(Long Island, NY) Ah, the Transformers- I loved those things growing up. Initially starting out as a line of Japanese toys imported by Hasbro and released in America back in 1984, the idea of everyday, innocuous objects such as cars, jet planes and boom boxes that transformed into fighting robots caught the imagination of children everywhere. According to the storyline, the Transformers were sentient machines from the planet Cybertron that were divided into two separate camps at war with one another- the heroic Autobots and the evil Decpticons- with their conflict eventually leading them to Earth.
Once on our planet, their mechanical shape-shifting abilities allowed them to scan and imitate any mechanical device of equal size in order to blend in unnoticed. Unnoticed except at cash registers, that is, where the Transformers generated millions of dollars in profit for Hasbro. This triumph at retail lead to equally successful Transformer spin-offs, such as cartoons and comic books. It also lead to numerous rip-offs, such as the lowly Go-Bots, but that’s the last time I’ll mention those losers here.
Throughout the years, the Transformers have remained popular throughout many different incarnations (there have been new toys released ever year without fail since their inception
in 1984), but the characters of the original 1980’s line, such as the heroic Optimus Prime and the evil Megatron, remain the most popular by far (my personal favorite was Soundwave- why isn’t he in this movie?). Their enduring appeal has now resulted in a live-action, big-budget Hollywood movie treatment by the producer/director team of Stephen Spielberg and Michael Bay, both of whom are known for their summer blockbusters.
The two have treated the Transformers seriously and with respect, despite the series’ origin as a mere toy line. Most of the major points fans were clamoring for director Bay got right, and the little things he changed would be considered a big deal only by the most hardcore and socially maladjusted. However, the film does contain some glaring flaws when you look at it within the context of an actual movie and not a toy commercial, which I’ll discuss as I now dissect Mr. Bay’s latest cinematic offering.
The Autobots and Decpticons have been warring for thousands of years, laying waste to their home planet of Cybertron and extinguishing almost all life there in the process. They key to creating robotic life
anew, known as the Allspark (which looks a lot like a Borg cube from Star Trek), was lost to the farthest reaches of space and winds up on Earth (it’s amazing how these things always wind up here, isn’t it?). Megatron, the leader of the Decpticons and would-be dictator of Cybertron, sets out to track down the Allspark to augment his armies and subsequently disappears. For thousands of years afterwards, both the Autobots and Decpticons scour the galaxy for the Allspark, with the fate of their planet hanging in the balance.
Fast-forward to Earth, 2007, where we find ourselves in the war-torn Middle East. An unidentified MH-53 Pave Low helicopter has intruded into the U.S. Army’s airspace and is being escorted by fighter jets to their base for questioning. However, upon landing, the helicopter does something just a tad out of the ordinary- it reconfigures itself into a giant robot who proceeds to stomp the base into the ground like like you or I would an ant hill. The U.S. Government is naturally concerned when they learn of this development, and begin an investigation.
Afterwards, we are introduced to high school student Sam Witwicky (played by Shia LaBeouf of Disturbia fame), who is currently pining away not only for his first car, but for his beautiful classmate, Mikaela Banes (the aptly named Megan Fox). Mikaela currently appears out of reach (as she’s your typical movie girl in the sense that she’s dating a total jerk but doesn’t realize it yet), but at least the car isn’t, as his father is matching him dollar-for-dollar on the price. Father and son take a drive down to the used car lot, where a mysterious, beat-up 1974 Chevy Camaro falls right into Sam’s price range- and seems very interested in going home with him, the reason why to be revealed later.
