#ThrowbackThursday – Transformers

Original US release date: July 3, 2007
Production budget: $150,000,000
Worldwide gross: $709,709,780

Perhaps the easiest, laziest armchair movie critique comes in the form of, “Michael Bay sucks!”  Never mind that most people who state this do so because that’s what they hear from others.  They can’t back it up with any real insight or intelligent criticism.  It’s just reactionary regurgitation.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not necessarily standing up for Bay.  I’m just saying that people should be able to back their statements up with something other than personal preference before they make them.  I will say, however, that exaggeration is the way of the world, these days.  Like most filmmakers, there are things that Bay does well and things that he doesn’t.  And both are on full display in 2007’s Transformers.

This film was the first-ever live-action adaptation of the popular 1980s property.  Back then, the Transformers could be found in a very successful animated series as well as a hugely profitable toy line.  In the decades since, they have remained in the public consciousness well enough to live on consistently in both forms, though they have never reached that same level of adoration that existed around the time of their creation.  (I was never that into Transformers.  I was a Marvel and Masters of the Universe kid.)

Nonetheless, Paramount saw an untapped goldmine in the property and they weren’t wrong.  This initial film in the now long-standing series made a significant profit and only led to films that were even more successful than this one.  It’s hard to argue with success, folks.  But let’s take a look back at the film, anyway, shall we?

Starring Shia LeBeouf as Sam Witwicky and Megan Fox as Mikaela Banes, Transformers is essentially a boy-meets-girl-meet-giant-shapeshifting-robot story.  That old yarn.  To be straight with you, the story only gets in the way of the movie.  When the film was announced and the human cast started to be revealed, I remember wondering if a human cast was even desirable.  It seemed like an unwanted attempt to ground the picture and give the audience an anchor to latch onto.  But that effort fails because most of the characters in the film are written more like cartoons than the Transformers, themselves.

The only cast members who give down-to-earth, believable performances are Fox, Rachael Taylor, Josh Duhamel, and Jon Voight.  But Fox is given nothing interesting to say or do and Taylor, Duhamel, and Voight are used sparingly.  Really, only Taylor gives a performance that makes me actually want to listen to what she’s saying.  Outside of those four, everyone else is silly and over-the-top.  Virtually every attempt at humor falls completely flat and nothing feels genuine.  If the characters don’t feel real, neither will their peril.  And just when it seems like it’s as bad as it can get, John Turturro shows up as Agent Simmons.  His performance is the worst in the film as is his goofy, off-putting character.

That leads me to another weak point: the dialogue.  It’s muted, boring, and uninteresting.  In that sense, it’s a perfect fit for the boring and uninteresting story.  I really do think it would have been better to just set the film on the Transformers’ home world and not have a single human in the whole thing.  It takes a full hour of set-up before the Transformers arrive in full force and, even then, the ball doesn’t really get rolling for another hour.  In the meantime, it’s more drab dialogue and unfunny “humor”.

The only thing Transformers has going for it is eye candy.  And that can mean different things.  Whether that refers to the action, the effects, Fox, Duhamel, or the cinematography, the film absolutely looks great.  And every dollar it made was due to those visuals and the fondness for the property.  The film gets big and loud and exciting (I guess) towards the end, which is what people wanted from it.  I didn’t find the action to be particularly well-staged, myself.  It’s too fast and often the actual points of contact are obscured from view, making it even harder to determine what just happened.

Many of the Transformers, themselves, are hard to tell apart and in most cases, it’s downright impossible to remember which are Autobots and which are Decepticons without being a longtime fan who already knows all of that.  Robots are just shoved at the audience and their names are tossed out haphazardly with very few follow-up moments for them as individuals to help make them memorable before the big final battle.  So, the climax is just a giant mashup of robots and the casual viewer will simply sit and wait to see who’s left standing and then they’ll know that those are the good guys.

Transformers would have truly been better without the ham-handed attempt at a “story”.  There are no figures harder for audiences to identify with than the government and the military so, of course, they make up the majority of the cast.  And most of the rest of the cast are nonsensical buffoons, leaving almost no one for the audience to cling to.  I know I recently lambasted Suicide Squad for having no story but the difference is that Suicide Squad has genuinely interesting characters who need something equally interesting to do.  That’s not the case with Transformers.  So, why not drop all pretenses, cut out all human, cut the run time by an hour and just give us a 90-minute robot battle, if this is the best story that can be come up with?  Action is all audiences wanted to see, anyway.

So, while I’m not a fan of making broad generalizations about the talents of directors like Michael Bay, he lives down to that reputation with Transformers.  Outside of all of the pretty people and lights, there’s nothing to enjoy, here.  Those things were enough to get audiences to turn out in droves (though if the movie was truly good, it would have made even more money) and get many sequels made, with more to come.  Some of those were better than this one, thankfully, but the franchise got off to a rough start, for sure, and only survived due to the popularity of the franchise and people’s curiosity to see it in live-action for the first time.  With the inaugural film in the series, there isn’t anything more to it than what meets the eye.

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