Wednesday 5 September 2007

Transformers (2007)

Wednesday 5 September 2007
Director: Michael Bay
Writers: Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman & John Rogers

Cast: Shia LaBeouf (Sam Witwicky), Megan Fox (Mikaela Banes), Josh Duhamel (Captain William Lennox), Tyrese Gibson (Sgt Robert Epps), Rachael Taylor (Maggie Madsen), Anthony Anderson (Glen Whitmann), Jon Voight (John Keller), John Turturro (Reggie Simmons), Kevin Dunn (Ron Witwicky), Julie White (Judy Witwicky), Peter Cullen (Optimus Prime, voice), Mark Ryan (Bumblebee, voice), Darius McCrary (Jazz, voice), Jess Harnell (Ironhide, voice), Robert Foxworth (Ratchet, voice), Hugo Weaving (Megatron, voice), Charlie Adler (Starscream, voice), Jess Harnell Barricade), Reno Wilson (Frenzy, voice), Jimmie Wood (Bonecrusher, voice)

A teenager discovers that his car is actually an alien robot in disguise, part of many that have arrived on Earth to find a mysterious cube called the Allspark...

Michael Bay would seem to be the best choice for Transformers; a big, brash, noisy, militaristic, effects-driven action adventure, where the stars of the show are mechanical machines. Bay's an acquired taste, but he can certainly orchestrate big-screen mayhem, which makes Transformers even more disappointing...

Shia LaBeouf (Holes) plays Sam Witwicky, an average high school kid who has a crush on hottie Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox), who he tries to woo with his beat-up yellow Camarro. Unfortunately, Sam is unaware his temperamental car is actually an alien robot called Bumblebee, one of many "Autobots" that are due to arrive on Earth in search of a life-giving cube called the "Allspark". Of course, villainous shape-changing robots have already arrived, known as "Decepticons", and are searching for the Allspark's location via the U.S defence network...

Everything tenuously links to Sam, whose great-grandfather accidentally discovered the frozen leader of the Decepticons, Megatron, in 1897, during an exploration of the Arctic Circle. It's not long before Sam is knee-deep in transforming robots, and in trouble with secret agency Sector 7, with the fate of the world on his shoulders.

The visual effects are superb, as you'd expect from ILM. The special effects are easily the main reason to even considering watching Transformers, as their quality never drops from beginning to end, meaning you're never taken out of the film's reality. So it's incredibly frustrating to report that Bay's direction is so schitzophrenic that he neuters most of ILM's work!

Bay notably shows the robots in close-ups, even during action sequences, so the screen just becomes a mess of metal, tyres, whirring gears and pistons. You very rarely understand the choreography of the fights, meaning they're difficult to get excited about. Only on rare occasions does Bay gives us a satisfying wide shot, to show the scale of the robots, or reign in the frenetic editing so we can soak up ILM's terrific work.

On the human side of things, Shia LaBeouf somehow manages to shoulder the whole movie, rescuing it from monotonous effects overkill. He's fun, likeable and plausible as Sam Witwicky, the young hero, dominating the first third of the movie -- where producer Steven Spielberg's influence is felt with some Iron Giant-style shenanigans between a boy and his 'bot.

But comedy isn't Bay's strong point, so it does becomes a relief when Transformers kicks into top gear, after some interminable scenes with Jon Voight's Secretary of Defence, whose suited lackeys debate the origin of a signal that's hacking their servers. A geeky group of teen hackers, led by a sexy blonde (because this is a fantasy world), is just another pointless subplot that only serves to increase the film's runtime.

Megan Fox is there as the token eye candy; a teenager's wet dream given life -- she even likes tinkering with car engines! She's beautiful and alluring, but wasted after a promising start in the "comedy romance" third of the film. After that, she just melts into the background and is forgotten about until some late heroics in a robot-ravaged city.

Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman and John Rogers do the best they can to craft a story around this franchise. Transformers began life as a toy line, before it became a cash-in cartoon and comic-book series, so crafting a decent story from such a shallow starting point was never going to be easy. The script is ridiculous on many occasions, but it just about manages to give the humans and the robots a reason to coexist narratively. It was a nice idea to get Sam involved in the story via his sentient car Bumblebee, not to mention putting the emphasis on comedy before the visuals really begin to fly... but no script about giant, alien, transforming robots is going to win any awards. It's as good as you'd expect, basically.

Fans of Transformers should enjoy Bay's movie, despite grumbling over some aesthetic changes (Bumblebee reimagined as a Camarro instead of a VW Beetle, Megatron no longer an enormous gun, etc), but the changes are for the better. The spirit of the cartoon is definitely there, particularly through Peter Cullen's involvement, who returns from the cherished 80s cartoon series to voice Autobot leader Optimus Prime.

Transformers is about as good as a Transformers movie could hope to be -- which is faint praise, but accurate. Visually and aurally, it's a treat -- despite confusing choreography from director Michael Bay. The performances range from embarassing (John Turturro), bland (Jon Voight) or wasted (Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel), with only Shia LaBeouf managing to upstage ILM. The plot is just silly nonsense, particularly the business about coordinates to the Allspark being ingrained on a pair of spectacles, but atleast it's not taking itself too seriously.

Overall, Michael Bay can certainly film military vehicles in a fetishistic way and orchestrate rather large and impressive explosions, but he can't film a coherent punch-up between robots that were added in post-production. Sadly, all of the action sequences disappoint on some level: being either too short (the freeway rumble with Optimus Prime), too obscure (Bumblebee's scrap), or too confused (the climactic city fight).

This certainly isn't "more than meets the eye".

Budget: $147 million

143 minutes