July 6, 2007

The Transformers (07/06/07)

Lettergrade: D

The new Transformers movie, based on the cartoon series and the toys from the 80s (both of which were staples of my youth), delivers a lot of cool visuals and robot-induced shit blowing up. Although there were several moments when my heart glowed with nostalgia during the picture, I didn't find the experience of watching it all that pleasurable. I hold one man responsible for that: Michael Bay. Although it's hard to deny that Bay, whose crimes against humanity include Armageddon, Bad Boys II, and Pearl Harbor, seemingly handled this massive production with the managerial skill and competence befitting a big-budget commercial film director, I can't shake the feeling that many other competent filmmakers (even when given significantly more meager resources) could have made a better one.

The general story is nifty enough, I suppose, and the roster of producers, which includes Steven Spielberg and X-Men's Tom DeSanto, have been associated with good projects in the past. There's something about Bay's attention-deficit style of shooting and editing, however, that really harms the material. I so rarely felt like I got a good look at anything. The early character scenes -- usually designed to make you give a shit about the people you'll be spending the next two hours with -- are completely blown through at lightning speeds, as if Bay found them to be a mere nuisance one must endure when making a movie. In many ways, Transformers feels like 1987's Masters Of The Universe, (also based on a toy line) which had a ridiculous, nonsensical plot that none involved with the movie seemed to understand or take all that seriously.

The plot itself is a shameless mish-mash of recent and not-so-recent sci-fi flicks including Independence Day, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Maximum Overdrive, Men In Black, The Iron Giant, My Mother The Car and Robot Jox. Basically, there are good Transformers (Autobots) and bad Transformers (Deceptacons) who have spread throughout the galaxy looking for the mysterious "All-Spark." It's not clear what the All-Spark does, but in alternating scenes it is described as being able to help the Transformers recreate their home world of Cyberton and then having the power to blow everything to high hell.

Enter meglomanicial child-actor Shia LeBeof, who makes a mild attempt at playing a normal kid in this movie. His father (played by Kevin Dunn, oddly reprising exact same role he had nine years ago in Small Soldiers) purchases a car from Bernie Mac that turns out to have curious properties, such as driving away when it's not supposed to and helping LaBeof woo astonishingly bad actresses like Megan Fox, who plays the remarkably hot, bitchy girl that LeBeof likes for no clear reason other than that she's got a great rack and exposes her midriff regularly.

After what feels like two hours of screen time, it is revealed that the car is, in fact, a Transformer! I, personally, did not see it coming. Anyway, all the Autobots then show up and explain everything, including the fact that Megatron, the leader of the Deceptacons, came to Earth 70 years ago but was unexpectedly frozen by the polar ice-caps. By coincidence, LeBeof's great-grandfather discovered him and somehow got the coordinates of the All-Spark (which Megatron was getting ready to transmit to his comrades) imprinted on his glasses. Now, they have to find the glasses, locate the All-Spark, and defeat the Deceptacons before Megatron thaws and starts stirring up all kinds of hurt. Other running subplots and ancillary characters include the survivors of a U.S. military base in Nevada who track the Deceptacons that attacked them, and Jon Voight, slumming it as the U.S. Defense Secretary who oversees a group of cyber-geeks that ultimately do not contribute a single thing to the film's resolution.

Oh, and there was something later on where if an electronic device gets too close to the All-Spark, it suddenly becomes a Transformer too, and starts slashing away at stuff. I completely didn't understand what the hell that was supposed to be about. Even if a cellphone could become a Transformer instantly like that, where did it get the blades and other weaponry from?

The action scenes are well staged, and you have to admire Bay's sense of showmanship to some degree. It's undeniably cool to watch the Transformers do the task for which they're named. Certain moments of the movie are really exciting, but mostly they're the moments that echo something from my vague memory of the cartoon series. Of note is the fact that they brought back Peter Cullen, movie-trailer voice over artist extraordinaire and the original voice of Optimus Prime, to reprise his roll. Without his scratchy, John Wayne inspired vocal stylings, I doubt I would have found the film even half as engaging.

Truth be told, Transformers is not a bad movie as much as it's a misguided one that does not entirely live up to its potential. In the cartoon show, the Transformers were always front and center with the humans only dropping in occasionally. In this movie, it's the opposite with the Transformers kept on the sidelines, never given concrete identities or personalities. At the end of the film, I still, frankly, could not tell a single one of the Deceptacons apart, and even if I could, I'm not all that sure that it matters.

Ultimately, however, if you're looking for explosions, mayhem, and robots, this movie certainly has all three. It's a little disappointing, though, that Bay had all these resources and such potentially rich source material, and this is what he came up with.

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