Thousands of years ago an item known as the Allspark (a mysterious cube that can create life) found it's way to the planet Cybertron where it birthed a civilization of living robots capable of taking the shapes of various objects. These beings became known as Transformers. For a time the species thrived until an evil Transformer known as Megatron (voiced by Hugo Weaving) began a war which eventually ravaged the entire planet. Megatron and his followers, known as the Decepticons, battled against the Autobots, as led by Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), for control of the Allspark. When Cybertron had been totally demolished by fighting, the Autobots took the Allspark into space where Megatron traced it, eventually finding himself caught in the gravitational pull of planet Earth. He was pulled to the surface and crash-landed in the arctic where he remained frozen until many years later when an explorer by the name of Archibald Witwicky (William Morgan Sheppard) stumbled upon his body. Using the last of his strength, Megatron shot forth an energy beam which engraved a coded map onto the lenses of Archibald's glasses which would lead anyone able to decode it directly to the Allspark's location on Earth. After some time the Decepticons were able to track Megatron to Earth and arrived there, immediately searching for the Allspark and their lost leader. Using the technology available on Earth, including the internet, the Decepticons were able to track Archibald Witwicky's glasses, and the map contained within, to their current owner, his grandson Sam (Shia Lebeouf). A high school student, Sam has just purchased his first car, which as it turns out, is an Autobot named Bumblebee (Mark Ryan) in disguise. After locating Sam, Bumblebee sends a signal out into the depths of space, calling for his fellow Autobots to join him on Earth to help find and protect the Allspark. After the cavalry arrives an all new war begins to see who will finally gain control of the Allspark: the riteous Autobots or the evil Decepticons.
Opening Remarks - I've decided to break this review into multiple parts because, honestly, there's a lot of ground to cover here. I was never a huge fan of The Transformers as a child. I had one or two Transformers toys, hardly ever watched the cartoon, and didn't end up seeing the original movie until I was about 18 years old. I used to watch the spin-off series Beast Wars, but that's about it. My knowledge of the Transformers is fairly limited, but as a movie buff, a science fiction nerd, and a child of the eighties, how could I not be excited to see Optimus Prime and Megatron duking it out on the big screen? So for months I read all the rumors on message boards and watched all the clips leaked online and finally the day arrived that I, along with the rest of the world, would be able to see cars turn into robots and beat the hell out of each other in the theater in full, glistening 3D CG. The following are my findings.
The Plot - The plot of Transformers is fairly simple: good robots versus bad robots with life as we know it hanging in the balance. That said, it's not unfathomable that the story could have been bogged down by unimportant subplots and/or mundane intricacies that don't further the plot progression. I am happy to say, however, that the plot of Transformers is solid. There are some flashback scenes narrated by Optimus Prime that give the viewer a brief look at the history of the events taking place which clue the audience into a few things they need to know right when they need to know them. Past that, Transformers is jam-packed with story points that are (for the most part) relevant. With that said, the story is not without it's flaws. Transformers clocks in at two hours and twenty four minutes, but could have easily been three hours long. This is not to say that it should have been, and there are certainly people who would complain that making a film longer will not solve anything, but the simple fact of the matter is that there are often instances in Transformers where the pacing feels rushed. It's as though many of the scenes were intended to be longer, but had to be cut short to meet some sort of time constraints. I think the plot suffered in some areas based on this flaw. Many characters felt underdeveloped and multiple scenes left me feeling cheated out of a properly paced bit of drama. Had the film held a better flow, I would have no real problems with the story, but as it stands it felt to me like there was a bit too much crammed into slightly too small of a space. Then there is the humor. Transformers has many more comical moments in it than I was expecting. Most of these instances were done in good taste, but I personally felt that there was sometimes too much focus on the humor. Many jokes felt justified and meaningful while a select few felt overly cheesy and forced. And finally, one of my bigger gripes about the film's plot involves the focus of the film. The movie is called Transformers, however the way the plot plays out, the film could have been called "Sam And His Transforming Pals". Now, I am not going to dispute the importance of Shia Labeouf's character in this film, but for a movie about giant robots, I really didn't feel like the robots were given quite enough to do for a great deal of the movie. They managed to be onscreen a good bit, but there were hardly any scenes of the robots talking to each other. Almost every single scene, regardless of whether there was a robot in it or not, seemed to revolve around whatever human was in the frame more than the robots themselves. I understand that Sam is the main character, and I am fine with the amount of screen time he had, but I just didn't feel like the Autobots got their due until the climax of the movie, though even then I was a tad disappointed (more on that in a bit).
