”Michael Bay gets to keep making movies and Cartman gets his own theme park; there is no God.”
South Park S-5
Everyone knows that it’s cool to hate Michael Bay, even he knows that. So no matter how Transformers: A Michael Bay Movie turned out he was always going to be the subject of ridicule. “Damn you Michael Bay!” and “You raped my childhood!”, not to mention a slew of other derogatory terms aimed at the man who brought us Pearl Harbour, made sure that the hate remained fully alive for a good portion of the year leading up to Transformers eventual release. He even comes across as a bit of a bastard when directing films and half the crew on his sets probably hate his guts and wish impending doom upon him. But I digress. I don’t hate Mr. Bay. I hate some of his movies, but I also like some. I can dig Bad Boys and come on, Bad Boys 2 had friggin’ dead bodies falling out of an ambulance! The Rock is decent as well, so there ya go.
For a moment there I almost forgot that I was reviewing Transformers: a huge budget summer blockbuster based upon a cartoon designed after some rather nifty toys. I said to myself that I wouldn’t solely review this from a fan perspective, but that’s quite difficult. So what I’m about to do is review it from both perspectives: The fans and the non-fans; the latter would be from me assuming what it would be like if someone who had never seen Transformers sat down to watch this for the first time. Yes, assumption - just bear with me. So, high expectations then from those who love the series and animated movie. The most crucial thing of course when adapting from a cartoon or comic book is ensuring that you stay true to the spirit of the source material. And that’s the trick isn’t it? Has Bay pulled it off with screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman? The film that is.
I’m not going to explain what the concept of Transformers is all about. The name is too obvious and I can’t be arsed . But I shall give you a run down on the story.
Sam (Shia Lebeouf) likes Megan Fox quite a bit. He also has a thingy called an Allspark and tries to sell some old glasses on E-Bay. It turns out that an alien race known as the Decepticons, led by Megatron (voiced by Hugo Weaving), who is currently on ice, uses E-Bay quite a lot for their purchases, ‘cause they stumble across these specs while looking for optic cables or something. Anyways, Megs and his minions want it and they travel to Earth. Other robots land on Earth as well, but these are good guys from a race known as the Autobots, led by the heroic Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen). The Autobots and Decepticons once lived together on planet Cybertron and fought often, until their planet eventually dried up.
Sam has recently passed his driving test and his dad (Kevin Dunn) takes him to a used car lot to buy him his first car. After Bernie Mac shows him around, Sam decides to take a beat up old Camaro. This turns out to be a - wait for it - [theme tune]“ROBOT IN DISGUISE!”[/theme tune], named Bumblebee. Bumblebee has a dodgy voice box, so he can’t talk; he can only communicate via his radio, and picks really cheesy songs. He’s a bit like Herbie, but not a VW Bug, which makes it a bit odd that he wasn’t a bug in the first place. So yea, Sam learns that there are transforming robots on Earth and they’re all dying to fight each other. Cue lots of running around, explosions, screaming, military action and big special effects. Ka-ching!
It was inevitable that once technology reached a certain point we’d be seeing a feature based upon this massive franchise. It took producer Don Murphy and Tom DeSanto quite some time, a couple of years in fact, to even get a studio interested in the project, as no one would take giant transforming robots seriously, next to say, web-slinging superheroes. The transition from series to film was indeed a long and difficult haul. Too many producers, toy makers, presidents, fans, Flames on Prime and all that jazz (pardon the pun) made it the most controversial movie adaptation of all time. But those details can be documented elsewhere.
As the only non-sequel of the summer, Transformers has quite the task ahead of it, and as this review goes into writing it has yet to receive its world-wide release. Touted as the underdog movie of the year that much certainly rings true; it’s based off a toy-line and subsequent cartoon series, which resonates far greater with a generation who grew up in the eighties than it does with the younger crowd of today, regardless of its numerous spin-offs. How well, then, does it do to satisfy old and new audiences alike? Let’s get one thing straight: Transformers has a storyline which is about as engaging as dental surgery. It employs the philosophy of “action movies shouldn’t have amazing narrative structures, but provide tonnes of shit blowing up in its place”. That very notion is the ultimate bone of contention; one that may just divide audiences. Just how much storyline should be bestowed upon this franchise re-boot? Well, you won’t find any expansive mythology being explored for the Transformers live-action debut, the likes of which has been thoroughly detailed through endless comic book incarnations, cartoons and so forth. For the fan that is indeed a shame as there’s more than enough source material to allow a storyline of epic proportions, whilst keeping in line with an introductory premise. The idea behind this live outing though, first and foremost, was always about a boy and his car, the girl he loves and a race of alien sentient robots who help him on his path to manhood, while trying to save humanity from invading forces. That might be alright if it was indeed so simple, but it’s not.
