my robot battles, let me show you them

Last night I went out to suburban New Jersey with some friends to see Transformers.

As a child I liked Transformers. I watched the cartoon and I had some of the toys (some of the ones with actual metal in them, dear readers). While I was never a superfan, I have an affection for them to this day. I, like many people, was excited to hear a couple of years ago that a live-action + CGI Transformers movie was in the works, and then immediately worried upon hearing it was to be directed by Michael Bay.

Bay has always been known for his slickly bombastic action style and scant attention to story and character. In other words, he's the modern era's quintessential summer event filmmaker. I've enjoyed some of his movies. The Rock is entertaining and as much as Armageddon is as over-the-top as possible in every single moment it does make me cry at the end. However, his more recent movies have been uniformly terrible. Pearl Harbor is one of the worst movies I've ever sat through in a theater, and as I've written about elsewhere I feel Bad Boys II is an insult to humanity. I've only seen The Island with the sound off on a tiny TV during a party, so I really can't comment.

What concerned me most about Bay directing Transformers, though, was what I saw during the car chases in Bad Boys II (and, to an extent, in every one of his movies, though the problem has gotten worse over time): his beloved style of hyperkinetic, vibrating, extreme closeup action is basically unintelligible. One of the car chases in Bad Boys II was easily the worst car chase I've ever seen, as it was completely impossible to tell who was where and just what the hell was going on. Cinematically, it was a complete mess and would have pulled me out of the movie entirely if the rest of the film hadn't already accomplished that. Suffice it to say that I was worried I would barely be able to enjoy the spectacle of giant robots battling each other because Bay simply, and ironically, has a terrible eye for action sequences.

So off to Jersey I went, with a friend who is a super Transformers fanatic. He is a nigh-professional collector of Tranformers toys, had just come back from a major Transformers convention, and has been diligently following every single tiny scrap of detail about the production of the movie for literally years. And the theater was filled with a bunch of excited Jerseyites, the type of mass audience this movie was made for. The type that spent several minutes before the movie talking smack to each other about their preferred cell phone, and the type that nearly came to blows over seat ownership once the movie had started. In other words, it was a perfect situation.

Transformers is, by and large, a lot of fun and very successful.

Shia LaBeouf is charismatic, relatable and engaging as Sam, whisking us through the early exposition breezily. I felt the story skipped a couple of character moments with Sam later on that I would have liked to have seen, but I guess that's to be expected. Megan Fox, playing Sam's love interest and partner-in-adventure, is... well, she's eye candy, really, but her acting was certainly not insufferable. Take that backhanded compliment as you will, I suppose.

The robots are incredible, which is no surprise. They're given characters largely similar to that of the original cartoon series; that is to say, they're sentient alien technological lifeforms with essentially human personalities. Their human-ness may or may not bother you if you are a sci-fi fan like I am, but, as with many things in this movie, it's essential to remember that Transformers is a "kids' movie" and that the source material (specifically the original cartoon) is certainly no more sensible or "realistic". Peter Cullen returns in fine form as Optimus Prime, and despite a few silly lines he manages to breathe real life into a 3D model.

My fears about incoherent action were mostly unwarranted, which was a welcome relief. The climactic battle in Los Angeles does suffer somewhat from Bay's style, however there are a few nice wide shots featuring several giant robots clearly battling each other in the street which blew my mind and made me want to see a movie that was almost entirely that. All you screenwriters with Mecha scripts in your back pocket, now's the time to put them in front of some Money People.

There are definitely things for purists to get upset about, and undoubtedly they will. This movie is not really for them. But I'm pretty sure that if I were ten years old or so and you plopped me in a theater and showed me Transformers, it might just change my life.

No comments: