Starring Shia LaBeouf (Disturbia, The Greatest Game Ever Played), Transformers changes from a teen comedy to a Tom Clancy kind of thriller to a movie about giant transforming robots and their war against other transforming robots. These three elements of the film are all held together by Shia LaBeouf’s character, Sam.
The film begin like Armeggedon. We’re introduced to an interest cube drifting through space, but that one of the only few innovations in this sequence. Instead of the great voice of Charlton Heston telling the story of the asteroid that hit Earth so very long ago, we get the vaguely familiar voice of Optimus Prime (introduced later) describing the destruction of the Transformer’s home world. They throw in some drifting asteroids for good measure, and we already know we’re watching a Michael Bay film.
Back on Earth, everything seems to be just like it is today, soldiers are still fighting in Iraq or some third world country with lots of sand, teenagers are still trying everything to impress girls, and Indian people are still the representatives on the phone lines of credit card companies. We’re introduced to a group of soldiers fighting what seems to be the war on terror. They’re quickly attacked by a chopper. But, this turns out to be no ordinary chopper. With the exception of robots transforming before our eyes, everything about this portion of the film looks and feels like a well-conceived Tom Clancy thriller.
The film takes a turn in a completely different direction when we’re introduced to Sam Witwicky (LaBeouf). He’s giving a presentation in front of a class of his peers, showing off his great grandfather’s memorabilia, asking if anyone might be interested in purchasing said items. His teacher comments on how uncool this is to the memory of Sam’s great grandpa. But Sam is a teenager. He wants to earn the money to buy his own car to impress the chicks. Come on, guys, haven’t we all wanted the same thing? To be honest, the aspect of the film is actually impressive for any Michael Bay film. The acting is strong, the dialogue is exceptionally delivered. It’s actually hard to believe you’re watching a film about giant transforming robots.
When Sam gets his car, he gets a girl, he gets a little more respect, and discovers that his car is alive. Wait, when the radio comes on by itself, isn’t that a hint? Didn’t we learn anything from Stephen King’s Christine? Okay, let’s just recap and remind ourselves of a few simple facts. This is a movie about alien machines that can transform into trucks and cars and helicopters. This is a Michael Bay film. Sam Witwicky is a dumb, horny teenage boy; his mind is only on one thing. Now, we can just sit back and enjoy the ride… right?
The film goes back to its Tom Clancy hooker, a story that gets even more serious when Jon Vought joins the cast as Defense Secretary John Keller. Given their disreputable past together, the duo of Bay and Vought (Pearl Harbor) bring back shudder-inducing memories of much unhappier times at the movies. Fortunately, this proves not to be the case with Vought’s strong performance. Just as we remember him capable, when Vought comes on screen, we can’t help but listen to everything the man has to say. Things get as complicated as they do with a Tom Clancy story, and feel just as brilliant in execution. Sadly, due to the effects team and Michael Bay’s misuse of said effects, after we get a good glimpse of the first robots to transform, things start going south.
The effects are hackney. This effects team didn’t know how to show a car turn into a giant, walking talking machine without throwing in some blur and Wily Coyote speed. They literally become cartoons on screen, because the filmmakers never slow down long enough to show us all the intricate details of each robot and how they evolve like they do. We get to see casual representations of each car or helicopter; chopper blades, tires, headlights. But I wanted to yell out, “Slow down, damn it, I want to see how these machines actually work!” The question is: Who’s to blame for this minor quibble in a film full of flaws? Is it Michael Bay? He’s proven to be a genius at covering up loose ends in the effects department with quick or jerky camera angles. If it’s the effects team, they still don’t fully understand what digital effects can contribute to storytelling like Pixar and James Cameron have. Go back to school, boys and girls.
Let’s go back to the story. A nice T2 / ET bond has formed between Sam and his transforming car. He was just attacked by a giant transforming police squad car, and Bumble Bee as the Transformer is lately named comes to his rescue. Isn’t that allows the case? Don’t we all bond to something that saves our lives? The way this brief element in the story is executed doesn’t feel familiar at all. In fact, this friendship has a life of its own – no pun intended. Then Sam and his new girlfriend, a dazzlingly pretty young actress named Megan Fox set out to better understand this alien Transformer. In doing so, we’re introduced to Optimus Prime, the leader of the AutoBots. We learn of this dangerous war raging between the AutoBots and Decepticons. Finally, the movie has turned down the road we all came to see.
Also, it’s at this point that every part of the story they had set up is almost scrapped for the longest wrestling match between giants you’ll ever want to see. Every Bay weakness comes to surface from here on out. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, they bring in the very intimidating and often very talented, John Turturro in for what has to be his worst performance in the worst role of his career. He plays Agent Simmons, part of the elite Men In Black group, called Sector Seven. This element of the film is by far the worst tack-on of a story I’ve ever seen in the movies. They’re probably scraping the bottom of the well for something to keep audiences’ attention. We are well past the 2 hour mark at this point.
The only thing that is redeeming about this film is the sound effects and Shia LaBeouf’s performance. I hope this kid does better movies than Transformers. He’s got talent. The sound effects team brought all the sounds and more from the old Transformers cartoon we all know and remember to life. The crack of their monstrous feet in the asphalt actually felt like you’re in an earthquake. But how much sound can they put into one quick shot of one giant robot’s left arm as it passes in front of the camera? Bay didn’t leave much for any other department to work with, and that’s just sad.
Personal note: I worry that Michael Bay is giving advice to aspiring young directors on On The Lot.