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DVD SAVANT

Transformers
Two-Disc Special Edition
Savant Blu-ray Review


Transformers
Blu-ray
DreamWorks
2007 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 143 min. / Street Date September 2, 2008 / 39.99
Starring Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel, Rachael Taylor, Jon Voight, John Turturro, Kevin Dunn, Julie White
Cinematography Mitchell Amundsen
Production Design Jeff Mann
Film Editor Thomas A. Muldoon, Paul Rubell, Glen Scantelbury
Original Music Steve Jablonsky
Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, John Rogers
Produced by Ian Bryce, Tom DeSanto, Lorenzo Bonaventura, Don Murphy
Directed by Michael Bay

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Transformers is a big, BIG scale action effects spectacular, with heavy CGI lifting contributed by Industrial Light and Magic. Just ten years ago the idea of investing 145 million production dollars into a concept based on a line of toys would never fly, but times have definitely changed. Launched as a clever toys-TV show moneymaking combo, Transformers has seen several animated movies. This giant Steven Spielberg / Michael Bay action-fest is at least 50% animation as well ... it has well over an hour of intense, complicated and skillfully rendered giant robot mayhem to excite every young boy on the planet.  1

Dreamworks' Blu-ray is one pricey item (retail discounts do lessen the pain) but will surely be desirable kid viewing. Savant admires the filmmaking, but has some issues with the movie's suitability for children in both content and in its attitude toward war.

Synopsis:

Luckless high school kid Sam Witwicky (current movie heartthrob Shia LaBeouf) is desperate to score both a hot car and a hot girlfriend, like dream teen Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox). Sam's opportunity comes when the rusting vintage Camaro he buys turns out to be Bumblebee (voice Mark Ryan), a robotic alien of the benign Autobot clan led by the massive but caring Optimus Prime (voice Peter Cullen). The Autobots are engaged in a death struggle with an evil robotic tribe called the Decepticons. Both clans can "transform" into whatever mechanical items they've analyzed, and regularly disguise themselves as cars, trucks, helicopters and fighter jets. Sam's been chosen because his explorer grandfather Captain Witwicky discovered a giant metallic man frozen in Arctic ice. The Decepticons want to defrost the giant, which happens to be their nefarious leader, Megatron (voice Hugo Weaver). They also wish to recover Captain Witwicky's eyeglasses, which will help them locate the AllSpark, a source of power that will enable them to rule the universe. Sam and Mikaela are seized by the obnoxious Agent Simmons (John Turturro) of a top-secret organization holding both the frozen giant Megatron and the AllSpark in the base of Boulder Dam. The Decepticons have already attacked a U.S. outpost in the Quatar and are converging on the dam. Sam, Mikaela and other bright young people manage to convince the Secretary of Defense John Keller (Jon Voight) that the Autobots are on the side of mankind. When Keller realizes that Sam's story is true, the kids, the Army platoon led by Captain Lennox (Josh Duhamel) and the Autobots face off with the mighty Decepticons, for a battle in the streets of downtown Los Angeles.

The basic appeal of Transformers comes right from a little boy's playpen, where toys don't have to be what they look like to fit into a fantasy game. An ordinary toy truck or car that transforms into a colorful battle robot is just the kind of gimmick to appeal to a kid who cares about thrills first and rational logic second. At its basis Transformers is a never-ending special effect, where Gremlin-like probe 'bots disguise themselves as cell phones. Cars and trucks roar around without drivers because they're really the end product of an alien evolution that began with machines instead of flesh.

The giant robots walk very much like the killer cyborg Kane from RoboCop 2 and come in a variety of voices and styles cued by their names: Jazz, Ratchet, Bonecrusher, Frenzy. ILM animators makes them move, fly, drive and transform in dizzy blurs of dauntingly complex CGI effects that pretty much represent the state of the art for fantastic, cartoonish excess. The transformations are so fast that we really can't follow what's morphing into what; the metal monsters from the planet Cybertron shape-shift much more efficiently than does Carpenter's organic The Thing. We do wonder how a normal-sized car can transform into a robot with at least five times the volume, but that's really getting picky.

