Michael Bay's big screen adaptation of the 80's toy line 'Transformers' was unleashed upon mankind this year and has become a massive hit worldwide. I've finally seen it, and yes it is superior to the turgid 'Transformers: The Movie' that came out in the eighties.
The story revolves around a race of giant alien robots from the ruined planet Cybertron who divided into two warring factions, the heroic Autobots and the evil Decepticons (with a name like that, could they be anything but?). They screwed up their own planet in a foolish war, then sent the object that gave life to their world, a cube called the 'Allspark' (lame name, dudes), out into space where it ended up on Earth. This all happened thousands of years ago. In the present, the Autobots and Decepticons have arrived on Earth to find the powerful Allspark, and inevitably continue their war on our little rock as the Autobots struggle to keep it out of Decepticon hands.
A teenager named Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf), who just wants to catch the attention of school hottie Mikaela (Megan Fox), ends up getting more than he bargained for when the new car he bought to impress her turns out to be an Autobot. See, these crafty giant robots are able to transform from humanoid shapes into vehicles like automobiles, tanks, and airplanes, and thus hide themselves from mankind while sitting out in plain sight. Anyway, Sam and Mikaela get caught up in the robot conflict thanks to his Autobot friend and also because his great grandfather had the location of the Allspark etched onto his glasses during an expedition to the Arctic. As a result, all of these mechanical behemoths are trying to get their hands on them. Seriously, this is a giant robot movie where the robots are looking for a pair of spectacles! Meanwhile, the U.S. military machine attempts to contend with the sudden onslaught of the Decepticons, who have started to attack and overwhelm mankind, while a secret organization called Sector 7 operates behind the scenes and knows a lot more about what's going on with these giant robots than anyone else.
The movie starts off with a spectacular and explosive assault by a Decepticon on a U.S. military base in Quatar before settling down for a while by cutting away to the resulting chaos in the Pentagon and to the efforts of Sam to woo Mikaela. The story structure is that of a disaster movie, with the first half being setup and exposition with a sense of impending doom - though there is plenty of action thrown in there as well - before building up to a relentlessly action packed final act. The military stuff is all generic and fairly forgettable, with people scratching their heads in puzzlement and looking pensive. There's also a second military subplot involving a cliched and bland military unit, which comprises cookie cutter characters, in Quatar trying to get some vital information back to their superiors; this plot-line serves only to add some action and introduce a few human characters capable of actually fighting the Decepticons.
The stuff with Sam as he first deals with his hormonal conundrums before being forced to try and stay alive and help the Autobots, is actually surprisingly good. A major reason for this is that Shia LaBeouf is excellent in the role and plays every beat perfectly - it's a rare thing where a human being manages to register in a special effects extravaganza, especially given how incredible most of the effects are in 'Transformers'. The guy manages to sell the idea that all of this wacky stuff is happening to him with genuine reactions and emotions, as if he were swept up in something huge and beyond his control, while still being funny as a smart aleck teenager. Megan Fox actually provides a reasonable foil for him to play off of, plus there's no denying that the girl is ridiculously well proportioned. As for the rest of the cast, apart from John Turturro's crazed performance as an agent of Sector 7, they're simply serviceable. From the Transformers themselves, Peter Cullen, who was in the original cartoon, acquits himself well as the voice of noble Autobot leader Optimus Prime.
The storyline and characters (apart from Sam) are humdrum, and the writing can get a bit... erm, poor, but the script does have a healthy dose of humour and facetiousness mixed into it and seems to realize that the subject matter can't be taken too seriously. Unfortunately, director Michael Bay plays up much of the human stuff too dramatically, particularly the military elements which I wish had been trimmed down. Conversely, some of the humour also becomes grating, such as the scene where the Autobots try to hide outside Sam's house - this starts off as humourous but drags on too long and ultimately draws attention to the utter stupidity of the situation. Still, despite some unwelcome material and a slightly too long running time, the film doesn't ever really drag thanks to the doses of excitement being doled out on a regular basis.
Which brings me to the film's main selling point, which is giant robots causing mayhem. The last thirty plus minutes of the movie are literally a non-stop action free-for-all as the Autobots and the military withstand the onslaught of the Decpticons. Plenty of explosions take place and robots wrestle with each other while devastating the city around them. It's a bit much, truth be told, and becomes more than a little repetitive, but at the same time it's incredibly spectacular and unlike anything I've ever seen in a film. The special effects are virtually flawless - they're massive in scale and scope but never draw you out of the film. The interaction of the effects with characters and environments is seamless. It's a shame that the robots themselves don't look that cool though, with ugly designs that make it nearly impossible to distinguish who they are when up close. And that's another problem - the action has a feel of realism to it thanks to lots of chaotic close up shots, but those same shots make the robot action a little messy and incoherent. All in all, the action scenes blew me away but even on my first viewing they began to try my patience, which makes me wonder how they'll hold up during repeat viewings.
All the other aspects of the production are, needless to say, top of the line - it seems that the well oiled Hollywood machine can, with enough money, create just about anything nowadays. The costumes, sets, props, and effects all exhibit that polished 'big movie' sheen. The effects are the big selling point and, as I've mentioned, they definitely succeed in holding one's attention and selling the story.
So basically, 'Transformers' is a good if not great spectacular blockbuster; a silly story and cheesy writing buoyed by a great performance, terrific effects and mostly effective action scenes. It doesn't really raise the bar for action/special effects filmmaking, but I think it manages to clear the existing bar quite well by utilizing all of the state-of-the-art tools available today to make an entertaining and exciting film, one that has a tone suited to its subject matter and that manages to stay in your memory for a while after the end credits have rolled. It's dumb, but it knows it and has fun. Worth seeing for the spectacle (s?) alone.