Review: Transformers

Has Hell actually frozen over? Are pigs now taking to the sky? I only ask because Michael Bay has achieved the unthinkable: he's directed a crushingly entertaining movie. I'm astounded the world hasn't stopped turning from the shock of it all.

Searching the galaxy for a troublesome energy cube, the Autobots, led by Optimus Prime (voiced robustly by legend Peter Cullen), have arrived on Earth. Teaming up with a teenager named Sam (Shia LeBeouf) and innocent bystander Mikeala (Megan Fox), the Autobots set out to complete their mission. But when government agents interfere (led by John Turturro and Jon Voight, with grunts played by Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson), it awakens the wrath of the Decepticons, who free their leader Megatron (Hugo Weaving) from his ice prison and put Earth in their crosshairs as they challenge Prime for control of the all-powerful cube.

The "Transformers" (IMDb listing) line of robot toys was the adolescent boy Spice Melange back in the 1980s, accompanied by a bewitching cartoon series that peaked with the release of a bizarre 1986 animated feature film. They were classic plastic creations, born of primary colors and blocky, sometimes puzzling movement, and they held the imagination of millions of children hostage all over the globe; a radiant legacy that continues to this day. Turning something this iconic and fanboy-protected (I've met some who would fall on their sword for Prime) into a hip summer popcorn product (live action no less) is an endeavor I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. Coincidently, Bay turns out to be the right man for the job.

I've been hard on Bay in the past, but deservedly so. He works too feverishly in the area of sensory overload, thinking a sheer wall of sound will stupefy his audience long enough to swallow the Shinola he's shoveling. Bay's films are crude, self-aware, and frequently insulting, but with "Transformers," his swollen ego is tethered to radical geek expectations that he's no match for.

Granted, these aren't your granddaddy's Transformers. Souped up to resemble high-tech living robots while fighting and the latest in automobile trends in car form, Bay and the producers have mucked around considerably with the look of the Autobots and Decepticons, putting the infamous flames on Optimus Prime and turning Megatron into an alien jet. Supporters of the all-holy "G1" have every right to scoff, but "Transformers" has a wonderful way of making these ludicrous alterations fit into the bigger, slicker picture, pressing down hard on the extraterrestrial angle of our visitors. It's only a matter of moments before you buy these reinvented incarnations of popular characters and another few seconds before you start to root for their victory and defeat.

Bay being Bay, there is a small armada of Bayisms scattered throughout the picture, including a reprise of asinine gunfight camera technology that was employed in "Bad Boys 2," an obsession with tanned womanly attributes (keep in mind Fox's character is supposed to be 17 years old), and some of the most unimaginative scoring and soundtrack selections of the year. Bay also gets predictably nutso during the combat sequences, but I was floored to see his typical edit count of a billion tempered down to a mere million. Bay respects the scope of the Transformer might, and appears willing, for the very first time in his career, to let some shots play out, allowing the viewer to get a clear gander at the enormity of the "robots in disguise" and their unholy wrath.

Bay also ropes off some space for the human factor, using Sam as a spacer in-between scenes of special effects brawling with other special effects. While LeBeouf is doing his habitual LeBeouf stammering square dance in the film, his teen distress is welcome amidst all of the intricate visual splendor, playing well off Fox and the macho military militia (a Bay staple) that swarms in the latter half of the film. The "flesh-based organisms" are here to keep the picture light and approachable, and it's amazing how well these limited actors are able to accomplish that.

Running a woozy 140 minutes, "Transformers" never runs out of juice, saving an eye-opening amount of rocket sauce for the final battle between good vs. evil. Those more accustomed to Bay's 10 Commandments of Destruction ("Thou Shall Bleedeth from the Ears," etc.) will be delighted to see the film finally go completely bonkers, wrecking entire Los Angeles city blocks and skyscrapers, killing beloved characters, and in general smashing anything that dares stand in the way. It also means a true payoff of both the seamless special effects and the Transformer design, as the Autobots and the Decepticons go medieval on each other with a thundering PG-13-bending rage. It's the kind of mayhem that a 12-year-old boy's dreams are made of, and makes for a comfortably numb viewing experience that takes a worthwhile leap of bonehead faith to fully embrace.

Frankly, I've never seen Bay share this much joy with action before. Maybe it's his distance from the source material or perhaps he wants out of the movie jail 2005's brain-dead flop "The Island" locked him in. Either way, Bay is starting to control his sinister urges little by little, and I pray it signals maturity rather than short-lived career panic.

I can't say "Transformers" ends as much as it takes a breather to wait for the box office tally to roll in. There's a promise of a sequel made at the conclusion of this breathless film; a prospect that I wouldn't mind seeing fulfilled. Sure, Michael Bay fussed hilariously with the Transformer designs and allowed Prime to utter the hacky line, "my bad," yet I can't fight the reality that he's also created a rock 'em, sock 'em piece of thunderbolt summer escapism. It doesn't wash away his past sins, but "Transformers" provides two emotions I never thought I'd feel walking out of a Michael Bay film: hope and satisfaction.

Filmfodder Grade: A-

Wow, great review. I too am not a Michael Bay fan but have heard nothing but good reviews and word of mouth.

I respect your opinion a lot Brian, but I don't know if I can actually bring myself to give one cent to see a Bay film. Wait a minute, I have a free pass that I could use. Yay!!! I am sooo there . . .

-- Posted by: Janaki Cedanna at July 6, 2007 12:59 AM