility wouldn't have gone amiss, one is always aware that it's Bay that we're listening to and that he is more likely to remake Terms Of Endearment than he is to strike a note of humility.
However, I don't really believe much of what he says here, believing that if he were to be joined by other members of the cast and crew then he might have tempered his comments somewhat and not have taken credit for quite as much as he has. In the early part of the commentary, one doesn't mind this quite so much but by the halfway point, it's something of a struggle to listen to, not least because the viewer doesn't learn very much from it other than how great Michael Bay is.
Also on Disc 1 are a pair of Trailers, one for Invincible Iron Man (2m22s) and another for Transformers (1m46s).
Our World (49m15s): "Michael Bay was born to direct Transformers!" So says Steven Spielberg a few minutes into this feature but having listened to two hours of Bay on the commentary, Spielberg is underestimating just what Bay imagines himself capable of. Now watching him on the set, I wouldn't be entirely surprised if breakfast at the Bay house was served by a harried-looking Mrs Bay while her husband berated her from a short distance away by megaphone. Even the crew take some light-hearted revenge by throwing foam megaphones at the director while on the set, although there is the sense that one or two of them are throwing them with some force, if not to cause actual concussion then at least to bring up a bruise.
As to this actual feature, it's a somewhat loosely-constructed making of that goes behind the scenes on the film, more often than not simply onto the set, and into the dust, noise and explosions of Transformers on the street, in the desert and on the freeway. The actors have their say, sometimes even in the minutes after a take has finished and they're still sore from being dragged across the set but due to the lack of structure, this really isn't anything more than a series of bits and pieces picked up during production, a scene here and there, some pre-production meetings and far too much of Michael Bay shouting at some rather shocked-looking members of the ILM team, who are probably wondering if they can call off on the Transformers work and get back to Star Wars.
Their War (65m07s): Starting out at Botcon 2007, there's the worrying feeling that we're going to see exactly the kind of Transformers superfan who picketed Michael Bay's office during the making of the movie. Unfortunately for them it was the wrong office - he'd moved out a couple of years earlier - but, unfortunately for us, we do see those superfans, be they presenting their Transformers tattoos to the camera, appearing alongside their long-suffering girlfriends who, with the exception of a three-day festival of drumming, couldn't look any more bored or dragging their sweaty, overweight frames in front of the camera to terrify us with their Optimus Prime/Megatron cosplay.
These moments are only the first in a fairly long feature on the design and implementation of the Autobots and Decepticons in the film. So, after Botcon 2007, this takes us from the early meetings with Hasbro to ILM and to the live action shots that will later have Transformers added to them. Even these don't look that shabby with cars being flipped on the freeway, a bus falling apart and cars being tossed off a transporter. This feature, with good reason, pays particular attention to that freeway chase but it also offers the viewer plenty access to the military backing provided to the film, including Air Force comments on the Transformers and their background in military hardware, including the F-22, the MH-53 Pave Low helicopter and the Buffalo H Mine-Protected truck.
From Script To Sand (8m52s): Subtitled The Skorponok Desert Attack, this takes the viewer through a single scene, beginning with the Hasbro toy that inspired the character, the Jaws-in-the-desert feel for the action and, via the models and animatics, into the shoot and post-production of the action. From the actors, through director and to the visual effects supervisors, everyone has their say, taking the viewer to (almost) the final scene.
Finally, there is a gallery of Concept Art (2m11s) and a set of three Trailers (6m17s). Almost all of these bonus features are subtitled in Danish, German, English, Spanish, French, Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish with the one exception of the commentary, which only comes with English subtitles.