With Transformers Michael Bay has come very close to giving us the great summer blockbuster of this decade; while it never fully comes together as the ass-kicking, brain-annihilating joy we wanted, it does manage to stand head and shoulders over the rest of the stunted crop of Summer 07.
Transformers is probably the Rosetta Stone of Bay’s career. All of his favorite elements are here – military fetishism, vehicular fetishism, hot young chick fetishism, explosion fetishism, sweaty machismo and a brutal disregard for an interesting story. At the same time the film (at least the first half) bears the fingerprints of producer Steven Spielberg, as it deals with a nerdy young boy in suburbia whose life is changed with the introduction of a friendly, protective and yet completely and constantly vulnerable alien. For the first time a Michael Bay movie has something that resembles an emotional center that isn’t profoundly homoerotic.
Bay’s greatest triumph is the tone of the movie. He fully understands that he’s adapting a toy line here, and he knows how ridiculous the very concept is. Bay keeps the tone light during many of the human-centric moments, with the help of a great performance by Shia LaBeouf (you’re going to really understand why Spielberg is so in love with this kid after seeing the movie) and a bizarre and fun turn from John Turturro. The humans are kind of foolish for Bay, but he takes his robots and hardware deadly serious; while the Autobots have goofy and barely delineated personalities, Bay treats all the action scenes with intensity and gravity. Which, he understands, is how we treat his films, with eye-rolling during the talking and plot stuff and edge of our seat excitement during the chases, battles and explosions.
Where the movie really stumbles, though, is in the structure of Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman’s script. The film opens with a rip-roaring battle scene as one of the evil Decepticons comes upon an army base in Qatar, and then continues in fine form as the story expands to follow not just the survivors of that attack but also the higher-ups in the government, some hackers and Shia LaBeouf and his new car, which he doesn’t realize is a robot in disguise. But then the movie gets bogged down in a MacGuffin chase, as everyone is searching for a pair of glasses with map coordinates burnt into the lenses. And instead of using this time to build the stakes and introduce the multiple robots, Transformers just spins its wheels. The entire crew of Decepticons aren’t even brought in until the third act, and just in time for the massive climactic battle.
The biggest misstep, though, is in not making the robots different enough. Each of the Transformers should have a gimmick that makes them easily and quickly identifiable, but for some reason they all just seem to have generic weapons. There’s a robot who changes into a helicopter – why not have him use his rotors as swords or something? The final battle, while spectacular, gets to be a bit same-y as it wears on, and since none of the robots have gimmicks they got to be hard for me to tell apart.
What makes Transformers special is the quality of the effects. I soon stopped marveling over how good the robots looked because they quite simply looked so good that I forgot they weren’t real. This film is one of the few big budget effects films that I think really get the effects right, where you’re able to sit back and forget that you’re looking at a big mess of pixels on somebody’s computer and just appreciate the action for what it is. And what the action is is often amazing. While I would have liked to see more distinguishing elements in the battle scenes, I can’t complain when Optimus Prime and Megatron hurtle through an office building. Bay gives the action a sense of impressive scale, the kind of thing missing from the final battle in Pirates 3. The climactic fight in Transformers just feels huge and like it has impact. There’s a weight to the CGI characters and their actions that is often missing from films like this – not just in terms of destruction wrought (there’s tons of that, of course) – but quite literally weight in a gravitational sense. Too many CGI beings seem weightless, like they’ll blow away in a stiff wind, but the Transformers interact with their environments in a very solid way.
The Spielberg/Bay combo is a winning one, and I look forward to them reteaming on Transformers 2, despite this film leaving the characters in a ludicrous new status quo (they’re hiding out in secret on Earth after leveling half of downtown Los Angeles? Shia’s parents don’t even believe they exist? We’re supposed to buy that Megan Fox is going to put Shia’s penis in her mouth? (No offense, Shia)). Maybe next time around Bay can focus more on the robots and machines, which are obviously closer to his own cold, dead heart, and won’t have to spend half his running time on things that do not blow up. We’d all be happier.