Saturday, July 14, 2007
Many of my peers would probably avoid trying to place Michael Bay's update of the classic 80s cartoon Transformers in any kind of scholarly context, but I'm not always known for toeing the film critic party lines. In a sea of massive blockbusters, this one stands out as one that will be discussed in future years when the history of big-budget spectacle is revisited.
In terms of special effects, it's on par with the original Jurassic Park in terms of sheer grandeur. This is some of the finest CGI ever put on film. The movie also seems to highlight the disconnect between professional film critics and more casual movie buffs, a divide growing ever more pronounced and visible thanks to the internet…but more on that later.
Michael Bay may be an action maestro (the last 45 minutes of the movie is a protracted and massive brawl), but he's no Steven Spielberg. This is evident from the opening scene, in which a suspicious helicopter lands at a U.S. military base in the Middle East and proceeds to turn into a giant robot and destroy everything in sight. This is the first glimpse of a Transformer and I really hoped the sequence would be filled with awe. Unfortunately, Bay doesn't seem to have time for that. There's a lot of stuff around that needs to be blown up.
After that, we meet the high-strung young hero, Sam Witwicky (the charismatic Shia LeBeouf), an all-American lad about to get his first car. The beat up Camaro he drives home from the dealers turns out to be a Transformer itself, and Sam gets drawn into a galactic conflict of epic proportions. Set on destroying the Earth are the evil Deceptions, who turn into fearsome machines like tanks and fighter jets. Pitted against them are the autobots, which turn into more benevolent vehicles.
The Autobots are led by Optimus Prime, who is voiced by the tremendous Peter Cullen, who has been playing the character since the 80s. Recruiting him is the movie's ace in the hole; nobody else is qualified to play Prime and it's refreshing that the studio had enough sense to realize that. Cullen's distinctive characterization of the robot, both intimidating and full of warmth, is even more appreciated in such a sleek production. Megatron, leader of the Decepticons, is voiced by Hugo Weaving, so everyone start your Matrix jokes. ("You lead two lives, Mr. Prime. In one life, you are a mack truck….")
I've read interviews with the producers who describe Transformers as really just the story of "a boy and his car." Sounds nice, but I'm not sure I buy it. Not when that plotline is just one of numerous subplots contributing to the film's bulky running time. There's the British NSA agent (Rachel Taylor) and her goofy hacker friend (Anthony Anderson, going through his usual "loud doofus" motions), Pentagon officials screaming at each other, Agent Simmons (John Turturro) of "Sector 7," on-hand to offer some fun twists about the movie's backstory, and a small squad of U.S. soldiers (led by Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson) who thought dealing with Iraqi insurgents was going to be the scariest thing they did out in the Middle East.
You get the feeling some of this fat on the script by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman could have been trimmed, but at least the soldier subplot offers one of the movie's most thrilling battle sequences: a stunning clash between a small division of the military and a scorpion-like transformer amidst crumbling ruins in the desert.
What you make of all this depends greatly on expectations. Contrary to popular belief, only the most uptight critics are immune to simple pleasures. The movie is a heaping helping of fun. The action and effects are tremendous, and it's often very funny. However, there's plenty to pick apart as well. The script is messy and bogged down with subplots, there isn't quite enough pure wonder to go around, and character exposition is often incredibly forced.
The almost inevitable response to that is something to the effect of "Who cares? Stuff blows up!" The invective-filled internet communities filled with those who seem to look at a movie as nothing more than a two-hour distraction will point to the high grosses of critically eviscerated films like Norbit and Wild Hogs as evidence that film criticism is obsolete. Critics often react with the knee-jerk response that the success of those films only proves that American are all idiots, but that only plays into their hands.
I propose a compromise. I do recommend Transformers for those looking for a blast of old-fashioned movie-magic and fun. If we could appreciate that in itself without running around calling every new blockbuster the "best movie ever," I think we'll all get along better.