Less than meets the eye
OF all the big, silly pictures of 2007, Transformers may prove to be the biggest and silliest. It’s certainly the most ambitious contender for the title: the Gone with the Wind of cyborg action movies, the Ben- Hur of space adventures, the Titanic of alien invasion sagas, The Lord of the Rings of comic strip techno- thrillers.
It’s big, loud, fast and furious. Even ungrateful viewers who may find it a colossal, ear- splitting bore will be forced to concede they are being bored in style.
The director, Michael Bay, is in familiar territory: the hyperactive adventure thriller in which humanity is threatened with extinction. In Armageddon he gave us a rogue asteroid on a collision course with Earth. In his previous film, The Island , while stepping gingerly around some deeper metaphysical reflections on the human condition, he managed to include his usual quota of automotive destruction.
In Transformers , two staples of the Hollywood action movie — the car and the space monster — have been joined in happy wedlock, their union consummated in the presence of innumerable trucks, tanks and other objects capable of transforming themselves into robot beings.
The movie unfolds like an unending cycle of highway mayhem in which mechanical creatures are ceaselessly trashed and pulverised.
It began, as Hollywood films often do, as a popular television series. This became a toy franchise, then an animated 1986 film in which Orson Welles ( in his last screen role) voiced one of the characters.
The rival forces, Autobots and Decepticons, return in Bay’s film to contend for cosmic lebensraum, but it’s never easy to spot the difference between them, let alone care who wins. After an opening attack on a US Air Force base in Qatar, during which an unidentified aircraft lands in the desert, transforms itself into a giant metallic creature and smashes everything in sight, the destruction goes on for about 20 minutes. Bay, warming to his theme, throws in ever more buildings, aircraft and armoured vehicles for ever more deafening scenes of devastation. The film then builds slowly to a violent climax.
In the old movie the robots had names such as Ramhorn, Hot Rod, Ratchet and Wheeljack. In Bay’s film the principal ( non- human) character is a 1974 Chevrolet Camaro called Bumblebee, a poor battered thing that magically rejuvenates itself and becomes a rampaging destroyer of rival hardware. Bumblebee is owned by one of the film’s human characters, anxious teenager Sam Witwicky ( Shia LaBeouf), who wants to impress his girlfriend ( Megan Fox).
According to one website I consulted, Steven Spielberg wanted Transformers to be about ‘‘ a boy and his car’’. And since Spielberg is one of the producers, his word prevailed. The boy- car relationship certainly looks more intense than the boy- girl relationship, despite Fox’s best efforts. ( Another story has it that under a tie- in deal with General Motors, most of the cars and trucks in the film are recognisable GM lines.)
Turning a galactic struggle for control of Earth into what looks like the world’s longest stockcar demolition rally must have tested the ingenuity of the writers. But they bring it off. It seems that Sam’s great- great- grandfather, an Arctic explorer in 1897, stumbled on a robot buried in the ice that burned into his glasses a coded message: the secret location of the All- Spark, the source of all life in the universe.
‘‘ And so began the war,’’ a resonant voiceover explains in the opening moments. Soon all manner of objects are morphing into swishing, clattering metallic projectiles. One materialises aboard Air Force One, prompting secretary of defence Jon Voight to throw everything at the enemy. But which enemy? In the expert view of Sector 7, a special operations outfit dealing in matters ‘‘ higher than top secret’’, only Russia, North Korea ‘‘ or maybe China’’ have the technical savvy to challenge the US.
Despite the relentless battering of our central nervous systems, Bay and his team give everything a pleasing comic flavour. Transformers may be Bay’s one- man protest against the industrial revolution, but humour is its saving grace. A black police car prowls the streets, bearing the motto ‘‘ To punish . . . and enslave’’ ( it is, of course, a robot in disguise), and I noticed the Indian- accented telemarketer struggling to make himself heard above the sound of combat.
Throw in a cute animal or two, some gentle mocking of movie cliches, some funny domestic business involving Sam’s protective parents, a masturbation joke, a little girl looking for her tooth fairy, and some comic military brass, and every demographic is covered.
Forget the acting. Hugo Weaving provides the voice of Megatron, the Decepticon leader held hostage by Sector 7, and sounds much like everyone else. Rachael Taylor provides one unmistakably Aussie accent as a computer expert doing her bit to save the world, and Peter Cullen ( from the 1986 film) is again the voice of the allwise Optimus Prime, getting to mouth all those reassuring platitudes at the end. If you didn’t know that ‘‘ freedom is the right of all sentient beings’’, you do now.
It’s not difficult to be impressed by Transformers . All you need is reasonably good eyesight. To enjoy Transformers is more difficult. For that you need, at the least, a high tolerance of extreme decibel levels. Dramatic tensions are signalled, not by plot developments or dialogue, but by surging background music.
Teenage boys will queue for it, and one or two women told me they loved the film, which surprised me. It’s clear the possibilities of the scifi action spectacle have been pushed to new limits. But don’t take that as a recommendation.
Driving force: Megan Fox does her best to distract Shia LaBeouf from his obsession with his car
Lights, camera, way too much action: Captain Lennox ( Josh Duhamel) leads the battle against an invading force of robots that transform into weapons of destruction