Movie Review: Transformers

Transformers
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Transformers (2007)

Starring Shia LeBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, Rachael Taylor, Anthony Anderson, Jon Voight, John Turturro, Michael O’Neill, Kevin Dunn, Peter Cullen, Darius McCrary, Mark Ryan, Jess Harnell, Robert Foxworth, and Elrond Half-Elven.

Directed by Michael Bay.

Somewhere in the frozen northern wilderness, deep within a remote facility, a mechanical being has slumbered for countless years. His name is Optimus Prime, he is the leader of the noble Autobots, and he is probably in a box in the attic, almost certainly missing one of the blue fists that were stored in his passenger compartment when he made his awesome transformation from robot to flat-nosed Mack truck.

Though I dreamed of commanding massive armies of Autobots and their evil enemies, the Decepticons, I owned only two Transformers toys as a boy: Optimus Prime and Skywarp, a black and purple Decepticon who transformed into a fighter jet. Despite their lack of transforming teammates, Skywarp and Optimus Prime engaged in many an afternoon battle, often recruiting LEGO constructs and other toys to their causes.

Skywarp does not appear in the new Transformers movie, and Optimus Prime is now a long-nosed Peterbilt with kickin’ flame job. Also absent is Prime’s trailer; the classic toy tows a box trailer that transforms into a mobile Combat Deck containing Roller, a small scout vehicle resembling a Mars rover. In the movie, Optimus Prime is never seen towing a trailer of any kind.

[Note: Freedom from spoilers is the right of all sentient beings. The following contains plot details about Transformers that you might not wish revealed until after you’ve seen the movie.]

It was inevitable that the Transformers—even the iconic Optimus Prime—undergo another sort of transformation when Michael Bay brought them to the big screen. Unfortunately, diehard fanboys (myself included) are reluctant to look away from the red Tech Spec decoder filter through which we view the mid-1980s, and the slightest change—no matter how practical or necessary—is seen as sacrilege. When it was announced that Michael Bay would be directing Transformers, it was (if I may be allowed to mix my pop culture metaphors) as though a million voices suddenly cried out in anguish.

In all fairness to Mr. Bay, I think we overreacted a bit. True, Transformers has pretty much all of Bay’s trademark qualities—lots of explosions, plenty of slow motion, ((If you find yourself in a Michael Bay motion picture, you should be resigned to that fact that you will be getting in and/or out of a vehicle in slow motion at some point. As surely as Joanie loves Chachi, Michael Bay loves slow-motion vehicle ingress and egress.)) an overwrought love story—but it also has a satisfying number of “hell yeah” moments, excellent armaments, a sweeping sense of grandeur, and giant robots that transform into cars, jets, tanks and helicopters in the blink of an eye at a hundred miles per hour.

For centuries, the Transformers have been searching the universe for the Allspark, a cube with “the power to create worlds and fill them… with life.” Megatron, leader of the evil Decepticons, is also missing, and nearly forty years ago the Transformers first encountered humans in the far reaches of space, an encounter that ultimately led them to believe that both Megatron and the Allspark are on Earth. ((These events are described in Ghosts of Yesterday, the official prequel novel to the movie, but I don’t particularly recommend reading it.))

One of the biggest fears in the fanboy camp was that Michael Bay would make Transformers more about the human characters than the Transformers themselves. Whether Bay could reasonably be expected to make a movie in which the human point of view takes a backseat to a much, much taller perspective is a debate I happily leave to more diehard fans than myself. There’s no question that a pink, squishy homo sapiens named Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf) is the primary protagonist in Transformers, and while this opens the door to humans grabbing more screen time than the robots, it also allows for two very effective sequences in which first the Decepticons and then the Autobots reveal themselves.

Intending to search the United States military computer network for evidence that might reveal the location of Megatron and the Allspark, a Decepticon named Blackout disguises himself as a Sikorsky MH-53 Pave Low helicopter and lands at a military installation in Qatar. Transforming into a towering robot, Blackout proceeds to kick almost every camouflaged ass in the vicinity. My only complaint about Blackout’s attack is that—when compared with his fast-moving, diving, dodging, spinning robot brethren—the Decepticon seemed more like a lumbering heavy mech from Battletech than a Transformer; the attack was impressive (I loved Blackout’s radial electromagnetic pulse weapon), but had a very different feel from the remainder of the action in the movie (which is not always a bad thing).

After the assault in Qatar, an Autobot scout named Bumblebee infiltrates a used car dealership disguised as a rusted yellow Chevrolet Camaro ((At the dealership, Bumblebee parks next to a classic Volkswagen Beetle, which was his vehicle form in the original iteration of the Transformers in 1984.)) and is purchased by young Sam Witwicky. Sam soon learns that his Camaro has some strange quirks, not the least of which is the fact that it drives itself and transforms into a giant robot.