The story starts on a teenage level and moves from there into an invasion tale with plenty of riffs about government conspiracies. Sam Witwicky's parents are middle-class doofusses who haggle over every parenting issue. Content-wise it's still a PG-13 film and so has plenty of material objectionable for small children. Spielberg introduced scaled-down edgy content into his E.T. ages ago with colorful dialogue like "Penis Breath"; uptight parents will blanch when Mrs. Witwicky (Julie White) changes the subject to masturbation during a parent-child confrontation. She's also given the sure-fire giggle line, "They've got to get their hands off my bush!" Message: Kid, your parents are stupid dorks.

The robots are a jolly bunch of cartoon personalities (one with a corny jive speaking style) and say unhelpful things like "the boy wants to have sexual relations with the girl". Essentially, Sam Witwicky wants to get laid, which would be perfectly okay in a film not aimed at 6-year-olds. Spielberg's action movie success in the 1980s relied on pushing the edge of the envelope in regard to what was appropriate for kids -- remember the foul-mouthed kids in The Goonies?.

Megan Fox's Mikaela Banes begins as a generic sexy girlfriend to make Sam feel inadequate, at least until he proves himself macho enough to be good boyfriend material. He's overprotected while she's hiding the fact that she comes from a broken home with a father in prison. Sam negotiates the cleansing of Mikaela's Juvie record, while her main contribution is to man a tow truck during the final battle, dragging around a "paralyzed" Autobot so he can lend his guns to the fighting. The original script may have called for an, uh, less-developed Mikaela ... the snide Agent Simmons disses her by snapping out, "You, in the training bra? Do not test me." The super-secret agent isn't only dumb, he's blind.

Transformers is all about fighting, which wasn't invented for violent 80s cartoon shows. We sheltered 50s kids were really into neighborhood combat, and I remember seeing a box of breakfast cereal displaying scores of toy machine guns obtainable by saving box tops. For 80s kids the big theme was POWER. Little girl commercials of the 80s stressed glamour; little boy commercials had alpha male boys that reveled in the POWER of their warlike toys. "He-Man's" main cartoon dialogue line was "I have the POWER!" Beyond their clever shape-changing, the Transformer toys were all about brute robot combat on a vast scale. I was raising tots at the time, and their teachers were open in their objections to these violent toys and TV shows. The nursery school was seeing three- and four-year olds coming in obsessed with POWER. Whenever they became bored they would leap up to hit their less aggressive playmates -- sometimes hard. Toy guns were being phased out, but every boy had to have a sword of some kind.

The script for Transformers isn't something I'd expect to see from the fairly liberal Steven Spielberg. The plot meanders a bit, and we have a tendency to forget all about the gallant Captain Lennox more than once. But that's not what bugs Savant. Right up front we are told that wars are a fight between Good and Evil.  2 That might be okay for a tale of robots from space, with names that say who's good and who's bad. But the movie cuts directly to the Middle East, thereby implying the notion that our present foreign conflicts are an uncomplicated struggle between Good and Evil. The Autobot / Decepticon clash is equated with human fighting. Captain Witwicky's motto, repeated later during battle, is "No sacrifice, no victory," another obvious parallel with the presumed noble war in the Middle East. Anyone who thinks the fighting should stop is a rotten quitter.

The power (excuse me, POWER) fantasy comes together with militaristic mottos and unity-building aggressive oaths that imply that life can be distilled into a never-ending death struggle. Optimus Prime: "At the end of this day, one shall stand, one shall fall!" Frankly, this is a lesson I'd expect to be taught to little Hitler youth, even though the nasty Decepticons are the ones to champion the rights of the Strong over the Weak. The show ignores the consequences for all those victims blown up and crushed on the robot battlefield. It's all lighthearted and upbeat. The script is certainly true to the spirit of the original cartoons, but the Iraq-Afghanistan parallels are off base.