The Humans - Shia Labeouf is incredible in Transformers. He is funny, interesting to watch, and absolutely believable in the role of Sam Witwicky. His interaction with the robots, both Autobot and Decepticon, is flawless, as is his interaction with his family, the love interest, and all of the various government and military personnel. Megan Fox surprised me in this film by being more than just a pretty face. She carried the role of Mikaela Banes fairly well for the majority of the movie, however I still didn't quite believe her as the badass grease monkey that she was supposed to be. Jon Voight was one of the few actors in the movie that I honestly wasn't all that impressed by. As sad as it is to say, I think that the last movie in which Voight really impressed me with his performance was Varsity Blues. He didn't do a terrible job in Transformers, but perhaps his character just wasn't explored deeply enough to make him seem all that worthwhile. Speaking of shortchanged cast members, none of the military characters such as Sargeants Lennox (Josh Duhamel) and Epps (Tyrese Gibson) really had a fighting chance of showing any real character development. All of their scenes essentially consisted of them shouting and shooting things, which they were good at, but which wasn't very rewarding as far as their personalities were concerned. John Turturro's portrayal of Agent Simmons was one of the more interesting of the human roles, simply because his character had a bit of character. He exuded some actual emotions and had a little more to do than just look concerned and shoot things. Also worthwhile were Kevin Dunn and Julie White as Sam's parents. Their characters were fairly stereotypical onscreen parents, but their interaction with Shia was entertaining and they provided some of the more worthy comical sequences in the film. Another heavily comedic role was that of Anthony Anderson, who did a rather horrible job of playing a genius computer hacker alongside the equally unimpressive Rachel Taylor.
The Autobots - As I've already mentioned, I really would have liked the Transformers (specifically the Autobots) to do a little more in this film. As it is, the Autobots (excluding Bumblebee) take their sweet time arriving on Earth, but after they get here they really don't do a whole hell of a lot. Fortunately, however, the Autobots were handled well in the scenes thay they were in. A lot of people were worried by the more realistic appearances of the robots in the movie as compared to the way they looked in the cartoon, but I was behind the designs from the beginning. What I was worried about was whether they'd stick to the heart of the characters or not. Luckily they did just that. Optimus Prime, as voiced by Peter Cullen, is the epitome of a leader. His speech alone demands respect, and when he was really in his element in this film the hairs on the back of my neck stood up at the sound of his voice. There were some silly moments involving all of the Autobots, but those aside, Optimus was handled extremely well. Bumblebee was also done decent justice in this movie. I was initially disappointed that he wasn't going to be a Volkswagon Beetle like the original character, but in retrospect I think I'd have had a hard time believing that he could do any real damage if he were in fact a VW Bug in a live-action movie. Something else that initially worried me about Bumblebee was that instead of speaking he used sound clips from the radio to talk. I expected this to be very corny and stupid, but he honestly doesn't use this ability very often in the film, and the few times he does didn't really bug me too much. The main problem with the other three Autobots of the film, Ratchet (Robert Foxworth), Jazz (Eddie from Family Matters), and Ironhide (Jess Harnell), is that they have almost no character development whatsoever. Soon after their introductions we are treated to a few little one-liners from each that give us an idea of what their personalities are like, but then they essentially have no important or memorable dialogue for the rest of the film. Overall my complaints about the Autobots all come down to their lack of importance to the plot aside from showing up for the final battle of the movie.
The Decepticons - Really, my complaints with the Decepticons are much the same as those I had with the Autobots. For one, zero character development. Megatron is in stasis for the majority of the film, so he really only has about the last half an hour of the story to build up any sort of personality or character. If it weren't for the other characters foreshadowing his arrival and talking about what a badass he is prior to his release, he probably wouldn't have come off as much of a threat at all. Then we have the rest of the Decepticons...I think there were eight of them in total. The first action scene involves Blackout, the second involves Scorponok, and the third involves Barricade (more on these scenes shortly). After that we really don't see the villains until the ending. Again, for having so many damn robots in the movie, we hardly see any of them. Not to mention, for the most part the Decepticons don't even have any speaking parts. They each have maybe one or two lines, but they're all spoken in an alien language for the most part and subtitled onscreen. This, combined with their lack of screen time in general, really impedes the viewer's ability to get to know the characters. I personally can't even list off all of the Decepticons that were in the movie or what vehicles they turned into because they just weren't important enough to the plot to be memorable. This becomes a real problem toward the end of the movie because I had no real idea who was who during the climactic all-out brawl that ends the film (that's not really a spoiler because, come on, who didn't know that's how a Transformers movie would end?). The really sad thing about the Decepticons is that the one who gets the most screen time is a little annoying robot who turns into a stereo named Frenzy (Reno Wilson). In my personal opinion Frenzy is to Transformers what Jar Jar Binks was to Star Wars. Everything about this character sucked. Even the way he moved. The filmmakers decided to make his movements very exaggerated and (in my opinion) overly-fluent, giving the character the feeling of a silly Bugs Bunny type of character. Then there was his voice. He speaks in little cartoony grunting sounds that just scream "I was added to entertain the kids in the audience." Aside from Frenzy, the thing that probably bugged me most about the Decepticons was that Starscream (Charles Adler), Megatron's second in command, was hardly in it. In the cartoon Starscream was an incredibly rich character who always seemed on the verge of getting into a fight with Megatron over the leadership of the Decepticons. There was only one real moment in the film that these two characters shared and it was probably one of my favorite of the entire movie. It showed that the filmmakers knew how to handle the characters properly, but that they just didn't bother to take the time to do so.