Sam takes his new ride out for a spin and as luck would have it, it’s about this time that Mikaela realizes that her current beau is a creep and walks out on him. Sam uses this opportunity to do the right thing- he dumps his friend to the curb and offers Mikaela a ride home. On the way, Sam’s Camero seems to be doing everything in its power to help him woo his passenger, at one point even pretending to break down at a strategically romantic location. Later, the Camaro exhibits more odd behavior, like driving itself and even transforming into a giant robot, an event that Sam witnesses. Shocked by this (indeed, Camaros didn’t come with these options until 1975), Sam runs to the nearest police car, which ALSO transforms into a giant robot- however, this one proceeds to
Saved by his Camaro, Sam learns that the car is, in reality, an
Autobot named Bumblebee sent to protect him. After being introduced to Bumblebee’s fellow Autobots, including their leader Optimus Prime (whose alternate form is that of a Peterbuilt truck), some big questions are answered, including the obvious one: why is Sam so important? It turns out that his great-great grandfather, the famous explorer Captain Archibald Witwicky, had encountered frozen body of Decepticon leader Megatron over 100 years ago, entombed in ice in the Arctic Circle. Accidentally activating
Meg’s navigation systems, the coordinates of the location of the Allspark were etched by a laser beam into Captain Witwicky’s glasses- glasses that Sam had been trying to sell on Ebay recently for his car fund. It turns out that both the Autobots and Decepticons have web access, are aware of the glasses, and are hunting Sam down.
Thus begins a battle for possession of the Allspark, with the Decpticons wishing to use it to conquer Earth and destroy humanity, and the Autobots to repair their dead homeworld while protecting the inhabitants of Earth. As plots go it’s not Shakespeare, but it’s a toy movie- it’ll do.
Overall, Transformers was entertaining. The movie had a lot of charm and personality, and as a fan I really have to admit that the nostalgic rush I got from the film was amazing, especially when the Autobots finally landed on Earth and took their car forms. It was actually a little moving, seeing symbols of my childhood realized on the big screen. The fact that the producers recruited the voice talents of Peter Cullen, the original voice of Optimus Prime from the 80’s cartoon series, certainly helped in that regard. In addition, the film’s humor was spot-on, especially the amusing banter amongst the Autobots.
Visually, it practically melts your eyeballs. The computer graphics were astonishing, with nearly photo-realistic Autobots and Decpticons that seamlessly integrated with the actors and backgrounds. Their transformations between robot and vehicle forms were especially impressive. Industrial Light and Magic, who handled the Transformer graphics and whose processing and data storage capabilities were reportedly taken to their limits by the task, certainly earned their paycheck.
Later on in the film, the giant robot-on-robot battles are awe-inspiring- or rather, they would have been, if the camera had been pulled back about 20 feet and kept still for all of 2 seconds (yes, our friend the shaky-cam returns yet again). It’s almost a shame, as all that hard work was spent on rendering these amazing robots and the director almost seemed to be going out of his way to make them impossible to see in action.
As for the humans- first off, I have to say that Shia LaBeouf is a great actor. He took a character that would have been 100% annoying and that would have ruined the whole movie if played by anyone else on the planet and actually made him very likable. The rest of the cast was solid with the exception of John Turturro, whose practically ruins every single scene he’s in.
Speaking of bad, there was one major problem with Transformers- way too much emphasis was placed on the humans, and not enough on the robots. Director Michael Bay never put the human drama in the background and allowed the audience to get to know the robots. The fact is that there was almost too much going on with all the assorted human characters, story-wise, and it really hurts the movie at times. Originally, this was touted by Michael Bay in the press as simply the story of a boy and his car. But it’s not just the story of a boy and his car- it’s a boy and his car and the boy’s parents and his girlfriend and his great-great grandfather and the Government and their hackers and the friends of their hackers and their Dance Dance Revolution-playing cousins and secret undercover agencies and their annoying agents and the Army and their families and all sorts of other nonsense that took away from fleshing out the main reason people paid to see the movie- the giant robots.
Movies do this all the time- when a film’s main characters are inhuman or other-worldly, they feel the need to awkwardly insert “normal” characters (in this case, humans) so the audience has someone they can “relate” to, not realizing that it’s often unnecessary, at least to the degree displayed here. The personalities of the various Transformers were all clearly established in the beloved cartoons and comic books and that’s what the public wanted to see, not Anthony Anderson inhaling a plate of donuts or John Turturro in his undies.
It’s almost like they were trying to combine a children’s cartoon and a grown-up drama, and it just didn’t quite gel. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of robots running around and they got an adequate amount of screen time, but the spotlight was always clearly shining on the humans.
Overall, I’d say Transformers was good, but a little disappointing at the same time. The obvious sequel they set up for at the end should be mind-blowing if they fix the problems this one had, because what they got right they really nailed. And with the vast Transformers Universe to choose characters from, I’m really looking forward to what the next film brings to the table.