Monday, April 09, 2007

Random Movie Report #24: The Transformers: The Movie

The live-action TRANSFORMERS movie comes out in July, and I'm honestly torn. On the one hand, it's directed by Michael Bay, he of the 3-second-per-shot maximum, beer commercial aesthetics and thinly veiled contempt for the un-macho. I don't like to outright bash any artist/entertainer/etc.- they've all got one good work in 'em, at least- but there's that. On the other hand, it will have giant transforming robots. I've been weighing these elements on imaginary scales for weeks. I'll probably give in; that's how cool giant transforming robots are. So before I begin this review, I have to reiterate that this is totally my kind of movie. I didn't follow the Transformers that closely in their heyday, but I had a few and saw an episode or two; regardless, it was a part of the great morass of sci-fi-fantasy-shininess that was kids' entertainment back in the day. The look, the feel, the sound of it triggers something primal in me. It's pure brain candy, so I'm going to factor that in to my evaluation. (Plus I've been fighting a vicious cold and this sort of bright, brainless movie is exactly what I needed to see.)

Like the TV show, TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE was made to sell toys. And not in the indirect cynical way that all the big summer blockbusters are supposed to be about pushing merchandise (or were- when was the last really big movie-inspired toy line that wasn't STAR WARS?)- the film is basically built around shuffling off the older characters and introducing new ones to put on store shelves. The line and the show had been going for longer than these things usually last, so Hasbro needed to jump-start interest, and so a theatrical film was made. Despite the limitations of being a feature length commercial, it's not a bad movie; it has great visuals, a reasonably coherent plot, and a few good songs. I'm not sure I'd really call it a good movie either, but it's at the very least a guilty pleasure. I still haven't decided.

The movie actually assumes some familiarity with the premise, so I'll break it down. The Transformers are robots from the planet Cybertron who have the ability to turn into other things- most of them turn into vehicles, but some of them are guns and cameras and boomboxes and so on (I think they originally did this to disguise themselves on Earth, but that didn't last very long, especially since some of them changed into metallic dinosaurs and giant insects.) They are divided into two sets, the good Autobots and the evil Decepticons. As the movie starts, the Autobots are planning to retake Cybertron, but the Decepticons hijack a shuttle headed for Earth and begin a full-scale assault on the good guys' terrestrial home base of Autobot City. A massive battle ensues, and the Decepticons are driven off only when Autobot leader Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) faces off with Decepticon chief Megatron (Frank Welker) in a conflict which leaves Megatron battered and Prime dying. The Decepticons retreat, and Prime, in a surprisingly touching scene, passes the near-mystical Autobot Matrix of Leadership, a strange glowy device, to warhorse Ultra Magnus (Robert Stack.) Just before dying (robots can in fact die, it seems), he prophecies that the strange device will one day be opened by a worthy Autobot to "light our darkest hour."

As it turns out, that may have something to do with Unicron, a giant metal planetoid with an appetite for other planets, and the voice of Orson Welles. (This was Welles' last role, and his voice was heavily synthesized. This was also the final film for Scatman Crothers, who provided the voice of "Jazz".) Unicron is on a direct course for Cybertron, and on the way, comes across the beaten husks of Megatron and some of his comrades, who were dumped off the Decepticon ship when they needed to lighten their load. Unicron enlists Megatron's help, ordering him to find and destroy the Matrix, which is apparently the only thing that can stand in the planet-devourer's way. In exchange, Unicron reshapes the Decepticon leader and the others, turning Megatron into the new and fully-functional Galvatron (a process which changes his voice into that of Leonard Nimoy.) Later, Unicron attacks two of the Autobots' bases on the moons of Cybertron, and the Autobots on Earth rush to stop him/it(/her?), while also being pursued by the new-and-improved Decepticons. And though Ultra Magnus manages not to completely screw things up in his role as leader, it becomes obvious based on screen time that the destiny of the Autobots lies not with him, but the young maverick Autobot Hot Shot (Judd Nelson.) There's a human kid and his father, but they don't really do much.

