When I saw the first preview for "Transformers", the new film directed by Michael Bay ("Armageddon", "The Rock"), I was less than impressed. "Gee, they are using CGI to animate giant robots based on a popular line of toys. They're invading Earth". Yawn. But with each new preview, and it seems like I saw hundreds, my interest grew. Each new preview provided a glimpse of a new part of the film, something that could be really exciting. So, it comes at great surprise to realize "Transformers" could end up being one of my favorite films of the summer.
Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf, "Disturbia", "Surf's Up", "Indiana Jones 4") is a nerdy Junior in high school. In his history class, he manages to embarrass himself in front of Mikaela (Megan Fox), the prettiest girl in school, by trying to sell some old family heirlooms; a pair of glasses his grandfather was wearing when he made a great discovery at the North Pole in the early Twentieth Century. Sam is trying to raise some money; his dad (Kevin Dunn) has promised to help him buy a car if he raises half of the money and earns 4 As. They end up buying an old, beaten up Camaro, but Sam is drawn to the car, it seems to speak to him, to help him out in times of need. Meanwhile, in Qatar, Captain Lennox (Josh Duhamel, TV's "Las Vegas") is getting ready to come home when an unidentified helicopter approaches the base. As soon as it lands, it transforms into a large robot and wreaks havoc with the base. Its goal? To hack into the defense system of the United States and steal as much information as possible. Captain Lennox and his men manage to escape. Back home, the Secretary of Defense (Jon Voight) is concerned about the hack and enlists a number of civilian specialists. The only thing they were able to retrieve was a strange signal. Just as Maggie (Rachel Taylor), a civilian enlisted by the government to help, is about to figure out what the signal is, she realizes they are hacking into the system again. Soon, Sam's Camaro transforms into Bumblebee, a member of a small group of Transformers called the Autobots, led by Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen, who voiced the character in the original television series), who were sent to Earth to prevent Megatron (voiced by Hugo Weaving, Agent Smith in "The Matrix, V in "V for Vendetta") and the rest of the Decepticons from retrieving the All Spark, a large cube containing enormous power; Megatron wants to use the cube to destroy, Optimus Prime wants to destroy the cube to keep it out of evil hands. Soon, all of the humans are engaged in a battle to stop Megatron and his evil associates and Sam finds himself smack dab in the middle.
Directed by Michael Bay, produced by Steven Spielberg and starring the new It Kid in Hollywood (La Beouf), "Transformers" is surprisingly good. Anytime Spielberg is attached to a project, it is generally a safe bet he will ensure at least an entertaining film, but even he has had a share of misfires and I feared this might be such an occasion. But Bay reigns in his once infamous rapid-fire editing and concentrates more on story and character than special effects. Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of special effects, and they are great, but in "Transformers", he spends a significant amount of screen time on character and story development, making the film better, richer and more detailed than you might expect.
I was dubious about a film based on a popular toy of the 80s, fearing it was just an effort to relaunch the brand. Hasbro is one of the first names listed in the credits and it probably will help relaunch the toy to a new generation, but the toys are brought to life by some great special effects. When we see Sam's yellow Camaro transform into Bumblebee for the first time, we believe it. And the transformation is fast, and seems very fluid, giving us a feeling of what will come. Everything in "Transformers" moves fast, amping up the action and the danger. If Bumblebee can transform this quickly, Megatron and all of the evil Decepticons will have the same power. Also, these robots move fast, at one point seeming to skate after each other down a busy freeway, the Decepticons crushing any and all vehicles in their way.
Sam is your typical teenager; he wants a car and he wants a girl. He is disappointed to learn all he can really afford is a beaten-up Camaro, but any car is better than none at all, so as soon as the car is his, he takes great pride in it. When he and a buddy take the car out for a drive, they approach the jocks and other cool kids at a nearby lake. Mikaela is clearly having trouble relating to her jock boyfriend and walks off alone. Sam views this as an opportunity and offers her a ride. She accepts and the car seems to realize Sam needs a little help because it plays music to help Sam woo his dream girl. Later, an extended scene when Sam is trying to keep Mikaela and the Autobots hidden from his parents (Kevin Dunn and Julie White) leads to some laughs but also helps to establish all of these characters.
