Less than meets the eye

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Evan Wil­liams

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

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