The central relationship between Sam and Mikeila works considerably well as a means to provide a human viewpoint; it’s a classic plot device, and in this case it earns the audience’s backing, which would be enough to ensure that the Transformers can enter and go about their business. Rather than stick with this simple exchange though the screenplay juggles more plot threads revolving around the hunt for a magical AllSpark over the course of two and a half hours than it knows what to do with, complete with several irrelevant details and ambiguous plot holes, many of which are impossible not to question and some which are altogether unforgivable. It brings into the fold secret organisations, endless repetitive military protocol, throws in some ace hackers and so on, to the point that the support trip over each other and drive attention away from the film's most vital asset: the robots themselves. And so Orci and Kurtzman’s script (from an original story by John Rogers) feels very lazy and half-arsed in places, as if they just gave up hope of getting out of the hole they’d dug for themselves, and that’s very much a moot point, coming from the chaps who made Alias such the hit it was. Here they’re a far cry from their glory days.
Transformers, of course, should be about giant bleedin’ robots, and to a certain extent it is. If you’re aiming a film toward a mainstream audience called Transformers then surely they’d have a rough idea of what to expect, but as always Hollywood feeds us with what it thinks it knows best. With such little faith placed in the general viewer, presumably on the assumption that even though the film features sentient robots they’re probably too difficult to care about, the results are a little disappointing, but not entirely surprising. So what of the eponymous heroes? The Autobots are handled well enough, even if for the most part they come across as nothing more than a commando unit, with Optimus Prime giving out orders a lot. But they do share a comradery. It’s disappointing, however, that there’s very little dialogue shared between them. Of the two primary goodies Optimus Prime gets all the great lines and he’s certainly built up well as being the compassionate and honourable leader we know and love, while Bumblebee provides the charming link between human and alien species, which in turn becomes part of the film’s central core. But the likes of Jazz, Ratchet and Ironhide, although well voiced and showing incredible promise, are basically shunted to one side, and with very little development on their part some of the later scenes fail to elicit the emotional response they should:
|The following text contains spoilers. Click and drag over this box to view.|
|Jazz dying at the hands of Megatron feels surprisingly hackneyed, even though Cullen does his damnedest to channel his sadness for such a beloved character.|
Still, they’re worlds apart when compared to the Decepticons. While general audiences may go along with the baddies, the fact of the matter is that they’re portrayed as nothing more than monstrous automatons. There’s no characterisation whatsoever; none of that “bad guys you love to hate” vibe coursing through the movie’s veins. The Decepticons always had a strong dynamic in their group. It was a faction that often struggled to keep itself together, what with back-stabbing and bickering at every turn. It would have been far greater to show them interacting as a collective and learn a little about their species’ history, other than being given a quick piece of exposition through Prime, both in the film’s opening narration and later on when Michael Bay actually finds a quiet moment. Even Megatron receives little love here as he stomps around yelling “I AM MEGATRON!” Given that he practically has a cameo in this film means that he’s wasted to a large degree, although he does get to enjoy a showdown with Prime, which is fun, though extremely brief, along with voicing a few neat lines, including a couple of nice G1 references. While Frank Welker is sorely missed as the iconic villain Hugo Weaving does a fine job in highlighting the Decepticon leader as being a truly evil bastard, though at times the vocal pitching is difficult to make out. Also missed is the once wonderful dynamic between Megatron and Starscream, who all but share one fun line in this film together, strictly for the fans, which may however lose its significance on newer audiences.
