It was with a profound sense of jubilation I journeyed to the Galaxy Cinema in Guelph the other night. There was a jingle in my head, a jaunty tune that summed everything that was fun and imaginative about my childhood.
More. Than. Meets. The-EYE!
Sure there was G.I. Joe, but the real world was full of soldiers despite obvious lack of laser weapons. Star Wars was huge of course, but I was born on the wrong side of that wave to get as caught up in that fever as kids a few years older than me had.
Giant robots that turned into cars, jet planes, guns and even astro-trains; that was where it’s at. Then in 1986, when they rolled out Transformers: The Movie, it just took the phenomenon to the next level, especially when beloved characters like Optimus Prime and Starscream got capped in very unapologetic fashion. If you were between the ages of 7 and 12 in 1986, then the death of Prime, the good and just Autobot commander, probably ranked just behind the death of Bambi in terms of trauma-inducing moments as a kid. I loved everything about that movie, even the stupid Stan Bush song “The Touch” (“You’ve-got-the-touch. You’ve-got-the-pow-WER! YEAH!)
Now, as an older, and presumably wiser, movie fan I think of Transformers: The Movie’s death toll as an excuse for toy maker Hasbro to introduce new figures, while appreciating it for the final performance of Orson Welles as the planet eating Unicron.
Of course, I wasn’t expecting Michael Bay’s live action Transformers movie to revel in the kind of cartoony delight as those Saturday morning specials. But what I did expect was a rompin’ good time and that is what I received. Like another alien invasion movie released on the American Independence Day, Transformers is a bombastic sci-fi adventure that doesn’t believe for a second that it’s offering anything more than entertainment. How can you take giant robots turning into cars seriously, this isn’t Asimov you know.
In fact, if it weren’t for the Autobots (good) and Decepticons (bad), you would barely realize this is a movie and not an elongated car commercial and US Army recruiting ad.
The action (literally), starts at a US military base in Qatar, where an unauthorized helicopter turns into a robot and tries to download the US military database. Survivors of the base attack, including Capt. Lennox (Josh Duhamel), are pursued across the desert by a giant Scorpion-like robot, while hackers and analysts are brought together at the Pentagon under benevolent Secretary of Defence Keller (Jon Voight) to figure out what’s going on.
Stateside, a teen named Sam (Shia LaBeouf) gets his first car, a yellow 1976 Camaro that seems to have a mind of its own. Of course, the Camaro is really the Autobot Bumblebee and Sam, along with his would-be girlfriend Mikaela (Megan Fox), discovers the Transformers. Optimus Prime and a small band of Autobots soon arrive and explain to Sam that Autobots and Decepticons all but destroyed their home world in a civil war, and that both sides have come to Earth looking for the Allspark, an artefact that can control mechanical life. The Autobots want to use it to restore their world, Decepticon leader Megatron though, wants to use it take over the Earth.
I give Bay credit for stuffing a lot of story into this movie, in fact I would say he crams it with far too many characters and plots and most of them just disappear from view once the Transformers get their battle on. Fortunately the focus of the film is more or less on Sam’s story, which puts the film’s human element in the considerably charming and talented hands of LaBeouf. He’s a great everyman actor, but he does running chase scenes like he’s got Tom Cruise’s years of experience behind him. It’s LeBeouf’s easygoing manner that sells some of the super-silliness of the script.
The Transformers themselves are wonderfully rendered. The computing power of Industrial Light and Magic was really put to the test and it came out a winner producing truly believable characters. It’s just too bad that we don’t get to spend more time with them as characters; it’s about an hour before we really get to meet the Transformers with the exception of the Decepticons attack on the military. In fact, if you didn’t know that the Camaro was really Bumblebee, the first hour of the film could have just as easily been the set-up for a haunted car movie a la Christine or Herbie Fully Loaded.
One bit of coolness was that Bay employed Peter Cullen as the voice of Prime. Cullen voiced the character in the 80s cartoon series and he gives the character an actual sense of gravitas and leadership. Agent Smith himself, Hugo Weaving, provided the voice for Megatron, who in the film is an alien jet rather than the blaster he was in the cartoon. Weaving doesn’t get to do a lot besides say; “Give me the Allspark, boy!” while chasing Sam across city rooftops during the climactic throw down. I did get a kick out of hearing Megatron chastise Starscream for failing once again, which, of course, was a mainstay of the series: the Decepticon failure and it being Starscream’s fault in the eyes of Megatron, which it sometimes was.
The bombastic third act is typical Bay, so if that’s not your cup of tea… you know the rest. Unfortunately, it takes so long to get here that by the time Prime and Megatron start trading blows, you’re wondering when it’s going to be over. Bay lingers way to long on unnecessary side notes, like the mysterious Section 7 which has kept Megatron on ice under Hoover Dam for a hundred years. The action is brilliantly staged though, fans will not leave disappointed. And I’ve never been much of a fan of Josh Duhamel (for no particular reason), but he’s a real trooper – so to speak. He definitely proves his action hero chops as the Army Captain.
Is the door open for a sequel? You better believe it is. At the end of the film Prime sends a signal to all surviving Autobots that they have a refuge on Earth, while a post-credits clip shows Starscream peeling off into the reaches of space, presumably to rally Decepticon reinforcements. I say bring on more Transformers, this can be a franchise with a lot of energy and innovation to carry it over into several films.