Review: “Transformers”

No greater example of a text book Summer movie will be found this season than Michael Bay’s live-action take on the near three decades old “Transformers” cartoon and toy line. Awe-inspiring spectacle and practically flawless visual effects throughout much of the runtime make this a thrill ride for all ages, but the sheer lack of a script – let alone anything approximating character or storyline – will result in an increasingly corrosive distaste on repeat viewings.

It’s funny that in a Summer filled with overstuffed sequels containing unnecessarily convoluted plots and an increasingly dark tone, the one truly original big action movie staunchly goes the other way – keeping the story as simple as a nursery rhyme and light as a feather. Two groups of warring aliens from a robotic planet come to Earth seeking a power source in the form of a cube. Along the way they encounter allies in the form of a likeable young teenager, a hot girl he’s after, a group of US soldiers in the Middle East, and a sexy female Australian computer hacker.

That’s about it. Bay and scribes Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci understand that people are simply here to see giant robots thrash the hell out of both each other and metropolitan surroundings – thus don’t bother spending time with much preamble. The result is a 140 minute movie with over an hour of it devoted to truly hardcore action – and on that front Bay shines as always.

Despite a camera that shakes so much it often makes the frentic visuals of “The Bourne Supremacy” look like still life in comparison, the action is superb. Kicking off with a truly bone-shattering attack on a US military base in Qatar, sequences spice the film throughout which means the pace rarely falters, whilst much of the last hour is one giant series of sequences which sees downtown Los Angeles ripped apart by feuding robots.

It does all go on too long at times, most notably that last act, yet the scenes that need to be exciting are. ILM’s truly jaw-dropping effects not only look practically photo real throughout, but also take into consideration the one thing that far too many films of this type ignore – the laws of physics. Giant robots have mass, in ertia, and thousands of complex working parts – something the FX house not only understands but gets right. Shots like two robots falling off a raised highway or Optimus and Megatron in a death grip as they go flying through a building (the film’s single most epic shot) feel very real which makes the action that much more intense.

As the series was several years before my time I had no knowledge or favoritism toward it going in, yet was able to follow things very easily and without issue. In terms of sheer spectacle, “Transformers” is a hard film to beat and certainly it looks like every single dollar of its $200 million budget is up there on screen and spent well. Combined with so many cars in display it’ll satiate any auto-fetishist or toy-collecting child, a blaring soundtrack and some silly but at times effective light humor – it certainly feels as if it’s one of the few movies this Summer that is actually worth the ticket price.

Yet don’t look too closely under the hood as what’s here is a true sports car – sleek, sexy and powerful yet lacking both fuel economy and stamina. Scribes Orci & Kurtzman continue their so far unblemished streak of mediocre action vehicle scripts which, much like their work on “M:I-3,” “The Island” and “The Legend of Zorro,” delivers forgettable nonsense for a storyline and stock TV characterisations to fill out the empty gaps between action scenes.

When focused on character, or more specifically Shia LaBeouf’s enjoyably sympathetic awkward teen Sam, the pair do well. Rather than striving for realism or backstory, the tone is kept light with some tired but audience-pleasing sitcom laughs including parents that look like they walked right out of ABC’s Family Hour line-up. John Turturro as a shadowy Government agent seems to be the only one acknowledging the ridiculousness of the whole scenario and so hams it up with glee in a fun supporting performance.

Hugo Weaving was paid handsomely to voice the villain Megatron, but he’s so barely in it (not to mention sounds completely unlike Weaving) that it seems an utter waste. Peter Cullen on the other hand relishes his time behind the mike as Optimus Prime again. That instantly recognisable voice is a little distracting at first, but gives Prime necessary nobility and gravitas. Even Bernie Mac, reduced to a few line cameo as a car salesman, FINALLY delivers work that can actually be termed funny.

These make the wooden turns by much of the rest of the cast stand out even more. Jon Voight as a Donald Rumsfeld knock-off continues to cash in pay cheques, Josh Duhamel shows up at points but keeps his shirt on throughout (kind of defeats the point) and Anthony Anderson as a whinging computer geek simply annoys. The women especially are mere handbags – Rachael Taylor as a hot Australian computer geek does well but struggles with such little material, whilst Megan Fox shows off little more than her torso and pouty mouth. She’s the female lead, yet all she gets in the way of character development is that she’s a gearhead with a laughable ‘past’.

Moments like that, when the action and comedy have to be put aside to try and develop serious dramatic conflict and tailor the story into a cohesive plot, crash land with a thud. The plot holes are gaping, but more notably what plot is on display is silly – even for a cartoon show. From a pair of eyeglasses of a 19th century Arctic explorer being a keypoint, to some almost Reagen-era US politics which show more than ever why the rest of the modern world has turned against such jingoistic imperialism, the subplots aren’t just tired but truly dumb and borderline offensive in some cases.

Other moments simply don’t work. Whilst fans will be pleased to hear that the Prime/Megatron fight is one of the best bits of the movie, many will be disheartened by a drawn-out alley scene in the which the Autobots are introduced and the back story explained in a pain-stakingly tedious way that reminds you that you’re watching a cheesy science-fiction story. It’s a tough task adapting an 80’s children’s show into a workable film, yet a real chance to invent a rich and compelling mythology is never even attempted – rather cheap tricks and only a semblance of story to try and link the action sequences together.

That is ultimately what “Transformers” was designed to be though – a quite effective thrill ride. It’s the ecstasy of Summer movies – the first time is a rush, but each subsequent hit has less effect and proves ultimately futile after the first few times. Whereas truly great Summer films get more rewarding on subsequent glances, this packs all its power on the initial viewing and that viewing will please most everyone from fanboys to casual cinemagoers. It’s not a movie that you need to see again however, and whilst it’ll probably be one of the better films of the season – it ultimately doesn’t have the weight let alone staying power to sit fondly in retrospect.