Has Hell actually frozen over? Are pigs now taking to the sky? I only ask because Michael Bay has achieved the unthinkable: he's directed a crushingly entertaining movie. I'm astounded the world hasn't stopped turning from the shock of it all.
Searching the galaxy for a troublesome energy cube, the Autobots, lead by Optimus Prime (voiced robustly by legend Peter Cullen), have arrived on Earth. Teaming up with a teenager named Sam (Shia LeBeouf) and innocent bystander Mikeala (Megan Fox), the Autobots set out to complete their mission. However, when government agents interfere (led by John Turturro and Jon Voight, with grunts played by Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson), it awakens the wrath of the Decepticons, who free their leader Megatron (Hugo Weaving) from his ice prison and put Earth in their crosshairs as they challenge Prime for control of the all-powerful cube.
The "Transformers" line of robot toys was the adolescent boy Spice Melange back in the 1980s, accompanied by a bewitching cartoon series that peaked with the release of a bizarre 1986 animated feature film. They were classic plastic creations, born of primary colors and blocky, sometimes puzzling movement, and they held the imagination of millions of children hostage all over the globe; a radiant legacy that continues to this day. Turning something this iconic and fanboy-protected (I've met some who would fall on their sword for Prime) into a hip summer popcorn product (live action no less) is an endeavor I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. Coincidently, Bay turns out to be the right man for the job.
I've been hard on Bay in the past, but deservedly so; he works too feverishly in the area of sensory overload, thinking a sheer wall of sound will stupefy his audience long enough to swallow the Shinola he's shoveling. Bay's films are crude, self-aware, and frequently insulting, but with "Transformers," his swollen ego is tethered to radical geek expectations that he's no match for.
Granted, these aren't your granddaddy's Transformers. Souped up to resemble high-tech living robots while fighting and the latest in automobile trends in car form, Bay and the producers have mucked around considerably with the look of the Autobots and Decepticons, putting the infamous flames on Optimus Prime and turning Megatron into an alien jet. Supporters of the all-holy "G1" have every right to scoff, but "Transformers" has a wonderful way of making these ludicrous alterations fit into the bigger, slicker picture, pressing down hard on the extraterrestrial angle of our visitors. It's only a matter of moments before you buy these reinvented incarnations of popular characters and another few seconds before you start to root for their victory and defeat.
Bay being Bay, there is a small armada of Bayisms scattered throughout the picture, including a reprise of asinine gunfight camera technology that was employed in "Bad Boys 2," an obsession with tanned womanly attributes (keep in mind Fox's character is supposed to be 17 years-old), and some of the most unimaginative scoring and soundtrack selections of the year. Bay also gets predictably nutso during the combat sequences, but I was floored to see his typical edit count of a billion tempered down to a mere million. Bay respects the scope of the Transformer might, and appears willing, for the very first time in his career, to let some shots play out, allowing the viewer to get a clear gander at the enormity of the "robots in disguise" and their unholy wrath.
Bay also ropes off some space for the human factor, using Sam as a spacer between scenes of special effects brawling with other special effects. While LeBeouf is doing his habitual LeBeouf stammering square dance in the film, his teen distress is welcome amidst all of the intricate visual splendor, playing well off Fox and the macho military militia (a Bay staple) that swarms in the latter half of the film. The "flesh-based organisms" are here to keep the picture light and approachable, and it's amazing how well these limited actors are able to accomplish that.
Running a woozy 140 minutes, "Transformers" never runs out of juice, saving an eye-opening amount of rocket sauce for the final battle between good vs. evil. Those more accustomed to Bay's 10 Commandments of Destruction ("Thou Shall Bleedeth from the Ears," etc.) will be delighted to see the film finally go completely bonkers, wrecking entire Los Angeles city blocks and skyscrapers, killing beloved characters, and in general smashing anything that dares stand in the way. It also means a true payoff of both the seamless special effects and the Transformer design, as the Autobots and the Decepticons go medieval on each other with a thundering PG-13-bending rage. It's the kind of mayhem that a 12-year-old boy's dreams are made of, and makes for a comfortably numb viewing experience that takes a worthwhile leap of bonehead faith to fully embrace.
