Transformers (2007)Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action violence, brief sexual humor, and language.
Starring Shia LaBeouf, Tyrese Gibson, Josh Duhamel, Anthony Anderson, Megan Fox, Rachael Taylor, John Turturro, Jon Voight.
LVJeff's Rating: 4/10
Photo ©DreamWorks Pictures. All rights reserved.
Exactly What Meets the Eye
In the interest of full disclosure, I must reveal that I was one of those kids who worshipped The Transformers. I think many of us allow ourselves to be strongly attached to certain creative properties in our youth, and, for me, The Transformers was one of the big ones. We may spend some time thinking about why we latch on to the things we do, but one thing's for sure -- we want to see them treated right when they hit the big time, which usually equates to becoming a movie. Yet when I heard that Transformers was handed to the king of all-brawn-no-brain action, Michael Bay, I feared the worst.
After a while though, I tried to put things into perspective, probably to insulate myself from my concerns that The Transformers wouldn't be given the treatment I thought it deserved. Even though it was a big deal to me, I had to ask, what's so special about the franchise, really? It was the creation of a team put together mainly to write a back story for a line of toys. The toy line and the cartoon adventures supporting it soon caught fire, then as with most fads they faded into the background. But, for that brief moment, they found a foothold in our collective memory -- something was done right with the stories and the characters (for comparison, witness how a competing toy line/cartoon with the same concept, The GoBots, doesn't nearly generate the same kind of nostalgia).
And yet, who would be so terribly wronged if the new movie wasn't done right? The Transformers doesn't have a singular author; it has no unifying artistic spirit. It was, is, and will continue to be a commercial property. The toys, the original cartoon, the comic books -- they were wonderful things to me, and I'll always be thankful for the joys they've brought me, but now I can also understand what they are in the bigger scheme of things -- and this realization helped me face the movie. It could not destroy my childhood, no matter how much potetential it had to do so.
As it turns out, Transformers doesn't feel like much. It is actually incredibly -- almost embarrassingly -- dorky. Its plot and characters are cheesy, and its internal logic is poor at best. It has no heft. For a movie that's about giant robots, it has all the weight of a penny.
Here's the lowdown. The original concept of the toys pitted a group of good alien robots -- The Autobots -- against a group of evil alien robots -- The Decepticons. They left their home planet and had somehow brought their war to earth. In the many incarnations of the story that the toy line had gone through over the last two decades, these were usually the main foundations. The original "The Transformers" cartoon was the highest profile version of these stories and characters; they are now referred to as "Generation 1" or G1 for short, which is what many of us older fans remember most fondly.
The movie mainly tries to tap into the G1 nostalgia via certain characters, most notably the heroic Optimus Prime, leader of the Autobots. The filmmakers went so far as to hire back Optimus Prime's original voice actor, gravel-toned Peter Cullen (one of the moves done right). A few other characters make it back, but the screenwriters, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, have decided for the most part to give everyone a makeover. Add to that the decision by the visual team to redesign the robots so they bear little resemblance to the original designs, and these new Transformers are now linked to the G1 Transformers by the barest of threads.
What emerges is a giant alien robot movie with a multi-strand plot, similar to Independence Day, but inconsistent in tone and focus. The main story presumes to be about a teenager, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), and his newfound relationship to his car, who turns out to be the Autobot Bumblebee (rendered a mute here). But the narrative bounces back and forth to a few other threads that, in the end, have little bearing to the overall story -- they tend to become time-wasters, with people trying to figure out a mystery with a relatively dispensable outcome. Meanwhile, about halfway through, other Autobots appear, and Optimus Prime effectively fights Sam for the spotlight.
The story concept hits a stumbling block right out of the gate by presenting the movie from the earthlings' perspective. The strength of the original stories was in the varied characterizations of the robots -- the good and evil ones alike. The Transformers was always an ensemble piece with strong anchor-personalities in the leaders of the two factions, namely Prime and the Decepticon leader Megatron. Human characters were introduced for viewer relational purposes, but really we all related more to the robots.
The writing team must have had some awareness of this, as the Autobots are presented with personalities (albeit thin ones), and when they arrive, part of the movie feels like it's about them. But they're not given much of a chance to distinguish themselves -- in fact, we're expected to accept Prime's nobility at face value (which is why his sudden platitudes about freedom and goodness feel awkwardly inserted). And then it goes back to being about Sam, and then occasionally about the other groups of people (there's military guys, Dept. of Defense guys, secret government guys, and some hackers). By the time Megatron enters the scene in the third act, he's not given much of a chance to show how truly evil he is -- again, we're supposed to just take it at face value that he's some horrible evil being.
There's no flow to the story, no focus for the characters, and, in the end, they're all after this cube, an unimaginatively dull-looking prop, so the whole of the affair carries the whiff of silliness. For a live action movie, it doesn't even have the emotional depth of the cartoon. For those who've watched the 1986 animated The Transformers: The Movie, remember the feeling you got when some of your heroes were killed so cold-bloodedly on screen? Doesn't that trauma feel, today, like a rite of passage? Nothing even approaching that comes across in this new movie.
Frankly, the movie isn't trying to be anything more than a light summer actioner with heavy emphasis on its special effects. Even those effects leave room for some grousing, for although ther're are convincing, the transformations often seemed arbitrary -- one of the coolest aspects of the toys/cartoon was in seeing just what car parts became what parts of the robots' bodies, and here you just can't tell. There's even a portable CD boom box guy who transforms into a robot that displays no evidence he could possibly have been a cd player (contrast this with the cartoon's character Soundwave, whose chest was the compartment where you could load tapes), and later, upon necessity, he's able to transform into a cell phone instead -- so did it really matter how his robot form related to his alternate mode?
Still, most people probably won't care, and in the end the movie is harmless. Its potential for fun seems proportional to your willingness to absorb its goofiness. Ironically, it doesn't live up to the toys' slogan, "More than meets the eye" -- it's exactly what meets the eye, and nothing more. Maybe I just wanted something more enthralling -- the robot fighting action was heavy but disorganized and lacking suspense, although Bay's direction ultimately bothered me less than the messy screenplay. As an old-school fan, I was quite disappointed though not necessarily offended; the movie's just a new incarnation of a property that was always meant to sell toys, and I'm OK with that now. Something about me must be happy to see that this thing I once loved actually resonated with so many others. Even if it's not something we easily recognize anymore in the form of these weird-looking cgi-behemoths, it's tingling to know its heart is still beating.
©Jeffrey Chen, Jun. 28, 2007