As possibly Cinema’s greatest exponent, Orson Welles would sigh when quizzed about his final film. Within its morally charged story, he was the voice of Unicron the chaos-bringer, most massive and deadly of the Transformers, a role he described without irony as “a big toy who attacked a lot of smaller toys”.
Unicron does not make an appearance amongst the coterie of frenetic robots in Michael Bay’s live-action rendition of the cult Japanese toy-line, but the description serves. It’s a film about big toys attacking a lot of small toys, and some equally as big, and some much bigger (Transformers are equal-opportunity), and a lot of humans (if you’re a Decepticon) and buildings (mostly downtown LA), not to forgo a fairly determined assault on our senses.
It is not, you should understand, a film for those who seek the solace of art. It is, however, the most straight-up, brain-on-standby, CG-buffed explosion of out-and-out fun the summer has yet delivered. Another of cinema’s great exponents, Alfred Hitchcock, would often despair of certain cinemagoers’ predilection for plot logic. He would ignore the cry of these ‘Plausibles’ and fiddle his books with rollicking suspense. Michael Bay, too, is no friend of the Plausibles, but his trick is to deafen them with ‘Bayhem’ (def: blowing shit up at sunset). Even amongst the geek-lore of sci-fi he remains more concerned with laying waste to LA than a redoubtable internal logic.
It shouldn’t startle you to hear that the plot is ludicrous: a box (varying in size from a city block to a handbag — nothing in the movie is capable of sitting still) with the power to reconfigure machines into Transformers (at one witty point a drinks dispenser sprouts mechanoid legs and a cannon that fires cans at people) has ended up on Earth. As, currently, have these opposing gangs of super-robots. First stop is a dumb kid whose great-grandfather’s glasses have
the imprint of a map of the box’s location... Oh, forget it. Listen, good robots fight bad ones and we get in the way. The end.
When you’ve got a film about sentient robots from outer space (originally Cybertron, but they fragged their home planet in some internecine techno-squabble) who can inhabit the guise of a canary-yellow Camaro or jet fighter or boombox (Gremlin-like midget-bot Frenzy is an in-joke reference to a misconceived toy that swizzled into a cassette tape), judging your tone can be tricky. Transformers was hardly going to embrace the giddy naturalism of the French New Wave, but Bay bravely pushes his film from the stern hegemony of cool into goofy, and it fits. Like its animated predecessor, the film is still a cartoon where a gang of 20-foot robots can spill about a garden lawn like Buster Keaton. The film is winningly willing to admit to its own silliness. For the first third, until the Autobots assemble like the A-Team in metallic drag under the governorship of stiff-rigged head-bot Optimus Prime (voiced with a headmaster’s growl by Peter Cullen), it plays more like a teen comedy than a brash actioner. A good one, too, as the human leads are every bit as charming as the boulder-sized hood ornaments.
Bay has done himself a real favour casting LaBeouf as the excitable loser about to discover his first car has a big surprise under the hood. He shares the pop-neurotic jabber of a young Woody Allen with Tom Hanks’ steady charisma, a straightforward-looking guy who still shines like a movie star. A smart, natural comedian, he levels the bluntness of this toy story with an ironic bluster. Quite apart from his car growing legs, he’s been fidgety enough about the legs of classmate Mikaela (Megan Fox). Drunkenly lapped up by Bay’s lascivious camera, she still comes with a steel core (it’s not just the cars who’ve got hidden centres): Mikaela’s a whizz with engines, not that boys can get beyond her windshield. In fact, all the girls of the movie come moulded to a geek ideal: stunning and boyishly practical. In one of the overextended subplots we get Australian beauty Rachael Taylor as an NSA computer dweeb cracking the Decepticons’ code.
The cast is at its best young: the older actors, notably Jon Voight and John Turturro as governmental stooges as slow on the uptake as many a parent might be, hammily herk and jerk as if undergoing their own internal shake-up. The film is least sure when mustering global peril, testing the waters of inference with an attack on an American military base in . The first suspects are the Iranians, and along the way there’s a few spry digs at the Bush administration, but any politicising is swiftly reduced to a potty super-Secret Service known as Sector Seven who’ve got Megatron in a deep freeze inside the Hoover Dam, and the film gets on with its juvenile doctrine of daft punk.
But who’s turning up to Transformers looking for the fuss of subtext? Hell, the dialogue — much of it as ramrod-stiff as Prime’s instep — just slows things down. We’ve signed up for the robot carnage so loudly boasted of in the sensational trailer, and ILM have got it going on. Perhaps they’re the right generation: a huddle of techies reliving the shape-shifting gimmicks of childhood. And these droids are so much more than Metal Mickey on stilts: they ratchet, gyrate and warp at electric speeds to the satisfying rhythmic clank of metal hefted on metal. In short, the transforming is awesome.
Whether it’s Optimus Prime gracefully unpacking his flame-decaled truck chassis into a warrior-robot as polished as the knights in Excalibur, or Starscream flitting into and out of a Lockheed Raptor like a steel-clad fairy, or the splendid Megatron, all barbs and violent blooms like a psychopathic rose bush, the dynamics are intricately detailed, conjuring images of a million sprockets whirring in unison. All their U-turns and spins, skid-stops and take-offs are choreographed into a stunning ballet of impossible motion.
As the ’bots show up for a big showdow in humanville, soldiers spilling about like ants, a nonsense/genius tribute to old monster-movies, it’s all about the Sturm und Drang of pure action. It’s a dream-clatter of robot-on-robot war to drive Craig Charles to drugs. On old Orson’s level — “big toys attacking smaller toys” — it truly delivers.
It’s a shame, then, that Michael Bay can’t help being Michael