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Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Transformers (***)

July 3, 2007
Autobots wage their battle to destroy the evil forces of the Decepticons

"No matter what happens, I'm really glad I got in the car with you," says Megan Fox to Shia LaBeouf before the giant robot shit hits the fan in Transformers. I know exactly what she means. The line is callback to an earlier scene after LaBeouf's beat up yellow Camaro is revealed as the walking, not talking, transformable giant robot called Bumblebee and he says to her, "Fifty years from now, do you want to look back on your life and wonder, 'why didn't I get in the car?'"  I asked myself that same question, and if it were me, I'd get in the car. At that point, I decided that Transformers was working. As ridiculous, loud, dumb, goofy, and bizarre as it is, Transformers still manages to seriously entertain, hitting the right buttons while blowing and smashing obscene amounts of shit up.

There's a whole lot going on in Transformers to distract from the fact that there really isn't that much at all to the story. The screenplay cuts between four major story threads that converge in the third act: Shia LaBeouf is trying to get Megan Fox to be his girlfriend and discovers his new used car is a giant robot. A bunch of soldiers in Qatar led by Josh Duhamel and Tyrese are attacked by Decepticons and need to get vital info back to the Pentagon. Cyber technicians working for the Secretary of Defense try to figure out what the hell is going on, while John Turturro, in charge of a secret government agency, chews the scenery as he hunts down LaBeouf and Fox and reveals the secret behind what the Transformers are doing on Earth and the device (the Allspark Cube) they are after.  

Transformers could have lost the latter two story threads, consolidated the details among the other two threads, and been a much better movie for it. Does anyone really give a rat's ass what the Australian woman and Anthony Anderson were doing and what happens to them? Every moment away from the Transformers or Fox and LaBeouf meant the movie was spinning its wheels. Transformers worked best when following LaBeouf and Fox around as they realize cars can become robots, there are good robots and bad robots, and they meet the Autobots and their leader Optimus Prime, who explains the details of the Transformers that any kid who grew up in the 80's (including me) knows by heart.

Though giant alien robots walk the Earth, dig underneath it, soar above it, and roll through its streets, Transformers isn't about the wonder of it all. These amazing machines receive little awe and only a modicum of curiosity. While the audience knowingly chuckles at being asked to swallow wholesale the premise of giant transforming robots called Autobots and Decepticons from the planet Cybertron, the humans in the movie are much more immediately accepting. What Transformers is mainly interested in is goofy robot comedy and hardcore robot fighting.

The goofy comedy was abundant. Bumblebee goes all out to help his new driver win his dream girl by playing pop songs and driving her to Makeout Point. When Fox calls Bumblebee a crappy old Camaro, he gets offended and instantly redesigns himself into the newest model. Then there's a long, drawn out, totally asinine comedy sequence where all of the enormous Autobots hang out in LaBeouf's backyard, "hiding" from his parents, and go completely unnoticed by everyone else in the neighborhood. Transformers also shows us a robot peeing on a human, which has to make some sort of AFI list or else there's just no justice in the world.

For comedy not involving giant robots (or, you know, any actual comedy), there's a running gag where everyone mispronounces "Witwicky" and there's Anthony Anderson as the loud black guy, complete with fat cousin and angry mama. They're just about topped by LaBeouf's mother, who prattles on and on during some painful "improv", including over the closing credits. John Turturro left teeth marks on the scenery and the robots with his bizarre secret agent character, although he had the best line in the movie when he assessed Megan Fox: "She's a criminal. Criminals are hot!"

The giant robots whaling on each other action was quite satisfying. Some of the best action scenes take place in Qatar as the soldiers attempt to defend themselves against a giant robot that transformed from a helicopter and another shaped like a scorpion that burrows through the sand. My favorite action sequence is late in the movie when Starscream, the Decepticon fighter jet, takes out the Air Force fighters by transforming back and forth and smashing the planes in mid air.

The biggest issues I have were that the movie waited until the third act to introduce most of the Decepticons, who were all grey, interchangable, and lacking discernable personalities, and that no time was taken to explain what special abilities or weapons they each have. It seemed like they all just shot missiles at each other, except for Optimus Prime, who had some sort of sword and a big ass gun, each of which he used just once. Except for Optimus and Bumblebee, all of the other robots looked too much alike and it was hard to tell them apart.

I was also annoyed that two major battles happen offscreen: we never see how Bumblebee defeats the police car Decepticon before he reveals himself fully to LaBeouf and Fox. Even more annoying, we end up not seeing most of the Megatron vs. Optimus Prime smackdown. We see their initial collision as they smash through a building, which was awesome, but the action cuts away and then suddenly we come back to see Prime on his back, beaten, leaving LaBeouf to save the day. Prime was also way too eager to commit suicide. Basically his plan to beat Megatron was to fight him for a while, knowing he'd lose, and then kill himself with the Allspark Cube, which would hopefully also take Megatron out with him. Transformers' theme, which we're beaten over the head with, is "No sacrifice, no victory", but Prime is a little too keen on the sacrifice part.

The robots are ugly and overdesigned eyesores. When they're in action, leaping, running, fighting, half the time I couldn't make out what I was looking at or what was going on. But, like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, the special effects were so convincing that I never once questioned the robots were real. The one failure was the human sized Decepticon who transformed into a CD player. A Decepticon that isn't several stories tall for the humans to fight is a good idea, but in a movie full of pug fugly robots, this one, which looked like the little paperclip in Microsoft Word that asks you if you need help crossed with a bunch of metal spikes and antennae, was the fug pugliest of all.

Still, I had a really good time watching Transformers, a much better time than I expected to have going in. The core story of a teenage boy getting his first car to impress the girl he likes, which turned out to be a giant transforming robot, won me over. In the middle of all the frenzied action, LaBeouf provided a central character who was believable and relatable for the audience. He also had the thankless task in act three of spouting lines like, "That's Megatron, the harbinger of death" and providing exposition on the Cybertronian Wars for the other humans in the room. The Autobots meanwhile had personalities pulled straight from the cartoons I adored as a child and outgrew once I hit puberty. Both the Autobots and Deceptions have charmingly simple worldviews, summarized by Optimus' line "Freedom is the right of all sentient beings", and by Megatron's "I'll kill you!!" (I'm paraphrasing.)

In the end, the Transformers came to Earth to smash and to entertain, both of which they succeeded at in abundance. Transformers 2 was suitably set up before the credits rolled out. Bumblebee chooses to remain in disguise as LaBeouf's car, allowing, probably even encouraging, LaBeouf to have sex with the very hot Fox on his hood. The movie essentially closes with a bizarre implied three way with a robot car, his driver, and his driver's girl. That is one kinky alien robot. There should have been a closing scene where Bumblebee asks Optimus, "Why was I programmed to feel aroused?" I have a feeling Optimus would rather roll out than tackle that one.