The Good: Special effects, General attempt to create a larger sense of the world.
The Bad: Terrible acting, No real character development, Direction, Light on plot
The Basics: In an often-ridiculous special effects film, Transformers shows the appearance of giant robots who camouflage themselves as vehicles bringing their war to Earth.
As I entered the last few hours between when I have to "fish or cut bait," as it were, on an opportunity to journey down to see Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen at the Smithsonian IMAX with director Michael Bay (it was a VERY cool offer and given I had a free ticket to the event, it was very tempting), I found myself considering the original film Michael Bay released for Summer Blockbuster Season two years prior and that I saw for the very first time the night before the special event in order to prepare myself for the sequel. I was surprised to realize that I had never actually watched a Michael Bay film before seeing Transformers, so that might have been cool. In fact, it turns out the only film I had seen where Michael Bay had a big role was Friday The Thirteenth, which Bay produced. So, with one strike against Bay, I sat down and watched Transformers on DVD in my home theater. This, though, made the decision to drive six hours to see the director and the newer film in IMAX very easy. Arguably the best deterrent to wasting my time and money (and possibly just asking "Really?! Are you serious? This is the best you've got?" to the director), is seeing the film upon which the sequel was based. And, before any potential trips arise for Transformers: Dark Of The Moon, I think it’s good for me to be thinking of this film.
That might seem like a cruel assessment for a film based upon an animated series which was built around a popular toy line, especially when one considers that films like Masters Of The Universe were nowhere near as successful as Transformers, what made my stomach sink after this boring, overbearing special effects flick was seeing who wrote it. Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who are responsible for the reboot of Star Trek (reviewed here!) also have the indistinction of writing this trainwreck. Where they were creative and clever for the Star Trek reimagining, here they are a strange mix of overly ambitious as storytellers and cliche in the dumbest possible ways with their few attempts at making character. All of this is eventually for naught, though, as the final act is devoid of even the pretense of character and instead devotes itself to huge special effects battles that soon become repetitive and unimpressive. And the easy bottomline here is this: this is very much a "guy's movie" with utterly unrealistic women, a boy living out pretty much the male fantasy for a seventeen year-old, cars (where the very act of driving is supposed to be impressive or cool) and big explosions.
In the desert of Qatar, a United States military installation is attacked and the target of the attack seems to be a classified database. The mechanical assailant, cut off by a hard-line cut, appears to be searching for an object in U.S. custody. In the wake of the attack, Defense Secretary John Keller mobilizes every possible resource to determine who the attacker is and how to disable the new weapon system that seems invincible. Meanwhile, in the United States, Sam Witwicky is a high school junior who is trying to sell his grandfather's relics on eBay to afford a car for himself. His father takes him to purchase a car and he leaves the lot with a little yellow jalopy that he is not truly wild about. The car soon begins to cause problems for Sam, communicating through the radio and doing its best to hook Sam up with an attractive, but snooty popular girl named Mikaela.
The storylines rapidly converge as Sam is hunted by giant robots who realize that his grandfather's glasses contain an imprint with the coordinates to the mysterious object that is being sought by two mechanical armies. As the military forces flee the active Decepticons who are searching for an object known as the All Spark, Sam - and his car, a robot named Bumblebee - is rescued by the leader of the Autobots, Optimus Prime. The Autobots are seeking the All Spark to try to save Earth from the war they inadvertently brought here. The problems multiply, though, when the special teams that converge at the Hoover Dam - where the Decepticon leader, Megatron, has been kept cryogenically suspended for decades - and Megatron is reanimated and the All Spark is left in the hands of a boy.
I feel like I have been running low on synonyms lately, so perhaps simplicity is what Transformers truly demands, given the way the film degenerates into a simple shoot-em-up popcorn flick; Transformers is bad. Transformers is so bad that the only reason theaters are currently packed with people checking out the sequel is that it made so much money. And by the end of Transformers, there is only truly one character who is "franchise" who actually has to be returned for the sequel. Seeing as though that character is played by Shia LaBeouf - whose acting career as the star of summer blockbusters seems to prove that miracles can happen and talent is not necessary for Hollywood success - one suspects that the relative expenses of the sequel were fairly low. In other words, no one is tuning into Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen or Transformers: Dark Of The Moon for the storyline or characters, they want to see a big special effects film and to be dazzled without having to think about much of what is going on.
