Sometimes it’s all too easy to retroactively shit on a good movie thanks to a herd of crappy follow ups as the various franchises of The Matrix, Pirates Of The Caribbean and Saw would tell you. Now matter how orginal, innovative and downright awesome they may be, once the law of diminishing returns kicks in they become synonymous with the trash and get tarred with the same brush.
Another film that belongs in this tragic list is – stay with me now – Michael Bay’s first Transformers movie.
Now before y’all break out the pitchforks, hear me out…
Admittedly, the sequels are weapons grade turds: all noise, screaming and questionable racial stereotypes, all crammed together in a big CGI ball of obnoxiousness and yet while the original Transformers movie does feature some of these (no one wanted a scene of Bumblebee pissing on John Turturro – and if you did, that’s a helluva fetish you got there, bud), there is a strong, guiding force keeping things on track.
That force was Executive Producer Steven Spielberg who I assume must have kept an eye on Bay constantly throughout the progress and therefore produces an almost perfect merging of their respective styles.
The insane visuals we are presented with here are pure Bay; huge, bash and devastatingly cool and all you can do is goggle as a military chopper unfurls into a 20 foot killing machine and lays waste to an army base or a high speed freeway car chase becomes a brutal fist fight as it’s combatants twist and flip into shape like psychotic rubix-cubes. The film looks gorgeous and it becomes super-apparent that Bay’s trademark bombast and near-fetish levels of military worship are seamless matches for the overarching robot invasion plot.
However, heart isn’t something the director is particularly strong at (as anyone who has seen Pearl Harbour will testify to) and this is where the Spielberg effect kicks in, with the E.T.- style second plot providing a much needed counter point to all the explodey stuff.
Sam Witwicky is your typical high school kid; just trying to get through life, lusting after a hot girl in class and desperately wanting to own his first car. Heading to a used car lot with his father he spies a battered, bright yellow Camero and immediately bonds with it, but this automobile comes with a few surprise extras or two as it turns out to be a blue eyed, robotic alien warrior in disguise (we’ve all been there). The next thing you know, Sam and his new companion, who’s named Bumblebee, are caught in an intergalactic war between two ancient factions, the heroic Autobots led by the noble Optimus Prime and the tyrannical Decepticons who have the vicious Megatron (voiced by Hugo Weaving unleashing all the base his voice can muster) as their leader. Both groups are searching for a power source named the Allspark that was lost on Earth eons ago (standard macguffin rules, actually) and currently resides in with a shadowy, if eccentric, secret agency called Sector 7.
The plot, split into three modes – boy and his robot car, marines in the middle-east trying to get home and government computer geeks figuring out the science – all finally come together for some stonking urban warfare in the final reel where EVERYTHING collides, both figuratively and literally.
The main thing that strikes you about Transformers is actually how surprisingly funny it is. Bay puts just as much effort into staging a wonderfully farcical scene involving 5 huge Autobots hiding from Sam’s nosey parents as he does setting up the landscape flattening action sequences and Shia LaBeouf’s, sweaty, nebbish turn as the young lead is pitch perfect.
The real stars here are ILM’s truly stupendous CGI work (how they didn’t nab the oscar that year is a fucking crime) and while some old school Transformers G1 fans may have balked at the over-complicated robot designs, there’s no denying watching Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen, whose golden larynx graced Prime in the original cartoons) pop a Decepticon head off it’s shoulders with a flick of a glowing wrist sword is a magnificent rush, plus: this movie boasts the single greatest sound design since the original Star Wars trilogy: check out the funky, otherworldly sounds that accompany the production logos for DreamWorks and Paramount.
Problems? Of course, this IS a Michael Bay movie after all and sometimes his worst instincts predictably rise to the surface, not to mention the movie skimps on a truly satisfying Optimus Prime/Megatron showdown. Also the relationships between Transformers and humans who AREN’T Bumblebee and Sam are tenuous at best, but this isn’t fatal stuff and Transformers stands alongside The Rock as Bay’s best movie.
Scoff at that sentiment if you must but this movie really is more than meets the eye…
Oh shut up. How would YOU have ended a Transformers review?