Judge Gordon Sullivan awaits the $100 million big-screen version of Clutch Cargo.
Their war. Our world.
Messing with childhood favorites is a dangerous game. The lure of a built-in fan base calls studios like a siren song, but many a ship has been dashed against the rocks of fanboy expectation. Transformers could easily have suffered this fate. The franchise has always had a strong following, but its fans have proven very picky. Michael Bay risked their wrath to release his vision of that venerable franchise. After an initial high-def release in HD-DVD, Paramount is giving fans the Blu-ray they've been clamoring for. Although this release can't be faulted on technical merits, it still seems like Paramount might be holding something back.
Facts of the Case
The Cube is a source of machine life, and two factions of warring machine life forms are seeking it here on the earth: the good-guy Autobots and the bad-guy Decepticons. When the Decepticons infiltrate the computer networks of the U.S. government, the Autobots enlist the help of earthling Sam Whitwicky (Shia LeBeouf, Disturbia)—who has a mysterious ancestral connection to the big robots—to find the cube before the Decepticons use it to destroy Earth.
The word auteur is usually reserved for rarified geniuses like Orson Welles or Jean-Luc Godard, but it arguably applies just as well to director Michael Bay. Every one of his projects, from Bad Boys through The Rock and Armageddon, bears the unmistakable stamp of his vision. Yes, his aesthetic is loud and his subject matter unsophisticated, but he is always in command of a masterful visual sweep and a flair for stories that fill seats. When he turned his eyes towards the Transformers franchise, the result was mixed feelings. He certainly has the visual chops to handle the wanton destruction of robots, but his sometimes crass storytelling didn't jibe with the nostalgic view many held of the original cartoons. The mixed feelings continued once the film as released, with many crediting Bay's directing for creating a brilliant popcorn spectacle, while others lamented the lack of a gripping story. After my third viewing of Transformers (this one for the first time in Blu-ray), I have to say that my feeling about the film are mixed as well.
The first thing that Bay gets right is the bots themselves. Yes, I know purists scream at the inaccuracies when compared to the original series, but since I haven't watched those shows in over a decade I felt like Bay captured the spirit, if not the details, of the machines I remember. On a technical level, the animation for the Autobots and Decepticons is fantastic. The level of detail in their movement and transformation sequences is absolutely astounding. Never for a second did I not believe that those robots inhabited the same frame as the actors. When battles ensue, the Transformer-on-Transformer action is a beauty to behold.
And speaking of Transformer-on-Transformer action, the carnage in this film is brilliantly done. From a desert military base to Air Force One and a city street, the confrontations are continually inventive and provide for some satisfying crunch. Bay also includes a number of chase sequences that keep the adrenaline pumping (I especially loved Shia LeBeouf chasing his car on a bicycle).
Also, the acting in the film is above average for a spectacle film. Shia LeBeouf does his goofy shtick well, while newcomer Megan Fox shines as the film's sex symbol but also holds her own in the action department. Jon Voight's turn as the Secretary of Defense is filled with his usual gravitas. Tyrese Gibson and Josh Duhamel are convincing as soldiers who are brave (or crazy) enough to take on the Decepticons. John Turturro is hilarious as a government agent, as is Bernie Mac in a cameo as a used car salesman. Finally, Bay deserves some serious kudos for bringing back Peter Cullen as the voice of Optimus Prime. He is perhaps the most recognizable element of the original series, and having him onboard lends the film tremendous credibility.
Do I even need to mention that this film looks fantastic on Blu-ray? Textures in clothing, beads of sweat, and reflections off of Autobots are all rendered with an almost overwhelming clarity. It's amazing how many distinct parts can be seen during some of the transformation sequences. Blacks stay surprisingly black without noise or any other compression difficulty. I don't say this often, but as far as I'm concerned this is a reference quality transfer.
The audio on this disc is superlative as well. For this Blu-ray disc we get an exclusive uncompressed audio track that trumps the audio on the previous HD-DVD. The new track has a little more boom, and slightly more clarity than the previous versions.
Although they're almost exclusively a port from the HD-DVD disc, the extras on this release give a lot of insight into the film. Michael Bay's commentary is engaging, as he's obviously invested in the film. However, with the film's long runtime he does lag from time to time. Also on the first disc is a "Heads Up Display" that includes pop-up trivia and behind-the-scenes video. The information was excellent, but I found the presentation lacking since it wasn't constant and I'd find myself getting into the movie. Once I was into the movie, I found the trivia distracting. There are also some BD-Live features. Primarily they add video overlays that give information on the characters or production.
The second disc (which seems identical to the HD-DVD edition second disc) includes three sections that cover various aspects of the production as well as the Transformers phenomenon. We hear from almost everyone involved in the production, including a representative of Hasbro (the toy makers who own the rights), the executive producer (one Mr. Steve Spielberg), as well as the actors and crew. There is also a feature which allows a closer look at the robots with a rotating three dimensional model, as well as some trailers. Kudos to Paramount for including a "play all" feature for each of the three sections.
Paramount was also kind enough to pony up a $10 rebate if you've already bought the DVD edition of Transformers.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
However, it's not all roses in the land of Transformers. The film certainly has some problems.
The major problem is that the film is simply too long. At almost two-and-a-half hours, it takes too long to get to its conclusion. Obviously setting up a franchise takes time, but with all the different subplots in this film, it could have stood some editing at the script stage to keep it just under two hours.
Although the carnage in the film is good, the actual Autobot versus Decepticon fighting takes too long to occur. Fans came into this film expecting (justifiably) more robot-on-robot action. The film delivers, eventually, but more (and more often) would have made even the 143-minute runtime more bearable.
While the film needed more robotic smackdowns, it needed a heck of a lot less Shia LeBeouf, for two reasons. One, his character just isn't that strong. As an audience surrogate he's hard to identify with, and the whole ancestor-explorer story feels half-cocked. Also, he's an actor who works best in small doses. Carrying almost the entire movie on his shoulders is just too much.
Finally, there's no evidence that the transfer of Transformers has been optimized in any way for the expanded capacity of the Blu-ray format. Considering the fuss that Michael Bay made about Blu-ray during the format war, this is well nigh unacceptable. Doing a side-by-side comparison of the HD-DVD and the Blu-ray disc yields no significant differences. The Blu-ray disc looks a shade brighter on my set, but that's easily attributable to settings. Considering the inevitable sequel release, this Blu-ray smacks of "too little, too late." I have a strong feeling that we'll see a Blu-ray release to coincide with the release of the sequel that will taut itself as "optimized by Michael Bay for Blu-ray" or some such nonsense.
If you've already bought the HD-DVD, then hold off until the (currently hypothetical but likely) Ultimate Edition is released in the future, unless having uncompressed audio is worth an upgrade to you. If you've yet to take the high-def plunge with Transformers, I'd also suggest waiting for that Ultimate Edition, because although this release is fine, I can't help but feel that those who buy it now will be kicking themselves when the next version is released. For everyone else, Transformers is worth a rental as a popcorn blockbuster film to fill a Friday evening at home.
Transformers is not guilty, but Paramount is out on bail until it releases a Blu-ray that definitively utilizes the technology's capacity.
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