More than Meets the Eye…

More than two decades after Hasbro, Takara, Sunbow and Marvel Comics combined forces, to unleash the most successful, holistic, cartoon/comic/vehicle/puzzle/robot marketing campaigns ever known to man, creating a towering titan of revenue that has ebbed and flowed for decades, Michael Bay and Steven Spielberg have taken the steel-reinforced franchise one step further with a crowd-pleasing, comedic action tale released in early July: Transformers (PG-13).

 Indeed, the scale and rythym of this film draws unmistakeable parallels to another noteable July opener in 1996: Independence Day. Buttoned down U.S. government types, some rough-and-tumble military dudes, and a cast of earnest, salt-of-the-earth civilians struggle against a mind-blowing alien threat: sound familiar? This time, however, there are good and evil aliens… made of metal instead of flesh, and grappling in a civil war for a powerful “all-spark” cube that has fallen to earth. It holds the key to ruling the planet, and maybe the universe. From the Middle East to Middle America, the battle rages with unparalleled mechanical fury.

Much like the film named after our holiday a decade earlier, this transformed alien flick will not win any major Oscars, but serves up all the bombast and spectacle of a fireworks show with a demolition derby thrown in for good measure. It also helped me nail the reason this narrative has enraptured kids and stuck with them, even as many of us have grown to adulthood.

The film begins with a mysterious attack in Qatar, an amazing piece of visual work that immediately sets the bar higher than similar films that have preceded it, as a robotic nemesis seeks to infiltrate and appropriate government documents. Poised on the brink of World War 3, the Pentagon desperately seeks answers.

As with the comic and cartoon, however, the film draws us in to what’s really transpiring through the eyes of an adolescent boy who has typical American dreams… a desire to fit in, a cool car, a hot girlfriend, less intrusive parents, etc. What he doesn’t bargain for is that his new “car” opens his eyes to a world he did not know existed: a galactic war right under his nose, a nightmarish enemy, and hope for salvation – all hidden in plain sight. The steely, seemingly unstoppable Decepticons are here, and our only hope seems to be their shape-changing metallic counterparts, the Autobots, led by the inspiring, fatherly Optimus Prime.

How does one grade a film like Transformers? The original cartoon was uniquely high in narrative concept, but considerably low on plot; most characters were introduced with a line or two of dialogue intended to define their archetype, and then battle would ensue. (They should have just had their retail price listed for mom and dad with directions to the nearest Toys R Us.) Is it praise, then, that the translation to screen is fairly faithful? I honestly think so. This is not deep drama; this is a roller coaster riding on the most classic narrative: cosmic good versus unrepentant evil, as story that makes our human perspective closer to that of an ant looking up from his little hill. Man bears witness to a battle of epic proportion, perhaps with a degree of participation… but ultimately a humbling  awareness that there is something far greater than himself.

I’ve dealt with longstanding characters like Optimus Prime, Bumblebee and Starscream in other posts. Sitting in the new film, I remembered the story in 2 Kings 6, where a servant to the prophet Elisha wakes up to find their city surrounded by a powerful army. “Don’t be afraid,” the prophet answered. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” In this case, God opened the eyes of the servant who saw “the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.” This look at the real world undoubtedly changed his life and perspective, the realization that the real conflict, unveiled, was far more wondrous and mysterious than he suspected.

To be frank, a hog-nosed Semi truck with painted flames is FAR less wondrous than a heavenly army, even if it DOES transform into a giant robot with a voice like Abraham Lincoln meets John Wayne. Still, I think the idea of these “robots in disguise” intrigues us because it’s a little flicker of our metanarrative, in disguise.

Optimus Prime does reign over this film, his opening narration making the theater hush in quiet anticipation; as James Earl Jones’ basso voice made the expressionless Darth Vader a dynamic cultural icon of darkness and redemption, Peter Cullen’s lush, husky tone makes a CGI construct someone you’d truly feel comfortable trusting your life to… someone worth fighting for, perhaps dying for.

“At the end of this day… one shall stand, one shall fall.”

However, it’s also true that Shia LaBeouf truly owns this film, infusing a perfunctory character with an energy and comedic timing that makes the performance memorable, even while dwarfed by the rock ’em, sock ’em robots. It’s clear why audiences enjoyed him in Disturbia, and why Steven Spielberg has decided he’ll be “Indiana Junior” in the next installment of the Jones franchise. As Jeff Goldblum spiced up an otherwise average human performance in Jurassic Park, Shia makes Sam Witwicky a fast-talking fool who – inspired by Optimus Prime and the example of his team – experiences his own transformation from myopic youth to self-sacrificing hero. In doing so, he actually becomes a part of their family.

Directing the film he was born to make, action-master Michael Bay has managed to make a film that should please multiple generations. No longer just linked to toys, the franchise is marketing GM vehicles and I suspect we’ll see more yellow Camaros on the road soon (though hopefully they won’t have “bee-otch” air fresheners hanging from the rearview mirror). Not just for men, it seemed the ladies in our screening were cheering and having a great time as well. It’s evident Bay had fun with the film, and left it wide open for a second installment… not to mention keeping the budget for a blockbuster fairly tight at 150 million.

That transforms into box office gold.

  1. David Lay

    Loved it! Great review, too… Check out my review at Cold Leftovers, if you like.

  2. Mr. Bitter

    What a stinker. Granted, it’s a movie based on toys, but this film is completely inept, unfunny, boring, headache inducing poo. I wish Michael Bay would transform himself into yugo and drive off a cliff. Or at least transform my 10 bucks back into my wallet.

  3. jon echo

    James, I enjoyed your review of the movie and more surprisingly, I enjoyed the movie itself. Having sworn off all things Bay with the human pinball game that was Armageddon, I found myself enjoying The Island a few years ago and as a result, ended up catching Transformers with the hope it would balance some of the former movie’s restraint with the intensity that Bay’s films are known for. With a mixture of Cullen’s voice-work and the impressively detailed visual effects(only a little blurry in battle sequences)Michael Bay’s movie ended up doing the best thing this movie could have done-it gently drug to the surface many of the fond childhood memories I had of this franchise, as well as how those themes used to play out in my young life.

    I also appreciate your insights regarding the battle of the autobots and the decepticons, and how their simplistic, but integral, struggle “echoes the meta-narrative.” While Bay seems mostly a gun for hire here(landing the job in no small part because of his reputation as the Michaelangelo of massive explosive carnage) I felt the best parts of the moviebore the mark of Spielberg, the film’s executive producer. It makes me think that a study of Spielberg’s filmography (which includes an enormous amount of saviour types, celestial beings, the wrath of God and destiny vs. free-will) would be very interesting from a christian perspective. Being one of the most influential and famous of american filmmakers, is it coincidental that so much of his work establishes wonder by placing man in circumstances where he is very small and forced to search for greater significance? A possible film series based around the work of Spielberg?

    On an unrelated note, have you seen 1408 yet? Having read and listened to your other reviews, I know you have an interest in some horror films, specifically those that pose those questions of mortality as well as containing echoes of that one true hope we all search for. In my opinion, 1408 has all those things, while adding some genuine scares, good performances and plenty of great after-film discussion points and it manages to do this with almost no bloodletting.

  4. Kevin Rush

    Great movie! Brought back my childhood and yet, improved the story. Great review…

  5. Adriel

    What? It has Qatar in it? I want to see home-sweet-home on the bigscreen now…

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