Transformers (2007) *½
In 1982, the anime production company Studio Nue launched a competitor to “Mobile Suits Gundam” called “Super Dimension Fortress Macross.” The signature “Macross” mecha was the VF-1 Valkyrie, a fighter plane somewhat resembling the US Navy’s F-14 Tomcat, which could transform at the touch of a cockpit lever into one of the huge robots that anime fans had loved so much since the original run of “Gigantor” in the 1960’s. The popularity of “Macross” touched off a years-long craze in Japan for robots that turned into other things without defying too many laws of physics (as opposed to the likes of Getter Robo and Combattler V, which could not possibly have undergone the transformations they were supposed to), and a wave of similar TV shows and movies followed. Meanwhile, the toy company Takatoku released a substantial line of plastic and die-cast metal reproductions of the various “Macross” mecha, including several fully-transforming Valkyrie fighters in 1:55 scale. Soon nearly every Japanese manufacturer of robot toys got into the act, whether with licensed anime spin-offs or with designs of their own devising. For our present purposes, the most significant of these coattail-riders was Takara, which quickly restructured its Diaclone and Microman lines to incorporate robots that could be configured into remarkably realistic representations of aircraft, automobiles, and even ordinary household objects like padlocks, watches, and cassette players.
The transforming robot mania first made its way to the United States late in 1983, when Takara experimentally exported a few of its Diaclone toys across the Pacific (under the slightly altered name Diakron) and Tonka secured a license to sell Bandai’s (originally Popy’s) Machine Robo toys as GoBots. The watershed moment arrived in 1984, though, with the unveiling of Hasbro’s Transformers line. The Transformers were initially a mix of Diaclone and Microman toys (although they would later draw on other sources— including even one of the old Takatoku Valkyries), many of them with revised color schemes and all with their spring-loaded weaponry disabled in order to comply with American product-safety standards. Hasbro was much more ambitious than Tonka, for they invented an elaborate back-story to go with the toys, and cut sub-licensing deals with Marvel Comics and the cartoon studio Ruby Spears for the creation of Transformers-related media. (Tonka eventually followed suit, but by then it was too late to regain the GoBots’ leading position.) The cartoon lasted three seasons on American television, and much longer in Japan; Ruby Spears farmed out the animation to Toei, which kept cranking out episodes for home consumption well into the 90’s in one of the more bizarre pop-culture echo-chamber effects that I know of. The comics stayed in publication until Hasbro pulled the toy line from the domestic market in response to 1989’s miserable sales figures, though again they persisted a little longer overseas. There, it was the British who carried on after the Americans abandoned ship. Evidently toy sales were better in Europe, and the UK divisions of both Hasbro and Marvel stood by the Transformers all the way through to 1992, when their US counterparts attempted a not-altogether-successful relaunch. In any case, 1986 almost certainly marked the pinnacle of the original Transformers phenomenon, for that year saw the release of Transformers: The Movie. Nerds like me remember it a lot more fondly than it actually deserves, but you know what? For all its faults, the old cartoon movie was way the fuck better than Michael Bay’s spasmodic live-action take on the subject from 21 years later. In fact, Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich would be hard pressed to do worse.
Speaking of Devlin and Emmerich, Transformers resembles their version of Godzilla in that its first few minutes provide us with an all-too-fleeting suggestion of the movie that it could have been in more adept hands. An American army base in Qatar receives an unexpected, uninvited visitor in the form of an MH-53 heavy-lift helicopter that was believed to have been shot down over Afghanistan three months before. The ghost chopper won’t answer any attempt to communicate, whether from air-traffic control or from the F-22 Raptors sent up to intercept it. Instead, it merely lands at the base as if it had every right to do so. Then it sort of stands up, transforming into a gigantic, more or less humanoid robot, and proceeds to blow the shit out of everything in sight. The robot (we will later learn that it is the Decepticon Blackout, but since none of the Cybertronian characters save Optimus Prime even vaguely correspond to their 80’s namesakes, that doesn’t much matter) evidently wants something stored in the US military’s computer system, but some fast action with a fire axe on the part of the base’s commanding officer prevents it from getting any farther than the initial hack. Thwarted in its real mission, the robot turns its attention instead back to wiping the base from the face of the Earth.
Meanwhile, back in the States, high school student Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf, from I, Robot and Constantine) is in the market for a car. When his dad (Kevin Dunn, from Stir of Echoes and Godzilla) takes him to a used car lot, the proprietor’s statement that a car chooses its driver and not the other way around proves to be literally true, for a certain rust-bucket late-70’s Camaro seems unaccountably determined to go home with the boy. Now in some movies, that would make Sam destined to take on the personality of the Camaro’s rat-bastard former owner, and to start proposing toasts to death for the shitters of the world in 1979, but here, it just means that Sam’s temperamental new ride wants very badly for him to score with Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox), the gearhead hot chick he’s been fantasizing about at one level or another since they were in the first grade together. Naturally, Sam is a little taken aback by the way his Camaro seems to have a helpful (if also completely clueless) mind of its own, but for now at least, he’s willing to roll with it.
