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Movie Review: Transformers

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If ever a director was so perfectly suited for the material at hand, it is the combination of Michael Bay and Transformers. On one hand, Bay can blow stuff up better than anybody, and what is one element you want in a movie featuring battling robots but big explosions? On the other hand, you have source material coming from a toy line that was turned into a popular cartoon series in the 1980s, and it needs the touch of someone who has more flash than substance, but could bring a bit of substance to it (well, maybe, there were a couple of flashes in The Island).

Anyway, the film has come to fruition, and the final result is a movie that delivers on the whiz bang, keeps true to the slightly goofy story of the cartoon, yet somehow feels a little flat in the end. Still, it does offer up some great explosions and first rate special effects!

Transformers opens with narration from Optimus Prime (voiced by original cartoon actor Peter Cullen) telling of a great war on Cybertron between the evil Decepticons, led by Megatron (Hugo Weaving), and the good Autobots, led by Optimus Prime. The battle left their homeworld a burnt out husk, and the object of their battles is a mysterious cube called the Allspark (aka the MacGuffin). Thousands of years ago it landed in the Arctic, where Megatron followed and got frozen in the ice, unable to retrieve the cube, nor free himself. That is the setup as we dive into the human-centric tale.

The tale of the great robot war takes a background role in favor of the human story, which is ultimately a failing but not a complete disaster. The main story is that of a boy and his car. Shia LeBeouf plays Sam Witwicky, whose family has a connection to the MacGuffin, and thus makes him a target, but before we can get to that we have to deal with the trappings of teen comedy. Sam is a little on the geeky side, he didn't make the football team and pines for the hot girl on the jock's arm. Now, dad buys him a car, which just happens to be the Autobot called Bumblebee. Shortly after acquiring said vehicular transport, it takes off on its own, ultimately revealing its robotic nature. Apparently, he was calling his fellow heroes to come and help out.

Meanwhile, in the secondary human story, we are led by Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson as Army Rangers in Qatar. This is where the Decepticons make their move, in spectacular fashion with a large helicopter making an attack on the military base, followed by a scorpion-like robot bursting from the sand intent on taking out our heroes and hacking our computer system. This is visually stunning, but ultimately leads nowhere as it merely yields a signal for a group of unimportant government analysts to chase their tale with. Now, I understand why it was initially necessary for the hack and the information that it yielded, but the rest of the scenes with the analysts just do nothing but drag the picture down.

The story, such as it is, bears some striking similarities to Terminator 2. You have a young boy who is wanted by the bad guys, a good guy sent as protector, and a plot designed to drag the boy along while moving the bigger players into position. All of it leads to an explosive face-off between the forces of good and the forces of evil.

I wanted to love this movie. Spending many formative years in the 1980s, I grew up on Transformers and GI Joe cartoons, but it was those robotic vehicles that captured my imagination. From their electronic-tinged voices to the clear delineation of good and evil, I just loved the show.

Still, for as much as I loved the show, I cannot remember a lot about the stories, other than they concerned the gathering of energy to be sent to help the ongoing war on the ravaged Cybertron. I do remember some of the surrounding story of their origins, an origin which has changed somewhat here.

Fortunately, I am not a purist expecting an exact translation, I am much more interested in a story that respects the material and makes sense within the new version of the universe. The story holds together, for the most part, it has some excursions that could have been excised, but it takes the outlandish nature of the source and runs with it. The original stories were a little shallow and often seemed more interested in the sale of toys than the creative universe. The same charge could be levied against this film, but it still provides ample fun.

The acting is decent, for the most part. Shia LeBeouf does a pretty good job at playing the wide-eyed wonder that the role requires. He carries the weight of the movie, having to be the character that we latch onto as we are dragged along for the ride, much like Edward Furlong in T2. His romantic interest is played by Megan Fox, who does a nice job of looking hot.

The rest of the cast fill their roles without much of an issue, we all know that they are going to be secondary to the special effects. After all, this is a big summer movie and we don't want characters dragging it down. Of course, I would be remiss if I did not mention John Turturro's secret ops character; if there was one character that was ill-advised, this is it. In a movie that takes over-the-top to new heights, Turturro pushes it over the edge and sticks out like a sore thumb, which says something for a movie of this nature (not in a good way).

While the special effects did rule the day, I wish we got to spend a little more time getting to know these aliens. I mean, the movie is called Transformers. We do not get to spend a lot of time with them as characters outside of the big set pieces. We get the obligatory introduction, and the obvious connections to the car forms they have, but as characters we get next to nothing. This was one of the biggest letdowns. That, and the ultimately silly MacGuffin nature of the conflict.

As disappointed as I am in the characters of the robots and the superficiality of the story, I was sucked in by the explosive nature of the visuals. Like I said, Bay can blow stuff up better than anyone, raising a mere explosion to the level of art form. Then there is the work by ILM and the special effects team; I was completely convinced by what I saw. There was a weight and believeability to each and every movement. On this base level of explosive effects and crowd pleasing summer fare, this wins in spades.

Bottom line. I liked this movie, I have no qualms recommending this movie. Go, see it, enjoy it. Bring plenty of popcorn and I guarantee that you will be entertained. It is one of those fun summer movies that takes the absurdity of it all by the horns. It is over the top and doesn't make a lick of sense. Transformers is a definite crowd pleaser and is a breath of fresh air in this era of the sequel, at least until the inevitable part two rumbles into theaters in a couple of years.

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