Transformers (2007) dir. Michael Bay
Starring: Shia LeBeouf, Josh Duhamel, Megan Fox, Anthony Anderson, John Turturro, Jon Voight
I’ve taken a lot of heat for liking this film. It is possible to like Michael Bay and Bela Tarr at the same time? Of course. Watching “Transformers” on DVD - my third viewing - still brings childlike excitement to me. The story is completely ridiculous and paper thin, but Bay's enthusiasm for the art of action makes my eyes dilate.
“Transformers” is brawny machismo filmmaking. Fast cars, hot chicks, buff dudes, hard rock music, slo-mo explosions, big guns, big helicopters, and fighter jets. And when you include transforming robots that just sweetens the concoction.
The story centers on Sam Whitwiky, nerdy loser who buys his first car – a beat up yellow Camaro. His attachment to the car grows when he discovers it has a life of its own. Meanwhile, the U.S. military have been attacked by a series of alien robots (Decepticons) in the Middle East. The Decepticons proceed to hack into the military database system in search of a mysterious cube which fell to Earth from their home planet Cybertron many years ago. Sam discovers his car is actually one of a race of friendly robots (Autobots) who have come to protect Sam because he holds the key to finding the cube. A gigantic battle between the two sets of robots ensues to ensure the balance of peace on earth.
Taking a page from “War of the Worlds”, “Independence Day” and all other ‘aliens attack Earth films’, the suspense of the film derives from the reactions of the characters to the mystery surrounding the transformers. And even though we see our first robot transform in its full glory in the opening scene of the film, each time a new character sees something transform it’s like we’re seeing it for the first time as well. Bay embellishes these moments over and over again. But it never tires. The sight truly is awesome, due in large part to the seamless special effects of the robots.
Bay makes the CGI look so good because he puts them into real situations, real locations, real sets with real people. In the hands of someone like George Lucas who overuses the technology, the film could have quickly turned into an animated film. But we never feel as if we’re watching animated characters. The destruction is utterly real and knowing Michael Bay’s track record he probably destroyed a lot of property. The special features on the DVD confirm this. Love him or hate him, he must be commended for his enthusiasm for the work and his strict adherence to real, on location, hands-on filmmaking.
Though Bay is known for his action sequences, he also has his own brand of humour. And there’s nothing perfunctory about it either. “Transformers” is not ashamed to mock itself and its characters. Bay actually crafts some very witty and entertaining exchanges of dialogue. Sam’s parents steal their scenes from the robots when they barge into Sam’s bedroom. The quick dialogue is fun and razor sharp, and seems inspired by the madcapness of the Marx Brothers. Anthony Anderson is well cast as Glen Whitman, the nerdy hacker. The banter with Glen and his cousin whom we first see playing Dance Dance Revolution in his bedroom is hilarious. The moment is minute in the grand scheme of the film, but this attention to the detail elevates “Transformers” beyond just another action film.
As far as the story goes, it’s paper thin and unnecessarily so – atrocious actually and completely non-sensical. But was the cartoon anymore logical? There’s the obvious maguffin, in the form of the ‘energy cube’, and there’s more than enough speeches and voiceovered exposition that explain the backstory. I can’t let Bay off the hook on this one. If the attention to detail I just wrote about was taken to the plot, the film could have been even better.
I was a big Transformer fan in the 80’s and I take no offense to the creative changes to the story or design. Watch the Special Features to explain why the robot designs differ from original cartoon. I’m mean come on, it’s not “Lord of the Rings” or “Harry Potter” – “Transformers” should not be that precious.
Another fault is about the robot characters themselves. Though they are intricately designed, they lack any kind of character behind the metal. Bumblebee is the most interesting because of his attachment to Sam, but he rarely speaks due to a malfunction with his voice software program or something like that. Optimus Prime is a heroic and noble leader, but it’s because we are told that. Other than his speeches his nobility isn’t reflected in his actions. And aside from one line by Megatron to Starscream about their leadership quarrels, the Decepticons are non-existent as characters. I suspect these characters will be fleshed out in future sequels, so I guess we’ll have to wait.
And so, like the divergent audience of Bela Tarr – if you don’t like “Armageddon” or “Bad Boys II” or “The Island” don’t watch “Transformers” and if you do, your criticism will fall on deaf ears. Enjoy.