A Review of the live-action "Transformers"...
(Written July 2007, by Sharon "Tut" LaBorde)
I can't lie and say that I was overly eager, or hopeful, or even seething with expectant disgust before I went in to see the live-action "Transformers" on the Fourth of July. I also didn't change my plans and go to see it a day early after its illustrious producers bumped up the release date. For a staunch G1 TF purist, and a fanfic writer with plenty of their own ideas about the Autobots and Decepticons, I wasn't really up in arms about this movie one way or another. But in the theatre, I did find plenty of observations about this piece of film that are quite revealing.
In the interest of being fair--which I've done once or twice, if you hear the right rumors--I've tried to judge this movie on its own merit first. Not judging it against my beloved G1, how does it stand? In short: rather shakily.
Evidently, Orci and the other writers of this movie spent too much time defending their own reputations on the Paramount discussion boards and not enough time making sure the plot was a coherently singular work. The action bounces rather than flows; first to a U.S. base in Qatar and a group of American soldiers with whom we're obviously meant to sympathize (we're in a war! This is our military! Support our troops...), then to our cocky teenage protagonist who is co-savior of the film as much as he is savior in the story, then to a group of government bigwigs who somehow manage to be more two-dimensional than real politicians. Then, just to make sure the audience really doesn't know what the hell is going on, a hystrionic computer hacker gets crowbarred into the mix with no prior setup or explanation. The net effect is that strong action and dialogue that would have built a few characters into lovable, believable heroes and villains, gets stretched thinly over a mega-cast that just wanders aimlessly across the screen. Shia Lebeouf should get an Oscar just for managing to act superbly in spite of a mediocre script. And that's just the human characters.
Of course everyone loves the special effects with the giant robots. Oooh, aaahhh, eye candy, explosions... I'm sure the geek squad at ILM enjoyed the departure that making "Transformers" represented artistically, because it's easier to make robots move in a way that seems natural as opposed to organic aliens like you'd find in the "Star Wars" franchise. I have two complaints about the visuals for this film, however. For starters, if these robots are supposed to be alien and NOT anthropomorphic, then why does Optimus Prime have eyelids and an articulated mouth? Going by those standards, his G1 face is actually more alien. In truth, the only robot that did not have a humanoid form was Frenzy the jambox. The visual team--and this includes Michael Bay, who got his start doing special effects for commercials--really needs to stop kidding themselves. Until we find real aliens that look non-human, say, like a cross between a centipede and a jackass, giving them human attributes makes them easier for the audience to relate to. Referring back to "Star Wars", more fans love Yoda or Chewbacca than Jabba the Hutt.
And my second visual complaint really lands the crosshairs on dear Mr. Bay. I suppose I shouldn't expect anything better from Mr. Mega-Action-Overload-Pics, but I get sick of action sequences that throw so much clutter and visual crap across the screen that you can't trace the main action with your eyes. Between the debris effects, the rock-em-sock-em-robot effects and the ripoff bullet-time camera effects, he manages to reduce film from an art form to mere busywork. I hope those ILM computer geeks have some other work for their portfolios.
I'm not sure who should get the blame for this, Orci or Bay, but setting the last battle sequence in the middle of a POPULATED CITY was a ridiculous plot hole. Since when would the military hide a dangerous alien rummicube in a city where there would be so much collateral damage? The open desert would have been more logical from a plot standpoint, but then again Bay would have had less junk to throw across the screen and that just won't do, apparently.
So how does this new movie compare to G1? Well, it's not G1, to put it simply. I won't bother comparing point-by-point with canon because it's apples to oranges. It's no surprise that Optimus Prime was in character; between the reactions to Prime's death in the original "Transformers: the Movie" and the death threats to George Clooney when he was considered for the role, somebody learned that you don't mess with Optimus Prime. They just haven't deigned to treat his robot co-stars the same way. So we were treated to yet another re-invention of the wheel, complete with an "Allspark" that clearly is a holdover from "Beast Wars" and the 'spark' concept (something that, as a G1 purist, I cannot stand). I lament the fact that people would rather laugh at the original cartoon instead of acknowledging that it had some great ideas that were just crudely executed by today's standards. But perhaps I lament alone.
Earlier I called Shia Lebeouf/Sam Witwicky the co-savior of the film; the other savior was Peter Cullen. His voicework sounded brilliant, far better than anyone else who had similar screentime in the movie. His is the measure of a true professional voice actor, not just some namby-pamby face actor who got stuck behind a microphone. I weep for the fact that Frank Welker was not allowed to reprise Megatron--several of the character's lines from this movie would have sounded simply breathtaking if Mr. Welker had delivered them. "Give me the cube, boy, and I might make you my pet..." or "You fight for the weak, and that is why you lose", would have run chills through entire audience crowds had Mr. Welker done them. But instead, they fell flat, and sadly it's the film's audience's loss.
About the fairest thing I can say about this movie in comparison to G1 is that I can tell twenty years have passed. Since the first film was released in 1986, Americans' entire worldview has changed, and it is reflected in this new movie. Consider that the 1980's were the last decade of the Cold War; often in the original "Transformers" series, human governments had to cooperate to deal with the Autobots and Decepticons because we, as a people, were looking to our fellow superpower the Soviet Union in hopes of cooperation. We didn't see ourselves as the end-all, be-all because we were constantly looking across the ocean at the Soviets and comparing ourselves to them. But since 1986, the Berlin Wall has fallen, the Soviet Union has collapsed, and the United States has been acknowledged as the sole superpower of the world. Everything now seems to revolve around us. So, who found the Allspark and has it hidden in a cloak of conspiracy? The U.S. government. When an unseen force attacks our military, who do we blame first? Bush's "Axis of Evil". Geopolitics are very much at work in this movie. In twenty years, some sociologist who's sharp enough to analyze the cinematic pulp fiction we're cranking out now will probably have a field day with Bay's "Transformers".
And in the end, about the only thing that really dated the first "Transformers: the Movie" was a kid wearing a jumpsuit and a glam metal soundtrack. Sure, line for line it got far worse reviews than the current film; but at that time, it was blazing a new path that this redux of "Transformers" finds well-trodden. The original movie was very forward-looking whereas this new one simply looks at its feet. And without the animated 1986 "Transformers: the Movie" there would be no 2007 "Transformers" movie. For me that's just one of several reasons why, ultimately, it remains the better film.
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