Sam, like most humans, fears what he doesn’t understand; fleeing from his demonically-possessed car, the boy stumbles across a police car whose mission (as seen emblazoned on its rear quarter panel) is “to punish and enslave”. Sam soon learns that his Camaro isn’t the only giant robot on the planet when the Saleen-modified Ford Mustang police cruiser transforms into the Decepticon known as Barricade. What follows is a combination car chase and robot battle with rocking guitar riffs accentuating the screeching tires and metal-on-metal body blows. When the soundtrack kicked in, a voice in the back of my head shouted “Hell yeah!” and I couldn’t help but grin as the chase began.

Another such moment occurs after Mikaela (Megan Fox), Sam’s girlfriend-to-be asks why, if Bumblebee is such a bad ass, he disguises himself as a piece of crap beat up Camaro. Bumblebee responds by pulling over and ejecting both teenagers, leaving them apparently stranded. A moment later, the Autobot returns, and as the camera pans over the sleek, yellow lines of his new form—a prototype 2008/2009 Camaro—Tomoyasu Hotei’s “Battle Without Honor or Humanity” fills the auditorium. ((“Battle Without Honor or Humanity” was used in trailers for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Volume 1. It is a very recognizable song, filled with cymbal crashes and bold trumpet, and especially apropos when Bumblebee’s yellow finish with bold black racing stripes is compared with the movie poster and DVD cover for Tarantino’s movie, both of which feature a field of yellow bisected by a thick black vertical line.))

Following Sam’s escape from Barricade, the remaining Autobots fall to Earth in their “protocomet” form and, after selecting their various forms—Ironhide (Jess Harnell), a black GMC Topkick ; Jazz (Darius McCrary), a silver Pontiac Solstice; Ratchet (Robert Foxworth), a yellow Hummer H2; and Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), the aforementioned blue-and-red Peterbilt semi—reveal themselves to Sam.

The Autobots arrival, perhaps more than any other part of Transformers, induced a thrilling sense of nostalgia and is another of those “hell yeah” moments. Even Michael Bay patting himself on the back in the form of an excited boy remarking that the protocomets falling to Earth was “more awesome than Armageddon” did little to diminish the ineffable sensation of pure, unadulterated fanboy bliss I felt when Optimus Prime adopted the form of a passing semi-truck and then moments later transformed into the familiar, towering robot for the first time.

Then Optimus Prime spoke and my inner fanboy’s head exploded. Prime, as it turns out, is something of a Fanboy’s Paradox: we cheered at the news that Peter Cullen—who provided Prime’s voice in the first animated television series as well as the 1985 animated movie—would be reprising his role as the Autobot leader. Cullen’s voice is every bit as intrinsic to the character of Optimus Prime as is the distinctive design of the robot’s head and face… and that’s where the Paradox begins. The Optimus Prime of old has no mouth; a very distinct faceplate covers the lower half of his face. Bay’s Prime still has the faceplate, but it slides back to reveal—horror of horrors—robotic lips on robotic jaws!

I can only speculate as to the justification for this travesty, but I believe the intent was to make the character seem more human and give him the ability to emote. Whatever the reason, it just didn’t work for me. Did Darth Vader need a mouth to emote? No! It was all accomplished through body language (thank you, David Prowse) and excellent voice acting (thank you, James Earl Jones). Of all the changes that were made to the characters, this is the one that my inner fanboy refuses to accept; he cannot imagine any practical scenario that justifies slapping a mouth on Optimus Prime.

On the flip side of the mouth issue, we have Megatron, who was voiced not by Frank Welker, but by Hugo Weaving. This would have been an excellent casting choice but for one tiny little detail: Weaving’s voice has been electronically filtered to the point of being unrecognizable. It’s a shame, too, because Megatron would have benefited greatly if Weaving’s personality had been able to pierce through the heavy effects; a little of Agent Smith’s delightful scorn for humanity from The Matrix would have gone a long way to bring character to the Decepticon leader.

Moving right along…

Back in the desert of Qatar, it seems that several soldiers escaped Blackout’s assault on the military base. As they make their way across the scorching landscape in search of a phone, they are pursued by Scorponok, a scorpion-like Decepticon who burrows beneath the sand and attacks just as the soldiers reach a small village. Using a borrowed cellular phone, Sgt. Lennox (Josh Duhamel) contacts the Pentagon and calls for air support as the remainder of the soldiers attempt to fend off Scorponok’s onslaught.

The Decepticon shrugs off the aerial assault until he finds himself at the receiving end of a barrage from a Lockheed AC-130H gunship, which circles high above and fires high-caliber incendiary rounds. The camera shot of the gunship banking over the village with its side-mounted guns blazing tickled my reptilian brain even as the thunderous report of the Howitzers rattled my ribcage. Bay may not be subtle, but he does big and loud very well.

Eventually, a Decepticon named Frenzy ((Frenzy is a small Decepticon who disguises himself as a CD boombox. A quick shot in one of the movie trailers shows the boombox beginning its transformation, which gave me a glimmer of false hope that Soundwave, one of my favorite Decepticons, would make an appearance. Frenzy is a poor substitute, usually coming off as a vulgar interpretation of Johnny Five from Short Circuit.)) locates Megatron and the Allspark and sends a message to his sneaky comrades—Starscream (Charlie Adler), a Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor; Devastator, an M1 Abrams tank and Bonecrusher (Jimmie Wood), a Buffalo mine protected vehicle—all of whom have been quietly biding their time for most of the movie.

Frenzy successfully sabotages the cryogenic system that keeps Megatron (designated “Ice Man” by Sector 7, a top secret government agency) ((When Ice Man is revealed, the movie contradicts events that occur in Ghosts of Yesterday. In the novel, Sector 7 arranges a convoy to transport Ice Man from the Arctic Circle to Arizona in 1969, a convoy that is ambushed by Russians; in the film, a Sector Seven operative tells Secretary of State Keller (Jon Voight) that Ice Man was moved to the Arizona facility in 1935, shortly after Captain Archibald Witwicky (William Morgan Sheppard) accidentally stumbled across the frozen robot on an Arctic expedition.)) safely in stasis. With the assistance of Bumblebee, Sam removes the Allspark from beneath the Hoover Dam (where it has lain since President Herbert Hoover ordered the dam be built around it in 1931) and flees the awakening Decepticon leader.

Autobots and Decepticons clash in the fictional Mission City, where Megatron and Optimus Prime go head-to-head in a winner-take-all battle for the championship title. There are plenty of explosions and the property damage is impressive; twenty-foot-tall robots make big dents when they run into things like skyscrapers.

The sequence that stood out for me in the Mission City battle was not between Optimus Prime and Megatron, but between Starscream and the Air Force. When Sgt. Lennox and Tech Sergeant Epps (Tyrese Gibson) call in aerial reinforcements, Starscream slips into the ranks of the incoming Air Force Raptors and wreaks incredible havoc, transforming from jet to robot and back again in mid-air while taking out one F-22 after another. By the time the Air Force pilots realize that one of the Raptors flying with them isn’t supposed to be there, it’s too late; Starscream (Megatron’s second-in-command and always a bit of a screwup in the animated television series) has decimated the fighters. Unfortunately, the sequence is over far too quickly, and Starscream—displaying his characteristic cowardice—disappears during the final battle.

For all its explosions, collateral damage, and aerial acrobatics, the battle in Mission City also highlights two of my major problems with Transformers: the robot design and the hyper-kinetic camera work. Both serve to make the action very difficult to follow.

When in their robot modes, most of the transformers look very… busy. There are a lot of sharp angles formed by hundreds of pointy pieces of metal, all of which tend to make one robot very much resemble another. Optimus Prime, Bumblebee and (to a lesser extent) Ratchet stand out due to their distinctive coloring, but the remainder of the robots are silver and black and don’t have features that would help in distinguishing one from another.

The problem is exacerbated by camera shots that are shaky and a preponderance of quick jump cuts from one point in the action to another. The end result is certainly a battle between two or more giant robots, but it quickly becomes difficult to tell which robot is which, what exactly they are doing, and who (if anybody) is winning.

When Bay does allow his camera to linger, it is almost always on the exceptionally curvy Megan Fox. During Sam’s clumsy attempts to gain Mikaela’s affections, the camera doesn’t so much pan over Fox’s body as drool over it. As I’ve noted before, Michael Bay isn’t much for subtlety, and nowhere is that more obvious than in the final sequence of the movie, in which Sam and Mikaela are making out on Bumblebee’s hood while the other Autobots linger nearby like fuel-injected voyeurs, courtesy of Ford and General Motors. The scene is established by a blatant shot of Fox’s ample upper chassis that pans to reveal LeBeouf and the Camaro on which they both reclined. Subtle it wasn’t, but I was struck by a sudden desire to visit my local Chevrolet dealer.

Despite its flaws, I enjoyed Transformers. Granted, at times it seemed like Michael Bay couldn’t decide whether he was making a romantic teen comedy or the sequel to Black Hawk Down, but all things considered I was quite pleased with the final product (certainly enough to pick up the inevitable two-disc Platinum Deluxe Collector’s Edition DVD set ((Transforms into matching drink coasters!)) when it is released later this year). I don’t believe any irreparable damage has been done to my precious and fondest childhood memories, and I think the next time I visit my parents I may rescue Optimus Prime from his dusty cardboard containment cell so I can share some of those memories with my young apprentice in the near future. ((Okay, and I want to see if I can remember how to change him from semi-truck to robot and back.))