It's hard to tell just where inspiration can come from sometimes, but in the case of Transformers, it came both from a nostalgia of all things 1980s, combined with some sort of allure that the characters have. You see, the movie was inspired from the toy line of the mid '80s, rather than the animated film or television show that also inspired it at the time. So instead of a remake, which might have been a little more palatable, we get to see the robots in disguise with a wholly new story, written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (Mission Impossible III) and directed by Michael Bay (The Rock). Before I get too involved talking about the movie, I'd like to just remind everyone that this was a movie based on a toy line, where figures were created, staged and placed accordingly, kind of like what I was doing with my Muhammad Ali and Evel Knievel dolls out in the back yard. So does that mean I could have made a two and a half hour story based on toys and gotten a $150 million budget? Probably not, but in the interest of disclosure, if you couldn't tell by reading the above, I was just ahead of the target demographic that liked the toys, plus I'm insanely jealous at how much cash the movie brought in.
For those slightly less familiar with the toys, you've got the Autobots and the Decepticons, the allies and axis (respectively) in a long-running battle for the All Spark, a device that can transform just about any object into a robot. The Autobots want to ensure the Decepticons don't acquire control of it to take over the universe, even though many of the Decepticons might not realize their leader Megatron destroyed their home planet Cybertron in an attempt to acquire it. Yet the All Spark arrives on Earth and it's discovered by Archibald Witwicky. A century later, his great-grandson Sam (Shia LaBeouf, Disturbia), unaware of his family's discovery, is desperately trying to sell some of his past in order to get money for a car and win the attention of Mikaela (Megan Fox, Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen). A separate storyline that runs along with the movie is when a UFO of sorts attacks a U.S. Army base in Qatar, and a small group of soldiers was able to survive. In learning more about the attack, a computer analyst with a pierced nose named Maggie (Rachael Taylor, Bottle Shock) thinks she might be onto just how the attack transpired, and perhaps gain some information about the attackers to some degree.
Now, remembering for a second that this is a movie where the cars and military vehicles turn into military robots, when I say that some parts of the story slip into a credibility gap, there are a few things I'm referring to here. First off, a couple of casting choices (Anthony Anderson as a computer whiz? John Turturro as an intimidating black ops government official?) are silly. LaBeouf isn't bad, and brings an off-putting humor to the role of Sam. Normally, I'd expect a stupid one-liner on every third line, but LaBeouf is tolerable. I know, it's an action film, and things like dialogue and casting aren't at the top of the list when it comes to priority, but there's still only so much disbelief that a viewer can suspend. When that's combined with the tired old tactic of a secret government layer where secrets are kept, along with a few other things, it's like there was almost the excuse to keep the film going for extended periods without substantive action. Give me the fightin' robots!
Bay manages to deliver on that count well, the signature scene where Bonecrusher runs through the bus to tackle Optimus Prime is easily an awesome sequence, and the fights that go on after that scene, along with the battle in Mission City, are both excellent. I think if there was a concern about those sequences and the visual effects in them, the use of slow motion was a little bit unnecessary. I get that the robots can do all this stuff, but things like that could have been trimmed from an already bloated 143 minutes of film. But with the extended runtime, and the actors in stupid or meaningless positions, and the premise in and of itself, I still enjoyed watching Transformers again, and now that cable is starting to pick it up and play it every other day, I find myself putting down the remote.
In short, Michael Bay is a drug dealer. Wait a minute, that might have come out a little harshly. Let me put it this way; Bay's Wikipedia page lists the seven features he's directed at making almost two billion dollars worldwide. Love him or hate him, Bay manages to appeal to something within the viewer that causes you to stand up and take notice; love it or hate it, Transformers is entertaining and fun at its base level, so you've got to take the two and a half hours, along with Turturro as a badass. Sometimes you've got to compromise to enjoy a little bit of guilt-free enterainment, and Bay provides that entertainment like few other directors can.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Transformers was a hot point of contention for Bay, who was the most vocal Hollywood presence in the Blu-ray/HD DVD wars of 2007 and early 2008. At one point, Bay speculated rather emotionally on whether doing a sequel to the film was in his interests, before being talked back from the edge and Paramount's eventual capitulation to Blu-ray. There was talk at one point that a new transfer would be struck for the Blu-ray, and while I can't confirm this, I have seen the HD DVD version of the film, and have been watching it on cable recently. Not having an HD DVD copy for comparison, what struck me about the AVC encoded 2.35:1 widescreen presentation of the film on Blu-ray is the level of detail within the image that I missed the first time on the HD DVD version. Sand grain in Qatar, dirt and other more involved smudges on the robots, sweat on Megan Fox' stomach, it's all in a clarity I didn't see or realize before. In addition, I halfway expected to see some pixelation or other artifacts through such a constantly moving frame, but everything holds up excellently, to the point that I'd say that this is as perfect as a film's going to look.
The big news from this Blu-ray release was that there was going to be a lossless audio track accompanying it, as opposed to the Dolby Digital-Plus treatment the HD DVD gave it. Again, no longer having the HD DVD to make the comparisons, I've got to say that the TrueHD soundtrack brings the goods, perhaps more than the HD DVD did. Prepare yourself accordingly, as the amount of bass in the film will get the cops over to your house. It starts when the V-22 "Osprey" plane is flying through the desert in Qatar, minutes before Blackout attacks the U.S. Army base. You want directional effects? When one of the other Decepticons fires a group of missiles in the battle in Mission City, your rear speakers pick them up prominently and distinctly. Dialogue levels are firm and consistent, and panning activity is smooth from channel to channel. You wanted reference quality, you got it.
