Thursday, August 02, 2007

1 August 07 - Transformers

Ah. Michael Bay. What a wonderful world he must live in. See, in Bay’s world “understated” is a helicopter chase in soft-focus. A quick action scene lasts for twenty minutes. Chiselled men make heart-wrenching sacrifices to the sounds of Aerosmith. Poignant statements start with “no matter what happens…” Every woman, regardless of her character, is a twenty-something hottie. And when exciting things happen, heavy metal music always kicks in. Bay has always aimed high in terms of scale (Armageddon, Pearl Harbour) but often faltered by employing laughable dialogue and Ben Affleck. Let’s face it, the chances of him making another dudd were pretty high, especially when he’s working with characters based on a range of toys from the 80s.

It’s an odd subject choice for a summer blockbuster. You’re dealing with a storyline about a bunch of alien robots who can turn into vehicles. The aliens have ridiculous names like ‘Megatron’ and ‘Optimus Prime’. The opening line of the film is: “Before time began, there was... the cube.” It’s not an easy topic to take seriously. So Michael Bay doesn’t, and this is why it wins.

Transformers becomes the perfect vehicle for Bay. He can be cheesy, because let’s face it what else can you do? And he’s got free reign to do as many head-battering action sequences as he wants, with an awesome arsenal of tools. And by tools, I mean frickin’ massive robots. The effects are absolutely jaw-dropping. Let’s not forget that on set the only hint of a ‘bot was a 30-foot washing pole with a cardboard head. But on screen the transformers interact with scenery and actors with barely a hint of a green-screen haze. Buildings smash, cars are thrown, people are flicked away, and all the while the ‘bots glisten in the sun, or drip with water, a myriad of mechanic parts independently clunking into place. The amount of time and effort spent on creating these beasts is unfathomable, but it’s worked with stunning effect.

Bay puts these extraordinary effects through their paces with some ingenious shots. ‘Bots blast through buildings full of people in complete slow-mo, every wall bashed through, every person diving for cover at the right moment, all shown in precision to the CGI creations. Scraps are seen from pedestrian eye-view with shaky-cam realism. Robots crunch themselves into car shapes and speed off into the distance. Basically Bay is a giant child, wheeling his toys along while making ‘neeeeerrrrr’ noises out the corner of his mouth. And I was giggling along with him, regressing into giddy toddler, enjoying the whole spectacle and wishing I had me a few of those toys too.

But Bay’s two biggest problems are not being able to edit, and making the characters a bit naff. Problem one is still apparent. He does get a little carried away, the last battle putting the ‘ep’ in ‘epic’ for sheer volume and length, and some scenes did drag under the weight of too many unnecessary plot strands. It’s to be expected, and didn’t diffuse the overall ‘wowza’ impact, but if he could learn to let go then Bay’s films would be tighter, and potentially brilliant.

His second problem was initially an issue too. My face fell when the film started with Generic Soldiers sitting in a helicopter (Bay LOVES helicopters). There was Chiselled Hot Guy, a couple of token minorities, even a token geek with big spectacles. As Chiselled Hot Guy talked about wanting to get home to see his baby girl, my eyes were rolling and my worries were being confirmed. But enter main character Sam Witwicky, played by Shia LaBeouf. Shia is not only likeable in a non-“token goofy guy” way, but Bay takes time out to have lengthy, American-Pie-esque scenes with Sam and his parents, which end up being surprisingly funny. In fact, I laughed a heck of a lot at this film, in most part at the purposeful comedy (lots of fun robot banter, a few in-jokes and some good peeing gags), and in others at the over-blown silliness and trite messages (“all humans deserve a chance at freedom”). For other films this would have been the nail on the shit-coffin, but in this the tone fits. A big blue robot is delivering the sentiment, after all.

Of course it’s stupid, and of course it’s rifled with piles of steaming cheese. But it’s bloody enjoyable cheese, that’s raised the bar on visual effects. Funny, exciting, thrilling. Not without flaws, but the most impressive so far of this summer’s blockbuster selection. Though it loses points for a flimsy middle-section and over-long finale, Transformers still impresses enough to climb to CF2. A sequel is apparently already in the works. Here’s hoping Transformers vs Care Bears will be on our screens soon.

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