I was just complaining to a friend of mine how they don’t make nerdy teenage fantasy movies like they did in the ’80s, and then along comes director Michael Bay‘s Transformers.
A flawed, frenzied, and ultimately fun affair, Bay’s big screen adaptation of the Hasbro toy line (that itself spun into a TV series and 1986 animated movie) comes off like an absurd cross between The Last Starfighter, TV’s Knight Rider, and Risky Business. It also fulfills every teenage boy’s fantasy to make out with a hot girl on your talking Camaro while a giant friendly robot watches over you.
According to a vaguely incomprehensible plot that doesn’t make sense even in a movie, “Before time began there was the Cube.” This mysterious giant monolith (which reduces down to become a Rubik’s cube later) usually floats in space, but has somehow landed on Earth. The booming voice who explains this — and most of the film’s silly expository elements — is Peter Cullen, voicing the heroic Autobot Optimus Prime, just as he did in the original The Transformers: The Movie.
Without getting too far into it, let’s just say that the good Transformers — who have excellent wireless access to the Internet from outer space — find out how to locate the Cube when nerdy teenager Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) puts a pair of 1930s spectacles on eBay. What starts out as a boy-wants-car-to-meet-girl story quickly turns into a boy’s-sentient-car-helps-him-get-girl-by-playing-sexually-suggestive-songs-on-the-radio story. The next thing you know, all kinds of Chevy and Ford vehicles are turning into giant, missile-wielding robots and talking to Sam.
Sound ridiculous? It is. But with a broadly comic performance by LaBeouf and a self-mocking attitude that embraces its preposterousness, Transformers is the most absurdly funny pure popcorn flick of the summer. In terms of sheer chutzpah, it wins hands down. As far as real characters go, there are none. LaBeouf is likable, and that’s about as close as we get to a real person in the entire film.
He isn’t the only actor playing for laughs, though. John Turturro‘s overly-serious government agent, Anthony Anderson‘s clownish computer genius, and Sam’s slaphappy parents (Kevin Dunn and Julie White) are all stereotypes, and contagiously good-spirited ones at that.
Transformers is an affectionate throwback to 1980s teen flicks, but it’s also a self-referential, tongue-in-cheek tribute to the kinetic energy of Michael Bay’s own movies. The same needlessly low-angled circling camera trick that was lampooned in Hot Fuzz just months ago is the funniest part of a hit-and-miss scene featuring comedian Bernie Mac. Besides Bad Boys though, Bay is also bringing up some of his other famous films. As the Transformers descend upon Earth in a fiery meteor-like maelstrom, a kid runs outside yelling, “This is easily a hundred times cooler than Armageddon!”
The old Transformers slogan “more than meets the eye” is a perfect illustration of what is right and wrong tonally with the film. Early in the movie, the quote is used facetiously between two humans with no acknowledgement of its source and is very funny. Later, however, it is used in a scene that tries to be emotionally stirring, and it just doesn’t work. Bay can’t have his cake and eat it too — perhaps a more skilled satirist like Paul Verhoeven (Starship Troopers, Robocop) could have made a more cohesive movie of this material.
One interesting undercurrent that is mentioned but never really explored is that all of our modern technology (cell phones, computers, etc.) has evolved from the alien Cube. If it falls into the wrong hands, all of these devices would turn against us. It might have enabled Bay to play with some social themes like the fear of not knowing who the terrorists are, but the director seems hell-bent on making sure we don’t think about that stuff for too long.
That’s because he really gets a kick out of giant robot fights that are integrated expertly into the real world with some of the most convincing CGI special effects ever put on film. Ironically, this produces more clashing tones, because the Transformers are so realistic that they needed to retain their original TV personalities to stay true to the cartoonish nature of the rest of the film.
Unfortunately, much of the action moves so fast it’s hard to tell what’s happening. The protective Autobots and evil Decepticons kind of blend together after a while and you can’t tell who you’re rooting for. Often times the choreography seems a little muddled, and Bay is not able to wring maximum tension out of all the situations. After ribbing 300 for its huge amount of slow-motion shots, it feels a bit weird praising Transformers for the few times it was used, but it gives you a chance to really admire the detail and see what exactly was happening to whom.
A tedious subplot with some American soldiers stationed in Qatar seems thrown in to appeal in tandem to our sense of patriotism and also our desire for U.S. soldiers in Iraq to come home. The movie is also full of tired modern action movie staples like model-hot computer hackers right out of high school and technology that enables the government to see anywhere in the world on a video screen.
Transformers stumbles in many areas of its scattershot plot, but to call it stupid would be dead wrong. It is very smart and self-aware, and that sense of humor is able to carry it through rough waters — even including the final moments of a confusing ultimate showdown between Optimus Prime and the villainous Megatron. One look at The Island is enough to tell you that Bay doesn’t do “serious” cinema well, but everyone in Transformers is having such a good time that even rampant product placement and confusing plot machinations can’t keep it down.
It’s fun , fun, fun ’til Daddy takes the talking Camaro away.