Transformers Retrospective (Part 1)
By Lewis Hurst.
With Transformers: Age of Extinction just around the corner, I thought it would be the ideal time to revisit Michael Bay’s previous three divisive entries in the franchise, starting with the first film, 2007’s Transformers.
Instead of simply retelling the origin story fans expect of the Autobots and Decepticons, the film attempts a new spin by having both factions come to Earth in search of an artefact named the Allspark, which is then revealed to be the cause of the war in the first place. It’s a nice twist on the origin story and certainly makes the entire story less coincidental. There’s no doubting that the mythology created for the film is deep and rich. The universe writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci create is amazing, but it is sadly not utilised very well.
The story of the film itself isn’t bad per say, it is just not particularly engaging and seems to lack a focus. With four different storylines all running at once, the film struggles to focus on just one. While obviously the Sam/Mikaela and the Autobot/Decepticon storylines are the main ones, the other two storylines feel worthless, especially since they don’t contribute anything major to the plot. Who can really say that the storylines of Lennox and Maggie go anywhere? At the end of the day they feel like distractions from what we’ve paid to see. Optimus Prime being… well Optimus Prime.
This isn’t to say the film is all bad, in parts it’s very very good, which perhaps makes it more disappointing that the rest of the film doesn’t hold up. It’s a common complaint of the films that the scriptwriting on display is terrible, but in my view there’s nothing wrong with the script or dialogue, instead the problems lay with the actual translation of script to screen; specifically, the humour. The humour in these films is of course, terrible; it’s no secret. It’s humour that doesn’t even try to be smart. It’s the type of humour you would expect in the latest Adam Sandler comedy, not a Sci-Fi film about giant robots.
The main problem seems to be that too many characters are relegated to comic relief. Let’s just count how many comic relief characters the film has: Sam’s parents, Sam’s Dog, Sam’s friend Miles, Maggie’s hacker friend Glenn, Glenn’s cousin, Glenn’s Grandma and Agent Simmons, that’s eight comic relief characters for one two and a half hour movie; it’s a bit… much isn’t it? Even if a few of these only appear briefly, it’s still feels a tad excessive, and it doesn’t help that the humour they bring to the film is very poor as well and very crude. The humour is just rude, too rude for a film heavily aimed and marketed at children. Sam calling his dog a “crackhead” and Sam’s parents awkwardly asking him if he’s masturbating, these jokes do not belong in a family film. I’m surprised there wasn’t a moment where anyone involved with the film went “Isn’t this a bit rude for kids?”. Sure, the jokes will go over the heads of kids, but it really shouldn’t be there anyway.
Another problem with the film lies within its cast. Specifically, with its two leads Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox. Simply put, their performances are disappointing to say the least. The two actors show no charisma or interest in the film and certainly don’t share any chemistry which makes the entire romance the audience is meant to root for fall flat. Multiple times while viewing the film, I questioned as to why these two actors had been cast. Well, of course it’s obvious as to why Megan Fox was cast, but the actors themselves don’t “suit” their characters. This is a shame as the interactions between Sam and Mikaela are actually quite good in writing; it’s just that the two actors don’t give it any real conviction or effort. I just really got the sense that Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox didn’t get along that well off camera. It just goes to show that you can stick any two actors together on screen, but if they don’t get along, the audience won’t believe they do on screen. You can’t manufacture actor chemistry, it’s a shame Hollywood doesn’t see that.
The Transformers themselves cannot be faulted. In fact, the film is very entertaining every time one of them is on screen. The CGI still holds up seven years later and still manages to impress every time. Watching Optimus Prime transform the first time, you can’t help but be in awe as every part moves independently and becomes part of the larger whole of Optimus Prime. If there’s ever a reason to invest in a Blu-Ray player, it’s this scene. In fact, just go out and buy a Blu-Ray player and Transformers on Blu-Ray. It’s a feast for the eyes and ears. The film looks marvellous. Every aspect of the film’s look and style is amazing. It’s almost certainly one of the best looking films of the past decade; the CGI here is flawless.
Another high point of the film is the characters of the Transformers, especially the very strong voice cast behind them. Yes, that is Peter Cullen the original Optimus Prime from the 1980’s cartoon voicing Optimus. And yes, that’s Hugo Weaving from The Matrix and Lord of the Rings as Megatron. It’s just a shame that this strong talent is mostly wasted. Optimus doesn’t show up until about an hour into the film while Megatron doesn’t show up until even later. Now normally this wouldn’t be too bad, but upon Megatron’s death Optimus remarks “I’m sorry brother.” Now this threw me a little. I wondered why the film bothered to introduce this relationship between the two only for it to be completely ignored by the rest of the film. It’s a shame, as this could have been the source of much dramatic tension in the film with Prime trying to decide if there’s a way to save his brother from his dark path. Out of the other Transformers, only Bumblebee really stands out but that’s really because the film shoves him on us and he’s the Transformer we spend the most time with. The others are all interchangeable and one dimensional. When Jazz is killed later in the film, it’s hard to feel anything since the character has hardly appeared in the film.
Another huge standout of the film is Steve Jablonsky’s score. There’s a reason the score has become one of the most iconic scores of the past decade. The main theme is well on its way to becoming one of the big iconic themes in movie history. It’s catchy and sticks in the mind. In fact, I’m pretty sure you’ve got it stuck in your head now as you’re reading this. And of course the film has other memorable themes such as the haunting Decepticon theme and the heroic Autobot theme. It’s an excellent score and one that continues to amaze on each listen.
The action scenes are of course where Transformers excels. Seeing all those giant robots blast away at each other is a blast to see on screen and it continues to thrill each time, even if there’s an overreliance on explosions. A minor complaint would be the way these scenes have been shot. I’m not a huge fan of the “shaky-cam” style. In fact I find it rather amateurish. It obscures much of the action and makes it extremely hard to tell what is going on at times.
Overall, Transformers is a very mediocre film. It’s certainly not as bad as some will call it out to be, but neither is it a misunderstood gem. For everything that works in the film there are several other things that don’t. Is there more than meets the eye to this action blockbuster? No not really. The film squanders its amazing potential and the strong universe of material it sits on. But that being said, it is fun to watch. If I had to describe the film in one word, it would be marmite. Why that word you ask? Well I find it sums up the film very well. You either love it or hate it. As for me, I love parts of the film and hate parts of it as well. It’s extremely hard to form an opinion because I either feel I’m being too harsh or being too generous, so I’m going to firmly say this: It’s okay. It’s neither good nor bad. It’s somewhere in the middle. Which is good. From a certain point of view. Even though I’m happy with the film as it is, it could have been a lot worse than it ended up, I do sometimes long for the film to have been directed by producer Steven Spielberg. But hey, what could have been, eh?