Michael Bay may be one of the most misunderstood moviemakers in today’s Hollywood. This doesn’t mean he’s some manner of artist or auteur, nor is anyone suggesting that his track record is anything but scattershot. But he has helmed a couple of guilty popcorn pleasures (The Rock, Armageddon) that more or less balance out his exponential epics in concept extravagance (Pearl Harbor, Bad Boys 2). Yet he remains technically proficient and inherently energetic, filling his movies with the kind of excessive oomph that less successful action helmers like Bryan Singer and Mark Steven Johnson would die for. And still, he is considered on par with such motion picture pariahs as Uwe Boll and Paul W. S. Anderson. Frankly, it’s an unfair tag of talentlessness.
That being said, his latest turn behind the Panaflex, Transformers, is just terrific. Based on the Hasbro toy line from the ‘80s, it’s a bit brain dead in parts, a bit too married to said cartoon/geekoid origins. It also piles on the ancillary characters for what seems like purely demographic reasons. But at the end of the day, when all is said and done, this is the blockbuster destined to drive butts directly into movie theatre seats. It’s the most scrumptious of eye candy, the kind of overwhelming optical delight that only a big budget studio slamdunk can deliver. It’s loaded with humor, has startling set-pieces to spare, and provides the perfect cinematic foundation for a gagillion sequels to come. For Bay, it’s a sort of redemption, a clever comeback from the disastrous dopiness of 2005’s Parts: The Clonus Horror — oops, sorry, The Island. It’s the kind of narrative that plays to all his strengths — steroided stuntwork, epic exaggeration, obvious characterization — while substantially reducing his tendency to trip over his own inflated mannerisms.
There are three main storylines running through the movie’s first 90 minutes, a trio of tales destined to intersect and basically go boom for another hour afterward. Part one finds a group of US soldiers in Qatar battling a scorpion-like beastie and a transmogrifying helicopter. The slaughter leaves behind a ragtag group desperate to report the robotic enemy to the Pentagon. Meanwhile, in the L.A. suburbs, a teenage boy named Sam Witwicky (a brilliant Shia LaBeouf) is looking to buy his first car. He ends up with a dingy yellow Camero that actually houses the good guy automaton Bubblebee. Sam soon learns of the threat to life on planet Earth, and hooks up with the rest of the Autobots (including the heroic Optimus Prime) to take on and defeat the Decepticons. Finally, Sector 7 a government shadow agency similar to MIB or Area 51 are hoping to discover the purpose behind a massive extraterrestrial cube (known as the All Spark) as well as what the previously captured evil Megatron wants with is.
Naturally, this leads to all kinds of large scale battles between our mutating machines, and it has to be said that the combined efforts of Industrial Light and Magic and K.N.B. EFX are simply mindblowing. This is the kind of movie unimaginable 10 years ago, the level of sophistication making the real and the imaginary merge with almost seamless authenticity. During the last act war between Optimus Prime and Megatron, the streets of L.A. — along with several skyscrapers — become the backdrop for a robot battle royale, previously unthinkable images bouncing off buildings and scaling the skyline with awe-inspiring ease. Something similar happens when the good gear guys survey Hoover Dam from a distance. The way they blend into the real life setting, their hulky bodies moving with ease up and down the façade, makes us believe in their viability. Likewise, thanks to the power of computers, the many transformations feel organic and planned, not just some shapeshifting shtick.
While this kind of oversized adventure is not necessarily known to be a performer’s paradise, many in the cast make a significant impact. In what amounts to minor cameo roles, Bernie Mac and Anthony Anderson are all rim shots and rib ticklers. Indeed, they seem purposefully placed in the film to bring funny whenever the chaos gets too heavy. Equally odd is Jon Voight, reduced to a kind of drawling Donald Rumsfeld clone as the Secretary of Defense. He’s a plot device pure and simple, and yet something about the way he essays the Southern fried bureaucrat is extremely engaging. On the other end of the government gangster paradigm is John Tuturro. Chewing up the scenery with his evil efficiency, it’s a wonderful turn for the indie icon. But the film really belongs to LaBeouf. Like Matthew Broderick in WarGames, or Henry Thomas in E.T., he is the adolescent anchor that lets the audience into this world of way out wonders. Forging a bond with Bumblebee, as well as helping the rest of the Autobots achieve their ends, he’s part hero, part hapless, and destined for young adult superstardom.
Unlike recent large scale sci-fi spectacles — like say Executive Producer Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds — Transformers isn’t hiding some deeper social or political commentary. It’s not trying to represent our war on terror, or our failing fortunes in Iraq. True, many of the battle sequences have the feeling of actual armed conflict, but that has more to do with avoiding old school cartoon cock ups for the sake of some traditional cinematic combat. And Bay’s teens aren’t some high minded intellectuals. They are into beer and cars, girls and questions of cool. The only angst anyone feels occurs when LaBeouf’s Sam tries to avoid having his massive mechanical pals completely destroy his Dad’s carefully constructed garden. This is pure premised motion picture making, the full blown visual equivalent of the pitch line that reads “oversized robots fight for the fate of the Earth”. Thankfully, it was on Michael Bay’s watch that such a project was proposed.
Indeed, it may be time to give this maligned moviemaker his due. While some have argued over the film’s two plus hour running time and scrambled pace, Transformers needs this kind of extended rollercoaster rationale. It would not be cost (or future sequel) effective to have nothing but nonstop action, and the movie is based on a beloved animated series that was also known for its occasional quirkiness. So having passages where actual characters carry the story, to allow the downtime to emphasize the potency of the powerhouse material is all the work of Bay’s bravura behind the camera. He’s not out to merely make the celluloid equivalent of fireworks. He’s out for the whole package — the drama, the comedy, the suspense and the mental amusement park. Sure, you can sneer at all the product placement, or merchandising-mandated decisions, but this is an exhilarating thrill ride that actually steps up and delivers on its many predisposed promises.
In a summer that’s seen underperforming tre-quels and more than its fair share of warmed over sameness, Transformers is offering something similar, but in a much more exciting and evocative guise. It gives us the formulaic good vs. evil element, the team vs. individual ideal, the us vs. them/friend vs. foe foundation, and tweaks it all with technology only heard of a few years ago. Without the weight of an already formed franchise to pull it down, this filmic funhouse is allowed to spin wildly out of control. And like desperate devotees of Tinsel Town’s tricks, we simply sit back and enjoy the operatic ride.