Judge Mike Rubino wishes his '95 Buick would transform into something cooler than an old-man Autobot.
"Their war. Our world."
From the moment that Dreamworks announced that Transformers would be directed by the same man who brought us The Island and Pearl Harbor, we all went on "Bay-Watch." Would it be a disaster? Would hundreds of fans be terribly disappointed? Would this be the biggest financial mistake Hollywood has ever made? Well, not quite.
Rather than going down in flames, Transformers actually survived the Bay treatment and becomes one of the biggest box-office smashes of all time. While it isn't at all perfect, it is a classic example of how you can turn a beloved old-school franchise into a realistic and faithful blockbuster.
Facts of the Case
A long time ago, in a galaxy a good distance away from ours, we find the planet of Cybertron being torn apart by a vicious civil war between the Autobots and the Decepticons. (Try to guess which group are the villains). These two giant, lumbering groups of robots are battling for control of a powerful cube called the "Allspark." When the Allspark finds its way to our humble little planet, the robots decide that Earth will be the battleground for the final fight.
But the disputes of robots are of no interest to humans, especially of the teenage variety. Teens have more important things to worry about than some "Allspark," like getting a cool car, wooing a significant other, and avoiding parents. That's where Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf, Disturbia) comes in. Sam's worrying about all three of the major "teen issues" when we first see him shopping for a car with Mr. Witwicky. Through a few fateful events, and one determined robot in disguise, Sam ends up going home with a beat-up '77 Camaro, which actually helps him solve a lot of his teenage problems: Sam meets a girl, Mikaela (Megan Fox, Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen), and they end up spending the rest of the movie together; Sam's beater car turns into a tricked-out 2009 Camaro concept car; and Sam doesn't have to worry too much about his parents because he spends the bulk of the movie embroiled in the disputes of robots.
Of course, once his Camaro (known as "Bumblbee") shows up, the rest of the Autobots follow suit, including Autobot-leader Optimus Prime, Jazz, Ironhide, and Ratchet—all of which can transform into General Motors vehicles.
Meanwhile, Decepticons start showing up in the Middle East and fighting American soldiers, played by Josh Duhamel (Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!) and Tyrese Gibson (Four Brothers), which sends the Department of Defense into a frenzy back home. The Pentagon is forced to bring kids into the fold to help crack some robot code, Jon Voight shows up, and a mysterious government agency called "Sector 7" starts making the rounds to cover everything up. It's a race for the Allspark that skips from Iraq to the Hoover Dam to Mission City…for the final showdown.
You did good, Michael Bay…you did good.
I can't believe I just said that. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect this movie to be any good. Heck, I never expected to ever actually like a Michael Bay film. Sure I'll watch The Rock on occasion, that's about it. But here, after over a year of hype, low expectations, and me humming that song from Team America, Michael Bay actually blew me away. Sure the movie has some issues, and some Bay-isms, that keep it from being truly great, but it succeeds in being one of the most satisfying action flicks of the summer.
Rather than strictly sticking to the original premise of the '80s cartoon, Bay's movie starts fresh with a story about some "Allspark" and changes things a bit to make them more accessible to the general public. While fanboys were busy filling up message boards with overused statement that Bay was "raping their childhood," the action movie master (of sorts) was out there giving the series an honorable treatment. Bay created Transformers with the utmost seriousness and realism, which allowed this '80s toon to transcend its previously childish roots and enter into a state of all-ages sublime.
Yet for all the realism that Bay worked in to the movie, the story doesn't really bother to acknowledge any of it. Transformers is almost two-and-a-half hours long, and yet the story moves about as fast as that new Camaro. It skips and jumps from one big action set piece to another, and I was able to overlook most of the plot holes thanks to the on-screen awesomeness of the robots. While the movie had plenty of plot threads to connect in the third act, I couldn't help but feel that it had one too many. Bay worked teenagers into every thread, but the storyline involving the two computer geeks recruited by the Pentagon seemed forced. It got even sillier when they went to visit their wise, fat hacker friend (which felt like the same scene that was in Live Free or Die Hard). The hacker story doesn't really go anywhere; in fact, it gets locked in a room, inside of a dam, where it spends much of the final act. The whole thread could have been trimmed and we wouldn't have even known.
Slightly bloated script aside, the movie also suffers from the usual Michael Bay-isms—you know, those scenes that Bay slips in to almost every movie he makes. Here, we have that classic "helicopters fly in through the scorching sun" scene and the pilots walking in slo-mo to their planes shot, to name a few; that's not to mention the low-angle car chases, heavy-handed dramatic character moments, and the obligatory monologue (this time delivered by Optimus Prime). This is very much a Michael Bay movie, but unlike The Island or Pearl Harbor, it becomes tolerable, and actually good, because of two reasons: transforming robots and Steven Spielberg.
While Spielberg didn't really direct the movie, it's clear that he had a hand in the day-to-day development. There is a scene in the movie where Sam is in his bedroom trying to hide the secret of the Autobots from his suspecting parents. While he's backed up against the wall trying to cover his tail, the Transformers are outside crawling around the backyard, trying not to be seen. It's a classic moment that felt like a scene from E.T. Thankfully, Bay and Spielberg, using scenes like this one, took the time to humanize these robots (at least the Autobots), and made me actually care about them.
