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July 3, 2007 > Movie Review: Transformers

Movie Review: Transformers

By Jeremy Inman

On a planet called Cybertron, an advanced mechanical race of Transformers is enveloped in war. On one side, the heroic Autobots fight valiantly to protect an ancient and all-powerful artifact from an uprising of deceivers known as the Decepticons. The artifact: the Allspark - a 10,000 year old mechanism with the power to grant life to all Transformers. In the ensuing battle, the artifact is lost to the depths of space until settling in its resting place far across the galaxy, on small, primitive planet called Earth. For one hundred years, it lay buried in the Arctic Circle. When a daring explorer uncovered it, both Autobots and Decepticons were alerted of its presence on Earth, setting the stage for the final battle for the fate of their race...and ours.

Like the titular giant robots, the king of summer blockbusters has arrived. However, as a summer blockbuster, certain stigmas apply, like the propensity to sacrifice plot for a loosely threaded story to link a string of incredible action sequences. So, if you're looking for a high-octane, jet-fueled blast of a summer flick then you've found one. It's got explosions, comedy, huge action pieces, and giant freakin' robots in spades. If you're looking for the intelligent, sci-fi epic - a modern retelling of the TRANSFORMERS mythos it deserves - you'll be disappointed.

I'm in-between.

Having watched the show as a kid and followed the comics to an extent later on, I know what the film could have been and I'm sad to see it fall short. But I'm also a sucker for giant alien robots that can turn into cars. How can anyone resist!? The nostalgia factor will be so prominent for most of today's prime moviegoers that this film is going to be huge whether or not it's technically a good movie. People will want to like this movie. I know because I'm one of them.

Despite some underwhelming critical components, there are plenty of redeeming qualities in TRANSFORMERS. For one, Shia LaBeouf is a thoroughly watchable leading man. The sidekick from I, ROBOT and CONSTANTINE serves as the human perspective to the showdown between the Autobots and the Decepticons. His goofy and awkward appraisal of the situation is at once endearing and entertaining. Also, it goes without saying that merely being able to see some of the most recognizable icons of Saturday morning cartoons in big screen, live action is truly a sight to behold. Visually, this film is one of the most astounding things I've seen since Peter Jackson's KING KONG - the last special effects epic to really impress me. Kong however, is a little easier to sell as a prehistoric holdover from a forgotten land than a giant, English-speaking semi-truck named Optimus Prime.

Luckily, the film takes steps to explain why the Transformers can speak our languages and imitate our mannerisms - they digested the entire World Wide Web. Their names are presented as designations rather than true identities, explaining why a robot could be named "Jazz" without prior knowledge of that genre of music, or why one might be called "Bumblebee" on a planet where no biological life exists (and thus has no bees). The Decepticons even speak an otherworldly language which requires the bulk of their dialogue to be subtitled - lending an air of credibility to their existence as extraterrestrials. Even the goofy names like "Cybertron," their home planet or "Megatron," the leader of the Decepticons are explained as mere approximate translations of the corresponding Cybertronian words. All of this, however, is handled rather hastily in three or four lines of dialogue.

As is most of the plot, presence of the Allspark on Earth basically serves as a great big macguffin (a plot device used to drive conflict). Optimus Prime wants it to save mankind (for some unexplained reason) and Megatron wants it to enslave mankind (for some unexplained reason). The potential for the Allspark to rebuild Cybertron is never addressed - and Optimus even expresses a willingness to destroy it if need be. Motivations aren't necessarily addressed. Rather than being complex, intelligent, emotional life forms, the Transformers are either spouting off one-liners (admittedly funny) or just blowing stuff up. They're mere cookie-cutter personalities - more akin to the 1984 cartoon characters than sophisticated and developed standalone leading characters.

1984! You'd think since then they might have figured out some way to flesh these big guys out a little bit.

Another gripe: the movie takes way too long to get going. The first of the Autobots to see any screen time is Bumblebee (traditionally, a Volkswagen Beetle but here, an old Camaro) who can't even speak because of a damaged vocal processor. We're not informed of the big picture until Optimus Prime shows up and tells us - almost halfway through! Certain elements don't make sense either. For instance, Megatron has been frozen in US custody for almost one hundred years since he was found in the Arctic Circle with the Allspark (he haphazardly followed it through space). The Autobots consumed the internet to learn how to communicate with humans, but Megatron (who crash landed here before the turn of the century, the industrial revolution, and therefore, WAY before the internet or the digital age) wakes up from his cryogenic nap speaking English!

Then again, I can't really complain about logic in a movie where one zap from a space cube can turn my Xbox360 into sentient life, hell-bent on Earth's destruction. I guess if a giant shape-shifting robot can exist, then he can damn well speak English while he's doing it!

All of this aside, once the film does get going, it really gets going. The director of ARMAGEDDON isn't going to skimp on mass destruction, and while Mr. Bay may not sell everyone on the character development side of things, he knows how to frame a huge freakin' robot throwing another huge freakin' robot through a building.

I guess that's TRANSFORMERS in a nutshell, one more weakly-plotted, underdeveloped kick in the pants for your summer entertainment. But who cares about plot when a semi truck stands up and starts talking? In English!

Hopefully producers and directors will decide to take it a little more seriously when TRANSFORMERS 2 rolls out. Until then, this is a pretty good start. The kids are going to love it; it just doesn't quite cut it for those of us who crave a little more than flashy visuals.

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