Oh Bayformers. For seven years now, Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise has been putting sugar rushed smiles on young children’s faces, frowns on nostalgia fueled generation X’ers, and over 2 billion dollars in the pockets of investors. Viewed either as mindless action movies, or a butchering of the mythology of an 80s cartoon series about transforming cars, these films are often put on a pedestal as a gleaming example of what is wrong with the movie industry today. With a new installment entitled Age of Extinction on the horizon, let’s dive back into the previous three films to see exactly what has caused perhaps one of the biggest rifts in the geek community in the past decade.
Transformers centers on Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), an eccentric teenage boy obsessed with getting his first car, and a hot girl to go along with it. After his father (Kevin Dunn) buys him a run down Camaro, he sets his sights on the gorgeous and popular Mikaela (Megan Fox), a troubled soul with a passion for leaning over cars and fixing them. Everything seems to be going swimmingly except for one small issue, Sam’s car is actually an Alien robot by the name of Bumblebee who has merely taken the form of a car. You see, he is an Autobot, a group of freedom fighters lead by their general, Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) to earth to find an ancient cube of energy known as the Allspark before the evil Decepticons (identifiable as the grey ones) headed up by Megatron (Hugo Weaving) obtain it, and wipe out the human race. There’s also about 85 other plot lines going on involving soldiers, scientists, and defense secretaries, but who cares!? Robots!
Now you might be thinking, “is this going to be yet another overtly cynical review of movies that are strictly intended for fun” as my intro may suggest. No. Actually, I happen to enjoy these films in their own way. They know exactly what they are, and deliver it in spades. However, there is no denying that they all have some pretty crippling flaws. More on that later. For now, let’s take a look at what this, by far the most complete feeling movie in the series, gets right.
The build up here is very strong. Steven Spielberg served as a producer here and the influence really shows. Far before we ever meet the Autobots, we spend a great deal of time with the characters, as we only get little bits and pieces of the aliens, enhancing their mystique. Michael Bay wonderfully navigates these scenes, never giving us too much or too little of what we want to see. By using several different perspectives, Bay conveys the confusion from every angle of the conflict. We see what the Transformers can do in awesome fashion, but are given very little information about them for a very long time, ultimately making the reveal feel very satisfying.
While he will ultimately come to cripple the later films, Sam Witwicky makes for a really strong protagonist here. Why? He’s unique. Most of these films typically involve some wide-eyed kid who’s dialogue mostly consists of scared noises, and “wow”. Sam is far from this. He’s a fairly selfish motormouth who has a smart-ass remark for nearly everything thrown at him. LaBeouf’s manic performance really fuels this, with some really fun characterization choices (at least, for now). He brings a great deal of humor to the proceedings, and most of it is actually pretty funny. The movie never takes itself too seriously, constantly throwing jokes at the wall, and while some of it is juvenile potty humor, and odd racist stereotypes even more of it is character based, and Shia is the main fuel for that. Also providing some cooky fun are Kevin Dunn and Julie White as Sam’s borderline mentally unstable parents.
The action sequences, certainly Bay’s strong suit, are very well constructed, especially considering how long ago this film was released. Everything has such a massive scale, particularly the final city-set battle. Bay makes the audience feel like bystanders in the middle of all this mayhem, often shooting up-close to capture a sense of confusion as these massive things throw each other around. There are a moments that are simply jaw dropping here, the best being an air skirmish where a Decepticon takes on several jets in midair. It feels ripped straight from the cartoon, and it’s awesome.
On the negative end, while Labeouf shines here, the rest of the human characters are not nearly as strong. Before my viewing this morning, I never really got a chance to really notice how bad Magan Fox’s performance in this was, but man, it’s one for the books. Absolutely everything out of her mouth is bland, and badly delivered. There are moments where I wonder if she even knows what’s occurring in the scene. Also embarrassing himself here is Anthony Anderson, playing a loud obnoxious stereotype, so…basically Anthony Anderson. The rest of the actors aren’t bad so much as they are generic. Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson are two army guys who shout things, Jon Voight plays the secretary of defense who says things in a scared tone, and John Turturro is there as a secret agent to be odd and make people uncomfortable.
Also, although the build to the Autobots is great, we never really get to know them. Aside from Optimus Prime who is voiced wonderfully by Peter Cullen, they’re extremely interchangeable, which certainly doesn’t help the battle sequences. As cool as it looks, they all just blend together into a hunk of spinning, screaming metal. A great deal more of this film’s 144 minutes should have been dedicated to building a relationship between the Autobots, and Sam. Don’t even get me started on Megatron, he’s just there to say a few evil lines, and fight Optimus.
Overall, Transformers is fairly successful as a mindless blockbuster, but as a beginning of a franchise, it falls short in several key areas. After a fantastic build up, it never really follows through on why our alien protagonists are important, or why we should want to see them again. With that said, it’s a spectacular technical achievement with some slick directing by Bay, and there’s enough humor and action to keep things moving along. A fun summer flick, nothing more, nothing less.