Most have come to destroy us. Some have come to protect us.
The idea of turning the 1984 animated series Transformers — alien beings from another world, who can transform into earth-like vehicles — into a live-action feature was always going to be a risky unsafe, and perhaps costly, undertaking for any major Hollywood studio. The initial premise of robotic aliens who can disguise themselves by ‘transforming’ into ‘cars’ is quite a silly one, not easily lending itself to a big-screen adaptation, and while the franchise had mass appeal to teenage boys back in the 80s and 90s, a film version didn’t seem to be the right platform for Hasbro to re-launch the once super-famous toy brand. Alas, heavyweight Steven Spielberg, Jurassic Park (1993), was attached to produce while flashy action director Michael Bay, best known for his ultraviolent and ‘loud’ Bad Boys series, was signed on to direct. With two major Hollywood icons involved in the project, buzz and general interest for the film was elevated and anticipation was high for what Paramount Studios had in store for the robotic alien beings and their silver-screen debut. A teaser trailer showing a transmission from the Beagle 2 Mars Rover was the first footage released from the film, which revealed a brief shadowy image of what appeared to be Optimus Prime, the leader of the Autobots, leaving worldwide audiences and Transformers fan boys eager with anticipation over the promising hopes for a Transformers film that would be worthy of the brand name, doing their beloved childhood heroes justice. The thrilling news for franchise fans and moviegoers alike is that the big-screen Transformers film is far from the childish jumble the project could have been, with — at the request of Producer Spielberg — the central story being a relatable human one, about a boy and his first car, while the mostly practical action sequences and stunts are incredible and the Transformers themselves are as iconic, enchanting, genuine and easy to root for as they were back in the animated series, making Transformers an exhilarating action-packed narrative focused feature and a triumphant success for everyone involved.
The film opens giving audiences a brief history lesson on the ongoing war being waged on the distant planet of Cybertron between the noble Autobots, led by the wise Optimus Prime, and the deceitful Decepticons, commanded by the feared Megatron, fighting for control over the Allspark, a mystical talisman able to grant unlimited power to whoever possesses it. As it stood, the Autobots had managed to smuggle the Allspark off the planet, but Megatron departs Cybertron in search of it. He eventually tracks it to planet Earth but his reckless desire for power sends him spiraling into the Arctic Ocean, and the sheer cold forces him into a paralyzed state. His body is later discovered by Captain Archibald Witwicky, but before going into a state of comatose, Megatron uses the last of his energy to engrave into the Captain’s glasses a map showing the location of the Allspark, and sends a transmission to Cybertron notifying his allies of its whereabouts. Megatron is then carried away aboard the Captain’s ship and is never seen or heard from again.
A century later, Captain Witwicky’s grandson, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) — an average teenage boy consumed by everyday mundane worries such as school, friends, cars and girls — receives his first car, a rundown 1976 Chevrolet Camaro, as a gift from his parents for obtaining good grades. To Sam’s amazement, he discovers the car to be Bumblebee, an Autobot in disguise whose mission now is to protect Sam, as he unknowingly possesses the Captain’s glasses and the map engraved on them. But Bumblebee is not the only Transformer to have arrived on Earth — in the desert of Qatar, the Decepticons Blackout and Scorponok attack a U.S. military base, causing the Pentagon to send their special Sector Seven agents to capture all ‘specimens of this alien race.’ Sam and his new female companion Mikaela (Megan Fox), who Sam secretly desires to be romantically involved with, find themselves in the midst of a grand epic battle between the Autobots and the Decepticons, stretching from Hoover Dam, where the cryogenically stored body of Megatron is secretly being stored, all the way to Los Angeles. Now with the fate of the world hanging in the balance, Sam will soon come to realize the true meaning behind the Witwicky family motto – ‘No sacrifice, no victory!’
There is a multitude of reasons why Transformers is triumphant as a film. The first of these being the fast-paced, strong, tense and often humorous screenplay by screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, Star Trek (2009), which captures that essential balance between light-hearted popcorn entertainment to high-stakes action, mixed with memorable characters and unforgettable moments. Including several nudges, as well as dialogue and events that parallel certain moments from the animated series and films — such as the mid-credit scene of Starscream fleeing into space being a tribute to the closing credits of the 1984 Transformers cartoon which featured a scene of Starscream and two of his comrades blasting off into space — the script was clearly worked on until perfection. While the script is quite first-rate, the narrative and storyline is equally as strong. To ensure such a powerful plot, producer Don Murphy, Real Steel (2011), brought in writer/ producer Tom DeSanto to help develop the initial story, impressed by the way DeSanto had managed the multitude of characters and storylines in Brian Singer’s X-Men (2000). DeSanto, being a big fan of the Transformers series since childhood, carried out extensive research on the franchise, some of which included meetings with comic book writer Simon Furman and inviting fans to discuss the film on producer Murphy’s online message board. DeSanto’s treatment explored the Transformers’ existence and history, as well as the real possibilities and consequences of ‘their war on our world,’ similar to a disaster film, which was what Murphy wanted the picture to resemble. All of these elements are very present and evident within the finished film and screenplay, giving Transformers an obvious realistic tone, examining what the robotic alien’s arrival on Earth might resemble.
Another reason why Transformers succeeds is because of director Michael Bay and the energy, intensity and vision he brings to the project — his fast paced, high-octane style of storytelling is the perfect approach for telling this type of story. Bay is a skilled and masterful filmmaker and an expert in action — his films are known for their loud, explosive and outlandish action sequences — and he elevates these a notch for Transformers, making them bigger, flashier and just wilder than ever — Transformers features some of the largest and best action scenes captured on film to date and truly lend themselves to be seen on the big-screen. Originally turning down the directing role, considering the film to be ‘a stupid toy movie,’ director Bay was keen to work with Steven Spielberg and wanted to make the first family-friendly film of his career. Being a car buff, the idea of sentient cars interested Bay and eventually swayed him in taking on the project. Not being a Transformers fan proved to be a blessing for Bay, as it enabled him to introduce the saga to other non-fans, making it accessible to a much wider audience. Not being too familiar with the series also allowed Bay to make some big and bold decisions when it came to designing the famous Transformers, which ultimately strengthen the film, making it distinguishable and unique.
