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.