Transformers: Less Than Meets the Eye (movie review)

My wife and I really enjoy going to the movies (just like everyone I know) but we don’t always have time to do it (also, just like everyone I know). We seem to average about a movie a month during the year, which is pretty good, but probably not as much as we would like. We also see more in the summer, when all the blockbusters come out. My consumption falls off during the late fall/early winter, when the serious dramas and award winners hit the screens. That’s true for me, anyway – my wife is a much more avid fan of movies, and she likes the Academy Award season.

[Note: I am not complaining in any way about our comparatively modest entertainment budget – lots of people are lucky to just put food on their tables. I added that because I just finished reading one of those “Reasons why your life is better than people struggling in a third world country” e-mails and I was feeling a bit guilty. Thank you.]

We have invented an informal rating system – based on our watching habits – to help us decide which movies we think will warrant our time and money. We have “Theater Movie,” “Dollar Movie,” “Rental” and “Wait for Cable.” The titles are self-explanatory and represent our interest level in a particular film. We have also rated a soon-to-be-released film as “Opening Weekend Theater Movie” before, but neither of us cares for crowds, so it’s pretty rare.

Anyway, the movie “Transformers” had been on our radar screen since last summer when we saw the first teaser. I was a fanatical little kid for Transformers when the first craze rolled around in the early ‘80s, so my interest was sealed from the beginning. Amy was forced to play with Barbies and Easy Bake Ovens as a child, so she didn’t have the muscle memory of changing Sideswipe into a Lamborghini Countach, but she thought the previews looked good. It was a solid Theater Movie on our ranking system.

I was surprised, then, when Amy called to say she had tickets for us to see Transformers two days prior to the official release date. She had simply visited the theater’s website with another movie in mind, found the listings for Transformers already up (there were quite a few) and purchased them. Some studios allow theaters do the whole “midnight screening” thing the night before, and there are occasional sneak previews, but this was a bit unusual. Two other people I know saw the movie Monday night, as well. My brother saw it last Friday. I guess because box office numbers drive the industry they may as well get the best figures possible. Besides, doesn’t everyone want to see a sneak preview? Even if it’s a possible Dollar Movie or Rental, aren’t you intrigued by the idea that you are seeing it before you are “supposed” to? Indeed so.

*** WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD (What I mean is: if you are going to see the movie for the plot, you may want to skip this next part (and possibly spend that time evaluating your life choices). If, like everyone else, you are going to see the robots, you are probably okay to keep reading. There are basically no twists or surprises in the entire movie. None. In fact, you could read a complete synopsis of every scene just before walking into the theater and it wouldn’t diminish your experience one bit.) ***

The idea of a movie about the Transformers for people over 13 years of age has a few problems to solve before the first frame is shot. First of all, the story of the Transformers was written by toy manufacturers, who could not possibly have anticipated a big-budget Hollywood movie would transpire 25 years later. I never used to have questions about the story line back when I was completely devoted to the Transformers. I watched the cartoons and played with the toys every single day. I was also eight years old.The evidence

Even if my own sensibilities had not matured since then, such a movie would still have to appeal to a slightly more sophisticated market. That meant adding at least three big elements to the story: sex, violence, and adult-oriented humor. I am pleased to report that all three of those are present and often wildly exaggerated. They also threw in a splash of language, but not so much that it was overwhelming. Of course, I did spend eight years of my working life in the company of construction workers, so it’s safe to say I have been desensitized.

The other thing about making Transformers into a movie is finding a director who will be dead serious about a children’s story. For this job the producers turned to Michael Bay, who is the big-name, big-time director that Hollywood followers love to hate.

I know a few of the standard complaints about Bay: simplistic plots, heavy-handed special effects, and egregious product placement. He does fine work in these arenas, and all are present in Transformers. But it is interesting to step back and consider his body of work over the past dozen years. The following is a list of movies he has directed in that time period:

• Bad Boys
• The Rock
• Armageddon
• Pearl Harbor
• Bad Boys II
• The Island
• Transformers

Now, there isn’t a Citizen Kane to be had among them, but I can honestly declare I was entertained by every single one of those movies. They didn’t do much for the art of film making (or so I have been told), I was not always challenged as a thinking viewer, and sometimes my credulity was stretched beyond standard parameters. But they were a lot of fun.

As a disclaimer, I am not familiar with Hollywood or the motion picture business beyond just being a fan. But, I don’t think it’s fair to call Michael Bay a bad director. He may direct less aspiring movies, but people enjoy them and they tend to make decent money. I can’t think of anyone who does better action sequences, which still have to tell a story, after all. All of the same rules of lighting and positioning apply, except rather than filming a clever conversation or someone walking a dog; you have a battle between soldiers and 50-foot-tall robots. That has to have a pretty high degree of difficulty, right? Sure, he’s had some failures, but isn’t that what happens with every Hollywood movie director?