A risky decision made by Bay was redesigning the Autobot Bumblebee’s original alternate mode. In the 1984 animated series Bumblebee is disguised as Volkswagen Beetle, but in the film version he has been revised to a 1976/ 2009 Chevrolet Camaro. This was done because director Michael Bay wanted to avoid comparisons with Herbie the Love Bug, and felt that the Camaro held a tough-but-friendly quality opposed to the Beetle and, as a tribute to the series, a yellow Volkswagen Beetle appears next to Bumblebee at the car shop, and as a joke Bumblebee damages it!
The Autobots and Decepticons come in a multitude of shapes and sizes and, the countless designs and creation of the Transformers themselves, while resembling the animated characters, appear to be much more realistic and lifelike, and have been somewhat altered to look more believable and blend into the real world, as the cartoonish boxy design of the original robotic aliens would have been way too silly to incorporate into live-action. The Autobot and Decepticon are tremendously intricate and quite elaborate, being highly detailed and extremely convincing, making them a marvel to watch in action. Their transformation sequences alone are remarkable and the persona of each robot really comes out in their design. While the robotic aliens can be somewhat difficult to distinguish at first glance, they’re crafted in a way that makes them easy to recognize once audiences have been properly introduced, in both appearance and personality, with unique color schemes, character mannerisms and traits, all with alternate modes/ vehicle disguises that resemble their individual personas — the most curious is the Decepticon Barricade whose alternate mode is a Police Car, having a twisted version of the classic police slogan ‘To protect and serve’ now reading ‘To punish and enslave.’ The sequences involving the robotic aliens ‘transforming’ are a spectacle in themselves, with each and every transformation in the film being unique — even if carried out by the same robot — with literally thousands of components moving around in significantly different orders/ sequences and via different routes around the body. Visual effect visionaries Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) have really outdone themselves with Transformers, as each sentient being possesses such a rich level of detail and complexity making the picture an outstanding triumph in computer-generated effects. Accompanied with the typical signature Michael Bay music-video-style cinematography and vividly rich art direction, Transformers is a visual work of genius.
The film has quite a frenetic mood, which was generated by shooting most of the action sequences practically with the actors performing a majority of their stunts live on camera. Computer-generated imagery seems to be restricted to only robots and certain essential scenes making Transformers a very practical film, though appearing to be quite heavy on visual effects at first glance. The action is loud and large with some unforgettable set pieces including a fiery, chaotically charged battle in Mission City and an insane highway chase sequence that involves Decepticon Bonecrusher smashing a bus in half, one of the many incredible stunts filmed live on camera. To keep Transformers realistic the U.S. Department Defense provided their support towards the film’s production, the largest project they have assisted since Black Hawk Down (2001). The Military provided their vehicles as the alternate modes of the Decepticons Starscream and Bonecrusher and also allowed their F-22 and CV-22 aircraft to be filmed, the first time these planes have been seen in a feature film since Hulk (2003). Soldiers served as extras, and authentic uniforms were provided for the actors, ultimately providing the picture with a solid reality-grounded element, in this larger than life narrative extravaganza.
The visuals and breathtaking action set pieces aren’t the only success story of Transformers. While the film is based on robotic alien beings, the human cast is just as animated and lively as the machines. Shia LaBeouf, Disturbia (2007), playing smooth-talking high schooler Sam Witwicky, carries the picture on his shoulders, with a strong, energetic and driven performance — generally unknown by non-Transformer fans, Sam Witwicky, named Spike, actually appears in the 1984 Transformers animated series, making him an essential inclusion to the film’s cast. The stunning Megan Fox, Jennifer’s Body (2009), as love interest Mikaela Banes, is wonderfully sensual, portraying the heroine with a powerfully seductive and strong persona — she’ll surely be every teenage boys dream after watching what she can do under a car bonnet. Other noteworthy performances include military personal Josh Duhamel, Safe haven (2013), as Captain William Lennox and Tyrese Gibson, Fast & Furious 6 (2013), playing the typical Michael Bay wise-crack-making loudmouth Sergeant Epps. Stealing the show, and entering the picture right in the nick-of-time — just when it needed a strong comedic element — John Turturro, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), is remarkable as the eccentric, over-the-top Agent Simmons, truly making this character as iconic and memorable as the Transformers themselves —Turturro claimed that his portrayal of Simmons was based on director Michael Bay, though Bay claims that he and Simmons are nothing alike. Peter Cullen, the original voice of Optimus Prime, reprises his role as the Autobot leader, describing the task as, ‘slipping into an old pair of very comfortable shoes,’ being extremely grateful having been asked to voice the iconic Autobot for the big screen adaptation.
Transformers as a feature works on a number of levels — the film recognizes what came before it, differentiates itself from its predecessors and adapts itself for a modern audience, making this big screen version accessible to worldwide viewers. Accompanied with a fierce iconic score and out-of-this-world visuals, this super slick, fast-paced, sexy, larger than life adventure — crammed with enough explosions to satisfy a demolitionist — is a must watch for anyone with a wild imagination — the old, the young, the young at heart — this is perfect escapism entertainment and will surely be remembered for many years to come. Hands-down, blockbuster of 2007 goes to Transformers.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by S-Littner
Transformers is released through Paramount Pictures Australia