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There are two ways to review this movie. The right way is to look at it objectively, examining how the film is put together and picking apart the script by pointing out the gaping logical gaps present in it. I’ll be reviewing the film the wrong way, as a man who was once a little boy crying because Optimus Prime was dead. Now whatever is left of that kid inside me has had a wakeup call. The movie he’s been waiting twenty years to see is finally here; Optimus Prime is back from the grave and he needs my help.
Transformers director Michael Bay has done the impossible. He’s created a wholly modern, action extravaganza while staying completely true to all the things that have ever been good about the Transformers. Alright maybe Optimus Prime didn’t need to have flames painted on him, but that’s such a minor detail in a movie with characters that are quite literally so big. Otherwise, Transformers is so much like the 80s cartoon many of us loved that it nearly forgets to be cinematic and becomes almost silly. Transformers is astoundingly goofy, but it knows it’s goofy and simply doesn’t care, which is why Bay’s film is so much giant freakin robot fun. There’s no attempt to be serious. That’s not to say the movie doesn’t try to be as real as it can be, after all the goal here is to take giant transforming robots and put them believably in our world. It attempts to seem real, but never at the expense of the essence of what the Transformers have always been. Because of that, Transformers isn’t just dorky, it’s gloriously dorky. The film absolutely revels in how completely looney this premise is, and is all the better for it.
Transformers wastes no time getting right to the incredible robot action we’re all hungering for, and rushes directly from the credits to eye-popping, rampant robot destruction. What really holds the film together though is that even when it’s knee deep in save the world, all out, brawling in the streets, giant freakin robot war, at the core of everything is the simple story of a boy and his first car. For a man, there are few things more powerful than the relationship he has with his first automobile, and it’s no different for Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf).
Once Bay wisely satiates our lust for effects sequences, he gets right to the heart of his story by taking us along with Sam and his dad as they go car shopping. Sam has worked and saved to afford a car, and is disappointed to discover that he can’t afford any better than a clunker. However, his clunker is no ordinary POS, it’s more than meets the eye. Sam’s relationship with his car, the Autobot Bumblebee is what connects this movie to the audience. The film takes the same formula that has worked so well in other car movies, and applies it to Sam and Bumbelee. In many ways, Bumblebee ends up being a lot like Herbie the Love Bug crossed with shades of Steven Spielberg’s E.T.. Sam develops a strong attachment to his beat up little Camaro, long before he discovers it’s more than four tires and a radio. When he does, because of an old war injury Bumblebee can only speak using beeps and by changing radio stations. That too works wonderfully, only deepening their relationship as Bumblebee stands up to protect Sam and the two struggle to communicate with one another. Sam’s relationship with his car is brilliantly written, even better directed, and it’s the super glue that holds this gigantic summer blockbuster tightly together when things go mad in a flurry of one-liners and special effects.
Because this is a Michael Bay film, Transformers mixes in the parallel storylines of other characters embroiled in Earth’s sudden alien robot problem. The film cuts between stories, one minute we’re following Sam as his car gets him caught up in a battle that’s way over his head, the next it’s a group of government geeks trying to decode a strange alien signal, the next a group of soldiers under attack from an unknown and evil, alien force of mechanical beings with the ability to disguise themselves as everyday items. Eventually everything collides together and the film’s three separate factions join up with the Autobots, an alien robot force for good, to kick some Decepticon butt. Still, the film is smart enough to ensure thatl Sam’s story remains at the center and heart of the film no matter how big it gets.
Just because this is a movie about a boy and his car doesn’t mean it skimps on robot action. In that way, the film plays out almost exactly like the old cartoon series. Sam, for all intents and purposes is just like the humans in the cartoon, a guy who befriends a group of alien beings known as Autobots and helps them fight the good fight against their enemies the Decepticons. One the film gets going there’s barely a frame that doesn’t have some sort of Transformer in it. That might seem like a given, but so many movies of this ilk end up going cheap on the big effects pieces, either to save on budget or in some misguided attempt to heighten the reality of what’s happening. Transformers says screw that and gives you Optimus Prime and his friends hanging out, talking, and fighting the good fight to defend mankind. Occasionally fight sequences suffer but Transformers knows you’re here to see robots thrash the hell out of each other and never shies away from laying that on thick. Bay shows his robots in perfect hero poses with blinding sunlight streaming over their shoulders and Optimus talks about loyalty, duty, and freedom like he’s just stepped off an Autobot recruiting poster. In another movie it would be ridiculous, in Transformers it’s the sort of thing you’ll feel welling up in the pit of your stomach.
If there’s any problem with the film, it’s that at 140 minutes it runs slightly long. I’m not proposing that they should have cut back on robots, but some of the movie’s more irrelevant moments involving characters other than Sam could have been truncated without much negative impact. That’s not to say they aren’t entertaining, when the movie’s not wowing you with spectacle it’s pretty good at being flat out funny. At 140 minutes though, Bay could have dropped a few things. Jon Voight has far too many lines, Anthony Anderson seems to serve no real purpose, and though John Turturro is hilarious as the head of a secret government organization, it wouldn’t have hurt the film to have less of him.
Minor length issues aside, Transformers is a truly great summer blockbuster. As an action movie it’s a huge success; with awe-inspiring effects, tremendous set pieces, a sexy style, and jaw-dropping things which you have absolutely never seen before in any other movie. As a nostalgia trip for the kids who were sitting next to me in 1986 the last time these characters were in theaters, it’s an even bigger hit. Like many old school Transformers fans I was incredibly skeptical about what Bay was doing. Much of the early information leaked out about the film just didn’t seem right. We were wrong to doubt. For you adults and the kid inside who was there back in the 80s cheering Prime on, this movie is like a rallying cry to your inner child. You’ll want to leap through the screen to stand at Optimus Prime’s side to fight the good fight against Megatron. For your kids, to whom the Transformers are now entirely new, this will be without a doubt the greatest movie they have ever seen. Don’t let them miss it.