Transformers attracted a long list of product tie-ins in its theatrical release. Besides the obvious fast food chain Burger King, the U.S. Army got into the act. The only possible connection is that the kid-friendly movie encourages a positive connection with military service. Deadly hardware is COOL because it means you have POWER.

For a movie about people interacting with computer animation, Transformers is an impressive achievement. The acting is fine overall, with both Mr. LaBeouf and Ms. Fox showing spunk and energy. John Turturro is amusingly detestable as the rotten secret agent (the movie is not kind to Intelligence Community types) and Jon Voight lends gravity and precision to the thankless role of the government honcho. The movie also slams the President, who asks for Ding-Dongs to be brought to his bed on Air Force One. Let's see ... the movie is pro-war, but anti-Bush?

The overall feeling of Transformers is of a kinder, gentler combat holocaust. The noble Autobots love us, and Bumblebee opts to make Earth his new home and serve Sam Witwicky as his daily driver. The boss Camaro gets a zillion miles to a gallon of nothing, so Sam is getting a great deal. But it's a weird ending, with Bumblebee taking on the role of an intergalactic Gunga Din.


DreamWorks' Blu-ray of the exciting Transformers can't be faulted in any technical way. Every effects scene invites slow-motion analysis; ILM must have legions of tightly coordinated effects teams turning out these photo-real illusions by the yard. The only shame is that we never know who is really responsible for the effects. Committees funnel concepts into committees and multiple designer input evolves in a way that allows few individuals to take credit for much more than highly skilled digital brushstrokes. The digital credits list looks like a page from the Telephone Book.

Michael Bay provides a commentary; his talents are perfectly suited to a show aimed at such a basic -- but busy, and precise -- level of cinematics. He's a breezy guy who organizes his shoots and relies on a crack team of pros to make the details work. He's also Gung-Ho and gaga about military hardware, a must for this picture. Feature playback also supports a "Heads-Up Display" picture-in-picture Trivia Track, that works best with more advanced Blu-ray players featuring added playback capabilities.

A second HD disc contains two-score densely organized featurettes: a series of making-of pieces, featurettes centering on the design and capabilities of the Autobots and Decepticons, and a third featurette that analyzes the first major attack scene, where a large military helicopter transforms into a mechanical Scorpion monster. Several of the film's effects people display huge collections of Transformer toys; the robot mania at fan trade shows verges on insanity.  3 Additional concept and artwork extras are topped by a 3-D tech examination of all the robot designs. A teaser and two trailers finish off the deluxe package.  4


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Transformers Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good (enough)
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary, 3 HD featurettes, "Heads Up Display" picture-in-picture trivia track, galleries, trailers.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 24, 2008

Footnotes:

1. The extras tell us that the TV Transformers came about from a relaxing of FCC rules: Starting in the early 80s, a TV show could be directly about toys to be sold to kids. Children's programming became a conduit for exploiting children, rather than entertaining them. Then again, I sure wish I could have had toys of all my favorite Science Fiction monsters, if they starred in shows on television.
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2. The actual quote is from Optimus Prime: "But like all great power, some wanted it for good, others for evil. And so began the war."
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3. My friends and I went in for several fads as kids, but you'd think adults would face up to the idea that collecting thousands of dollars' worth of mass-produced toys just makes one a stooge consumer ad absurdium.
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4. A final word on the story chosen for the first Transformers movie (a second is in the works and due out next year): The basic plot is more or less identical to the Cannon feature Masters of the Universe, starring Dolph Lundgren. Warring aliens come to Earth to secure an object of vast power that will allow the holder to (cough) rule the universe. Good aliens align with a dippy teenager and his girlfriend, who have a personal connection to the source of power (oops, POWER). Earth authority figures (a crusty cop) eventually join forces with the good aliens and the teenagers to defeat the nasty Evil alien leader. For all I know this may be a generic plotline from dozens of TV shows, animes, mangas and dog food commercials, so it may be unclear who's ripping off whom. If so, Transformers recaptures the clichés of 1980s kiddie programming quite accurately.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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