Worth A Look: 12.78%
Pretty Bad: 11.36%
Total Crap: 30.97%
12 reviews, 280 user ratings
by Marc Kandel
It’s easy to understand why so many Transformers fans are enraptured by Michael Bay’s film. Hearing Peter Cullen’s nobility, kindness and assurance as Optimus Prime, a voice unheard for decades, is an ecstatic jolt to the heart. I could have gone the rest of my life without hearing said voice grumble “My Bad”, but the moment comes and goes and is actually not among the film’s worst sins- that would be the entire scene wherein that phrase is used.A teenager (Shia LaBeouf, Bay’s Lil’ Nic Cage in training based on his frenetic, insecure, yet smarter than the average bear line delivery), discovers he holds the key to ending a war between two factions of robots, both after the cornerstone technology of their civilization, the All Spark (a combination energon cube/Autobot leadership matrix for you old-timers out there). This development incidentally increases Shia’s chances of putting the hump to the ludicrously hot Megan Fox, the “it” girl at his high school, fivefold.
"“Of all the circuit glitched, diode blown dimwittery…”"
Michael Bay did not inspire my confidence as a loud, epileptic filmmaker with a hard-on for slow-mo walking shots, clichéd military badassery and recycled soundtracks that always go DAH DUH DUH—DUH DUH—DAH DUH DUH… honestly, I hear that type of track now I involuntarily recoil, expecting to see a naked musclehead jump on the screen with a tight close up of his jiggling, steroid shriveled nuts to all the faux-manly, urgent orchestral flounces.
To date the only movie from this creator I’ve enjoyed is The Rock, only observing lesser versions of that film in his other works (I’d say The Island comes the closest to breaking the mold, however I’ve only seen bits and pieces which hardly constitutes a valid judgment call). But the more I pondered, the more I felt that if there was a film he could get right or at least do little harm on, it would be Transformers, which back in the day was a loud, epileptic 30-minute cartoon best enjoyed immediately after a long, sweltering day at school with a tall, frosty glass of well stirred chocolate milk.
It seemed to be a decent fit- the cartoon robots engaged in dialogue ranging from cheesy to melodramatic, paint-by-numbers human characters were present to give a relatable point of view in contrast to the massive alien automatons blasting their way across the screen, and nobody ever got killed (okay, maybe two characters, but it was done ambiguously enough to let the kids think there was a chance of seeing them again- actually both got buried- Skyfire and Omega Supreme if memory serves- I’m sure I’ll get umpteen emails letting me know anyway). Point being, we aren’t adapting Shakespeare here, and maybe, just maybe, in a “real world”, live action scenario, Michael Bay could give the story just a touch of depth, pathos and violence that would have been impossible given the limitations on a 30-minute children’s cartoon doubling as an advertising campaign for a toy line.
I’ll give the guy this: my estimation of Bumblebee skyrocketed. In the cartoon, Bumblebee served as the cuddly E.T. of the bunch, bonded with the child character (Spike Witwicky – now Sam Witwicky in the film), whose sole purpose was driving Spike around, useless for anything other than getting Spike out of danger’s way despite the fact that he would usually chauffer him to the thick of it in the first place. Here, Bumblebee kicks ass and takes names, and if you don’t like it, he’ll piss on you (another ill-conceived kiddie gag I’d have seen dropped at the scriptwriter’s meeting).
I had fun watching the film (far more than I expected), but it’s hardly one for the ages, possessing not half the staying power of the dizzying 1986 animated feature, which I’ve already covered on this site with much love and not a little disturbing mania that’s gotten me on several watch lists: http://efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=927&reviewer=358.
There’s a lamentable lack of focus on the robots in Bay’s version, more time spent fleshing out the reality of human beings threatened and confronted with the unimaginable. It’s a necessary choice when we leave the realm of cartoon and have to throw live people into the mix, but once the shock and awe is over, a bit more ‘bot time would be nice.
