Should I Watch..? 'Transformers'
What's the big deal?
Transformers is a sci-fi action movie released in 2007 and is based on the Hasbro toy line of the same name. Directed by Michael Bay, the film is the first live-action film featuring the Transformers - alien living robots that secretly wage a war against each other on Earth, disguising themselves as everyday machines like cars, trucks and mobile phones. The film stars Shia LaBoeuf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, Jon Voight and John Turturro while also featuring Steven Spielberg as an executive producer. After making a colossal $709 million worldwide, the film would go on to spark a series of sequels and the prequel Bumblebee in 2019. The film received a fairly positive response and is generally considered to be the best in the franchise so far.
What's it about?
Thousands of years ago, an alien artefact known as the Allspark crash-landed on Earth from outer space. The cube is vital to a race of alien robots called Transformers whose homeworld was destroyed in a war between two factions, Autobots and Decepticons. Pursued by the Decepticon leader Megatron, the Allspark is discovered in the Arctic Circle by explorer Archibald Witwicky who accidentally activates the frozen Megatron's navigational system. Having the location of the Allspark cube etched onto Archibald's glasses, the spectacles are now in the possession of Archibald's great-great-grandson Sam who is thoughtlessly auctioning them online.
While Sam gets around to buying his first car - a beat-up Chevrolet Camaro that behaves very strangely - a US military base in Qatar is attacked by a strange and powerful robot disguised as a military helicopter. As the survivors led by Captain Lennox are pursued through the desert by a horrific subterranean robot, the US soon finds itself under attack by hackers trying to locate the Allspark. It appears that the Decepticons have not given up the search for their leader and soon, the fate of the world rests in the hands of young Sam and the object of his affections, Mikaela.
Capt. William Lennonx
TSgt Robert Epps
Agent Seymour Simmons
Secretary Of Defence John Keller
Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman*
Release Date (UK)
27th July, 2007
Action, Sci-Fi, War
Academy Award Nominations
Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects
Razzie Award Nominations
Worst Supporting Actor (Voight)
What's to like?
Due to the director's reputation preceding him, experienced filmgoers will know that Transformers will be a dumb, explosive action film that will appeal to anyone who likes things to blow up in their films during the long summer months out of school. And sure enough, pretty much everything explodes in this movie. The final third is a climatic battle between the Autobots and Decepticons in the heart of Downtown, USA complete with seemingly every branch of the military roped in for additional booms and bangs. Personally, I preferred the initial night-time assault on a military base in the desert which had more than a ring of the Terminator franchise about it. High praise indeed.
The real stars are the CG mechanical monsters tearing through the picture. Gone are the boxy and two-dimensional characters from the cartoon and instead, we get extremely smooth and detailed characters that look oddly believable. You can spot design features from the cars they imitate like windscreens and wheels so when they transform, it looks like millions of moving parts are perfectly in sync with each other. In many ways, the 'bots are more lifelike than the human cast and long-time fans of the show will be delighted to find Peter Cullen reprising his role as Optimus Prime. It didn't mean anything to me but then again, I barely remember the TV show.
- The original Bumblebee transformed into a VW Beetle but this was changed to a Camaro for the film. Bay deliberately did this to avoid comparisons with The Love Bug. As a homage to Bumblebee's original form, a yellow Beetle can be seen next to the Camaro at the car dealership where Sam fist meets the character.
- The hologram man used by the Decepticons as a decoy was played by a serving MH-53 helicopter pilot, Brian Reece, who was spotted by Bay and Spielberg on set. They both felt Reece had the right look for the role but his casting meant that he had to reschedule his wedding and honeymoon.
- In order to save money, Bay reduced his own fee by 30% and a deal was struck with General Motors who not only provided the vehicles depicted by the Autobots but also some 200 other vehicles destroyed in the final battle. The filmmakers also benefitted from donations from the US military who supplied many of the tanks, planes and helicopters used in the film.
What's not to like?
Oh boy, where do I begin? The human cast, LaBeouf and Fox in particular, are amazingly wooden compared to their mechanical co-stars and don't provide the movie with much leadership. The same can be said of Voight, acting as a surrogate for the unseen President but in truth, most of the roles are underwritten. It's a shame because initially, the film has three separate narrative threads that it slowly begins to weave together. A pity it ends in a noisy and mostly incoherent battle at the end with robots kinda blending in with each other (I couldn't tell who was good or bad and largely ignorant of who they actually were). Speaking of which, I'd have liked some clarity on who the robotic characters are. Not being overly familiar with the series beyond Optimus Prime and Megatron, a little exposition for non-fans would have been nice.
What's disappointing is that the action scenes often feel muddled and confused, especially when two Transformers are having a dust-up. For all the clarity of the characters, the action scenes seem sped up and even shot at unusual angles which distort and disorientate the viewer. Personally, I blame Bay for this - his action film like The Rock and Armageddon are violent and noisy affairs with only the loosest understanding of things like gravity, physics and logic. For Bay, any scene is a good one so long as something explodes in it so if you're after a long and boom-heavy action film with little explanation as to what is going on, this is your film. Personally, I didn't have a clue. Lastly, I didn't quite believe how old-fashioned the film felt. Fox has nothing to do besides be the obvious love interest but the camera seems to almost leer at her like an invisible sex pest. Difficult to imagine such crude sexism passing these days with the #MeToo movement and frankly, I'm cool with that.
Should I watch it?
For fans and lovers of the original TV cartoon, I dare say that Transformers is the film they've all been waiting for. But while the film may contain dazzling visuals and a suitably epic feel to the action scenes, it just never engaged me much. I wanted to know more about these characters, this strange alien race that can somehow mimic objects as everyday as a truck with flame decals. It's loaded with product placement, stifled by uninspired performances, narratively all over the place but as a summer blockbuster, it does just enough to appeal to bored schoolkids everywhere.
Great For: fans of the toys or TV show, under 18 audiences, subtitle readers (the explosions drown out much of the dialogue), corporate sponsors
Not So Great For: adults unfamiliar with the series, critics, anyone hoping Bay's career would go up in smoke
What else should I watch?
Judging by the overwhelming negativity that greeted the rest of the sequels, it would seem that this is as good as things got. Revenge Of The Fallen, Dark Of The Moon, Age Of Extinction and The Last Knight were all slammed by critics upon release and yet, they all smashed the box office like a giant robot would - collectively, the series has so far made more than $4.3 billion worldwide and counting with the recent release of Bumblebee. Incidentally, Bumblebee has bucked the trend in terms of critical response by earning the most praise of any film in the series so far. It's also the first film in the series not directed by Michael Bay so go figure.
Films based on toys have had a fairly chequered success rate, it has to be said. From the big budget flops like Battleship, hilarious misfires like Dungeons & Dragons to idiosyncratic curiosities like Clue, toy-based films traditionally haven't been much good. I say traditionally because The Lego Movie and its spin-offs have seemingly turned things around. The first film certainly felt like a breath of fresh air, using incredibly detailed CG to create a world of seemingly limitless possibilities as well as a goofball charm and nostalgia you rarely find these days.
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© 2019 Benjamin Cox