WFTB Score: 12/20
The plot: Would-be ladies’ man Sam Witwicky chooses a Camaro as his first car, little knowing that it has in fact chosen him. Rescued by the Transformed Camaro, Sam discovers that his grandfather’s Arctic exploits make him pivotal in an age-old battle between robot enemies: the Autobots and the Decepticons. The Decepticons want to get their hands on the Allspark, a cube that would give them unlimited power over the Universe, and they have just discovered that it’s hidden on Earth…
Michael Bay films thrive on a kind of bombastic mayhem, or Bayhem, if you will. As long as you’re prepared to surrender to the noise, heat and light of a million things going bang, you are guaranteed a great time. For Transformers, Bay’s tone is ideal: there’s no point making a film about something as silly as vehicles that turn into fighting robots, based on a cartoon used to sell toys, without taking the premise very seriously – especially since the money required to make the robots look convincing is astronomical.
And make no mistake, the effects are phenomenal. A step up from anything I’ve seen before, both during the transformation and as robots both Autobots and Decepticons are utterly convincing in every frame. Even with half a dozen robots on screen at a time, light gleams off metal exactly as it should, reflections curved around surfaces perfectly as the Autobots and Decepticons battle each other, the Autobots helped by some human assistance (but also some hindrance).
There’s no need to go too deeply into the plot, other than to say it involves the coming together of many – probably too many – disparate elements. Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBoeuf) is the hormonal hero whose fate becomes tied up with that of the Autobots. LaBoeuf is fine as an averagely-awkward Eleventh-grader, though it is something of a miracle (actually, the intervention of his car, aka Bumblebee) that he convinces class hottie Mikaela to speak to him, let alone sit on his lap. Megan Fox plays Mikaela competently, though it’s clear that the director asks little else from her than to look pretty and show a growing interest in Sam, if she wants. The camera loves her, whatever she does; there are three shots of Mikaela in Sam’s first scene, and she does nothing other than look straight ahead.
A Top-secret government agency called Sector Seven cottons on to Sam’s interactions with the Autobots, bringing Sam into contact with weaselly Agent Simmons (John Turturro). Turturro is given a lot of the pratfalls and wisecracks in the film and as such he hams it up a treat, though may not be to everyone’s tastes.
Official government control comes from the Secretary of Defense (Jon Voight, jowly), monitoring the progress of an elite army unit under the command of new father Captain Lennox (Josh Duhamel, bland). Australian computer analyst Maggie Madsen (Rachael Taylor) is helping Voight to decipher the strange sounds made by the Decepticons, and assisting her to retrieve embedded signals – there are always embedded signals, aren’t there? – is genius hacker Glen (Anthony Anderson). Glen is the absolute stereotype of the hacker: he lives with his grandmother, plays computer games all day and is both fat and greedy. Glen also happens to be black and a coward, and I found the characterisation irritating and offensive, especially as it added nothing to the story.
The scenes with Maggie and Glen emphasise that when action isn’t the focus, Transformers drops the ball. As another example, when Sam returns home to retrieve his grandfather’s glasses (don’t ask) and the Autobots try to hide themselves, the scene is amusing but goes on far too long. Making discrete trims to the script and removing Maggie and Glen altogether would have produced a much tighter two-hour film. As it stands, it’s an hour before you even get a glimpse of Optimus Prime. Speaking of which, a quick mention should be made of Peter Cullen, reprising the role from the cartoon series, and Hugo Weaving as his nemesis Megatron. Both are fine, although their voices get a little lost amongst the special effects and all the noise going on around them.
The last twenty-five minutes or so of the film contain the big final battle on the streets of Mission City (in reality, mostly Los Angeles) and bear all the hallmarks of classic Bay. The contrivances that lead the protagonists to the city and see Sam trying to transfer the Allspark to a helicopter on the roof of a 20-storey building are confusing, and typical of the problem with a lot of action-driven blockbusters: the rationale of the storyline is sacrificed to the demands of what the effects can do. If you’re going to try to hide something, and several of your enemy are evil, lethal, part-time flying machines, why transport it via helicopter at all? Why not take it underground? Because you can’t call in the Air Force or do a thousand crazy stunts underground, that’s why.
Transformers is by no means perfect and could be picked apart, scene by scene. But if you take the view that action movies are all about the action, and you’re prepared to temporarily sacrifice the rational part of your brain for two and a half hours, you’ll enjoy the film immensely. To paraphrase the movie: No sacrifice, no Bayhem.