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Transformers Goes for Style over Substance

  • Stephen McGarvey Executive Editor
  • 2007 7 Jul
  • COMMENTS
<i>Transformers</i> Goes for Style over Substance

DVD Release Date:  October 16, 2007
Theatrical Release Date: July 2, 2007 (select cities), July 3, 2007 (wide)
Rating: PG-13 (for violence, some bad language and sensuality)
Genre: Action/Sci-Fi
Run Time: 144 min.
Directors: Michael Bay
Actors: Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, Rachael Taylor, Anthony Anderson, Jon Voight, John Turturro, Michael O’Neill, Julie While, and Bernie Mac
Voice Talents: Peter Cullen, Hugo Weaving, Darius McCrary, Mark Ryan, Robert Foxworth, Jess Harnell, Jimmie Wood, Reno Wilson and Charles Adler

As the summer movie season charges forward in its mix of mindless big budget entertainment, one may begin to wish for a change of pace. You won’t find that change of pace here with Transformers, which proves yet again that a movie needs just a little bit more that mind-numbing special effects to be any good. Lack of substance, however, will not prevent the movie from making the studio a big pile of cash.

Based on the popular Hasbro children’s toys released in the mid-1980s, that later became a comic book and a cartoon, Transformers tells the story of a warring race of alien robots who find their way to earth. These mechanical beings have the power to disguise themselves as cars, trucks, jets and other commonplace machines. The hero of our story, teenage Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), stumbles across these robots when he discovers that his first car actually seems to be alive. At the same time elsewhere in the world, a U.S. military base is attacked and the U.S. government is hit with a strange computer virus attack of heretofore unthinkable power.

LaBeouf has proved himself an outstanding actor and is moving well beyond his humble Disney Channel beginnings. The first half of the film is fun and suspenseful as we see Sam trying to figure out how to pay for his first car, and then figure out what’s going on with his strange new purchase. The comedy of Sam’s situation is a great tension breaker against the terror of confusing attacks going on elsewhere. At least, terrifying as giant robots and a PG-13 rating can be.

The great acting ends with LaBeouf however (with perhaps the exception of a hilarious cameo by Bernie Mac as a used car salesman). Sam’s token love interest Mikaela (Megan Fox) has really nothing to do but wear tight clothing and be . . . Sam’s love interest. John Turturro, one of the most interesting and accomplished actors of our time, plays “Sector 7” Agent Simmons as the same pompous buffoon that you’ve seen in hundreds of these types of action movies. It may be due to a weak script, but his role is ridiculous and unnecessarily over the top. Jon Voight’s Secretary of Defense Keller is almost silly as he apparently decided to phone in his best Donald Rumsfeld impression rather than a realistic character.

You almost forgive Transformers' early flaws because the film is fairly entertaining. As Keller leads a team of unlikely twenty-something computer geeks and military officials who are working to figure out what is going on with the attacks, you overlook the fact that bringing in outside hotshots to solve a top secret military problem is ludicrous on its face. But as Transformers progresses and the action ramps up, the dialogue retreats from boilerplate to absurd. After the good robots (Autobots) reveal themselves to Sam, and tell their story and their battle with the evil robots (Decepticons), the film quickly plummets. They are trying to find some power device called the “All Spark” before the Decepticons do. If the bad guys find it first, all of humanity is at risk . . . yadda yadda . . . you’ve seen it all before.

Such a commonplace plot might be forgiven if the key players didn’t feel like they were written on the back of a napkin during someone’s lunch hour. Rather than portray Autobots and Decepticons as characters (they, after all, are supposed to be living beings), they are complete caricatures. You have the noble leader robot, the brave little scout robot, the reckless hotshot robot, the impish sneaky evil robot and so on. And of course, the needless silly moralizing about the good in humanity from Autobot leader Optimus Prime (voice of Peter Cullen) makes this character feel more like a cardboard cut-out than anything else.

As someone who played with these toys, watched the cartoon and read the comics as a kid, I know the story in this version of Transformers could have been much more exciting. The writers have a fairly extensive mythology to draw from. Great moral stories can be created and explored in the depiction of battles between good and evil. Unfortunately, with Transformers you get the kind of movie that director Michael Bay is famous for: a spectacular visual extravaganza and little else. If you don’t mind sitting through more than two hours of bad acting, convoluted plot twists and ridiculous dialogue to watch some pretty amazing special effects, this is the summer blockbuster not to be missed.

To be fair, the special effects will stun and amaze. The blending of live action scenes with what is clearly computer animated graphics is seamless. Maybe the computer geeks are the real heroes of the movie after all.

AUDIENCE: 13 and up.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol: None.
  • Language/Profanity: A few mild vulgar comments and double entendres.
  • Sex/Nudity: Mikaela wears several skimpy outfits. Pictures of women in swimsuits are tacked up on Sam’s bedroom wall. At one point Sam is locked in his room looking for an artifact for his robot friends. His mother asks him if he was masturbating in there. He’s not, and the scene is played for uncomfortable laughs because he is actually trying to “save the world.” It is implied that Sam has a pornography collection hidden in his room, but it is not shown. Mikaela, with the backing of her robot friends, has Agent Simmons strip down to his underwear to embarrass him for saying some mean things about her father. Sam’s dog pees on one of the robot’s foot. Later another Autobot “leaks fluid” on Agent Simmons in a way that makes it look like he is being peed on.
  • Violence: A great deal of bloodless violence as giant robots spend most of the movie pounding the circuits out of one another. A robot attacks a military base and then another one attacks a group of soldiers fleeing into the desert. A robot attacks and kills secret service men on Air Force One. People are no doubt killed in the wake of the Transformers’ rampage across Los Angeles. Cars are thrown, buildings crushed and more explosions than you can count.
  • Worldview: Most parents and authority figures are portrayed as clueless while the really smart folks are the young people.