Aside from Optimus and Bumblebee, the others don’t get much face time, allowed a few lines each to get their personality across (Jazz suffers the worst update, blaring crude hip-hop jargon so unlike Scatman Crothers’ smooth rhyming jive from the cartoon, and then he’s relegated to cannon fodder for the duration). Too much of our time with the Autobots in non-combat scenes revolves around stupid robot tricks best left for throwaway movies like Batteries Not Included. The scene at Sam’s home as the “robots in disguise” bumble around the house unintentionally wreaking havoc was reminiscent of a Monty Python sketch of the Gumby brothers performing Anton Chekov’s “The Cherry Orchard”, where the slow-witted, cretinous family acting-troupe stumbles onstage and proceeds to loudly destroy the set and injure themselves without even getting out a single line from the play, oblivious to their audience or the fact that they are in the middle of a performance. Such is the fate of our beloved Autobots; the stakes of the drama marginalized and opportunities missed to explore what makes these Cybertronians tick. I think Galvatron said it best: “This is bad comedy”.
On the action front, when the camera is allowed to sit back for a few moments observing uninterrupted movement and choreographed violence with an element of scale, the results are impressive- Optimus engages and dispatches a Decepticon amid the bustling LA Freeway and it's the visual highlight of the picture- with more heft and gravitas than the “climactic” battles in the last act. In most action scenes I found myself craning my neck trying to see what was going on amid the jumbled cuts of fast moving metal and circuitry- alas leaning to the left doesn’t help much when you are looking at a forced perspective fraught with choppy jump cuts.
It's a bummer when the majority of a Megatron/Optimus deathmatch is done off-screen. The start of the fight gives hope, with Optimus throwing the fans a thrill by cribbing a line from the 1986 film, but the film cuts to other battles between the human and Decepticon soldiers, with a Bumblebee assist, bringing us back when its time for Sam to jump between two gigantic metal colossi and save the day, remarkably avoiding being squished between the titanic dueling machines.
Bay wants the humans to come out as the real heroes, you see. God forbid a film called “Transformers” should allow for its titular characters to be the heroes, when we can fall back on the formulaic “triumph of the human spirit” we’ve been primed for all along- literally. The third time Optimus ruminates on the nobility of humanity, you wonder if he means it or he’s just trying to convince himself why he should tolerate these vicious, ill-mannered slimy apes.
A more interesting take is discussed in a rare quiet moment by the Autobots as Prime refuses to endanger humans with direct engagement (after violently obliterating a government convoy to rescue Sam of course). Sure, the Autobots get a few saves here and there, but a more exciting finale might have been Prime deliberately taking a beating to draw Megatron away from populated areas where even the most casual movement from either giant would result in dozens, even hundreds of lives, necessitating an assist from Sam: Prime’s heroism could be showcased more organically in this fashion (than telling a tiny human to run between two giant robots).
Instead we cut back to the fight and Prime is shown on the ropes so Sam can tag off and deliver the goods. Turns out Prime needn’t have worried anyway, there’s nary a drop of blood spilt throughout the film, the laws of PG-13 keeping collateral damage within the bounds of cars and storefronts once we move the action to the civilian sector. Though early scenes of Scorpinok obliterating military personnel overseas are phenomenal, anticipation for the finale dissolves as the war devolves into a quaint wrestling match against a city backdrop a la old Godzilla movies. I gotta hand it to Bay, it really does seem like the original cartoon all over again- only this time I don’t mean it as a compliment.
In short, Bay did an competent job replicating the 80’s show concept on the screen with live action elements- this could very well have been a two or three-part episodic on the original run. A fan in tune with this perspective, excited to see beloved characters, should have a pretty good time; I did, despite noting that many characters didn’t rate much more than a cameo (the whole Starscream/Megatron interplay is reduced to a single line meant as a bone for fans in the audience, lacking any context or exploration to really engage interest). A more general audience-member might not leave the theater so pleased, but hey, folks seem to value special effects over story these days, so I could be wrong.
Face it: the cartoon wasn’t deep and wasn’t supposed to be. The bad guys were called Decepticons so you knew they were evil. Subtlety was not the word of the day. It was a rudimentary good versus evil tale that sold toys; in this mindset, Bay’s work might be considered a masterpiece. I certainly don’t see General Motors complaining.I wanted a tad more, but I certainly wasn’t frowning when I left the theater. Unlike the cartoon of my youth however, I won’t be reminiscing about this one 10 years down the line. Still, count me in for the sequel- Soundwave's supposed to be in it.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=15538&reviewer=358
originally posted: 07/12/07 06:08:58
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