December 31, 2007

Transformers


It's been a long time since I've approached a film with such low expectations and have yet been so delightfully rewarded as I was watching Transformers. This 140-minute, blow-em-up, special-effects Michael Bay extravaganza didn't lose my attention from beginning to end. And even more surprising, made sense from beginning to end.

This is rare in the bubblegum science-fiction genre. Independence Day and The Matrix, to cite two examples, are based on mind-numbingly stupid premises. In the one-off blockbuster format, you can usually turn your brain off long enough to get past it. In the case of Star Wars and The Matrix, though, the persistence of the original premise through subsequent sequels only painfully pounded the stupidity into your skull with a heavy mallet.

Transformers uses the reliable capture-the-flag plot: the good guy team and the bad guy team after The Prize. (Or one team already has it and the other team is trying to get it back.) If handled competently, it's hard to get wrong. Star Wars starts out this way, which is why it works so well in the first installment (ignoring the dumb Freudian subtext injected after the fact, and the criminal incompetence of the Empire's Death Star Engineering Division).

In Transformers, the bad guys--the obviously-named Decepticons led by Megatron--and the good guys led by wonderfully-named Optimus Prime--are after the All Spark, a sort of robotic Philosopher's Stone in the shape of a Cube (looking very Borg-ish in the intro). The bad guys want the Cube so they can rule the universe (why else?). And the good guys want the Cube so the bad guys won't end up ruling the universe (stop me if you've heard this plot before).

Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf ) ends up at the crux of the conflict when it turns out that his great grandfather discovered--very X-Files-like--a frozen Megatron and the Cube during an expedition to the Arctic. Megatron's buds have finally deduced he's on Earth, and are alternatively hot after government databases and Sam for clues. This is when Sam finds out that the used Camaro he just bought is a sentient robot in disguise--one of the good guy robots called Bumblebee.

After a detour through Hoover Dam (yet another secret government installation, didn't you know), the always-entertaining destruction of a major American city follows.

Like I said, once the premise has been established, this story works like the well-oiled machines these Transformers are (the mecha CGI is worth the price of admission). The bad guys pretty much do what bad guys ought to do, and the good guys pretty much do what they ought to do. Keeping Sam at the center of the action during the big climax strains common sense, but no more than farm kid Luke Skywalker suddenly being able fly the equivalent of an F-22.

The action is so well-paced that you don't have time to think about the logical failings too deeply.

The movie plays out with the same sense of seriousness as The Tick or George of the Jungle, yet without embarrassing itself. More kudos to Bay on that account. But perhaps most remarkable of all is how fairly the Bay treats the U.S. Military. (Sad that this should be so remarkable.) Granted, there's always some bureaucrat in these movies whose monumental cluelessness becomes an excuse to drag out of the resolution of obvious plot points.

That job is handled here by John Turturro. Thankfully, he proves a minor distraction. The rest of the Armed Forces, led by Captain Lennox (Josh Duhamel) as a Special Forces officer, and a competent Jon Voight as the Secretary of Defense (he's good with a shotgun too), execute their jobs with the skill and expertise we all hope the Pentagon will muster if the country is ever invaded by a bunch of giant, power-mad, marauding robots.

Even the de rigueur FBI-guys-busting-in-on-the-genius-teenager-hackers scene made me think: Yep, they deserved it. I also like the fact that the military figures out a way on its own to cause serious damage to the bad guys. None of this nonsense with Jeff Goldblum uploading a virus from his Mac to an alien operating system he's never seen before (as my brother said of that conceit: "You might as well try to upload a ham sandwich").

A single cheap shot aimed at the current occupant of the White House is so glancing that nobody will get it in a few years.

The icing on the cake are two truly funny and clever sequences that keep the story going before things start blowing up. In the first, Bumblebee does his best to help Sam get to first base with his new girlfriend (Megan Fox). This before Sam concludes that his Camaro really does have a mind of its own. The second has Sam rooting around his room trying to find The Important Clue while a bunch of gigantic (good guy) robots right outside the house are trying their best Not To Be Seen by his parents.

And not step on the Chihuahua (rest assured, they don't step on the Chihuahua--they're the good guys--but the rest of the lawn ornamentation isn't so lucky).

These two scenes are out-and-out funnier than anything in The Simpsons Movie, or any other recent comedy I can think of. Turning Michael Bay's name into a hiss and a byword has become a popular sport among intellectuals (Pearl Harbor certainly was a stinker). Yet Transformers is not only the best thing Bay's done since the first Bad Boys, but there's more to admire about this film than most of the year's Oscar and art-house circuit competition.

Starting with the fact that it's actually fun to watch.

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