In an encouraging sign, the extras from the HD DVD were brought over to this two-disc Blu-ray edition, along with a couple of minor wrinkles. I was unable to access the BD-Live material that comes on disc one; after double checking and updating relevant firmware on my equipment with no success. I'm guessing that's it's pretty cool, but I'll update the review when said material is available. Bay provides a commentary for the film where he talks about every aspect of the production that he can recall. He talks about how he came to the project at first and provides a funny story of sorts as to how he secured military approval for this film. The casting and effects are discussed extensively, and he talks about the initial fan backlash, followed by curiosity, to the point where his home computer was hacked into for a copy of the script. The thing that holds this commentary back is its main limitation, which is Bay alone for two and a half hours. He could have had another participant to bounce things off of and it would have been a great track, but it's still a decent one. The "Heads Up Display" function is a fancy way of saying "In Movie Experience," with the pop-up window being mixed in with information and trivia about the film and actors who are in it. One particular point when Bernie Mac (who plays the car dealer who sold Sam Bumblebee) is shown, and health problems back then were discussed. It was kind of poignant and to see, and overall the picture-in-picture function worked quite well here. At the end of the movie, high definition trailers for the film and for Iron Man are included, along with a highlight reel called "Rise of the Autobots."
On the surface, disc two might not bring a lot in terms of time, but the extras are worth exploring. First things first, the documentary "Our World," (49:14) which is surprisingly extensive. Hasbro representatives discuss where the company was in the years before the movie and what their marketing approach was, and Steven Spielberg (the film's executive producer) discusses his thoughts on the toy and television show. Orci and Kurtzman talk about early ideas for the script, and Bay covers his initial thoughts on the film but then goes into the allure of the project and subsequent production challenges. There's a lot of animatics and artwork included, along with a bevy of footage from the set, including a funny practical joke on Bay. The cast and crew talk about the film and the crew share their opinions on the cast, while the cast discusses Michael Bay, the director. Working with the Army is shown, specifically the actors who portrayed the soldiers (including Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson, to name a few), and their experiences through Hollywood Boot Camp, so to speak. The film's locations are shown, including scout footage with Bay and the crew. If you like the film, this is definitely worth exploring. "Their War" (1:05:10) focuses more on the robots and franchise, and it's an excellent piece. It starts out with Hasbro covering the franchise origins, and from there the allure of the robots in disguise are discussed by fans at a convention where Orci and Kurtzman attended to (presumably) talk about the film. Animatics and test footage of the film is interspersed with looks at the individual transformers, what they did in the '80s, what they do now, and what the production intent of each was, along with any relevant challenges. The stunt driving and physical stunts are shown next, followed with a look at the work ILM and Digital Domain did on the film. It's quite a lengthy piece, but it's definitely worth the time investing if you're even the smallest fan of the franchise or the film. Something called "Tech Inspector" is next, and it allows you to examine the Autobots and Decepticons a little more closely with rotating, three-dimensional models. "More Than Meets the Eye" is a section that covers the visual effects, including the desert attack (8:52), some conceptual artwork (2:09), and two trailers and a teaser for the film, along with some easter eggs peppered here and there on the disc; I'll let you find them on your own. And hey, there's even a mail-in rebate coupon for $10 off if you have the standard definition copies of this film, The Godfather, Old School, Stardust, Sweeney Todd or Zodiac, and you decide to upgrade to Blu, so a big up to Paramount for the consumer confidence there.
UPDATE: On June 16, 2009, Paramount released additional extras via BD-Live to coincide with the release of the franchise's sequel, Revenge of the Fallen. The footage is a mix of things from the first film, and some promotional material for the sequel.
First off there are three deleted scenes (3:37) which mainly show Sam and Mikaela trying to escape from the Decepticons. Admittedly they are pretty cool. Next are two quick looks at the production from its first day (2:03), where the crew talk of "Bay"-os and "Bay"-hem. The second shows the treatment given to Fox during a particularly grueling day. Two deleted scenes from the first film are next (3:10), but they're forgettable. "Fly on the Set" shows Bay running the production from the film's Pentagon set (3:01), while "Music and Mayhem (3:41) is a cool short from ILM showing the robots in various stages of completion, doing various activities, set to music. "Metal in Motion" (2:04) looks at some animatic tests of the robots, including their physical action and transforming power. "Stunts 101" (4:15) looks at the role of said performances in the film, while "Choose Your Weapon" (1:55) examines the weapons the soldiers got to use and how they used them in the film. "The Man in the Ice" (3:51) looks at the Arctic shots that explain the Witwicky character, while "Voices" (2:36) shows the voiceover sessions with Peter Cullen and Hugo Weaving, to name a few. Fox' audition tapes are the last extra (1:29), showing her range from audition to final product. All in all, this is a welcome change of pace from the norm, where someone would have to buy a whole other version of this disc (and some movie cash) just to get this footage. Paramount should be given credit for thinking of the consumer in tough economic times.
My esteemed colleague Daniel Hirshleifer gave the HD DVD copy of the film DVD Talk's Collector Series label almost a year ago to the day. Since then, the format war has been resolved, Transformers has been released on Blu-ray on a disc that has more space, includes a better soundtrack, and includes some new extras that the HD DVD didn't have. If you've been waiting to jump into the high-definition video format until a winner was declared, you've now got a reason to make the leap. If you had the HD DVD and converted, the audio upgrade and new extras make it worth the double-dip, and this film retains its DVD Talk Collector Series rating.