Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Review - Transformers

Transformers is a Michael Bay-directed movie about huge robots who come to Earth and cause widespread mayhem and destruction. I knew this before I entered the cinema, so perhaps it's churlish to complain about the film when it has delivered pretty much what you'd expect from the above description. But as I left the screening, my head spinning from 140 minutes of loud explosions and incoherent plotting, I couldn't help feeling that the film had blown a golden opportunity. Transformers certainly delivers all the giant robot action you could ever wish to see - along with some of the most incredible visual effects you'll ever see - but why oh why couldn't this technical virtuosity be tied into a story which makes some sort of sense? Why couldn't the film give us more than one half-decent character? Why did this project find its way into the hands of Michael Bay when Steven Spielberg - arguably the world's greatest practitioner of effects-driven cinema - is on board only as a producer?

The frustrating thing about Michael Bay is the fact that few other directors share his breadth of vision in terms of pure cinematic spectacle; but he has no lightness in his touch, no finesse to ease the endless barrage of CGI-enhanced blockbusting which his films inevitably consist of. Everything in his movies - be they action sequences, or moments of intimacy - is pitched at the same in-your-face, hysterical tone, and handled with the same crunching lack of subtlety. Transformers is one of his more endurable efforts, though; and for a while it almost seems as if Bay has found his perfect match in these destructive machines, until the same flaws which plague all of his pictures begin make their presence felt.

The backstory to Transformers is delivered by the dulcet tones of Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) who tells us that the planet of Cybertron is in peril, and it can only be saved by a pair of 80 year-old spectacles. Well, that's not really true; but the glasses do hold the key to finding a cube which contains the power to save Cybertron, and it is the search for these spectacles which leads the robots to Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf). Sam is a high school kid who only wants a car with which to impress the sexy Mikaela (Megan Fox), but the rusty old Camaro Sam chooses - or rather, the car that chooses him - is actually an Autobot named Bumblebee who has been assigned as Sam's protector in preparation for the Decepticons' arrival.

That arrival occurs in Qatar, where a rogue helicopter turns into a giant robot who lays waste to an American army base, before transforming into a scorpion-like creature and chasing a couple of soldiers (including Tyrese Gibson and Josh Duhamel) all over the desert. This scene gives us the first opportunity to gawp at the extraordinary detail which has gone into Industrial Light and Magic's photo-realistic mechanical creations. It's not just that the Transformers themselves are extraordinarily well-realised - though they are - it's the fact that they are integrated seamlessly into the environments which they destroy so thoroughly. We can feel the impact as the Decepticon hurls tanks across the base and blows buildings to smithereens, and there's no doubt that this is where Michael Bay is in his element. He is a supreme architect of destruction, and one can't deny his brilliant handling of the action sequences which propel much of this picture.

It's a pity the filmmakers couldn't imbue the Transformers with a little more personality, though. The Autobots' leader Optimus Prime is given the best scenes and the biggest share of the dialogue, and he is the most developed of the robots on show (his counterpart Megatron is sadly introduced too late), but aside from Sam's pal Bumblebee not many of the film's large metallic cast manage to linger in the memory. There is one Decepticon who stands out, a dreadfully annoying little creation who scuttles around the place like a cross between R2D2 and Short Circuit's Johnny 5; but as the battle between the 'bots began to rage in the film's second half, I occasionally struggled to distinguish one machine from another, with the sight of two greyish lumps of metal engaging in combat being particularly confusing. Admittedly, I was never a huge fan of the Transformers franchise and I'm sure the more savvy viewers won't have the same issues, but it is unfortunate to have so many wonderfully inventive machines running around with so little personality between them.

I suppose that's the Michael Bay method, though. He's happy to wallow in noise and fury, viscerally hammering the audience into submission, but his attention to the more basic pleasures of characterisation or story is often negligent. In this instance Bay is fortunate to have Shia LaBeouf on hand, a young actor who works overtime to give this film a little human warmth. LaBeouf's Sam feels like a Spielberg touch; an ordinary kid, something of an outsider, who is thrust into the centre of potentially cataclysmic events. The actor's charming and humble performance feels wonderfully real, full of typical teenage awkwardness which gradually slips away as he rises to the challenge set by these visiting behemoths. Sam Witwicky is a solid character to place at the centre of this sprawling picture, but he's forced to carry the whole load on his own slender shoulders, a burden which is too much to bear. There simply isn't one single other character in the film who is given the barest hint of depth. Megan Fox is simply there to show off her toned and tanned torso, the soldiers portrayed by Gibson and Duhamel have a tendency to disappear for large portions of the film without ever being missed, and minor characters such as the computer hackers played by Anthony Anderson and Rachael Taylor serve little purpose. Even the veteran actors among the cast are poorly served; with Jon Voight simply being asked to stand around repeating his lines, and the usually wonderful John Turturro giving a truly awful display as a cartoonish bureaucrat

Turturro's appearance sadly typifies Transformers' approach to comedy, with the various ham-handed attempts to inject some humour into the piece mostly hitting the ground with a resounding thud. Thanks to LaBeouf's appealing work, Bay just about gets away with an early Love Bug-style scene in which Bumblebee helps Sam in his pursuit of Mikaela, but many of the 'comical' touches are excruciating. Did we really need the painfully dragged-out sequence in which Sam tries to hide the Transformers from his parents, while these supposedly sophisticated machines accidentally destroy the garden? One can't help feeling that screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman would have been better advised to spend less time looking for gags and more time developing the film's narrative. Transformers' plot is a garbled mess which has stopped making sense long before the climax, and that's even with the help of frequent scenes in which Bay stalls the action completely to allow everything to be spelled out in lumpy chunks of exposition.

But will people care that this gorgeous shell of a movie has been built on sand? I guess Transformers delivers the goods if all you're looking for is a series of breathtaking CGI battles; but how much more involving would those battles have been if we cared about the outcome, if we had been engaged by the twists in the story and had some vested interest in the characters' fate? As it was I found myself checking my watch as the climactic showdown set about destroying every last building in Los Angeles, and I began to get that sinking feeling of dissatisfaction as the whole spectacular show petered out into a sequel-friendly ending. There were times during Transformers when I was absolutely thrilled by what I was seeing, and in other places it left me feeling bored and frustrated - but what did I expect? This is a Michael Bay film after all, and there really is no more to this movie than meets the eye.