The Theory of Chaos

Thursday, January 10, 2008

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Transformers

Originally published 7/8/07
Full review behind the jump

: It’s almost not fair that this movie and I should go through the trauma of a review. I was in dizzying love with the Transformers toys from the moment their colorful, die-cast metal, chunky and manipulatable selves appeared in stores. I own hundreds of them, and they’re not mint in the box, either, but well played-with. I would set them up all over my bedroom and create scenarios of the final showdown between good against evil that took the whole summer to play through. I watched the cartoon series faithfully, I own all 80 issues of the original Marvel comic series. I still love the 1986 animated movie, even though I can now understand the sad trajectory of Orson Welles debuting in Hollywood with Citizen Kane, and ending his life as the voice of a malevolent planet-eating giant robot in a feature-length toy commercial. This is all to say I am too painfully aware of every change this movie makes to the mythology and character and design of those toys I loved. A critic is never truly objective, but must always attempt to ground their reaction in an at least pseudo-objective discussion of technique. In this case, dear reader, I am doing the best I can.

Also, I don’t know if “conflagrative” is actually a word (see below). I’ll let someone else make the ruling on that.


: Michael Bay
: story by John Rogers and Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman, screenplay by Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman, based on Hasbro’s Transformers toys
: Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Don Murphy, Tom DeSanto, Ian Bryce
: Shia LeBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, Rachel Taylor, Anthony Anderson, Jon Voight, John Turturro, Kevin Dunn, Julie White, and featuring the vocal talents of Peter Cullen and Hugo Weaving

One of the unwritten laws of dealing with anything mechanical is the KISS rule – Keep It Simple, Stupid. Don’t put in any more moving parts than necessary, because every part – and every point of interaction between parts – is a potential place for things to go wrong. The bigger the machine, the more essential this principle of elegant minimalism becomes.

Visual effects in film have now reached the point where they can finally depict giant robot fights with painstaking realism, and this is something to be celebrated by all the Earth’s geeks; because there is very little in this world – and that includes Borg episodes of
Star Trek: The Next Generation and superhero cross-over comics – which is as cool as a high-quality giant robot fight.

, the live-action feature debut for the shape-shifting toys once labeled “Robots in Disguise!”, obeys this precept when it comes to plot – it is no more complicated than the following: Giant robots, both Good and Evil, come from outer space in search of Thing. Thing will be bad for humans if Evil giant robots find it. Good giant robots team up with movie stars to get Thing first. Much robot fighting ensues. That simplicity of design allows Transformers to be, in spite of some flaws, a slick, loud, good time at the movies for anyone who relishes explosions or fast cars; or, better still, fast cars that can become giant explosion-causing robots. And it is also, call this faint praise if you want: the best movie Michael Bay has yet made.

Shia LaBeouf is the human star of this movie and he has a difficult task before him. Summer action movie dialogue now requires speed, timing, and the ability to both show ironic distance for the laugh lines but still say “Oh my God!” with sincere breathlessness while staring slack-jawed at special effects which don’t exist yet. LaBeouf handles this with considerable confidence and charm, if he is destined to star alongside the CGI beasts of this generation, we may have some decent entertainment ahead of us. He plays Sam Witwicky, a sharp but socially-hapless high school student who hopes his birthday present car might finally get him in the good graces of classmate Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox, whose perky body is lit and photographed so lusciously I was greatly relieved to see her true age on IMDB).

It turns out the car is too helpful by half, playing on-the-nose mood music and stalling at makeout spots with a precision that hardly seems accidental. And this is because the car is actually Bumblebee, one of the heroic Autobots who need a possession of Sam’s in order to find their way to an artifact called The AllSpark.

You don’t need me spoiling for you what The AllSpark is, what matters is that the treacherous and violent Decepticons are searching for it as well. The battle spreads all over the world. There’s the military base in the Middle East, where Special Forces troops led by Captain Lennox (Josh Duhamel) duel with a robot that burrows through the sand like a scorpion. Then there’s Air Force One, where the President is more interested in snack cakes than the fate of the free world and a stereo that doesn’t seem to belong to anyone unfolds into a pesky little computer hacker. Then there’s the classified government installation below Hoover Dam, where the Secretary of Defense (Jon Voight) learns from a super-secret operative (an effectively droll and obnoxious John Tuturro) about a couple of astounding discoveries that were made underground almost 100 years ago and subsequently covered-up.

It may be that Michael Bay has finally learned, after all these years, that these movies he’s making are ridiculous. Transformers is too long by at least twenty minutes, and reaches the point of overkill when it comes to elaborate sets, extended comic relief sequences, and even the giant robot fights. And yet there’s a looseness to it, a gravitas-free momentum towards the next conflagrative pleasure. It doesn’t seem so arrogant in its size as Armageddon, or snidely-careless with human life as the Bad Boys pictures, or thoroughly-airheaded as Pearl Harbor. It seems to simply enjoy itself for what it is, and that is an accomplishment for Bay.

The Transformers themselves are in blatant violation of the KISS rule of mechanics, and consist of so many moving parts, so many spiky protrusions and turning gears, it’s difficult to get your bearings on their giant frames and find a personality to hang on to. The ingenuity of the original toys were their appeal – you could turn a convincing looking tractor-trailer into the noble Autobot Leader Optimus Prime (voiced, as in the animated series, by the rumbling Peter Cullen) with a few quick flicks of the wrist. It now looks like every transformation requires the coordinated movement of about 100,000 parts. It’s a wonder they don’t fly to pieces any time they try it.

But I can see the purpose to this. The robots are not meant to be the center stage personalities. They are alien, they are strange, and even the good ones are somewhat frightening because of their, well, hugeness. You can tell it’s an effort for most of them to see small, fragile creatures like humans as moral equals worthy of protection. This is likely the influence of executive producer Steven Spielberg, who likes to see stories from the suburban kid’s point-of-view; since - he’s never gone broke in assuming - they’ll be buying most of the tickets.

Transformers is, in its trappings, a fair leap away from its source material, yet it is a successfully-calculated one. It remembers that there is no duty more sacred in this adaptation than to provide space for Transformers to transform, and smash up a few buildings, and carry on their eternal war. The ending is eminently sequel-ready. Let’s hope they carry on with not over-thinking what to do.


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