Frankly, I've never seen Bay share this much joy with action before. Maybe it's his distance from the source material or perhaps he wants out of the movie jail 2005's brain-dead flop "The Island" locked him in. Either way, Bay is starting to control his sinister urges little by little, and I pray it signals maturity rather than short-lived career panic.
Surely a critical view on "Transformers" isn't what you've come here for. It's the superfantastic packaging! Arriving in a cardboard box, the DVD case takes the form of robot villain Megatron, allowing the buyer to transform the cheap plastic into a standing (wobbling, actually) version of the character.
Lording over your DVD collection, mocking you for buying so many useless "Evil Dead" reissues. Megatron laughs at your spending habits! Puny Humans!
Presented in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1 aspect ratio), "Transformers" comes to DVD blessed with a marvelous transfer. Maintaining the colorful, shiny visual heft of the theatrical experience, the optical event is a near-seamless offering. Detail is incredibly strong, diving into the saturated photography with a full-bodied visual flair, while keeping problematic black levels crisp throughout.
Obviously, a Michael Bay film crawling with robots and explosions is going to provide a rollicking sound mix, and the Dolby Digital 5.1 effort hits all the right notes creating a chaotic, occasionally serene listening experience. The surround activity is alive with plenty of pulse-quickening, bass-heavy commotion, while dialogue is splendidly preserved along with score selections. French and Spanish audio tracks are also provided.
English, French, and Spanish subtitles are included.
First up is a feature-length audio commentary with director Michael Bay. Now, Bay is not the type of guy to speak humbly about himself or his movies, and the "Transformers" track is ripe with ego-heavy anecdotes.
A few highlights:
- Bay was sent to "Transformers" school to bone up on the franchise before he agreed to direct.
- U.S. military forces love working with Bay.
- Bay believes a dog in a cast addicted to pain pills is automatically "funny." So blame him for the canine jokes.
- The director considers (defuses?) his bullying method as being a "tough-ass basketball coach."
- Bay credits the fans for the decision to keep Peter Cullen as the voice of Prime.
- It seems the only thing that truly rattles the filmmaker is the test screening process.
- Bay demanded a "cholo" paint the maligned flames on Prime.
If you can stomach Bay's hilarious self-congratulatory demeanor, it's an exceptional track of "Transformers" information.
"Our World" (49:20) is a four-part documentary covering the production side of "Transformers." Tracing the toy line's origin at Hasbro to the film shoot, the documentary has amazing reach, crammed with fascinating BTS footage, cast and crew interviews, and even some early "Transformer" commercials and cartoon footage. Moving on to military training and reinforcing Michael Bay's casting standards (the ladies should be able to run and have nice stomachs) and stunt extremes, the doc offers the viewer a strong impression on how the film came to be. It's a terrific document, but most importantly, it reinforces just what kind of a prick Bay really is. Of course, the interviews cut the obvious venom toward the director with begrudging respect, but it remains a twisted delight to see Bay painted this candidly.
"Their War" (65:12) meets the robots, presenting another four-part documentary on the creation and implementation of the Autobots and Decepticons. Again heading back to the toy roots, the doc attempts to explore the history of the franchise, and what it all means to the hardcore fanbase, who weren't happy with Bay when pieces of the film started showing up online during production. Moving on to robot design (even addressing the flames on Prime), intricate animation, and tireless onset preparation, the doc showcases the efforts of the crew in a spectacular, amazingly honest way.
"From Script to Sand: The Skorponok Desert Attack" (8:53) is an extension of the previous documentaries, only focusing on a single action sequence. Again, the effort is outstanding to behold, with Bay and his crew going to extremes to bring a robot scorpion's sand-based wrath to life.
"Concepts" (2:12) offers a look at some of the pre-production art.
And finally, a Teaser and two Theatrical Trailers are included on the DVD.
I can't say "Transformers" ends as much as it takes a breather to count its colossal box office tally. There's a promise of a sequel (due summer 2009) made at the conclusion of this breathless film; a prospect that I wouldn't mind seeing fulfilled. Sure, Michael Bay fussed hilariously with the Transformer designs and allowed Prime to utter the hacky line, "my bad," yet I can't fight the reality that he's also created a rock 'em, sock 'em piece of thunderbolt summer escapism. It doesn't wash away his past sins, but "Transformers" provides two emotions I never thought I'd feel while ejecting a Michael Bay film: hope and satisfaction.
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