“Michael Bay, please don’t destroy my childhood.”
That was the predominant thought in my mind as the theater darkened and the ubiquitous husky timbre of Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) began his voice-over. You’re familiar with Transformers. You know the deal. Two opposing sects of giant robots from the planet Cybertron, who have the ability to change into vehicles, are warring over energy with Earth as their battleground. I’ll do you a solid courtesy by saving you from my rant-o-rific fanboy spiel but make no mistake, Transformers were a big part of my childhood — like Pokémon/Magic Cards/Naruto big — so you can imagine my apprehension.
Going into this viewing, I was thinking how I just couldn’t take yet another mediocre film making a mockery of my adolescent ardor, but let’s be honest here, at this point so long as the effects held-up and there’s no impromptu dance sequences, I would probably just give it the nod. After the long line of dreck Hollywood has insulted us with this summer, Transformers could be nothing more than a dozen rounds of CGI’d automatons beating the crap out of each other and most people would call it the tits.
Well thank GoD I wasn’t forced to settle! This summer’s blockbuster has finally arrived people. Only it’s not a mere blockbuster, it’s a two and a half hour atomic bomb… strapped to a roller-coaster… filled with snakes… on fire!
Right from the start Michael Bay does an excellent job of setting the tone — small human moments peppered with light comedy juxtaposed with sheer earth-shattering terror. The story, which centers around adolescents Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) and Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox), stays true enough to the source material — there’s transforming robots, there’s a MacGuffin (in the cartoon series it was Energon, in this film it’s the All-Spark… does it really matter?) and the Autobots and Decepticons are both vying for it.
But what about the action? That’s what this is all about, right? I’m so jaded at this point that I sat in the theater weakly swearing to myself about how this could end up being just another action flick with the usual eye-straining jump-cut skirmishes, car chases, and explosions. (We know you can do cars and explosions Mr. Bay, we’ve all seen Bad Boys II.) And I’m sure anyone (read: ILM) can make robots look all cool strutting around in front of a camera for a few seconds at a time, but as soon as the fighting gets hot ‘n heavy, is it gonna play with us and hide the real action behind a shaky camera and a deft editor on crank?
While the opening action segment blew me away on the sheer ferocity of it alone, honestly, I still felt teased and remained weary.
Then it happened. The wide shot. The slo-mo. The full-on robot-a-robot fist-a-cuffs (heh, that’s allota dashes). Suddenly all bets were off. Unabashed visuals so incredibly pulled-off that I nearly welled up with tears instantly erasing every concern that I had carried with me since I had learned Michael ‘Bad Boys’ Bay was adapting my beloved Transformers. Think back for a moment to when you first saw the Matrix‘s bullet-time. You just knew immediately that the world of special effects had been forever changed. Well, Transformers grabs that same SFX bar lofted up by the Wachowski Brothers and launches it into the freakin’ ionosphere.
Face it, the effects are the very reason you wanted to see this film made in the first place and you know it. Well rest easy, my friends. Transformers is brimming with immense battle scenes. The fight sequences and set-pieces are so epic in scale and realization that, as I said before, the film can rest on them alone. They’re the kind of battles we dreamt up as kids made “real.”
One thing that’s quite different from the original is that I was scared shitless of the Decepticons — they are not your cartoon Decepticons, they are fucking ruthless and scary. I really felt for bad for the Autobots. Peter Cullen’s Optimus Prime = Awesome (yeah, even with the lips). And while I did my fair share of bitching and moaning when they slighted original Megatron voicer, Frank Welker in favor of Hugo Weaving, Megatron talks so little in the film that it’s ultimately a non-issue.
I honestly wasn’t expecting very much from the human contingent of the cast, but on a whole they’re able to hold their own amidst the huge shadow of SFX and set-pieces. LaBeouf’s performance as Sam is excellent. He’s really coming into his own as an action star and I expect we’ll see him in that guise a lot in the coming years. The supporting cast is solid enough, with Jon Voight as the hands-on Secretary of Defense, Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson representing the enlisted military contingent with balls of titanium, John Tutorro as a low rent M.I.B. impersonator, and Anthony Anderson as ultra computer hacker/comic relief.
At the heart of it all it’s the relationship between Sam and his car Bumblebee (Mark Ryan) that we need to buy for the movie to work beyond blue-screen. We are initially subjected to bits of juvenile awkwardness, but it’s kept tolerably brief. And overall, the few moments of comedy and robotic folly that pepper the script work to its advantage, if only to contrast the insanely dark moments later on.
Make no mistake, this film is about the effects. If you’re expecting to find deep philosophical meaning at the root of the robots’ war, you might need to reevaluate your movie-going priorities. But thanks to a strong script from Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, there actually is, ahem, more than meets the eye here.