This sci-fi action flick featuring Good and Evil robots based on the famous Hasbro toys promises to be another WAR OF THE WORLDS or INDEPENDENCE DAY. Although it strives to appeal to the whole family, it winds up emerging as a kiddie flick on steroids – a big-budget, effects heavy, feature film version of a Saturday morning cartoon. The good news is this means that the film is relatively restrained in its use of graphic carnage. The bad news is that the juvenile tone undercuts the suspense, so the film has to sustain itself on spectacle and bad jokes for its two-and-a-half hour running time.
Things get rolling with an attack on the U.S. military in the Middle East, which seems to set the tone for a more conventional action flick, with the expected levels of destruction and a huge body count. Intercut with this, we see high school nerd Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) acquire his first car, which turns out to be a Transformer (an “Autobot” from outer space) in disguise. Sam uses his new wheels to attract the attention of Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox), a hot chick who happens to be an amateur mechanic. Meanwhile, the Secretary of Denfese (Jon Voight) is at the Pentagon, trying to determine what attacked the military base, dragging in a bunch of “experts” who look as if they are barely old enough for grad school. More autobots land and reveal themselves to Sam, whose grandfather discovered the evil autobot Megatron in the frozen Arctic wastes decades ago; it turns out that Sam owns an object of his grandfather’s that will reveal the location of a secret cube that could help Megatron’s minions take over the world, and the good autobots want to get to it first. Unfortunately, in-fighting and confusion impedes progress towards solving the problem: an agent of a secret government organization (John Turturro) arrests Sam and his family, but eventually things get sorted out and everyone finally teams up against the common enemy for the big battle at the end.
After the high-octane opening sequence, which gets the ball rolling in a spectacular fashion, the switch to Sam’s story seems like a traditional narrative manuver; you expect to get a multi-viewpoint story with different plot threads tying together as the characters converge and join faces to defeat the threat. However, it soon becomes apparent that Sam is the story, and the movie is in no particular hurry to get to the climactic action, when instead it can waste time trying to milk humor from his predicament.
At first this simply amounts to a car with a mind of its own that strands him and Mikaela on an isolated road with a romantic view. Though LaBeouf does his best to play his character’s combination of frustration and embarassment, the comedy hijinx wear out fast, and the scenes wind up more embarrassing than funny.
Things get even worse when the other autobots arrive and follow Sam home, trashing his father’s lovingly tended garden. The scene plays out almost exactly like a similar scene in the animated film THE IRON GIANT, which also had a boy hiding a giant robot from his parent. It was silly then, and with the increased number of robots, it is five times as silly now.
When the film eventually gets tired of its teen love story and turns toward the action the audience paid to see, it delivers a spectacular barrage of computer generated effects that should please indiscriminating viewers, but anyone expecting an awesome epic on the lines of WAR OF THE WORLDS should look elsewhere. The computer-generated imagery has a cartoony look: it’s not technically unconvincing, but the emphasis on speed undermines the impression of size and weight (a similar problem befell the 1998 American version of GODZILLA). Also, quickness of the movements seldom gives viewers a chance to sit back and be totally impressed with what they are seeing; the strategy apparently was to overwhelm the audience by turning everything into a blur of color and motion.
This undermines the impressiveness of the giant-sized autobots. During the early portions of the film, what gets the feeling of seeing an American attempt to craft something along the lines of live-action anime or perhaps GODZILLA: FINAL WARS (Megatron is even kept in an underground lab that looks suspiciously like the one containing Gigan in GFW). But an evil little spy robot soon shows up to provide goofy comic relief, and when the good autobots start talking English – with lame attempts at hip, colloquial dialogue – the whole thing starts to feel like TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES.
The final battle is long and loud enough to pass for a suitable climax, but even here director Michael Bay cannot quite pull it off. The action is clearly not meant to be taken seriously, but he only knows how to shoot everything the same old way he always does; he never achieves the over-the-top loopiness of a great Hong Kong action movie, where the sheer kinetic energy of movement forces you to accept the action, however outrageous.
No doubt, Bay assumed that his target audience would accept whatever he served up, and it is easy to imagine that young children who love the toys will embrace the film. The script, with its blunt messages about Good and Evil and about the human capacity to achieve great things, sounds like a bad ’50s sci-fi flick, but why bother with subtlety when making a film based on a toy line? Bay’s approach matches the material perfectly; he’s always been eager to throw in everything plus the kitchen sink in a desperate attempt to jangle the nerves of an audience with a (suspected) short attention span. With TRANSFORMERS, he may finally have found a subject, with a built-in audience, perfectly suited to his particular talents.
TRANSFORMERS (2007). Directed by Michael Bay. Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman. Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel, Jon Voight, Bernie Mac, Rachel Taylor, Tyrese Gibson, Anthony Anderson, John Turturro, Michael O’Neil, Kevin Dunn, Julie White.