So they have the script – which is not much more than the story from the cartoons but with heaping gobs of added violence, and they have the director. With that magical alchemy the movie can begin.

It starts with a bang. Troops in Qatar are ambushed by a mysterious helicopter that turns into a humongous, butt-kicking robot. Sometimes the director tries to build tension in a movie by not showing the audience what they came to see, but that’s not how Bay rolls (in this movie, at least). There are a handful of scenes that don’t show the Transformers, but they have a big presence throughout the entire show.

After establishing the main human character, Sam, we end up meeting five Autobots (the good guys) who have come to earth to find a mystical cube of creation called the Allspark. In between we also see five or six Decepticons (the bad guys), who have come to claim the object for themselves, and use it to take over the Earth. In the interest of not giving away the ending, I won’t reveal which side wins the conclusive battle. However, it probably won’t surprise anyone.

The Transformers have been designed and animated to perfection. Without question, the robots are the best parts of the show. I never tired of watching the transforming animations, which were complex and impressive to see. If there is any repeat viewing value, it probably lies with the special effects.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t significant concerns, though.

One of the big logical gaps from the cartoons that the movie had to cross is: why would alien robots from a planet millions of miles away be shaped like diesel trucks and F-15s? That one even puzzled me as a boy, although I didn’t really care enough to figure it out. The solution was presented as the robots being able to “scan” objects on earth and change their vehicle shape to match it. In one scene, the main group of Autobots is arriving on Earth, and they run around scanning vehicles so they can assume their less-obvious identities.

However, according to the new storyline, the robots don’t have to stay with their first assumed shape. In one scene, a rusty, ‘70s Camaro drives itself away, scans a brand new 2009 Camaro, and comes back as the sleek new car. This seems to create two more logical gaps: (1) if the robots can assume any form they wish, then why choose sports cars and SUVs? Why not go for assault vehicles and helicopters like the bad guys do? (2) What are the odds that all the good guys would choose GM cars? One in a bazillion? I know the actual reason why General Motors was so omnipresent in the movie, but did they even try to fit it into the storyline? Even if they had them all crash together near a GM dealership or something.

Another logical gap was explaining why the robots could speak Earth languages. I don’t remember the cartoons clearing that up, but I was too busy gearing up for third grade to worry about it. In the new, more sophisticated storyline it is explained that they learned English from the World Wide Web.

Once again, like the legendary hydra, solving the first question seems to raise two in its place: (1) I can only get my wireless network to function properly about half the time, and I am 15 feet away from the hub. But the Transformers had a connection from outer space? That’s a bit hard to swallow, and this is from a movie about biologically created alien robots. (2) If they learned all about human beings from the internet, why would they decide we were an honorable species, and worth saving? At least this could explain why Bumblebee doesn’t mind the teenagers making out on his hood at the end of the movie. Exhibitionism is pretty standard human behavior, according to the internet.Why, yes.  I do happen to like World of Warcraft.  Why do you ask?

The rest of the movie is about what the average viewer might expect. There is an alien aspect and a national security aspect, so the government is involved at the highest levels. There is a good versus evil battle featuring gigantic robots in downtown Century City, so destruction is on a grand scale (in fact, when award season rolls around, this movie has to be a shoe-in for “Most Extravagant Use of Flying Rubble in an Action or Comedy Movie”). The main characters have a sometimes-cute, sometimes-irritating romance story, which is unimportant to the main story (However, I am always amused when the hot, edgy, popular girl ignores her rich, football captain boyfriend in favor of the introverted nerd. That’s just the way I remember my high school days.).

Some of the human characters become emotionally attached to the Autobots, which mirrors the cartoon. When one of the Autobots is significantly injured and another is killed during the final battle, the humans and robots all share a moment of sadness and mourning. It would have been a nice tribute and conclusion to the battle, but I was more amused that they only mentioned their fallen robot comrade. They had just finished tearing up 20 city blocks and killing probably 10,000 people, but that was just collateral damage, I guess. I wonder if Optimus Prime and the others helped clean up the mess.

There’s not much else to say about Transformers, which I would score 6 out of 10. It’s entertaining, exciting, and required viewing for anyone who likes the toys. The story is predictable but the effects are dazzling, which means you will have fun if you can just get your brain to stop thinking for a while.

2 thoughts on “Transformers: Less Than Meets the Eye (movie review)

  1. Great review. I read the whole thing, and whether or not I will even see the movie is still up in the air. Love your perspective on it!

  2. Darren Solomon

    I think you’re bitter only because you didn’t get to make out with any high-school Hottie Jock-lovers on the hood of your Pre-production concept car… :) Great review, brother! This is without a doubt the best action movie I’ve seen in a couple of years.

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