In the past, I have not used nice words to describe director Michael Bay. I have called him “talentless” and “inept” and “incompetent.” I once declared that he “should be forbidden to ever get behind a camera again.” His films Armageddon and Bad Boys II were my picks for the worst film of their respective years. Pearl Harbor was my #2 pick in 2001, surpassed in awfulness only by the Tom Green romp Freddie Got Fingered. Several weeks ago, I had a conversation with my best friend – also a vociferous Bay-basher - about the director’s newest feature, Transformers, which is produced by no less than Steven Spielberg.
”I can’t believe Spielberg is getting himself mixed up with this guy,” my friend said.
Remembering something I had written in my review of The Island (also directed by Bay, produced by Spielberg), I tried to be optimistic: “No one knows more about the language of film than Spielberg. He must see something in Bay that we’re missing. Perhaps he is simply trying to mentor Bay, to steer him toward making better films.”
“Maybe,” my friend countered. “But I’m still afraid that Transformers is going to suck.”
Love Bay or hate him, one can scarcely write a review of a film he has directed without making him the center of it. And now I find myself in the position of having to say that hell may indeed have frozen over. Not only has Michael Bay directed a movie that works, he has directed one of the most satisfying popcorn pictures of the summer. Transformers is the cinematic equivalent of washing down a mouthful of sugary candy with a 2-liter bottle of Mountain Dew. It may not be “good” for you, but the rush is amazing.
The picture is based on the mega-popular Hasbro toys, which went on to inspire a beloved cartoon series. As a child, I did not play with the toys or watch the show, so I may not be in the best position to determine whether hardcore fans will love or hate the movie. I can only speak from my personal experience watching it.
The premise is that, many decades ago, an energy cube fell from space and landed somewhere on Earth. Two different species of gigantic robots – the benevolent Autobots and the nasty Decepticons – are engaged in a long-standing intergalactic battle to find and claim it. Posing as ordinary objects (cars, trucks, soda machines, boom boxes, etc.) they look for clues as to where the cube could be.
Their best bet turns out to be high schooler Sam Witwicky (played by Disturbia’s Shia LeBeouf). Sam is unknowingly in possession of an antique that may point to the cube’s whereabouts. An Autobot called Bumblebee poses as a Camaro, which Sam buys as his first car and uses to impress Mikaela (Megan Fox), a girl from school who previously wouldn’t give him the time of day. They are both quite surprised to see the car change into a massive robot. Then they get a visit from Optimus Prime, the leader of the Autobots, who sometimes appears as a semi truck. He tells them that the Decepticons are looking for Sam and his antique. Together they must locate the cube while preventing their enemies from getting to it first.
The adventure brings Sam and Mikaela together with others, including two soldiers (Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson) who encountered a Decepticon in the deserts of Qatar, the United States Defense Secretary (Jon Voight), and a computer hacker (Anthony Anderson) who may be able to help prevent the evil robots from attacking the government’s computer data system. The finale is an extended Transformer battle royale on the streets of downtown L.A. as all the key players converge to determine the ultimate fate of the cube and pummel each other into oblivion. These last 30 minutes alone are worth the price of admission.
Transformers exists completely and unapologetically on its own terms. It is inspired by toys, and it feels like a creative child’s greatest playtime fantasy come to life. I’m not going to attempt to justify the movie on any sort of intellectual or artistic level. It neither demands nor wants to be judged on those terms. Transformers is a perfect example of a summer movie, and it delivers the kinds of things people want from escapist entertainment: explosions, giant robots fighting each other, hot girls and handsome guys, car chases, cool special effects, etc. I think it is safe to say that people who go to see Transformers are not looking for an art film. Instead, they seek non-stop visceral thrills, which Bay and his team are more than happy to provide.
That is not to say that the movie is a completely empty exercise. Amidst all the mayhem, there is actually some attention to character, with Shia LeBeouf proving again to be a charismatic lead actor. I was also really glad that Transformers does not take itself seriously. There are many genuinely funny elements in the screenplay by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, although Bay earns the biggest laugh with a scene that makes fun of one of his earlier directorial efforts. If you stop to think – really think - about what you’re seeing here, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that it’s almost sublimely silly. Yet the movie clearly knows that about itself, and you therefore find yourself embracing the silliness of it.
Things that have been liabilities in Michael Bay’s other films are advantages here: his inventive camera movements, rapid-fire pacing, and desire to bombard you with action all somehow seem appropriate for a toy-inspired movie. I thought these elements were wildly out of place (not to mention disrespectful) in a historical epic like Pearl Harbor; they belong in a piece like this, however.
I’m not sure if I’ve ever written it or not, but I have a theory about how there have been no truly awe-inspiring special effects since the morphing in 1991’s Terminator 2 and the dinosaurs in 1993’s Jurassic Park. Sure, other movies have had great effects, but they’re all now so easily explained away with the words “computers did it.” Everything, no matter how effectively done, has simply seemed like a variation on something else we’ve already seen. Transformers, on the other hand, offers something brand new. Each time one of the robots transforms, it’s dazzling to look at because the detail is so incredible. We see little parts twisting up, folding themselves over, tucking themselves into other parts, and so on. Wheels and bumpers and doors emerge or disappear. It all happens so fast that it’s almost too hard to process, yet we see it clearly and convincingly with our own eyes. I never got tired of watching the effect repeated. It should also be said that the effects are integrated seamlessly with the live-action stuff. Sometimes effects look like effects. In Transformers, the CGI creatures realistically share space with the actors. The aforementioned final battle, in particular, is mind-blowing.
I never expected to like this movie as much as I did. Watching Transformers is no different from eating cotton candy or riding a roller coaster; you do it for the sheer rush that accompanies it. Yes, the experience is cheap, disposable, and utterly without substance, but it’s also a heck of a lot of fun.
Well done, Mr. Bay. Well done.
( 1/2 out of four)
Transformers is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action violence, brief sexual humor and language. The running time is 2 hours and 24 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: Transformers
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