I was also able to care about the Autobots because they were surrounded by a great group of actors. Their interaction with these computer-generated characters was so realistic that I often forgot that they weren't really on the set together. Shia LaBeouf gets better with every movie he makes, and in Transformers, he really comes off as that everyday, semi-introverted, loner teenager. His cohort and love interest Megan Fox does an adequate job as well. Adding to the credibility of the movie are some welcomed appearances by Jon Voight (National Treasure) and John Turturro (The Big Lebowski). Turturro does an especially good job as the goofy caricature of a government secret agent in charge of Sector 7. Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the inspired casting of Peter Cullen as the voice of Optimus Prime. Cullen, who has spent much of his career voicing Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh, was the original voice of Optimus in the first Transformers cartoons. If anything else, Cullen behind the mic for Optimus was a reassuring sign that this movie was going to turn out alright.
Transformers is like a small Cessna being piloted by Michael Bay; while his style and directing methods may have, at times, caused the movie to dive straight towards the ground, Bay manages to pull up just in time for the movie to triumphantly soar. I actually enjoyed the movie from beginning to end, which is something I can't say about most of his movies.
Thanks to this packed two-disc DVD release, the movie should have a long life spinning in your DVD player. The video quality in this standard DVD release is some of the best out there. This has the visual impact that The Matrix had back when it first launched the DVD format into the mainstream years ago. The colors are vibrant, the explosions are clear, and those GM cars look darn good. The audio is equally awesome. All of the sound effects come in great, including that classic "transforming" sound from the original show, and Steve Jablonsky's score is an exercise in well-balanced pomp and machismo.
The first disc features just the film and a director's commentary with Michael Bay. The commentary is oddly placed in the "set up" screen, but if you can find it, you'll have a good time. The track acts as a sort of preface to the special features on disc two, as Bay covers a lot of the same ground. The difference here is that Bay's ego is completely unfettered. I had fun listening to him talk about how he likes to "shoot fast" and come on to the set "hot." He clearly knows what he's doing when it comes to shooting action, and managing a gigantic budget.
The second disc is packed with over two hours of featurettes. Sadly, there aren't any deleted scenes featured on the disc (even though they are referenced in the featurettes). The bulk of the material is divided up into two sections: "Our World" and "Their War." There's also a third set called "More Than Meets the Eye." Each features a series of short behind-the-scenes clips that can be watched individually or all at once.
"Our World" is broken down in to four featurettes totaling about an hour. They all focus around the initial production of the movie, including casting choices, filming locations, and military training. All of these videos are made with the same high production values, including some well-utilized picture-in-picture for filming comparisons. On the surface, these featurettes feel like most behind-the-scenes DVD extras, but some of the sections dive deeper into the production, giving you a thorough look at the "Bay process."
"Their War" has four more featurettes that are more detailed and enjoyable than the "Our World" stuff. This section focuses mainly on the robot side of the film, and includes some cool comparisons between today's Transformers and the original cartoon counterparts. The most interesting video in the set is "Inside the Allspark," which features the work Industrial Light & Magic did in designing the Transformers. I was always bothered by the utter complexity of ILM's Transformer designs, and this featurette goes to great lengths to explain why they wanted them so real. Yes, Optimus is made up over 10,000 CGI parts, and they all really go together to transform. That's great and all, but why couldn't he have some panels to cover up that junk up?
Finally, there's the "More Than Meets the Eye" section, which felt tacked on, but still retained the high production values of the first two sections. The main featurette here is called "The Skorponok Desert Attack" which focuses solely on that scene in the movie where the robot scorpion attacks the soldiers in Iraq. The featurette follows the scene's production from still frames, through animatics, and into the filming process. If there was one thing all these videos did, it was show me that Michael Bay really knows his stuff when it comes to making action movies. I may not like his films, but he knows how to get it done and I have to respect that. Also featured in this section is a gallery of still concept art, which has been given the "Ken Burns" treatment.
These featurettes offer a wealth of information about almost every aspect of the film. Unfortunately, they all have such vague titles that you wouldn't know what any of them are until you started watching. It would have been nice for them to include those deleted scenes, or maybe some more information about the original series, or their marketing campaign, but this release is good enough that you shouldn't expect a double-dip until the sequel comes out in 2009.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Sure, the Transformers robots are cool…when they are cars. But the second those things transform into their "stand up and fight" forms, you can't tell what the heck anything is. The character design is so terrible, and so realistic, that it ruins any sort of enjoyment inherent in these monstrous robots. Every time two of these guys go toe-to-toe, the screen is filled with a cacophony of gears, bolts, and car parts. I struggled to figure out who was winning the final fight, when Michael Bay wasn't busy cutting away to show character development.
Which reminds me: why is Megatron on the cover on this DVD? The guy isn't in half the movie, and when he finally shows up, he barely does anything. All of the Decepticons were indistinguishable from one another, and it never really seemed as if they had any sort of plan. They're robots, they should have good plans for this kind of stuff.
Finally, what happened to Jazz was just cruel.
I dreaded seeing Michael Bay's adaptation of the beloved Transformers franchise, but thankfully my low-expectations and sense of nostalgia allowed me to be pleasantly surprised. Bay created a new world for the Autobots and the Decepticons, one that walks a fine line between the old series and completely new territory. The movie has its share of problems, many of which are caused by Bay's directing techniques, but it succeeds as a top-shelf popcorn flick.
Michael Bay is found NOT GUILTY of second-degree murder of a nostalgic franchise.
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Scales of Justice
• Director's Commentary with Michael Bay
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