Transformers (2007) – Directed by Michael Bay – Starring Peter Cullen, Mark Ryan, Hugo Weaving, Shia LaBeouf, Tyrese Gibson, Josh Duhamel, Anthony Anderson, Megan Fox, Rachael Taylor, John Turturro, Jon Voight, Michael O’Neill, Kevin Dunn, Julie White, Bernie Mac, Charlie Adler, and W. Morgan Sheppard.
Such is the nature of writing reviews that sometimes you end up reviewing the sequel before the original. In this case, I’ve already reviewed the third Michael Bay-directed TRANSFORMERS movie, DARK OF THE MOON, in which I ask the question, “Is Sam Witwicky the Most Useless Lead Character in Sci-Fi History?”
Where Sam ends up is not where Sam starts. Shia LeBeouf has never been an actor I find particularly engaging, but he’s effective here as the socially invisible high school kid with pleasantly overbearing parents and a desire to hook up with his classmate Mikaela (Megan Fox) that is matched only by his desire to get a car. To make money, he tries hawking his great-great-grandfather’s possessions on eBay, where he goes by the handle, “Ladiesman217.” He is remarkably unsuccessful. Mikaela doesn’t want him, his dad (Kevin Dunn) will only give him four grand towards a car, and no one wants to buy his ancestor’s glasses or sextant.
Of course, we wouldn’t be following Sam around if things weren’t about to take a turn for the better, and that comes in the guise of those glasses. A hundred years earlier, Archibald Witwicky (W. Morgan Sheppard) was exploring in the Arctic and ended up coming across the frozen body of Megatron (Hugo Weaving). After accidentally activating Megatron’s navigational system, the coordinates of the Allspark (a powerful cube that gives the Transformers their life) were imprinted on Archibald’s glasses that Ladiesman217 is now busy trying to sell on the internet. Things did not go so hot for either Archibald or Megatron after that fateful meeting; the former ended up in a mental institution and the latter ended up in the possession of the United States government, where a top secret organization called Sector 7 used him to develop many of the technological advancements of the previous century.
Sam convinces his teacher to give him an “A-” on an oral presentation of Archibald’s life, which leads to his father taking him to a used car lot. Bobby Bolivia (Bernie Mac) doesn’t recognize a sweet second gen Camaro but that doesn’t stop him from trying to sell it to Sam. When Sam’s dad refuses to give $5,000 for it, the car starts causing enough havoc around the lot that Bobby decides to take the four grand to get rid of it.
This is our introduction to Bumblebee, an advance scout for the Autobots, a peaceful group of Transformers who seek to claim the Allspark before Megatron and the Decepticons can get ahold of it.
Yes, you remember the Transformers, the race of beings for whom the film is named? They are not present in their own movie nearly enough. I don’t know which Hollywood brain decided that what people really wanted out of a Transformers movie was two high school kids, the Secretary of Defense (Jon Voigt), a Pentagon analyst (Rachael Taylor) and her hacker sidekick (Anthony Anderson), a government secret agent (John Turturro), and a couple of military bros (Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson) and not, you know, giant robots that transform into cars and planes and radios, but humans dominate far too much of the screen time in the film. Perhaps this was a concession to budget or perhaps it was a failure to embrace the core concept, but I’ll give Michael Bay and his two main writers, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, credit for keeping things moving.
TRANSFORMERS is an excellent movie, and I never get tired of watching it, even with its flaws. It moves fast, looks fantastic, and keeps things generally light in order to make the few dramatic scenes hit as hard as possible. There is a story here about the impact the conflict between the Autobots and Decepticons has when it comes to Earth. Do I wish there was more Transformers in Transformers? Hell, yes. We get a decent amount of robot/vehicle action, but what we don’t get is much in the way of robot characterization.
And that’s a shame, because the Transformers are characters. They’re not empty shells populated by human drivers like the Jaegers of Pacific Rim. They have personalities and agency, but other than with Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) and Bumblebee (lots of audio clips and Mark Ryan), Orci/Kurtzman/Bay engage in the worst of Chris Claremont Character Reductivism: the individual Transformers are largely a look and a funny voice. (And a product placement.)
As Sam and Mikaela become drawn into this world, the film keeps pumping on several different fronts: the military unit led by William Lennox (Duhamel), who are among the few survivors of a Decepticon attack on their military base in Qatar; the United States government response, led initially by Secretary of Defense John Keller (Voigt) and pulling in first Maggie Madsen (Taylor) and then later Sector 7; and Sam’s quest to retrieve Archibald’s glasses to give to Optimus Prime.
The film does a highly effective job of weaving these strands into and around one another. What TRANSFORMERS gets exactly right is that everything here feels incredibly important. The tension is continually and consistently ratcheted up. Sometimes, this is done through sleight of hand (such as Sam’s quest to get the glasses as the Autobots destroy his father’s backyard), but mostly this is done in a very believable manner as all of the board’s pieces try to figure out how much they can trust one another.
The film’s best human character is Captain Lennox. Duhamel gives life to a character that is always a total professional in his approach to being confronted by giant robots from outer space. He has a keen eye on who to trust, instantly believing in Sam more than Agent Simmons (Turturro), and taking charge during the final battle.
TRANSFORMERS’ approach to keeping you engaged is to keep throwing stuff at you; everything in this movie is designed to make you forget about the last scene and bridge you to the next. Why else have Bernie Mac show up for a toss off scene as a used car salesman? Why else have Anthony Anderson appear to basically do nothing except provide a few laughs? Why else make the lead field agent of Sector 7 such a silly doofus? In hindsight, it feels like there’s an exhausting number of scenes in TRANSFORMERS, but while watching it, all of the jumping around is used to raise the stakes and propel you forward.
The film very much takes the Transformers tag line of “more than meets the eye” seriously. Nearly every character in the film is more than his or her surface would indicate. Almost surprisingly, most of these characters feel very real to me. Mikaela is not just a tight stomach, but a resourceful, loyal, tough young woman. Secretary Keller puts the defense of the country at the fore of his thoughts, but isn’t opposed to listening to Maggie’s strange theories – so long as she has evidence to support them.
There are plenty of things in the film that feel included just to ensure your roller coaster ride never gets complacent. Sam’s parents, for instance, are here simply to give the audience a few laughs. Agent Simmons is a buffoon. The Autobots inability to wait five minutes for Sam to find Archibald’s glasses only occurs so we can have a few laughs watching them stomp around the backyard. Some of the fight scenes make it hard to tell who’s who.
I’m willing to forgive the down moments because there’s so much goodness here to like. Most prominently in this regard, is seeing a “live-action” Optimus Prime.
One of the all-time great cartoon characters/toys, Optimus Prime retains his classic voice (from Peter Cullen) and his classic desire to do the right thing. He is hopeful and wise and given to moments of real eloquence, as when he insists “freedom is the light of all sentient beings” as a reason why he’s going to fight to save the humans.
As a guy who used to watch the TRANSFORMERS cartoon whenever it was on, I’m happy with how this first live-action movie turned out. Despite my reservations, I really like how TRANSFORMERS modernizes a kid’s product.