The Reeler


July 3, 2007


Michael Bay blows a sure thing with a Transformers surprisingly bereft of Transformers

The old Transformers cartoon was made for kids. The new live-action Transformers movie is so infantile it could have been written by one. What a shock, then, to see the names of Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman listed as its screenwriters. The talented co-authors of Mission: Impossible III and many of the very best episodes of Alias don't seem the type to write a graphic robot urination joke. The soundtrack of the first Transformers movie, the cartoon one from 1986, implored its audience to "dare to be stupid." Orci and Kurtzman have bravely answered the call.

The Transformers are just a bunch of big talking robots that can change from one shape to another while kicking the crap out of each other. This is the sort of simple concept that screams out for a set-piece-laden, fun 'n' dumb Hollywood action movie. Yet Orci and Kurtzman, along with co-writer John Rogers and director Michael Bay, somehow managed to blow a sure thing. We want fighting robots -- they give us a cast large enough for an Altman movie standing around talking about fighting robots. Incredibly, the biggest problem about Transformers is that there is too much skin.

More than half the cast (at least the half with flesh) could be completely excised from the film with any noticeable dip in cohesion. We don't need Jon Voight as the Secretary of Defense confronted with a sudden wave of cyber-terrorism and the appearance of highly advanced "weapons systems." Or Rachael Taylor as a gorgeous computer hacker (aren't they all) who works for Voight's character trying to uncover the connection between the two. Or Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson as two soldiers who survive the evil Transformers' first assault and then several additional ones while screaming things like "Bring the rain!" into their radios. Or Anthony Anderson as the Vince Vaughn character from Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Or John Turturro as a member of a government organization so secretive even the screenwriters aren't familiar with him before he appears out of nowhere, 90 minutes into the film.

These characters are so utterly inconsequential that Bay doesn't bother to give any of them (save Duhamel) even a hint of resolution. A smarter bunch of filmmakers would have realized these characters add nothing but running time to a film that's already too long, and focused instead on the robots and the weird little kid who gets mixed up in their intergalactic game of hide and seek. That would be Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), a high school junior who needs to get a car to impress the supermodel who sits next to him in English class (Megan Fox). He winds up with an old black-on-yellow Camaro that just happens to be an alien sent to protect him and his grandfather's glasses, which hold the key to finding something important to the heroic Autobots and the villainous Decepticons. LaBeouf does a fine job selling his character's quirkiness and maintains an impressive amount of his dignity, even when running from a sentient boom box in his underwear.

Obviously a movie as big as Transformers needs to appeal to the largest swatch of people possible, and so Bay and company have thrown in all those characters (and their corresponding genres) in a desperate attempt to appeal to a huge variety of audiences. In a way, the film is itself something of a transformer: One minute it's a coming-of-age story, then a war picture, then a comedy broader than the side of a barn, then a story about brave young computer hackers. But it all comes at the expense of face time for the main attraction, and so we're left with a Transformers surprisingly bereft of Transformers.

If I recall the old cartoon correctly (and I should, I watched enough of it as a kid), it was about a war between shape-changing aliens with a couple humans caught in the middle. The new movie is the reverse: lots of humans, a couple of aliens. When the Autobots and Decepticons finally rumble in the final act it's everything we want: Excitement, fun and incredibly detailed computer animation. But did we really need to slog through almost two hours of pointless exposition to get there? Watching this version of Transformers is like going to the circus and ignoring the animals on parade to watch the guy who cleans up after them.

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