The Pentagon, however, is not willing to roll with having its overseas bases destroyed, nor does it have any patience at all for electronic attacks on the Defense Department computer system. Secretary of Defense John Keller (Jon Voight, of Deliverance and Anaconda) assembles the sharpest minds in the NSA’s computer science division to figure out what really went down in Qatar, and thus it is that new recruit Maggie Madsen (Rachel Taylor, from Man-Thing and See No Evil) happens to catch a second such attack in progress— emanating from one of the computers aboard Air Force One, if you can believe that shit! This time, the perpetrator is the Decepticon Frenzy (although the fact that he turns into a boombox suggests that it was supposed to have been Soundwave in an earlier draft of the script), and this time the alien robot gets what he’s looking for. It’s anybody’s guess, though, why he’d care about the arctic expedition that Sam Witwicky’s great-grandfather led in 1897, or what on Earth the nature of “Project Iceman” might be. In the aftermath, Madsen tries to convince Keller that the technology employed by the Pentagon’s hacker nemesis is far beyond the capabilities of his people’s preferred suspects (Russia, China, North Korea, Iran), but nobody will listen. In desperation, Maggie makes a copy of the mysterious hacking signal, and takes it to her old friend, Glen Whitman (Anthony Anderson, of Urban Legends: Final Cut), an even bigger computer genius than her. The two of them are puzzling over the two-way stream of encrypted data within that signal when an FBI task force comes barging in to arrest them. You’d think a smart girl like Madsen would know that the fucking Pentagon would have ways of keeping tabs on anything that was downloaded, copied, or in any other way manipulated by one of its computers…
Things only get weirder from there. Sam catches his Camaro driving itself away from the house one night, and when he gives chase (reasonably assuming that the car is being stolen), he sees it turn into a great, big robot, and send some kind of signal via searchlight from the neighborhood junkyard. (He also gets himself chased by savage guard dogs and busted for trespassing while he’s at it.) At the same time, back in Qatar, the few survivors of Blackout’s attack on the army base are being stalked through the desert by a huge robot scorpion. (I’m assuming this is supposed to be Scorponok, despite his non-leadership role, his inability to transform into an entire city, and his lack of a much smaller robot to turn into his head.) The soldiers actually manage to defeat this attacker when they reach a village with a telephone, and call in an air strike by two A-10’s and an AC-130 gunship. Turns out the same armor-piercing incendiary rounds that’ll kill a Russian tank will also at least damage a living machine from outer space.
Finally, Sam and Mikaela become the first humans to develop the slightest clue as to what’s really going on. Sam, you see, has been trying to raise money by selling some of his illustrious Arctic-exploring ancestor’s stuff on eBay. For some reason, the bad guys are very interested in old Captain Witwicky’s eyeglasses, and unfortunately for Sam, they’ve been checking eBay for relevant listings. Barricade (disguised as a Ford Mustang police interceptor with “To Punish and Enslave” stenciled where you might expect to see “To Protect and Serve”) swings by to collect the antique spectacles, and that crapwagon Camaro makes itself really useful at last by resuming its true form and fending off the attacking Decepticon. This occurs, fortuitously enough, just as the neighborhood experiences a strange and very brief meteor shower, which brings to Earth four more of the alien robots. These are the Autobots— the good guys— and as their leader, Optimus Prime, explains, this whole space invasion business stems from a civil war that destroyed the robots’ world thousands of our years ago. At issue in the later stages of the conflict was something called the All-Spark, a cuboid mystical whatsit that can impart life to machinery. Megatron, the leader of the Decepticons, had tried to set himself up as the tyrant of the aliens’ homeworld, and when that failed (hard to rule over an uninhabitable cosmic cinder, you know), he sought to use the All-Spark’s power to create enough new Decepticons to populate any other planet which the robots might adopt. The All-Spark somehow got lost, though, and Megatron disappeared some 10,000 Earth-years back while searching for it out in space. Evidently Sam’s great-grandfather found Megatron’s frozen carcass up above the Arctic Circle, and evidently the location of the All-Spark somehow got encoded on the lenses of the old man’s glasses. (If you think it makes no sense now, just wait ‘til you see the movie, and become privy to all the obfuscating details that I left out for clarity’s sake!) Bumblebee— the Camaro— would have told Sam all this himself, had his speech systems not been damaged in a heroic effort to pad the running time by keeping the audience in the dark. Now that they’re here, the Autobots hope to find the All-Spark before the Decepticons, and to destroy it so as to prevent the would-be world-conquerors from replenishing their numbers. What nobody yet realizes is that the All-Spark has already been recovered— along with Megatron’s body— by a US government agency called Sector 7, and that technologies gleaned from both have been driving the enormous advances of the last 70 years or so. And we all know how good the government is at keeping control of such things in movies like this one…