Yet despite all of the discrepancies mentioned earlier Transformers is still very much a blast, and at its heart a fun summer blockbuster, which certainly feels fresh from an aesthetic standpoint. In light of several darkly-themed comic book movies of late, where even our heroes mope about a bit, Transformers runs a perpetual gamut of comedy, particularly so for a good hour and half of its run time. Granted, it doesn’t always work, in fact several gags fall embarrassingly flat, while one or two comments elsewhere may raise eyebrows for those taking youngsters along. But for the most part it works. It’s injected with a firm sense of what it wants to be, never really heading down a depressing path for any lengthy duration. There’s little doubt as to how everything will turn out and all the actors involved make sure to go for broke. Indeed each one acquits themselves well, given such light material. Shia LaBeouf is a lot of fun as Sam Witwicky as are Kevin Dunn and Julie White as his parents, while John Turturro totally enjoys hamming it up as a pathetic Sector 7 agent. Even Peter Cullen and the rest of the voice cast get to enjoy some comic banter, which does well to show us that these sentient beings can be every bit as human as those they have sworn to protect. Megan Fox provides a sight for sore eyes, and does in fact put in a favourable performance as the feisty young woman of Sam's dreams, while Josh Duhmel and Tyrese Gibson sport about with guns and spout a load of soldier guff as best they can.
But after everything that’s been said we all know that the real reason people want to see this is because of giant robots duking it out on screen. On that front Transformers truly delivers what it sets out to do. ILM, with input from KNB have set a new benchmark in terms of special effects, proving that when they’re at the top of their game they’re a force to be reckoned with. The robots themselves are intriguing, even though many of them are far removed from their original designs. They’re complex, perhaps overly so, but they’re astonishingly well realised in their environment. The sheer sense of scale and realism attributed to these disguised metal behemoths is certainly the biggest talk point, and when they start kicking arse you’re in for one of the biggest cinematic treats ever. It’s difficult to describe, being something you really must witness for yourselves on the big screen, from seeing Prime rumble (another pun not intended) with Bonecrusher on a busy highway, to watching Starscream take on several fighter jets in the craziest dog-fight ever filmed. Say what you will about Michael Bay, but he does deliver the goods here. He might be a little heavy on the military posturing, shaky cams and fetishist close-ups of car hoods, but he stages his action sequences quite unlike anyone else. Transformers feels every bit as epic as it should, and in all the right places. Bay’s trademark corkscrew camera tricks are put to unique use as they accompany impressive transformations, even if indulgence gets the better of him at times, resulting in some rather confusing happenings. Close ups reveal little more than heaps of twisted metal as robots fly and tumble across the screen, and things often move so fast that you can’t enjoy all the finer details of ILM’s work, but when Bay restrains himself behind a wider lens he presents some simply awesome looking battles, the kind which deserved every cheer they got from the crowd at the UK press screening in June.
And there was also one more thing that had the fans and press going wild: The return of Optimus Prime, voiced by the one and only Peter Cullen, who simply does a superb job of balancing Prime’s noble side and humility. And if I did have to pick out a real star of the entire film then it would indeed be him. Optimus Prime is the only figure out of all the Transformers who is well fleshed out, so bringing back the man who has been such an important part of the the character’s history is truly a blessing. The proof is there on screen that he always was the best person for the job: the heart and soul of Transformers, with Prime standing for everything that is honourable and good. Peter Cullen said he’d make it work, no matter what changes were made - lack of face-plate, added flames and all - and he has. Perhaps now, in light of such positive comments, the studio and some of the producers (Skorpy) involved can finally see why Cullen was essential. Had he not be chosen then Prime would have been half the bot he is. By now you’re probably thinking enough is enough. Well, let’s just say that if you grew up with Transformers you’ll absolutely love what they’ve done. I can quite honestly go out on a limb and say that Peter Cullen + ILM = all kinds of win.
A lot of people wanted this movie to fail; it had been bitched about ever since the director was announced, along with several leaked images. It’s now time to cut Michael Bay some slack, certainly in terms of how he’s decided to handle these wonderful machines. Unfortunately he does prove once more that he can’t work with scripts very well, or at least failed to point out its misgivings while being so obviously pre-occupied with blowing stuff up, thus denying the piece little in the way of emotional validity and tighter structuring.
But Transformers saving grace is that it doesn’t ever forget to be fun, and in light of such recent blockbusters, including the endless wave of comic book films that have taken themselves far too seriously that’s certainly commendable. Transformers does have its flaws; a lack of gripping narrative that hardly delves into the franchise’s rich mythology, but it’s driven by some of the most outstanding special effects ever committed to celluloid, backed by a strong cast of young faces and much-loved veterans. To put it more simply you’d have to be the most cynical bastard in the universe to not even remotely enjoy it, and that goes for the hard-core fans out there as well. It might not be the dream Transformers project, but it sure does take you on an enjoyable ride.
Thanks to Paramount for making this review possible.
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