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Arts & Culture

Transformers

Bays movie opens with a prologue that provides the back story to the

Transformer saga. A long time ago in a distant part of the galaxy, the noble Autobots, led by Optimus Prime (voiced once again by Peter Cullen), were engaged in a battle with the ill-intentioned Decepticons for control over something known as Allspark. This Allspark can grant unlimited power to whoever possesses it. The Autobots managed to jettison the Allspark off their planet of Cybertron. But Decepticon leader Megatron (voiced by Hugo Weaving) took off after it, and both end up on earth. Before Megatron can lay his cold metallic hands on the Allspark, he freezes in the cold arctic. But before he freezes, he creates a map detailing the location of the Allspark then sends out a transmission to Cybertron calling the Decepticons to earth.

Optimus Prime rising to the occasion in Transformers (Dreamworks)

That was more than a century ago. Now some of his Decepticon buddies have arrived on earth and are wreaking havoc. The first sign of their destructive powers occurs in the desert of Qatar where U.S. troops make an initial and futile stand against the robot enemy. Back in the U.S., a boy named Sam (Shia LeBeouf) doesnt realize the part hes about to play in this robot war. Sams just acquired his first car and it turns out to be an Autobot sent to protect him from the Decepticons. Apparently Sams grandfather left him a pair of glasses that have the map to the Allspark etched on one lens. Needless to say, this prompts the Decepticons come after Sam, then the Autobotsincluding the wise Optimus Primearrive to protect the humans, and the U.S. government comes after everyone and mass destruction ensues.

To start with the good, I will say that the effects were amazing in showing what state of the art computer technology can do. The computer generated robots transform with quicksilver ease, especially in the opening attack in Qatar, and they're pretty spectacular in battle. So if youre looking for an epic display of effects technology, this is definitely the film for you. But if youre looking for good storytelling and clever filmmaking, then you better look elsewhere.

Now someones bound to say Im asking too much from a popcorn movie. But I dont think its asking too much for the jokes to be funnier, the story to be better developed and for the robots to have more personality. After all this is a Transformers movie, so why do the humans take up so much of the time, story and heroics? It should be robots with maybe a few humans on the periphery, not the other way around. Bay could have easily cut out a good thirty minutes off the top involving the humans, and just begun the film with Sam getting a car that turns out to be an Autobot. Unless youre familiar with the toys and the cartoons, you wont catch all the names of the robots in this new film, and you wont have much of a sense of what their personalities are like. So lateer in the film when the government nabs an Autobot and subjects it to torture, you don't feel the kind of sympathy that you should. And what little we do get with the Transformers tends to be built around kiddie style humoryou know like a dog peeing on a robot or the giant Autobots tiptoeing around Sams backyard garden and trying not to mess anything up.

Silly humans in Transformers (Dreamworks)

I used to watch Transformers and Beast Wars with my son, and those cartoons were all about the robots and the robots had distinct personalities, and they interacted in fun ways. In Bays movie, though, the rivalry between Optimus Prime and Megatron is barely developed, and Megatron is just a stock evil alien robot. Theres no sense of the history between the two enemies. Now Im not expecting Shakespearean drama but I did want to see these two developed with a little more effort.

As for the humans, I could do with less of them. Shia LeBeoufs intense efforts to be funny and the predictable scenes with the military and government could all go and not be missed. The early scenes just felt like padding before the robot rumble at the end. Then when we do get to the final battle theres so much mass destruction that you tend to glaze over. What should make the battle interesting is the fact that the Autobots want to protect earth and its inhabitants while the Decepticons dont give a damn about what they destroy and who they kill. The difference in their fighting styles should create tension. But when both sides throwdown with an equal lack of concern for what gets in the way, it turns the fights into video game destruction. And while the technology on display is impressive, Bay doesnt really create or edit the fight scenes with much flair or finesse. Theres a lot of speed, rapid camera moves, and chaos but no real grace under fire. Plus the old animated show and feature film had something dark and ominous hanging over them whereas Bays Transformers , no matter what destruction it wreaks, always seems oddly bright and cheery as if nothing really bad is going happen. We never feel a sense of true danger, just Hollywood style mayhem.

Because the film has such a glossy sheen, it also makes all the destruction and fighting seem attractive. As I watched Transformers, I couldnt help but think of Starship Troopers in which alien bugs rather than alien robots threaten to destroy earth. In Starship Troopers, director Paul Verhoeven managed to deliver a high octane action film as well as a potent satire on American militarism. In Bays less capable hands, however, Transformers reveals no edge to its action only a dangerous attractiveness to its sanitized and glorified violence.

Jon Voight and John Tuturro in Transformers (Dreamworks)

While Shia LeBeoufs forced cuteness did little to win me over, at least Josh Duhamel proves muscular and efficient as the sergeant who survives the first Decepticon attack. Jon Voight and John Turturro, however, are good actors who seem lost and miscast. Tuturro delivers an especially embarrassing performance as an agent of a secret government run organization. Meanwhile Megan Fox and Rachel Taylor provide eye candy but dont seem as interesting to play with as the robots. And relegated to the back of Bay's bus are Bernie Mac and Anthony Anderson providing lame comic relief.

As a fan of Japaneses anime, I have to say that there are far more and far better robot and mecha works to choose from there. Everything from such early examples as Macross , Voltron and the various Mobile Suit Gundams, to silly comedies such as Full Metal Panic and Dai Guard, to the more existential contemplations of Neon Genesis Evangelion and Escaflowne . Almost any one of those provides a more satisfying mix of action, humor, and story.

Transformers (rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action violence, brief sexual humor, and language) clocks in at nearly two and a half hours, and serves up yet another example of summer bloat. Whats become of lean, mean action films? Ill admit that some of the action in Transformers was entertaining and occasionally even impressive, but its simply not a film I feel the desire to see again. It's also a film which the more I think about it, the less I like it. I saw Transformers right after Live Free or Die Hard . Both films offer big, dumb, noisy entertainment. Both have stories and characters that seem oddly similar (jokey young character, computer hackers still living at home, and something threatening to bring America to its knees). Yet I left Live Free and Die Hard feeling fully satisfied with its popcorn mentality. But maybe in the case of Transformers bigger, dumber and noisier isn't better.

Final note: I think what might have been more interesting than Transformers was the provocative little trailer at the head of the film for an unnamed J.J. Abrams project. The trailer suggested a Godzilla-like attack on New York, and was so obscure and yet so tantatlizing that I had to run home and search the web for the title. It turns out its a very hush hush project called Cloverfield that Abrams (of Alias and Lost fame) is producing while prepping to direct the next Star Trek movie.

Companion viewing: Transformers: The Movie, Starship Troopers, Christine, and any of the anime listed above.