Transformers (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

When it comes to Transformers, I have no ax to grind, pro or con. For me, it's just another loud, plot-deficient summer motion picture. In this case, nostalgia doesn't grip me - I'm too old to have played with the gadgets or watched the cartoon. I'm sure many fanboys (and girls) will be delighted by what Michael Bay has done to update the Transformers mythos (basically, that means incorporating A-level special effects and blowing lots of things up). On the other hand, those with no particular emotional attachment to the toys and their multimedia offshoots may dislike this movie as much as I did.

Thus far, the summer of 2007 has been full of very loud, very unsatisfying action movies. Transformers tops them all - it's louder, flashier, and more hollow than anything else out there. At 135 minutes, it drags - sometimes painfully so. The movie is top-heavy with exposition, and the only decent action scenes occur in the final 25 minutes. Despite an epileptic camera, those sequences are impressive from a special effects point-of-view, but they aren't exciting. That's because the characters are so poorly developed and the Transformers so singularly uninteresting that the question of who wins or loses doesn't matter. All the effort behind Transformers went into making the robots look cool; nothing went into developing a compelling storyline. Even the headline bout between Optimus Prime and Megatron is pedestrian - two big metallic monsters slugging it out while the camera spins around them as if out of control. It's kind of reminiscent of the Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots going at it.

The film tells of the struggle between the good guy Autobots and the bad guy Decepticons as they scour Earth in search of the fabled Allspark (a really big cube of power). The goal of the Decepticons and their leader, Megatron, is to seize the cube as a means of domination and control. The Autobots, led by Optimus Prime, want to protect humanity by destroying the Allspark. A secret segment of the U.S. military, Sector Seven, has captured the Allspark and is hiding it deep inside the Hoover Dam. They also have a cryogenically frozen Megatron in custody. (I know that all sounds silly, and it is, but short descriptions of science fiction films often come across as childish.)

Shia LaBeouf, who's as hot as any young working male star, plays Sam Witwicky, a high school boy who becomes involved in this situation because his grandfather's glasses contain a clue to the Allspark's location. His father buys him a car for graduation and it turns out to be Bumblebee, an Autobot. For all the time that the movie spends on developing Sam's home life - including giving him a mother, a father, school rivals, and a hot girlfriend (Megan Fox) - the character remains surprisingly lifeless. LaBeouf's performance is charming and earnest but he never made me care about Sam. The intent is to make this an average guy who becomes heroic after being thrust into extraordinary circumstances, but the movie doesn't get us there.

The movie gets a badly needed jolt of energy a little past the half-way point with the introduction of a zany John Turturro as Sector Seven Agent Simmons. Turturro's off-the-wall performance is in synch with what one might expect from a movie that is essentially one long product placement. In fact, the entire first segment with Simmons (from when he enters Sam's house until he has "first contact" with the Transformers) works better as comedy than anything else. Alas, another veteran actor in the cast, Jon Voight, doesn't fare as well as Turturro. The word "embarrassing" was defined for performances like this one. Voight plays the Secretary of Defense. I kept waiting for Leslie Nielsen to show up as the President.

There's a secondary plot involving a group of young analysts and hackers that goes nowhere. Despite absorbing roughly 20 minutes of screen time, there's no payoff for these characters and they pretty much vanish near the end. Their inclusion is baffling since they appear to serve no purpose beyond padding out the film's running length and providing occasional comedy relief (most of which comes courtesy of Anthony Andersen). Cutting out these characters wouldn't damage the film's integrity. In fact, the tighter focus might make for a better movie.

If the dialogue is anything to go by, Bay has a sense of humor. Not only does he take a moment to poke fun at one of his earlier hit movies, but he allows so many howlingly bad lines to be spoken that the level of self-parody has to be intentional. Transformers is a jumble of the good, the bad, and the ugly, with the latter two categories outweighing the former. The film has a lot of nice touches (such as the opening attack in Qatar, where there is a sense of danger, and the John Hughes-inspired introduction of Sam), but the meat of the story is plodding, recycled sci-fi drivel. That, I suppose, is what happens when a major motion picture is based on a 20-plus year old toy phenomenon.

Transformers is so belabored that it makes Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End seem like a masterpiece of pacing. It makes that "classic" midsummer alien invasion movie, Independence Day, seem like a template for inventive plotting and solid character development. Even by Michael Bay standards, this movie is vapid. Yes, there are plenty of explosions, but those are a dime-a-dozen these days; even Discovery Channel's Mythbusters has them. Transformers isn't clean, big-budget fun; it's clean, big-budget tedium. For Transformers fans, I suppose this is a dream motion picture. For everyone else, it's a nightmare.

Transformers (United States, 2007)

Run Time: 2:15
U.S. Release Date: 2007-07-03
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1