The plot takes a couple of detours here, mainly to pad out the running time. The Autobots get separated, one batch taking refuge on a planetary landfill inhabited by the TV-talking Junkions (Eric Idle provides the voice for their leader), while Hot Shot, grizzled veteran Kup (Lionel Stander), and the lovable Dinobots are stranded on a bizarre metallic world full of carnivorous Sharkticons and ruled a five-faced judge who pronounces people "innocent" before feeding them to the robot-fish. (In one of the funnier bits, the bailiff, a creature with tentacle arms and the head of Giger's Alien, asks the Autobots if they want to plead for mercy; "It sometimes works but not often.") The film plays out mostly as a set of visual and action setpieces- the central plot makes about as much sense as it needs to, but there's a lot of dithering.

It helps that the film is really, really pretty. The animation on display here isn't the smoothest, but it's quite detailed and colorful. The various alien environments, including the interior of Unicron, are imaginatively twisted, at times evoking HEAVY METAL (both movie and magazine). The robots themselves look awesome, in a very 80s way, and of course they make up almost the entire cast of the film. The music, is, well, also very 80s. Much of it is campy but enjoyable power ballads, epitomized by the band "Lion"'s remarkably enthusiastic cover of the Transformers theme, and "The Touch", an inspirational number that somehow found its way into Paul Thomas Anderson's BOOGIE NIGHTS. But the musical highlight has to be "Weird" Al Yankovic's Devo pastiche "Dare to Be Stupid", which is used as the Junkions' theme tune. The incidental music by Vince DiCola blends well with all the songs and is fairly memorable in itself.

The filmmakers actually tried for a story with some emotional impact, not only with the death of Optimus Prime, but several of the original cast members. Of course, the point of this was mostly to clear the way for the newer characters like Ultra Magnus, Kup, etc. After all, Hasbro had already sold millions of Optimus Prime and Megatron toys. But it's interesting to see how the writers actually used the commercial mandate to drive the story, setting up an epic final combat between the old leads and passing the torch in a scene that somehow manages to recast Prime as Uther Pendragon. All this eventually takes a backseat to Unicron and the Junk planet and the five-headed judges and so on, but it helps the story hang together better.

Of course, in the end, it's all still incredibly goofy. The dialogue goes from random wittiness to clunky exposition to bad robot puns usually in less than 30 seconds, there are way too many characters to keep track of (one disappearing for no good reason), and the end is surprisingly abrupt. I will not dwell on Wheelie, for the sake of any transfans reading. It's not what one traditionally classifies as a good film. And yet, I can't help but feel it has something to offer.

Here's where I explain my grading system. Like many critics and grad schools, I count a B- as a passing grade, and a C+ as a near miss. C+ is also usually a "guilty pleasure" grade, for movies I can't recommend to the broad spectrum of anyone who might read the review, but enjoy for very personal and specific reasons (such as, say, the presence of giant transforming robots.) By putting a film at a B- or higher, I'm saying it has some universal aesthetic value that should be appreciated by other viewers of taste. So, with TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE, I have to ask myself, does this have any value beyond the innate coolness of giant transforming robots?

And I'm in a good mood, and I am going to say yes. The movie is fun to look at, bouncy, unpretentious (WAR IN SPACE, are you paying attention?), and unusually powerful for a toy commercial. Orson Welles isn't completely humiliated (he even gets off a couple of good quips), somebody swears, and somebody stuck in a reference to OF MICE AND MEN. Whenever the dramatic momentum lags, you can sit back and watch the pretty colors as robots and spaceships zoom about. TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE is about as good as you could expect a film made purely for merchandising purposes to be, and maybe just a little better.

Michael Bay, you've got your work cut out for you.

Written by Ron Friedman
Directed by Nelson Shin

Grade: B-

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