Sadly, that is where Orci, Kurtzman and Bay put the viewers of Transformers as well. The film is remarkably busy and stupidly simple before it becomes a fairly lame special effects flick. I say "fairly lame special effects" even though the special effects are arguably the best thing this movie has going for it in the end because while director Michael Bay employs some ridiculously talented people for the special effects, he has little in the way of eye for making it interesting. As I watched Transformers, there was a shot in the film where missiles are being fired and giant robots are running that looked ridiculously familiar. I realized that it was because I had seen the exact same shot - framing, movement, explosions, etc. - in the trailer for the new G.I. Joe film (reviewed here!). This is not Bay's fault, but then I realized the shot was pretty much the archetypal running gunfight shots, just with bigger guns.
Where does Transformers go right? The movie starts fairly well, with the idea that there is something of international consequence going on and that no single group can figure it out. The Secretary Of Defense reasonably calls in all possible analysts in order to try to evaluate the weapon's system that attacked the U.S. in Qatar. But by the time "Sector Seven" emerges, though, the sense of reality has already been mortgaged by too much time spent with Sam Witwicky.
Sam is a pretty dull high school student who is interested in girls and cars and that's about all. He slides by doing the least possible work and that his teacher bumps his grade from a botched oral report up because of "What Would Jesus Do?" would be decent farce if only the rest of the movie were nearly as smart. Instead, though, Bay's Transformers quickly becomes less about character and any sense of how real agencies would react to an attack from giant robots to a ridiculous chase around the world with little sense of consequence or character.
In the special effects, Bay and his people get the film very wrong by an almost complete neglect of basic physics. One Autobot, Jazz, does a few funky dance moves before sliding onto the hood of a car. The last time I saw one car or car-weight/car-material object strike another car the result was not a robot leaning back looking the robot equivalent of urban funky. It was a mess. Okay, Bay wants viewers to turn their brains off. But there is turning one's brain off and there's lobotomizing oneself. Sam and Mikaela get bumped around quite a bit, falling great distances only to be caught by giant metal hands. Yet, they never react like they are in pain or that there is any consequence to the dives they take.
This brings us back to the acting in Transformers. When the cast is led by actors like Shia LaBeouf, whose acting differed very little from the virtual version of LaBeouf used in special effect sequences in Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull (reviewed here!), one has to cringe. Megan Fox and Rachael Taylor are cast for the obvious salivation factor that the average viewer of this PG-13 will bring to the theater. Taylor is asked to play an analyst and while that might be plausible, the fact that she picks up an accent halfway through the film is just terrible. Josh Duhamel is plausible as Captain Lennox, though he had more dramatic gravitas back when he was on All My Children. Lennox's cliche "soldier waiting to meet his baby girl back home" is so canned that one suspects Duhamel was cast for the role because he was the only actor who could pull off the lines with a straight face, whatwith his background on soaps.
But the mystery here is how Bay managed to snag John Turturro and Jon Voight for Transformers. Turturro, more than any other performer in this film, is used in a way that completely mortgages his credibility as a great actor. Turturro performs well with the virtual characters, but arrives in the film long after most viewers will care and will be looking for anything remotely about performance.
On DVD, Transformers is accompanied by Transformers: Beginnings, which is a seventeen minute, poorly animated feature that spells out the complete backstory of Transformers. Illustrated - where the film merely tells - the program shows Bumblebee sending the All Spark away from Cybertron (the planet of the Transformers) and the pursuit by Megatron. After Megatron arrives in the primordial soup and is sucked under the surface, ages go by until Captain Witwicky finds him and sets off the events in the feature film. This is all covered in the actual film, so it is pretty much a waste of time.
Then again, I suspect that for most film buffs, watching the Transformers Beginnings disc and then the trailer for the film will be more than enough to entertain them. The trailer contains many of the big special effect battles, a few shots of Megan Fox and the shots of the Transformer as ordinary cars and trucks driving along a desert road. That's about the substance of the film in a nutshell. Life is too short for more.
For other big budget special effect-driven films, please check out my reviews of:
Battle Los Angeles
For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!
© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.