So far, it’s been a fairly dismal summer for big Hollywood films. The third entries in the Spider-Man, Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean and Ocean’s series (not to mention the second Fantastic Four film) were all hyped through the roof, but delivered little in terms of entertainment value.
It’s enough to make one wary of Tinseltown’s next mega-hyped visual effects ‘thrill ride’, Michael Bay’s Transformers. You know it will be loud, you know it will be jammed with visual effects and being it’s Bay, you know it will be long. But will his big-screen adaptation of a 1980s cartoon (and toy line) be any good?
Transformers is about two warring robotic tribes from a distant galaxy, the Autobots (good guys) and Decepticons (bad guys), who have come to Earth to reclaim the Allspark, a cube from their planet that will grant whoever owns it unlimited power. Caught up in the middle of the mayhem is Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf). Sam is your typical dorky teenager who also happens to be the great great grandson of an explorer that discovered one of the Decepticons, Megatron, and the Allspark back in the Arctic in the mid 1800s. He also happens to be in possession of his great great grandfather’s cracked glasses, which apparently have an encoded map embedded in them that will show the way to the hidden Allspark (and Megatron).
Now, being that this is a Michael Bay movie based on a line of toys, I went in with no pretenses of a coherent, decent plot (mission accomplished) or characters (ditto) brought to vivid life by great levels of acting (to their credit, the cast does the best they can given the material) to latch onto. All I wanted from Transformers was two hours of robots kicking the crap out of each other while laying waste to half of the planet.
While the movie does eventually get around to that metal bout to knock the other tin can out, one has to endure over one hour of extraneous subplots (including one in the Middle East that seems to exist for no other reason other than to give us a couple of cool battle sequences), some juvenile and rather lame comedy and five minutes of Bernie Mac. If Bay knew anything about developing characters or plot, the first hour might have been less of an endurance test.
Fortunately, he knows spectacle and how to orchestrate mass destruction. Once the Autobots arrive, the film becomes a rather fun B-movie reminiscent of those throwaway sci-fi flicks from the 1950s and 60s one would see on late-night television. As one would expect from a big Hollywood popcorn flick (and one with Steven Spielberg as its producer), the visual effects and set pieces are terrific. The interaction between live actors and visual effects is pretty close to seamless, and the action sequences deliver the goods in grand, bombastic style (even if they are shot a bit too close up). The film’s concluding act, set in downtown Los Angeles, may be the coolest videogame I have never played.
Transformers isn’t the best of the big summer flicks that have come out so far this year (that honour goes to the equally preposterous but more competently handled Die Hard 4.0), but it is certainly more entertaining than most. While a serious overhaul of the script (more robot action, less human interaction) certainly would have been of great benefit, there is no denying that you do get a lot of bang for your cinematic buck. Skip the first hour and enjoy the rest.