The Special Effects - There isn't much to say here. The special effects in Transformers were top notch. I had no trouble believing that the incredible robotic creatures onscreen were real because they fit so well into the onscreen environment. The transforming process was impressive, as were the movements of just about every CG character. The effects in Transformers were absolutely the best I've seen to date.
This next section discusses, in some detail, the events of the film's action sequences. If you haven't seen the movie yet you may do well to skip the following block of text and proceed to the next. You've been warned.
The Action - Frenzy was an annoying character. Many of the people/robots in the film didn't get enough character development. Several parts of the movie felt rushed and/or stereotypical of modern action movies. My biggest complaint about Transformers, though, falls into the category of the films's action sequences. The first taste of action we get is right at the beginning when Blackout (the evil helicopter) attacks an American military base. This scene was shot in such a way that we didn't get to directly see a whole lot of the action. The camera never focused very well on the villain and things were very hectic and confusing. I'm fine with this because it's the beginning of the movie and director Michael Bay probably just wanted to keep things a bit mysterious this early on. The second action scene that we get is when the survivors of the military base are attacked in the desert by Scorponok. Again, it's a bit tough to tell what's happening at times. Again, Bay seems to be focusing more on the random actions of the soldiers than the direct action of the robot, which is what everyone really wants to see. The camera moves around very quickly and shakes a lot, there are constantly demolished walls, etc. blocking our view of Scorponok, and sand and dust are flying all over the place, making things even more confusing. Okay, it must just be the location, and it's honestly still pretty early on, so maybe Bay is still just teasing us. A little while later there's a pretty cool, but incredibly short car chase between Bumblebee and Barricade (the evil police car), ending in a stand-off between the two. Then the two of them go at it, which would have been really cool if I could tell what the fuck was going on. My guess is that it was a combination of shaky cam, close-ups, and the fact that it's tough to discern between two characters when they're both just made out of a bunch of random pieces of metal, but I could hardly follow the action in this scene. Then, before you know it, the focus cuts away from the fight to see Shia LeBeouf being felt up by Frenzy and we miss the rest of the first real battle between good and evil robots. Oh well, there's plenty more action coming, right? Wrong. Fast forward to the last twenty minutes of the movie and the shit is finally about to hit the fan. Megatron's conscious, all the Decepticons are sounding off on their way to the location of the Allspark, and the Autobots are rushing toward the city. Commence fighting. What do we get? More shaky cam. More confusing, fast-paced fighting. This scene is in the daylight, and it's pretty long, involving some slow-mo, etc., so it's not all bad, but for the most part I was very disappointed with the climactic battle of Transformers. For one thing, as I mentioned before, I had no clue who half of the Decepticons were, so most of the time I felt like I was just looking at random bad guys. Second, is it just me, or did it seem like the robots were dropping like flies in this scene? I was under the impression that these things were tough, but each little conflict lasted maybe a minute and then one of the robots was being dismantled and defeated completely. This was disappointing because after all the build-up it seemed like the Decepticons were all talk. I won't dwell on the silly nature of some things like why the military decided that the best way to hide the Allspark would be to bring it into a populated city with lots of innocent bystanders to be killed in the coming battle, or why instead of taking the Allspark and driving to meet the military helicopters themselves, Ratchet and Ironhide made little ol' Sam Witwicky run down the street with it himself while they stood around and got the crap beaten out of them, but there were certainly some odd occurrences at the end of this film. All in all I just felt underwhelmed and maybe a little jipped by the climactic battle of Transformers. The best part, by far, was a short dogfight between Starscream and some U.S. fighter jets. This scene was well lit, well shot, and generally easy to see and enjoy. It was also pretty short, but it's something, so I'll deal with it.
In Closing - Transformers certainly wasn't horrible, but it definitely wasn't the amazing movie-going experience that I was expecting, nay, wishing for. Sure the effects were good, but the action was impeded by some odd filming choices that made it hard for me to enjoy them. Sure the story was perfect, but the storytelling was far from it. Yes, some of the characters were wonderful, but others were weak and poorly developed. Transformers had the opportunity to leave an impact on me like the first time I saw Spiderman swinging across the New York skyline, or the first time I saw H.R. Giger's nightmarish creation burst from a man's chest in Alien, but in the end it just felt like another standard summer action movie to me; less a failure, and more a missed opportunity.