July 9, 2007

Movie Review: Transformers

Posted in Movies at 11:48 am by Calico Jack

The good news about Transformers is that Michael Bay didn’t quite rape our collective childhoods. The bad news, however, is that he plied us with drinks, whispered sweet nothings in our ear, and took us to the back seat of his car for an illicit makeout session — somewhat enjoyable at the time, to be sure, but leaving a distinctly unpleasant taste afterwards. Transformers is neither the best movie of the summer nor the worst, but it might very well have the shortest shelf life of any blockbuster this year. When the titular characters play second fiddle to a string of moronic humans pontificating and shouting and shooting everywhere (ineffectually, one might add), monstrous explosions and occasionally exciting Autobot-on-Decepticon action do little to alleviate the tedium that invariably sets in.

Shia LaBeouf stars as the unfortunately named Sam Witwicky, a high school student who fits every one of Hollywood’s “Qualities of a High School Boy” checklist. He lives in a nice house, wears the kind of music-labeled clothing that screams “I’m cool!” in a non-understated kind of way, and has a huge crush on the local hottie Mikaela (Megan Fox), a girl who’s been in his classes since the first grade but is too vapid to recognize Sam’s existence. Sam’s two goals in life include getting the girl and getting a car: take your pick as to which is the more important. After fueling his car fund by auctioning off personal items from his adventurer/explorer great-grandfather’s collection, Sam and his father buy a rather decrepit yellow Camaro from fast-talking salesman Bernie Mac.

Sam’s new car isn’t actually a car, of course; but rather the Autobot Bumblebee, one of a race of benevolent robots exiled from their world long ago by evil Decepticon leader Megatron. Now Megatron’s followers are invading Earth — a scorpion-like robot lays waste to a U.S. military base in Qatar in Transformers‘ opening scenes — in a quest for the AllSpark, a giant cube whose energies could turn all technology into malignant mini-robots, or something to that effect. Sam, however, unwittingly holds the key to discovering the AllSpark’s hidden location; and Bumblebee and his brightly colored cohorts are determined to protect Sam, find the AllSpark, and save Earth from mechanical annihilation. There are many problems standing in the Autobots’ way, not only from the drably interchangeable Decepticons but also from a gaggle of clueless humans, including SecDef John Keller (Jon Voight in one of his “how much for this paycheck?” roles), shrilly excitable black ops agent Simmons (John Turturro), and a young, comely Australian hacker (Rachel Taylor) with a fetish for lip gloss.

One of the biggest problems with Transformers is that its various plot threads never really go anywhere. A prominent MacGuffin is ungainly dropped before the beginning of the third act, leaving the audience scratching its head as to why Michael Bay felt the need to spend a good half hour in exposition over it. And a side plot involving teenage hackers as the government’s last defense against an electronic Decepticon invasion is needlessly complicated for a summer blockbuster. Transformers‘ other downfall is its liberal application of cheese in a movie that otherwise tries to take itself somewhat seriously. A judicious bit of humor is always welcome, but there are several “humorous” jokes — involving the Autobots, no less — that completely ruin whatever tone the filmmakers were going for, including a few ill-timed scatalogical jokes and a sequence where all five or six Autobots try to skulk around Sam’s backyard without being seen by Sam’s parents. One wonders why they are so concerned about the mental health of two humans when they don’t mind being seen by the rest of L.A.’s population. These scenes don’t fall within the movie’s own internal logic (one of the most egregious problems in any film) and are symptomatic of the predicament that Transformers‘ screenwriters simply didn’t have enough plot to connect their action setpieces.

Having said that, Transformers isn’t completely worthless; but most of its best moments come from those few interesting action sequences and not from any part of the story. Bay has a love for guns and explosions, and Transformers is his most noisy, bombastic movie to date. But his downfall is that he doesn’t have the restraint to spend time framing his shots, instead jarring the audience with interminable sequences of rapid-fire cuts and jittery camera work. Industrial Light and Magic did the effects work for the Transformers, and it’s technically quite impressive. But Bay doesn’t seem to want to let the audience ever enjoy ILM’s efforts, as most Decepticon/Autobot battles are far too frenetic to either fully understand what’s happening or enjoy them on-screen. For the first five or ten minutes of a battle, spatial cluelessness is forgivable. But the climactic battle at the end of the third act is half an hour long, having the unfortunate effect of making the entire thing wearisome. A bit of constraint would have gone a long way; but judging from the audience I was in, most people didn’t mind being assaulted with noise and pretty colors and spastic action. And overlaying the closing credits with a plaintive rock dirge by Linkin Park is one of the worst scoring choices of the year, thematically and artistically.

In the end, Transformers isn’t so much about Autobots saving the world as it is a setpiece for Michael Bay to once more prove to everyone that he can do explosions better than anyone else in Hollywood. It’s also unfortunate that the plot is ultimately about a boy and his dual lusts for a car and a girl; the mantra “No sacrifice, no victory” is oft-quoted but never displayed. And like all good franchises, Transformers ends with a blatant plug for a sequel. Change directors and hire some decent screenwriters, and Transoformers 2 might just surpass the original. In the meantime, it’s best to shrug this one off as technically competent but thoroughly forgettable fare.

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