Saturday, June 30, 2007

Movie review: 'Transformers'

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A movie about giant toy robots shouldn't be anywhere near this much fun, really. I mean, c'mon. When I heard there was going to be a live-action Transformers movie, I pictured a debacle. Was Hollywood officially out of ideas? What's next, "My Little Pony: The Motion Picture"?

I take it all back. Transformers, it turns out, is the most sure-fire bombastic entertainment we've had in a summer of worn-out sequels. It's brainless, of course, but it's effortlessly good popcorn movie fun with some of the most dazzling special effects I've seen in years. And let me just repeat: Giant robots. Fighting other giant robots. If that doesn't set the 12-year-old boy in one's heart a-quivering, I don't know what will.

Michael Bay – director of The Rock, Armageddon, Bad Boys and other such airy cinematic action confections – isn't known for his artfulness or subtlety. But it's like he was born to make The Transformers, where all the Bay hallmarks – choppy bursts of violence, slow-motion explosions, patriotic he-men, burnished golden-skinned women – come into play in a grand pop-art tapestry of mindless action.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThe plot isn't terrifically important – basically a search for a magical MacGuffin called "The Allspark," a cosmic cube very important to both sides in the robot war. The good robots and bad robots have been fighting for a long, long time, and now they've come to Earth to find their Allspark. Young Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) turns out to have an important clue to finding the Allspark, resulting in both Autobots (the good ones) and Decepticons (the bad ones) coming out for him. Even the beat-up yellow old Camaro Sam just bought turns out to be part of the action. It all adds up to an escalating series of set pieces, alternating with human subplots such as Sam's crush on a sexy delinquent (Megan Fox), and it culminates in a spectacular brawl in downtown Los Angeles.

I was a moderate Transformers fan back in the day – watched the cartoon, owned a handful of the cool toys – but have to admit I've never been a nut about it and couldn't tell you the difference between Generation 1 and Beast Wars to save my life. So changes like Optimus Prime's truck having flames painted on it and Megatron turning into a jaggedy plane-thing instead of a handgun don't really bother me. What matters with this kind of movie is the adrenaline rush, the laughs and the "wow" moments, and Bay delivers. You'll believe a robot can turn into a truck, or a plane or a boom box. The story has echoes of Independence Day with its mysterious government conspiracies and cast of quirky everyguys doing battles against cosmic menace, but it doesn't leave you with a vaguely unfulfilled feeling like that flick did.

Oddly, for me Transformers was least effective when it dwelled alone on the robots. The Autobots and Decepticons here have no real character besides "good robot" and "bad robot." The movie seems at its cartooniest when you're hearing lines such as "One shall stand, and one shall fall." The human element grounds this movie, provides most of the humor, and provides the perfect background for rock 'em, sock 'em Transformer battles. And it's an excellent cast; nobody's taking it too seriously, but LaBeouf is quite good and genuine as the wisecracking teen the movie revolves around. Fox is extraordinarily easy on the eyes and even shows hints of acting talent, while old hands like Jon Voight and John Turturro chew the scenery very well as assorted politicians and military men.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThe special effects used to animate the Transformers are stunning and seamless – and the robots themselves, mostly 30 feet tall, stomp around the screen like transistorized dinosaurs (this is the kind of movie 1998's woebegone Godzilla remake aspired to be). Toon fans will be pleased to hear the familiar warm tones of the cartoon's Peter Cullen behind the voice of towering chief good guy Optimus Prime, while an unrecognizable Hugo Weaving voices the evil Megatron.

It's not a perfect movie – the villainous Megatron only shows up in the final half-hour, and the robot designs are just too cluttered – they really don't show much emotion at all, as you're too busy trying to find the faces in the gizmos and chrome. The nods to pop culture and product placements are a bit much, and as usual with most Michael Bay movies, in the end you get a little overwhelmed by all the explosions and flying tanks and swelling orchestral music at every moment.

But good lord, as movies about robots turning into cars and trucks go, this is right at the top of the heap. It's likely to be one of the year's biggest hits, as in a season of returning pirates and trolls and superheroes, it definitely shows us something we've never seen before on screen. Now where can I get one of those fancy Camaros?

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