Tuesday, May 20, 2008

War in toyland: Transformers (2007)

Transformers bewildered me. A 150 million dollar budget summer movie to enhance a 20 year old Hasbro toy line and a Saturday morning cartoon show? Produced in part by Steven Spielberg, Transformers blends together director Michael Bay’s signature pumped-up visual style with extraterrestrial machines with big chests who battle one another like Rock-em, Sock-em robots. Michael Bay’s movies such as The Rock and Pearl Harbor tend to be loud, jingoistic, sentimental, and over-bearing. Since he began his career by making TV ads and music videos, his work has an slick, immediately recognizable sheen that makes you think some product will show up sooner or later. Visually sharp, his movies have a tendency to sell themselves, such as when a kid says “Cool!” when he sees two monstrous robots collide over a spaghetti freeway.

Still, as much as I was dismayed by the robotic acting and inflated story, there’s no denying the quality of the computer-generated graphics. While much earlier CGI tends to create murky action scenes, Transformers has crystal clear alien robots dangling like King Kong off the edge of sun-lit skyscrapers, and their metamorphoses into a jet, a semi, a Camaro, or even a beat box has the seamless grace of the ultimate adolescent turbo-fantasy.

One major storyline concerns young Sam Witwicky’s (Shia LaBeouf) humorous quest to impress winsome brunette Mikaela (Megan Fox). To that end, Sam’s dad buys him a yellow Camaro that is in actuality a heroic Autobot preparing for a worldwide battle with the dreaded Decepticons. The Decepticons have already destroyed an American military base in Qatar to download secret files from the mainframe, and they ultimately plan on using earth technology to take over the universe (or something like that). The sometimes insecure Camaro, otherwise known as Bumblebee, wants Sam’s grandfather’s glasses because they contain secret information that will help in his quest to win the war with the Decepticons by using the energy of some big Rubik’s cube named Allspark buried deep within the Hoover Dam. Bumblebee eventually joins his buddy Optimus Prime, who moonlights as a souped-up semi, so that Sam and Mikaela can go on a adventure of a lifetime assisting friendly robots in their shapeshifting war. I couldn’t shake the thought that the assorted alien robots could just easily fight each other without human interference, but then who would the human audience root for?

In another plotline that has several close correspondences to Live Free or Die Hard, the US government hires some signals analysts to try to decipher the sound code left by the military-destroying Decepticons. The youthfully hip computer-savvy analysts must stop a spiderbot virus threatening to take over the entire US military computer network. Eventually, everyone (including the seasoned Special Ops team from Qatar) converges for one last lengthy battle scene in some unnamed town near the Hoover Dam.

As much as I enjoyed the action sequences, the cheesiness of the Transformer dialogue kept getting in the way. When not metamorphosing or fighting, the Transformers stand around like dumb jocks on steroids, making wooden pronouncements like “I am Megatron,” “One shall stand. One shall fall,” “Fight for the weak,” and “Put the cube in my chest now.” One would think that whatever technologically advanced super-race that designed the robots would give them more witty things to say.

In the end, Transformers oddly combines top-notch cinematic savvy with a bunch of vapid toys, and the effect is weirdly disproportionate. Like a state-of-the-art paint job on a little red wagon, all of the razzle dazzle graphics emphasizes the limitations of the Saturday morning cartoons.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

im a fan of transformers, but i must say that i did enjoy reading ur lil rant.

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Anonymous. I confess that I enjoyed the film more than I let on.