Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Transformers

“This is easily a hundred times cooler than Armageddon!”
-Actual dialogue from Transformers

Yes, I would have to agree. Director Michael Bay (who also directed the lackluster Armageddon) has scored a bizarre home run with Transformers, a film based on Hasbro’s action figures of the same name. It’s the kind of movie that seemed destined to be awful; how could anyone build a decent movie around action figures from the 1980’s? I suppose by the same mystical power that Disney used to make a mega-hit based on a 1967 theme park ride. Nothing is impossible, it seems (yo ho!). An unlikely winner, Transformers works, and it’s pretty fun that in a summer filled to the brim with disappointing blockbusters, one of the most entertaining films so far features building-sized killer robots from outer space that can inexplicably become cars.

The film follows Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), a high school student who desperately wants a girlfriend, but who just can’t find his footing. Having finally saved up enough to purchase his first car, Sam’s father drives him to a used car lot where a yellow Camero connects with Sam in a very mysterious way. Sam soon learns that his first car is actually an extraterrestrial machine named Bumblebee, a Transformer capable of becoming an enormous robot. Once the other Transformers arrive, Sam learns the truth of the situation. There are two different races of Transformers: the Autobots and the Decepticons. Determined to defend humanity against the Decepticons’ destructive rampage, the Autobots inform Sam that he alone (for reasons not disclosed here) holds the key to the survival of the human race.

There are many other plot devices at work, but none of them matter very much. In fact, I’m now doubting the necessity of the entire previous paragraph of plot summary, because the plot rarely drives this film. As a director, Michael Bay excels at explosion-filled action scenes, as his filmography shows: Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, Bad Boyz, etc. What makes Transformers better than all of those movies is the way the characters take center stage. I was prepared to be entertained by the numerous transformations, but I was utterly surprised by the amount of quality character-work taking place amidst the action. This movie has a charming performance from Shia LaBeouf at its center, who holds together a very delicate situation and treats the material with the perfect mix of respect and tongue-in-cheek. The surprisingly humorous screenplay throws several fast balls right over the center of the plate, and LaBeouf hits almost all of them clear out of the park. My personal favorite: “I bought a car ... turned out to be an alien robot. Who knew?”

As an actor, LaBeouf is instantly likable, and as long as I’m being honest, it’s probably him that I cared about more than his character. The script has its strengths, but LaBeouf carries the material farther than a lesser performer would have. Because we care about his character first, the action scenes come as entertaining diversions, and I was completely prepared for the exact opposite to be true. The only big exception to this “characters come first” rule is the final epic battle, where CG madness takes center stage for a good half-hour or more. It may go on just a little too long, but this sequence still thoroughly entertains. It actually reminded me of what I had almost forgotten: that I was watching a movie based on action figures. The blow ‘em up spirit of the original material looks pretty great up there, but Bay delivers more than that. It wouldn’t have taken very much for this to have been a mindless (and consequently, thrill-less) movie aimed at 13 year-old boys. As is, Transformers stands more as a movie for anyone who remembers being 13. It resonates with a level of nostalgia and old-fashioned fun, as opposed to settling into typically forgettable midsummer fare.

Still, Transformers is not without its flaws. The plot has many, many clichés, several cheesy, groan-inducing lines that we’ve heard before in lesser films, and occasional lags in the movie’s overall momentum. There’s also a side-story about government hackers that just doesn’t really work or add much to the film at all. When the dust settles, though, the scales are definitely tipped in the film’s favor. For the first time since The Rock (1996), I applaud Michael Bay. His trademark action scenes are back, but there are finally characters worth caring about (mostly Sam and his car, Bumblebee). Working from downright silly source material, Transformers walks the tightrope carefully, albeit not exactly gracefully, and somehow arrives safely on the other side. There came a point in this movie where I stopped and realized that I actually cared whether Sam’s car lived or died. That’s a pretty remarkable feat, and more than I can say about the entire character-palette of Armageddon.

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action violence, brief sexual humor, and language.

Most children 10 and up will likely enjoy this movie, though there’s more here for the boys than for girls. Much like the original Transformer toys, many girls will still enjoy the film, but it’s definitely aimed primarily at males. There’s plenty of action and CG wizardry to keep them entertained, and the battle scenes never become too frightening. There is some language (not in excess, but it’s still there), and there are a few sexual jokes likely to soar above most kids’ heads. If your child’s age has fewer than two digits, I recommend prescreening the film first.

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