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Transformers (2007) Print E-mail
Tuesday, 03 July 2007
Not only is “Transformers” based on Hasbro’s evidently never-ending line of large action toys, it’s toy-like itself. Broad, noisy, stuffed with cars, trucks, planes and robots (which can turn into cars, trucks and planes), very colorful and, to say the least, action-packed. It’s also just about impossible to take very seriously; it’s so clearly a big summer confection, intended to erect a tentpole for a series of similar summer confections. You shouldn’t fight it, you should just sit there and watch. You’ll probably forget most of it in a day, but then how often do you recall the details of an amusement park ride? Of course, not many last almost two and a half hours; overlength is this movie’s biggest failing.

More than twenty years ago, Hasbro began the Transformers line of toys; each of the first batch had names, specific abilities, and a backstory. There were Good Guy Transformers, the Autobots, and Bad Guy Transformers, the Decepticons (if they had been called the Pussycats, would they have turned out so rotten?). They all originated on a distant alien planet, the results of a gigantic cube, called variously The Cube and the Allspark, which made mere machines into transforming robots with minds of their own. (This is demonstrated in the movie.) Eventually, there was a long battle between the Autobots, led by the noble Optimus Prime (as on the TV show, the voice of Peter Cullen), and the Decepticons, led by the tyrannical Megatron (Hugo Weaving). But all this happened centuries ago. Somehow, Megatron came to Earth way back when but ended up encased in ice in the Arctic. This is all explained in solemn narration.

The movie follows several threads. One deals with 11-th grader Sam Witwicky (Sia LaBeouf), whose great-great-grandfather, also a Witwicky, was a famous Arctic explorer who apparently went nuts, drawing weird designs. Sam’s something of a geek, but he has his eyes on hot Mikaela (Megan Fox), a stunning classmate, the most beautiful and sexiest 11th grader in the history of the world. Sam has been trying to sell his ancestor’s gear on eBay (plugged heavily), including some spectacles, to raise money for a project his father (Kevin Dunn) has in mind. Over the nervous objections of Sam’s mother (Julie White), his father puts up of half the money for a car for Sam, with the boy to provide the rest. Odd things happen at the dealership, and Sam ends up with a battered but game yellow Camaro that seems to choose him (and chooses the music the car radio plays, too).

Meanwhile, off in Qatar, new father Captain Lennox (Josh Duhamel) is among those puzzled when a helicopter that won’t identify itself lands at the airbase where he’s stationed. Almost immediately, the helicopter changes—excuse me, transforms—into a big robot that at once attacks everything in sight. Only Lennox and a few others, including Sgt. Epps (Tyrese Gibson), escape the carnage. Politicians back home try to figure out which of the U.S.’s regular enemies was responsible. Ha ha.
On Air Force One, a boombox surreptitiously transforms into a spindly, giggling robot that tries to suck info from the plane’s computers. On the ground, Defense Secretary Keller (Jon Voight), constantly on the move, is trying to get an idea of just what the hell is going on. His computer team includes attractive Maggie Madsen (Rachel Taylor), who eventually recruits reluctant hacker Glen Whitmann (Anthony Anderson). This role is much like Kevin Smith’s in “Live Free and Die Hard;” at times, this movie seems to be what was going on elsewhere while the events of that one unfolded. Except for the giant alien robots.

Back in, I guess, California, Sam is trying to get closer to Mikaela, while his car seems to be trying to get his attention. At one point, it steals itself, flees to a junkyard (followed by Sam on a bike), where it changes from a car to a giant robot with little blue eyes that sends messages into space. to a gleaming, brand new Camaro without racing stripes. There’s a bunch of action involving what seems to be a police car, but is really another Transformer, a Decepticon this time. If I’m following the extensive notes on the toys in the press kit correctly, this one is Barricade (for fans of the gizmos). Sam’s car, whose unlikely name is Bumblebee, turns back into a car—a brand-new, spiffy Camaro. GM must have invested a fortune in product placement. (There’s a lot of it in this movie, from eBay to Burger King.)

Sam can’t convince anyone that his car stole itself, or that it sometimes gets up and walks (and tumbles, and leaps). But he does attract the attention of brisk, officious Agent Simmons (John Turturro, clearly having a blast) of the deep-deep secret Sector 7. Basically the Men in Black. Sam and Mikaela change hands several times as the action keeps on coming.

Eventually, Optimus Prime reveals himself and some of his Autobot friends to Sam and Mikaela. There’s a surprisingly funny scene as all these towering robots try to hide themselves in Sam’s back yard, attempting to evade notice by his parents, hiding in the garage, pressing themselves against a wall—as much as a 20-foot robot can press itself, anyway. (Don’t the Witwickys have any neighbors?)

In the African desert, Lennox and his team fight a burrowing, scorpion-like robot (evidently the helicopter in another guise). This is, of course, a breath-taking, spectacular action scene. There are no action scenes in “Transformers” that AREN’T breath-taking and spectacular, but after a while they blend together and, because the movie’s more than two hours long, become wearying. Gradually, everyone and everything comes to focus on Hoover Dam, which evidently was primarily built for something other than electrical power, then leads to a climax in the streets of downtown Los Angeles. Everyone, including those with wheels rather than wings, gets from the dam to Los Angeles in five minutes, a feat more impressive than a twenty-foot robot with cannons for arms.

But it’s not for want of trying on the part of the filmmakers. Michael Bay has made good action movies (“The Rock”) and REALLY bad action movies (“Bad Boys II”), but he always handles action well. He cranks up the sound—there are times in this movie in which you’ll feel the thunder in your sternum—steps up the pace, emphasizes impact and recovery. And with this rapidly-moving robots which can change from a car to a robot and back while roaring down the freeway (or from a plane to a robot and back again in midair), something is definitely always going on, at full volume and blinding speed.