Forgive me, but I need to geek out for just a moment here. Bumblebee is a Camaro?! Are you shitting me? Seriously, people— the whole point of Bumblebee’s character is that he isn’t a badass. Small, slow, weak, and practically unarmed, he’s supposed to be the guy with nothing going for him but a bit of smarts and a shit-ton of moxie. And Megatron, meanwhile… What the hell, Michael Bay? Megatron without a fuck-you-up gun as big as he is is like Thor without a hammer or Poseidon without a trident. Don’t even get me started about the elimination of the rivalry between him and Starscream, either. Yeah, it’s nice that the folks behind this movie hired Peter Cullen to reprise his old gig as the voice of Optimus Prime, but that and a couple of lame inside dialogue references (“More than meets the eye”… “One shall stand— one shall fall”… Yeah, yeah— whatever) are just about the only bones thrown to the nerds whose twenty-year nostalgia is the only apparent reason for this film to exist in the first place. Oh— and while I’m flexing my geek muscles, here’s my prediction for how they’re going to excuse the box-office-mandated sequel that will surely be upon us before we know it: the mumbo-jumborific method the good guys use to dispatch Megatron during the final battle here is going to have the “unforeseen” side-effect of turning him into Galvatron, bringing him back to life and making him an even bigger pain in the ass than he was to begin with. Remember, you heard it here first.
You know, I’m pretty sure Transformers is the first movie I’ve seen in which the odious comic relief was the best part. Half the time, Transformers acts like it wants to be a lightweight sci-fi spoof in the vein of Men in Black or Evolution, and if Michael Bay had had the nerve to follow through on that impulse, it might have been a fairly decent example of the form. Shia LaBeouf has a strong sense of comic timing, and those scenes that are played for absurdist humor (as when one of the soldiers in Qatar wrangles with a long-distance operator in Bangalore for a connection to the nearest Air Force base while he and his men are under fire from Scorponok) would be charming in a movie where laughs were the point of the enterprise. Ditto the characterization of Frenzy, who is pretty much Stripe from Gremlins, but with a body made out of compressor-fan blades. Unfortunately, though, that isn’t the kind of film Transformers is supposed to be— or if it is, everyone concerned forgets about that after the revelation that Sector 7 has Megatron in a giant refrigerator beneath Hoover Dam. Then of course there are a few gags that wouldn’t work no matter what, like the way Jazz, being voiced by a black actor, must therefore breakdance and speak in Ghettoese, or the already infamous scene in which Bumblebee inexplicably pisses all over the leader (John Tuturro) of the Sector 7 agents who come to arrest Sam and Mikaela.
It’s when Transformers remembers that at least a certain fraction of the audience is expecting it to be a sci-fi action movie that things really go awry, though. A film about a civil war between giant robots really ought to have more robot fights, and I for one would prefer that they not look like cut-scenes from a video game when they finally come around. Also, the special effects people didn’t do Transformers any favors with the robot designs, which are so cluttered and complicated that they don’t make any visual sense. For the first time in years, we get an action flick in which the fight scenes are blessedly free of Shakycamtm, but we still can’t tell what’s going on in them most of the time because all the participants are indecipherable jumbles of cables and points. It’s exasperating. Meanwhile, having the explodey part lie mostly at the far end of nearly an hour and a half of some strange species of screwball comedy does weird things to the feel of the final act. In particular, the moment when Megatron dismembers Jazz with his bare hands is tonally confusing and disruptive— the victim, after all, is a character who has spent all of his screen-time up to then doing backspins for no reason and calling everybody “my bitches.” (And while I’m on the subject, surely some kind of special anti-congratulations are owed to screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman for managing to adhere to the contemptible old cliché about the black guy being the first to die, even in a story where the characters doing the bulk of the fighting are colossal robots from another planet.) Truly it is a sorry state of affairs when one can say in all seriousness that the better Transformers movie is the one that has robot versions of Elliot Ness and Bender from The Breakfast Club teaming up with a robot version of Monty Python’s “wink, wink— nudge, nudge” guy to save the universe from an evil, mechanical Mr. Spock and an evil, mechanical, planet-eating Orson Welles.