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Transformers

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 07/03/07 18:32:50

"Is to fanboys what jangling keys is to a baby. But in a good way."
3 stars (Just Average)

My film critic side is telling me that “Transformers” is a bloated mess riddled with plot holes, zero character development, and sloppy, cluttered action set pieces. My fanboy side is telling me that “Transformers” is a chance to see giant robots punch each other, while every now and then the script pulls out some Gen-X-pleasing catchphrases and references, and isn’t that a hoot?

Ultimately, there’s so much to like about - or, more accurately, be distracted by - “Transformers” that you don’t start not liking it until the credits roll and you realize it was all cotton candy, evaporating upon impact. Its first act, in which we watch as evil shape-shifting robots invade our planet in minor doses while skittish high schooler Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) discovers his dusty new Camaro is actually a good shape-shifting robot, lays some solid groundwork. For the time being, this is a very good movie, heavy on the comic relief and the nifty action and the mysterious suspense. But then the rest of the robots show up, and it all goes downhill, story-wise, although we never really mind because everything’s too busy blowing up, which is kinda awesome.

On the rare chance you didn’t know: the film is based on both the toy series popularized in the mid-1980s, robots that turned into cars, planes, etc. Fairly simple stuff, even if the product line managed to create a rather convoluted mythology involving the planet Cybertron and its war between the heroic Autobots and the villainous Decepticons. (As a Gen-Xer of the proper age, I was indeed a serious Transformers fan, and of course I still remember all the characters. Who could forget the awesomeness of Devastator, the giant robot made out of six other smaller robots?) The “robots in disguise” inspired several cartoon series, which effectively served as a long commercial for the toys (just like this new movie effectively serves as one long commercial for GMC, Hummer, Camaro, etc.), and an animated movie that’s become something of a cult classic. Efforts to bring the Transformers to the live-action realm have stumbled until now, when CGI can effectively bring giant talking/punching robots to life.

Yes, on a technical level, “Transformers” is a flat-out marvel. There’s never a single frame where these robots look fake, and the effects crew go to impossible lengths to capture even the slightest detail - dirty windshields, scratches and dents, all that stuff. We get a feel for the very weight of these things.

And yet. “Transformers” is directed by Michael Bay, which accounts for 97 percent of its unyielding stupidity. Here is a film that presents itself with mouth-breathing C-students in mind: a subtitle has to remind us that Qatar is in the Middle East, but it never bothers properly introducing its key villain because it figures the target audience already knows who Megatron is, so why bother? “Transformers,” like so many other Michael Bay movies, impresses us with sharp visuals and bombastic action sequences yet fails completely on a storytelling level.

Example: a large chunk of the plot involves the hunt for a pair of century-old eyeglasses, the lenses of which were somehow embedded with information revealing the location of the MacGuffin of the story, a giant cube called the “Allspark,” which is able to turn any mechanical thing into a Transformer. The Decepticons want the Allspark so they can turn Earth into a giant Transformer factory, killing off all humans in the process. The Autobots want the Allspark so they can prevent the Decepticons from conquering the planet. Got that?

Anyway. There are many scenes in which characters hem and haw over the location of these glasses, and many more in which the Autobots fight off sinister government forces convinced the robot aliens are evil. Much is made of the Autobot leader Optimus Prime’s eventual recovery of the spectacles, and the work done to decode the clues within. Still with me?

Good, because none of it matters. At all. Shortly after all of this goes down (and it takes up a cool hour of the running time), it’s revealed that, oh, the government found that Allspark thing years ago and moved it to a secret facility, so all that stuff about the glasses, hey, don’t bother.

Worse, the Allspark itself (a giant cube that - sigh - transforms into a smaller cube) is equally meaningless. It gives the heroes and villains something to fight over, sure, but when the credits roll, we sit back and realize that hey, that thing was the most useless plot device ever. Then there’s the plotline in which Sam must sell family heirlooms to be able to buy a new car; after all this set-up about his need for funds, it turns out that oh, he already had all the money he needed, and is just selling stuff for, I dunno, extra cash, or whatever. Sigh. It’s as if screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman figured once the robots started fighting each other in downtown L.A. (wait, weren’t they just a couple states away? aw, never mind), there’d be no reason to continue with any of that pesky “story” stuff. And if the writers aren’t even going to bother remembering what ideas they put in a few pages ago, what hope is there?

The whole thing is one long ADD rush, with coherency taking a back seat to loud noises and fast edits. Even when the film slows down long enough to make sense, it reveals a ludicrous Bay’s-eye view of the world, one in which all computer experts are sexy Australian models, Secretaries of State are gun-totin’ men of action, and serious emotional depth is reached by having the main character’s hottie girlfriend talk for a minute or two about how her dad is in prison, and that makes her sad.

As for our human hero, Sam, I wonder how much of his spastic jittery nervousness was inspired by Bay himself. Sam spends the majority of the film tweaked out of his mind, stammering and freaking in sweaty desperation - for no reason at all. The script injects race-against-time moments when none are needed; does the scene where Sam searches his room for those glasses need to be a frenzied oh-just-hold-on-I’m-gonna-find-them!!!!! twitch-fest? Of course not, but I suppose when Bay’s in charge, he needs to relate to his hero, and I guess that means having his hero be constantly juiced up on Red Bull and blow.

That spastic insanity fills the entire second half of the movie, and as such, nobody ever bothers making the robot characters actually important beyond roles of stuff-blower-uppers. We meet Optimus Prime, and Sam’s car, Bumblebee, takes on a distinctive charm (that, sadly, mostly disappears once the other Autobots show up), but the rest are generic no-names. When one Autobot is killed in action, we barely even notice beyond a pause to ask, wait, which one was that again?

The villains are the same way. We spend a lot of time with a tiny gremlin-esque baddie in the first half, and a scorpion-ish robot makes for a fantastic movie monster. But then the Decepticon head honchos arrive, and we don’t care at all. The finale is supposed to be a colossal battle between Optimus Prime and Megatron (complete with dialogue lifted from the 1986 movie as a hat-tip to the fan boys - even though the lines are edited in so poorly that it’s a bit of an embarrassment), but where’s the importance? Megatron spends most of the movie in suspended animation; once he comes to life, he actually manages to lose personality. The entire final battle becomes a jumble of random robots blowing up and/or blowing things up, and it’s impossible to keep score, let alone care.

(Late in the film, Megatron looks at his minion, Starscream, and moans, “You fail me again, Starscream.” This is a nod to the old cartoon, and it’s fun to see such things reappear here. But considering how in this movie, we barely know who either character is, such dialogue doesn’t even make any sense.)

And yet again. I keep coming back to the first half of the film, which features a very sharp knack for sheer good time-ness. Bumblebee communicates by selecting songs on the radio, which earns many laughs. The first robot-on-robot fight/chase scene packs in massive thrills. Despite his character’s obnoxiousness, LaBeouf lends the movie a certain charm, and later, the arrival of John Turturro as a loony government stooge is wickedly hilarious.

Such goodwill carries through the rest of the movie. Even when the story falls completely apart and we’re just watching stuff explode for explosions’ sake, we smile at it all, thrilled by the brash, bold idiocy of it all. “Transformers” is a terrible story, and one of the stupidest movies on record. But hey, it’s also, you know, really, really fun. Fun wins.

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