So I finally got to see Transformers
(thank you Paramount for deciding to release it in the UK over two weeks after America!). As someone who's been waiting for a live action Transformers film for 21 years, I was expecting the worst when I heard how little relation it would bear to what's known by fans as Generation 1 (i.e. the original line of toys, comics, cartoons, etc.) However, the end result is a pretty good film (or at least as good as one directed by Michael Bay could be).
It opens with narration by Optimus Prime (showcasing the great voice of Peter Cullen is a good way to placate the diehard fans early on) explaining the revised mythology of the Transformers. They have left Cybertron in search of a giant cube called the Allspark, which is basically the Creation Matrix under another name.
The film then cuts to the modern day middle east where American soldiers are given water by smiling Arab children (this is a fantasy film, ok). An unknown helicopter arrives at the U.S. base and we get our first look at the transformation process when it changes into a giant robot and blows the shit out of the base.
Meanwhile, back in the U.S. Sam Witwicky (known as Spike in the original cartoon) is, like all straight American teen boys, desperate to get a car and a girl. Of course, the car he gets turns out to be the Autobot Transformer, Bumblebee. There's a great deal of humour in this section of the film as Sam slowly learns about his car's origins and woos Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox). This part of the film also shows the clearest influence of producer Steven Spielberg, with its everyman hero and sense of wonder. The subplot of Sam's great-great-grandfather's glasses leading to the Allspark seemed a bit too much like something out of National Treasure
, though. In fact, the Allspark is a rather ridiculous MacGuffin, even transforming a Mountain Dew vending machine into a robot at one point!
In contrast, the military scenes are clearly the parts Bay enjoys the most, and every time we cut back to their reaction to the alien threat it almost feels like a recruiting film for the U.S. military ("these guys don't lose" as a character says at one point). The military were always a part of the Transformers story, but here it seems overkill (they even take down a Decepticon in the final battle, which would be akin to a caveman defeating a heavily armoured modern soldier).
It's a long wait for the introduction of Optimus and the other Autobots and an even longer wait for Megatron to appear, but luckily the comedy (most of it intentional) holds the viewer's interest. When the Autobots land and assume their Earth forms it's a thrilling moment. Later, when Bumblebee is captured by the government and tortured, only the hardest of hearts won't feel at least a little sad for the little yellow fella.
The last act of the film is all action and while occasionally it's too busy and slightly headache inducing, it's more exiting than any of the other summer blockbusters this year. The transformations (which keep the sound from the original cartoon) come thick and fast and there is a great deal of destruction, though magically no humans seem to be harmed. The ending leaves the door open for a sequel, of course, with the Autobots deciding to stay on Earth and Starscream escaping into space. Hey, maybe for the sequel they could actually get people who are fans of the Transformers to write and direct. Just a suggestion.
As I suspected, the film does place too much focus on the human characters (who, aside from Sam, really don't deserve the amount of screentime they get) but at least the cast, which also includes John Turturro, Jon Voight and Buffy the Vampire Slayer
's Tom Lenk, is enjoyably eclectic. Shia La Boeuf gives a star-making turn as Sam. The way the characters join forces at the end is clumsily handled, though. Just like in Independence Day
, they are all invited into a secret base to see everything the government has been hiding. And for some reason the military guys instantly believe Sam and help him free Bumblebee despite never even sharing a word beforehand. It would make more sense for the humans to take a little longer to trust the Autobots, as they did in the original cartoon and comic.
The Transformers themselves, despite the ugly redesign work which makes them hard to tell apart, are fairly close in personality to their original incarnations, especially the Autobots. Any G1 fan is sure to get a little misty-eyed when Prime utters any of his classic lines ("Autobots, roll out!") and he even uses his laser sword at one point. Jazz keeps his soul brother personality, but then they have to kill him at the end! Boo!
Hugo Weaving's voice, though virtually unrecognisable, is suitably menacing as Megatron, and there's a hint of his old animosity with Starscream. It's amusing that Megatron doesn't change into a handgun anymore because of the unbelievability of a giant robot becoming something so small, yet the giant Allspark handily changes to suitcase size at the end. The other Decepticons are pretty much cannon fodder, apart from the tiny Frenzy who serves as the robotic "comic relief".
The special effects by ILM are stunning, though it's sometimes hard to tell what's going on because of the overuse of closeups and quick cutting. The Transformers do look like they're part of the real world around them, which adds to the believability. There's also some fun sight gags in the film, such as Bumblebee being parked next to a yellow VW bug when Sam first sees him (the VW was the Autobot's alternate mode in the original series, of course) and the "to punish and enslave" slogan on the side of Barricade in his police car form.
Overall, it's a fine start to the franchise. Ignore the Transformer-sized plot holes and typical Bay cheesiness and it's quite a ride. Hopefully the sequels will have more depth and more focus on the Transformers themselves. But I'm just glad the film was finally made after I bugged Hollywood for years about it on my website.