Full disclosure: I loved Transformers as a kid -- both the toys and the animated series created to sell those toys -- and while I eventually grew out of them and moved on to more grown-up fare, the prospect of a live-action Transformers flick always seemed tremendously appealing. So as I proceed to gush over what is an obviously flawed movie, understand that I do so with a tinge of gleeful nostalgia.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Transformers universe, here's a quick rundown: they're an alien race of sentient, shape-shifting robots mired in a centuries-long civil war. Searching for an energy source to sustain their dying home planet of Cybertron, they wind up on Earth, where they're able to hide in plain sight by "transforming" into everyday objects like cars and airplanes. The robots are divided into two rival factions: the sinister Decepticons, led by the devious Megatron, are determined to exterminate the human race, drain the planet of its resources and use Earth as their own personal battery. The benevolent Autobots, led by the heroic Optimus Prime, wish to peacefully coexist with their human friends.
Transformers director Michael Bay has had his share of critics (myself among them) who questioned several key elements of the film that depart from the original canon, but when Peter Cullen (who plays Autobot leader Optimus Prime) first speaks during the movie's opening credit sequence, suddenly the fact that they gave Prime lips or turned Bumblebee into a Camaro seem entirely irrelevant. To Bay's credit, it's obvious throughout the film that he did everything possible to stay true to the original source material while making the movie as modern and believable (and relatable to non-fanboys) as possible. Although some of the stylistic changes are debatable, I have a feeling even the most orthodox fans of the '80s animated series will adore this movie as much as I did.
With Transformers, Bay has raised the bar for the summer blockbuster, crafting a mind-blowing visual effects experience rivaled perhaps only by 300. But whereas Zack Snyder's film presented a hyper-stylized, heavily green-screened reality, Bay's version is firmly entrenched in the real world, with the computer animation integrated almost seamlessly into the live-action footage. Nary a single green-screen shot can be found in the film. When a giant robot collides into a freeway overpass or tumbles through the streets of downtown Los Angeles, it looks and feels authentic.
The first two thirds of the film maintain a very tongue-in-cheek tone, an approach mandated by the inherently absurd premise. Several times the filmmakers wink at the audience, as if to say, "Yeah, we know this is ridiculous too, but just go with it." Sometimes it works -- the interaction between Shia LeBeouf and his Camaro (later revealed to be the Autobot Bumblebee), in which the car plays the role of "wingman" as he attempts to woo Megan Fox, is particularly fun. More often than not, however, it proves annoying and tedious.
Nowhere is this more painfully evident than during one interminably long scene in the middle of the film, in which LaBeouf's character, Spike Witwicky, is confronted by his parents while trying to sneak into the house as his Autobot pals attempt to hide outside in the garden. The scene starts out funny, but the humor soon turns to horror as it slowly becomes apparent that the scene is never going to end. I had terrifying visions of the closing credits rolling an hour later with the Autobots still stumbling around in the yard and LaBeouf still bickering with his parents.
Adding to the frustration is the fact that the sequence takes place immediately after we've been introduced to the whole Autobot crew -- Optimus Prime, Jazz, Ratchet, Ironhide and Bumblebee -- and we're jonesing for some kickass robot action. Instead, we're forced to sit through a 15 minutes of comic relief.
The inane -- and utterly pointless -- scene serves as a microcosm for the problems that plague the movie as a whole. The tone vacillates awkwardly between blockbuster action and slapstick comedy without ever finding the right balance between the two.
The tonal imbalance of Transformers extends to its cast. John Turturro, who plays the head of the super-secret government agency known as "Sector 7"(think of it as the Transformers version of Area 51), turns in a completely over-the-top, buffoonish parody of the archetypal CIA "Men in Black" character. The performance is entertaining, to be sure, but it feels oddly out of step with the rest of the actors, who more or less play it straight.
Thankfully, the movie does eventually dispense with the lame attempts at comedy. The last third of the movie is all big-budget spectacle, with ample robot-on-robot action and tons of stuff blowing up (a Bay trademark). It's the first movie I've seen in a long time that can honestly be labeled "Spielberg-esque." (And when I say Spielberg-esque, I'm not talking about Amistad.) It's one of those movies that demands to be experienced in a theater; a 15-inch laptop screen will simply not do it justice.
LaBeouf nails his role as the gawky teenager who becomes the Autobots' greatest ally. Watching his performance, it's easy to see why he's become the apple of Spielberg's eye.
The real stars of the film, however, are those Autobots and Decepticons, and they're simply amazing.
On rare occasions a film comes along that is so visually impressive, so viscerally appealing, that one can excuse its glaring flaws. This is one of those instances. In a season packed with big-budget tentpole flicks, Transformers is the first among them that truly feels like an event. It may not be the best film I've seen this summer, but it's by far the most entertaining one.