Saturday, August 25, 2007

In Theaters: Transformers (2007)

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I went into TRANSFORMERS with just a little trepidiation. As I mentioned in my review of the animated movie, I am not the world’s biggest Michael Bay fan, and I wondered whether his personal stylistic excesses (3-second shots, solemn macho posturing, vague yet pervasive anti-intellectualism, etc.) would overwhelm the innate coolness of giant transforming robots. I stand humbled. TRANSFORMERS is a solid, fun piece of entertainment, and Bay reigns himself in to do justice to the concept in all its goofiness. It’s the best work I’ve seen from him, and a good two-plus hours of dumb fun that you probably should catch on a big screen if you haven’t already.

The film starts with an attack on a U.S. military base in Qatar. The attacker is a helicopter which quickly turns into a giant robot and starts hacking into the military’s system. Another one of the sinister machines hacks into Air Force One’s computers looking for information on something called “Project Iceman”, something that leads them to geeky teen Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf). Sam’s the grandson of a famous arctic explorer and the proud owner of a beat-up yellow camaro that has a mind of its own, and, when Sam and his new girlfriend Mikaela (the astonishingly good looking Megan Fox) are threatened by an evil police car, drives to his rescue. Turns out the yellow car is Bumblebee, one of a race of cybernetic creatures called Autobots, who long waged a war with the evil Decepticons over the allspark, the cosmic cube which gave them life. The allspark is somewhere on Earth, and the Decepticon leader Megatron (voice of Hugo Weaving) crashed in the Arctic looking for it. Now it’s up to Autobot leader Optimus Prime (voice of Peter Cullen, as in the series and animated movie) and his loyal allies to defend Earth from the Decepticons, who plan to find the allspark and use it to turn all of Earth’s machines into an aggressive army.

This is a picture that develops slowly for the first act; unlike the cartoon and animated film, it’s basically told from the humans’ perspective, and the robots do try and stay in disguise for much longer than they ever have before. Which is fair, and even though the early business is slow it’s still reasonably entertaining. The human characters are actually interesting, in that two-dimensional sort of way. Everyone’s a type, but played well. LaBeouf is particularly good playing what may be the first awkward protagonist in a Michael Bay film, Anthony Anderson shows up as a nervous hacker, and in what had to be the best surprise of the entire movie, John Tuturro appears as the feisty head of a secret government organization that has an interest in these new arrivals to Earth.

But we’re watching this for the robots, and when they arrive in force the picture really gets going. The special effects are excellent, and the Autobots are given plenty of screen time to manifest distinct, albeit highly cartoonish personalities (Ironhide, the team’s weapons expert, levels his guns at the slightest disturbance.) At heart, the Transformers, like so many 80s cartoon concepts, manage to be both absurd and cool at the same time, and the film doesn’t take the boring route of trying to remove the very silliness that makes them interesting. Optimus Prime still gives speeches about sacrifice and freedom, Bumblebee scans a sharper looking auto to improve his paint job, and a sense of good humor pervades the whole project. We’re not meant to take it entirely seriously, just enough to be thrilled.

I was mostly worried about Bay’s propensity for quick cuts- his editing style sometimes renders action sequences hard to follow, and can make quieter scenes a real headache. The action in this film is still pretty jumpy, but mostly comprehensible; I still would’ve appreciated a master shot or two, but Bay seems to let the camera stay still just long enough for us to follow the story of each sequence. There’s a particularly good scene in the desert just outside a small town in Qatar where the survivors of the military base attack confront a giant scorpion-esque Decepticon, and they just keep pouring every kind of ordnance the military has into the robotic beast until they finally find something that damages it. This is definitely a movie for people who like cars and guns and the many, many permutations and combinations thereof; it’s really quite impressive in its excess. Only the final battle gets a little too messy for its own sake; I would’ve liked more emphasis on the climactic duel between Optimus Prime and Megatron (like you didn’t know he’d get revived), and a little less side business (blink and you’ll miss the death of a prominent supporting character), but even that turns entertaining.

The filmmakers are obviously very heavily aware that there is a large and devoted Transformers fanbase, and make several nods to them, including familiar quotes and a few visual references (to hear it, in early drafts the robots didn’t even speak.) But the best fan-service decision has to be hiring back Cullen as Prime. You have to understand, to a number of people who were kids in the mid-80s, Optimus Prime was both role model and father figure. He was brave, wise, compassionate, and vaguely comforting, and Cullen’s voice does a lot to convey these qualities. It’s possibly the best performance ever by a man playing a giant shape-changing robot, and its inclusion adds just the right touch of childlike awe and belief in the absurd to the whole production.

TRANSFORMERS is about as good as you could hope for a movie of its kind to be; kinda dumb, kinda huge, very colorful and very fun. Whether it was Steven Spielberg’s supervision or an innate love of the concept that convinced Bay to curb his excesses just a tad, while letting the franchise’s own excesses manifest themselves, he turns out to have been the right man for the job after all. I doff my cap to him.

Story by John Rogers, Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman
Screenplay by Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman
Directed by Michael Bay

Grade: B+

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