This pits a military team against two teams of robots, which are also essentially warriors. And what we get for all three teams is what Pauline Kael called a “bomber crew cast.” There’s the noble leader, smart and peace-loving, the exemplar of right over wrong; there’s his tough second in command, who can be permitted to give out with a few jokes; there’s an ethnic type (sometimes Jewish, sometimes black—as here, with one of the Autobots named “Jazz”), there’s the greenhorn, there’s the big, sometimes fat, but very strong ox-like characters. This same division can be found in Robin Hood and His Merrie Men, in the Dead End Kids, yes, in bomber crew movies, in the various teams Jack Kirby created for comic books, in the Dead End Kids and on into the Bowery Boys. Even in Joe Dante’s “Small Soldiers” this sort of group-dynamic characters can be found. There are variations, of course, but this rough outline fits almost all military-team movies, and it fits this one, too. Optimus Prime even gets to deliver the movie’s final lines, like a benediction: he’s so noble and true to the team he even salutes himself.

The cast doesn’t get to do much other than gallop madly from one place to another, but up-and-coming Shia LaBeouf does get a few gawky teen moments with the gorgeous Megan Fox. One suspects that screenwriters Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman have been guided in this regard by executive producer Steven Spielberg—who may also have kept Michael Bay from his most annoying excesses. Lennox’s wife Back Home just had a son, whom he sees only fleetingly on computer monitors between moments of firing off heavy and light artillery. Rachel Taylor, as the planet’s sexiest computer nerd, has a few confrontational moments with Voight (using a peculiar accent), and a few comic moments with Anderson. Turturro seems at time to be in a different movie, but he’s so much fun to watch it doesn’t matter. But the movie isn’t about the human characters; when they’re on, you mostly just want to get back to robot action.

If you listen carefully, particularly in the early scenes, you’ll hear the odd good line. At one point, Sam complains that “Satan’s Camaro is stalking me.” When he learns that the Decepticons are tracking him because of those spectacles he was trying to sell on eBay, his look at the thought that eBay might not be entirely benign is amusing. Skinner testily explains to the teenagers that NBE means “non-biological extra-terrestrials. Try to keep up with the acronyms.” (The word “exo-skeletal” is misused.) But you don’t come to this kind of movie for the dialogue scenes; you come for the action.

And, of course, the big interest here is in all those damned robots. They’re all big, they’re all energetic, and they’re always doing something, usually at top speed. Even when they’re talking in closeup, we see all the little moving tiles and panels that make up their faces. They’re so fast that it’s hard to “read” them—they’re nearly blurs of metal and wire. Some kind of color-coding should have been used to distinguish the heroic Autobots from the villainous Decepticons; when they’re all present and blasting away at each other, mostly in the Los Angeles climax, it’s nearly impossible for someone unfamiliar with this particular line of plastic toys to tell, say, good guy Ratchet (robot and Hummer) from bad guy Brawl (robot and tank). For the most part, their characterization is contained largely in their names.

Their dialogue is also sometimes hard to make out, though when they stop, pose with their fists on their hips (or leap about), they can make themselves understood. But then again, most of the dialogue, except as mentioned above, isn’t really worth listening to. Writers Orci and Kurtzman are sort of the flavor of the day, but the movies they’ve written so far have left much to be desired: Michael Bay’s floppola “The Island,” “Mission: Impossible III” and “The Legend of Zorro.” They also wrote the re-do of “Star Trek” currently in production. This does not bode well.

The battle in downtown Los Angeles at the end is too long. It reaches a high point of energy—and then unsuccessfully tries to sustain it. You can only hold your breath so long, you can only clutch the arms of your theater seat so hard. And you relax before the movie does—those big machines are still slamming into each other, still knocking the cornices off buildings, still hammering right through buildings.

The movie is crammed with characters—there’s even a Chihuahua in a cast in the cast—and everyone has something to do, but nobody really has much of a character to work with. Bay keeps the pace blistering fast for the first _ of the movie, but it unavoidably slows down—though the action is still busily violent—in the big battle at the end. The primary idea that Bay needs to learn as a director is when enough actually, finally, is enough.

There are nods aplenty to the various animated Transformer series; the phrase “more than meets the eye,” which reportedly was important to the shows, turns up a couple of times here in different contexts. The Hasbro faithful will probably not find much to complain about, although heroic Bumblee (that yellow Camaro) was a VW beetle in the series. Here, that would have made the first quarter of the movie seem like another Love Bug movie. Probably the most interesting of the Decepticons is small-sized Frenzy, that boombox on Air Force One. He keeps getting knocked into smaller and smaller pieces, with each piece determined to keep on spying and evading capture.

So much money was spent on “Transformers” that it took two studios to handle the cost, DreamWorks and Paramount. All technical aspects demonstrate how expensive the movie was. It was filmed on many real locations, including Hoover Dam, downtown Los Angeles and the Griffith Park Planetarium (there’s a wonderful aerial shot of a few big robots skulking around up there). When you can actually hear Steve Jablonsky’s score over the thunder of the battles and the clashing of the robots, it seems pretty good. Mitchell Amundsen’s cinematography is compromised to a degree by so many scenes having so many effects, but it’s very handsome on the wide screen. Others who deserve mention are special effects supervisor John Frazier, animation supervisor Scott Benza and visual effects producer Shari Hanson. Stunt coordinator Ken Bates was in charge of a team so large their numbers rival those of the effects workers.

“Transformers” is for kids, and for those who don’t mind resetting their personal standards to those of a kid for the duration of a movie. It’s too long for what it is, it wears out the audience (and almost its welcome), but it’s so fast-paced, so full of energy and action, that it’s the ideal summer movie.

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