One has always suspected from the evidence that Director Michael Bay likes machines more than he does people. The stunts--the "tent-pole" sequences-- have loving care lavished upon them, but character development is there for laughs...people are more effective as collateral damage than the purpose of the story. And if somebody gets squished along the way...well, who cares? After all, another stunt is on the way, and how cool is that? The epitome of this director-fetish occurred in "Pearl Harbor" (never seen it, for personal reasons) when the "money" shot of the attack was one that followed an air-dropped bomb on its destructive path through the U.S.S. Arizona. Bay said in interviews he did "Pearl Harbor" just so he could do that shot. I've seen that little piece of film numerous times (I keep looking for a CGI version of my father waiting on the dock), and it is impressive. It's also the coldest, most heartless way to present a tragedy I've ever seen. What if Oliver Stone had had a "bullet" shot that travelled from the Texas School Book Depository to the meat of JFK's brain (As cruel as that sounds, I've seen similar things a few times on the CSI shows), wouldn't someone raise a stink about that? It's as if one of these little destructive things is on a hero's quest and we follow it's little travails to its ultimate goal. Boom! "Scoooore!" So I've looked at Bay's career with a jaundiced eye, looking for the day he'd grow up and become a real director.
I don't know that he has, but if he keeps making movies like "Transformers," maybe he shouldn't. One wants to be cynical about a 2 hour 20 minute commercial for Hasbro (the movie is rife with product placement for young and old alike), but damn, if the things isn't as effective an action-comedy that has come down the pike in quite awhile. Aimed directly at where male adolescents live, the movie has the great good sense to cast Shia LaBeouf as its token humanoid.* LaBeouf's fidgety, jittery, always "on" performance is one of those joys to behold in movies-- constantly shifting, feeling like an ad-libbed performance (though the prize for that must go to Julie White as the slightly addled Mrs. Witwicky, always trying to make something positive out of a negative) and holding his own against all comers be they performing veterans or CGI monsters.
The story deals with an invasion of Earth by warring stealth robots, the Autobots and the Decepticons, who hide in plain sight by adapting the forms of the mechana of whatever world they crash-land on. They're decidedly nostalgic, taking on the form of boom-boxes and 70's Camaro's. When we meet hyper high-schooler Sam Witwicky, he is combining a school assignment with a mercenary sales-pitch trying to raise money for wheels. This sets in motion a plot so full of contrivance that it almost knocks your block off (sorry, wrong battling robots), but between the machine gun performances and Bay's constantly moving camera (a bit less shake and quiver than usual), you don't have time to notice, so deeply submerged is the movie in the "now."
Along the way are some interesting performances by Bernie Mac, matching LaBoeuf shift for shift in animation,** Jon Voight, looking florid and dour as the Secretary of Defense, John Turturro, whose agent for the secretive Section 7 ("...never heard of it." "And you never will.") careens into Pacino-like histrionics, and Michael O'Neill from "The West Wing," brings an understated straight-faced gravity in the face of sci-fi mayhem that just allows the movie to survive a lengthy exposition sequence at Hoover Dam. All fit as the tone of the movie is more like the Spielberg-produced "Gremlins," than, say, "The Iron Giant."
After pulling off a good movie for most of its length, it succumbs to the wishes of the toy-clutching fanboys, and turns into 45 minutes of "Rock'em, Sock'em Robots" in the streets of L.A., which is just as boring as it sounds. All the fun just drains right out of the movie while the titular charcters get in each other's grills, kick each other's cans for what seems like an eternity.
That's one of the problems. One can kvell about stereotyping, but I can't thinkl of any minority (or majority, for that matter) not being lampooned (in fact, there's a nice double-shot at white geeks and director Bay when a fan boy reacts to a violent meteor shower--"This is SO cooler than 'Armageddon!'") except for Asians. Didn't "Transformers" start in Japan? Hmmm.
Also, why are two of the more prominent women-roles both made up like 30 year old porn stars? And one's supposed to be in high school? How many grades was she sent down? They may be hawt (I believe the phrase is), but really, the only other person who comes close to having that much make-up caked on them is Jon Voight! And there is the staple of Bay--the slow-motion military shots that look like they've been culled from recruitment ads, and the faux-Hans Zimmer thudding score makes it feel more germanically militaristic than normal.
Still in all, it's the best damned, most entertaining toy commercial I've seen in a long time. Can't wait for "Furby: The Movie."
"Transformers" is a matinee. But ONLY because it'll look pretty dinky-toy on the tv.
* Ever been annoyed at black-themed movies where the stars and main characters are white? This is sort of a mechanoid version of that scenario.
** Though it does cause some of the dialogue editing to be a bit ragged in places.