As the story progresses, we learn more and more about Sam's grandfather and how this ties into the rest of the story. It is a nice touch and helps the story immeasurably, given it an air of authenticity. Yes, I know we are talking about a movie in which giant robots do battle, but this back-story helps make the whole thing seem more realistic.
From the first appearance of Captain Lennox (Duhamel), we learn about his wife and child and this helps to explain why he is so determined to stay alive.
It is also nice to see Voigt's Secretary of Defense listen to civilians and take action quickly. So often in these big budget action films, the government officials ignore any and all advice, acting like stupid morons. I'm not sure which performance is closer to the truth (I have my suspicions!) but it just seems to make more sense for these people to listen to people in a time of crisis.
A number of actors pop up in small roles, giving the film little injections of humor and levity. Bernie Mac plays the used car salesman who sells the Camaro to Sam and his dad. John Turturro pops up as a mysterious agent in a mysterious division of the government. These roles help to add spice to the already well-written and well-made film, giving it another layer of depth and interest.
As the film progresses and more and more of the Transformers come to life, morphing into their robot selves, you quickly realize you are in for more, something different from just a toy tie-in movie. As mentioned previously, the robots move really fast and this helps to hold our interest. We never know when something new or exciting will pop up. In one scene, one of the Transformers becomes a jet and flies through the air, twirling around and quickly becomes his robot persona, before landing on the war-torn streets of Los Angeles, ready to engage in battle. The film contains a number of action sequences I think I will remember for some time. Particularly impressive are the scenes in which a Decepticon attacks the Army base in Qatar and a chase down a Los Angeles freeway.
Michael Bay, who became a bit of a stereotype for his use of over-editing in his last few films (See "Armageddon" for an example of this), manages to tone it down a bit. He actually lingers on shots long enough for us to see them and to identify them and to experience what they are experiencing. It is almost refreshing to see Bay slow down a bit, because it makes the action in the film all the more believable, interesting and fun to watch.
Bay does manage to sneak in a few of what I'll call his signature "American Fabric" shots. In one scene, two characters are laying together in an embrace on top of their car. The camera lingers across them, as the sky behind is a deep orange, indicating a summer sunset. He does this a few times in most of his films to show how 'ordinary' the characters are and to make their impending danger or the danger they just faced successfully all the more real. But the director does manage to forgo one trademark of these shots; the American Flag isn't waving in the background. This one element just makes these shots a little too 'on the nose', a little too hokey for their own good.
"Transformers" isn't perfect. Initially, when the Transformers communicate, we see their language on screen, a weird alphabet made up of strange symbols, quickly translated into English subtitles. But later, they begin to speak, using a monotone deep bass. It is difficult for a large robot to show emotion and when they are using a fairly stereotypical robot type of delivery, it doesn't help them become any more personable. Even the Autobots, the good guys, seem stiff when they are given voice and begin discussing the state of the battle. They express empathy for the humans, but this technique just doesn't work. I never watched the television show, or played with the toys, and I understand they had voices in the show, but the filmmakers should have stuck to the subtitles.
Also, as in most summer blockbusters, the ending is overblown. Both divisions of the Transformers wage battle against one another in the streets of Downtown Los Angeles. Of course, Sam and Mikaela are in the center of things, as are Captain Lennox and his men and the rest of the secret division of the government. Some of the stunts and the action are impressive, but it goes on too long. They literally have to chase Sam up to the top of a building, putting him in danger of falling to the ground, as if the missiles, gunshots and 30 foot robots falling to the ground weren't dangerous enough.
"Transformers" is a lot of fun and is one of the most enjoyable summer action films I have seen in a long time.