I guess there's some good news and bad news here. The good news is that Transformers is Michael Bay's best movie to date. The bad news is that that's kind of like winning the "World's Prettiest Slug" competition. By definition, Michael Bay movies begin at "watchable" and work their way down from there. Since I think this is as good as it's going to get with him, let me be the first to declare - "Transformers is perfectly watchable!"
By Shane Jenkins
July 11, 2007
But dammit, it should have been more than merely "watchable." I know this a movie based on a toy line, and, while I've never played with the toys or seen the TV series or 1986 movie, I bought into the hype a little. The trailers were pretty great, the robots looked fearsome, and I convinced myself that producer Steven Spielberg would have a mellowing effect on Bay, who I hoped would tone down his patented seizure-inducing camera and editing style that makes his action scenes all-but incomprehensible.
Not so much. But the worst offense of Transformers is that it's kind of boring. I would have thought that all the jokes about the animal cracker scene in Armageddon might have entered Bay's consciousness a little, but if there's a director alive who sticks to his over-sized and polished guns, it's him. Transformers is full of "animal cracker" scenes, where new It-boy Shia LaBeouf woos improbable high-schooler Megan Fox. LaBeouf's a better actor than Ben Affleck, at least in that he manages not to look incredibly bored when taking these big paycheck roles. But even his disarming likability isn't enough for us to care about his character too much. This is Transformers, and we paid to see big Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots do some damage. It's not quite as bad as Roland Emmerich's Godzilla, where the titular character disappears for a 45 minute stretch of the movie while Matthew Broderick and Maria Pitillo bicker, but it's not as far away from that as it should be, either.
And then there's all the "comedy." Really, we're only halfway through the summer, and I've already had all the action comedy I can handle. Fresh on the heels of the sitcom-with-effects that was Fantastic Four 2, Transformers offers up giant alien robots that learned English from the Internet, and therefore say things like "my bad" when stepping on flowers. This movie will be outdated in about two weeks. There's also a little evil robot (the bad ones are called Decepticons) who's like an Ewok crossed with Short Circuit's Johnny 5 (if Ewoks and Johnny 5 were, you know, evil). It twitters and coos as it scurries around wreaking electronic havoc and performing unconvincing physical comedy, and you just want to kick it back to whatever the hell planet it came from. The human comedy's not much better, with a paint-by-numbers Bernie Mac cameo, and a conversation about masturbation between Sam and his parents. OMG LOL, which is about the only annoying thing the Transformers don't say.
I know, I know. I said it was watchable. And it mostly is, thanks to the crack effects team. I don't agree with the design of the robots, who, for the most part, are too spiky and complex for us to realize which end is up, but they did a fine job of bringing them to life. The leader of the good robots is Optimus Prime, a red, white, and blue semi (USA! USA!) who speaks with a deep, commanding tone (when not forced to utter lame pop culture catchphrases), and is voiced by Peter Cullen, a holdover from the TV series and the animated movie. Being a non-fan, this doesn't mean too much to me, but I admire the producers for throwing the faithful a bone, and not insisting on Liam Neeson or James Earl Jones. Prime is clearly the Christ figure of the series, and I wonder if the producers would have had more luck selling this movie to churches than the holy abomination that was Evan Almighty.
The actual physical transformations from vehicles to robots and back again are pretty great. The digital animators have done a fine job of making the motions of these machines seem almost organic. My favorite of the good robots (the Autobots) is Bumblebee, the giant robot that turns into Sam's first car, a canary yellow Camaro. Bumblebee can't speak (which may be why he's my favorite), so he communicates through songs on the radio. This leads to more "comedy," of course, but I was willing to overlook it, because Bumblebee is more or less Sam's dog, and who doesn't love a dog? This is sort of like Bay's version of My Dog Skip, only with guns and cheesy nu-metal.
Unfortunately, Transformers is one of those films, like the Tenacious D movie, that hits its peak in the first scene. It has a great opening, where a robot disguised as a military helicopter attacks a U.S. military base in Qatar. There's some explosive action and effects, and Bay actually manages to conjure up some suspense, as the soldiers try to figure out how to stop a threat that is beyond the scope of their training. I was hoping that this is the type of movie Transformers would be - a straight-up alien attack movie, in the vein of Aliens. In reality, the tone is more like Flight of the Navigator (jeez, I'm old). The climactic battle between Jesus vs. Satan, I mean, Prime vs. Megatron, is certainly noisy and destructive, but it doesn't have the clarity of that first scene. It's too chaotic and difficult to tell which pointy metal robot is decking which other pointy metal robot.
I haven't even really gotten into the ridiculous plot. There's some nonsense involving Sam's great-great-grandfather's spectacles on eBay, an enormous power cube that can magically shrink down to the size of a UPS box, Mars, Sam's report card, etc. It's all pretty dumb, and the flimsiest story imaginable to get from one action scene to another. And I didn't mention the staggering amount of product placement on display here. To show this movie on commercial TV would be redundant. But all of this would be forgivable if the action really delivered. It doesn't, though. You may leave the theater in awe of the technology that was used to create the movie, but that's not the kind of awe Transformers was going for.