Although they’re half a world apart and have never met, Captain Lennox (Josh Duhamel) and Sam Witwicky (Shia leBoeuf) both have girl trouble. Lennox and his platoon of infantry are stationed at a US Army forward base in Qatar, thousands of miles from his wife and their infant daughter, the latter of whom he’s yet to meet. Witwicky, a seventeen-year-old high schooler, doesn’t have a girl, and in order to rectify the situation he needs a car.
Sam’s dad (Kevin Dunn) is helping to rectify the problem, though, by pitching in half the money for a used car. No one notices the battered yellow muscle car that cruises onto the sleazy dealer’s lot by itself until Sam picks it out. Luck and some not-so-subtle promptings from his new car’s stereo see Sam driving gorgeous fellow student Mikaela (Megan Fox) home that evening – but later that night, his car takes off on its own. Sam loses the car in a rail yard, but seconds later he sees a giant yellow figure send a signal into the sky.
Lennox is nowhere near as lucky – a video transmission with his wife is interrupted by the arrival of a special ops chopper believed shot down weeks ago. The aircraft disrupts all transmissions and radar, then breaks apart, reassembling itself into a massive robot, and lays waste to the base. The armament of Lennox and his team is useless against the monster, which hacks the base’s central computer, looking for something buried deep within the US military network. The data line is cut before the machine can succeed, but Lennox’s team is forced to flee into the desert, where a sinister pursuer is intent on ensuring no word gets out before the machines find what they’re looking for…
There are several facts about Transformers that are obvious before one even sets foot in the cinema. It’s based on a line of boy-oriented toys that were really big in the mid-eighties and haven’t entirely died off since. It’s executive-produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Michael Bay. Based on these facts, you can expect certain things from this film: A-grade special effects; top-notch action; broad-strokes characters with a dash of Spielberg optimism; Michael Bay’s trademark cinematography touches; product placement au-go-go. You can also expect that, if nothing else, the movie will be pretty fun.
By and large this film delivers on its promises. The action commences within a few minutes of the short opening credits, and the attack on the army base shows us how powerful and nasty the evil Decepticons are. Once Sam gets in on the action, it stays rapid and unrelenting. Minor characters are as caricatured for comic effect as you’d expect, the special effects – okay, scratch that, you all know what I really mean here, the Transformers look utterly jaw-dropping, stuff goes boom well; swooping cameras, slo-mo glamour shots of characters and vehicles (especially the vehicles), The Big Presidential Speech, it’s all there. Make no mistake, it’s a big, fun action spectacle.
This may seem odd coming from me but I don’t consider myself a fan of the original cartoon upon which the movie is based. I’ve not seen the cartoon in ages, and when a friend loaned me his DVD of the 1985 movie a few years ago I cringed my way through it. But the basic characters and their story do hold a special place in my heart, and I will say that I was grinning like an idiot throughout the five-minute-or-so sequence when Optimus Prime and his Autobots arrived on Earth. The elaborate transformation from helicopter to marauding robot at the beginning of the film is just a taster of what this sequence and future sequences serve up. The presentation of these giant machines is spectacular, and I will fully agree with the statements of producer Don Murphy that even if you’ve seen the pictures of the re-designed Transformers, you still haven’t seen anything until you see them in the movie. In fact, I’ll go as far as saying that you must see these machines on the big screen at least once. Did you see Independence Day at the cinema? Remember how that gigantic flying saucer came out of the cloud over Manhattan? Wasn’t quite as awe-inspiring on the small screen, was it? My point exactly.
Thankfully, the movie gives some decent screen time to establishing the Transformers – well, the Autobots at least – as characters, with Optimus Prime and Bumblebee getting the most attention. Anyone who watched the old cartoons will get a thrill of joy when Peter Cullen’s voice comes out of Optimus Prime’s lips, and everyone else will probably be impressed by Cullen's performance. Fans also need not worry about Hugo Weaving, who also does a great job as the voice of Megatron. The core cast of humans aren’t short of character either. Josh Duhamel’s new dad draws the first honest laugh of the film early on and is a capable action hero. Shia leBoeuf’s quick-tongued teen channels a touch of Ferris Bueller magic to get car and girl in one day. Jon Voight puts in a great turn as a dignified and tough Secretary of Defence, and Megan Fox musters some determination of her own to be more than just eye-candy.
Now, while the movie works by and large, it’s definitely not without its faults. For starters, it’s two-and-a-quarter hours long, and although length isn't a fault in and of itself, I came out of the cinema feeling like this particular film could have been half an hour shorter. Its main problem is exposition – the opening monologue tells us what’s going on, Optimus Prime tells Sam what’s going on, the Men-in-Black of Sector Seven tell the Secretary of Defence what’s going on, Sam and Sector Seven clash, everyone eventually gets their respective stories straight - but with all the repetition (and some of the movie's dumber gags) the film’s pace stumbles. I’m no screenwriter, but I get the feeling there could’ve been a better way to manage it. With such a long film, the caricatured minor characters get long in the tooth; if there's a little Bueller in Sam, his parents are the archetypal teen-movie "oldies without a clue”, there to be fast-talked by the lead. Finally, the time dedicated to tertiary human characters means that almost half of the Autobots barely get a word in edgeways.
While we're on the topic of the Transformers: As I wrote, Autobots and Decepticons alike look spectacular; each of them is an intricate combination of parts of their vehicle disguise and alien structural members. The problem is that this very complexity harms the action. Optimus Prime’s first on-camera transformation is glorious but over-long, and it’s sometimes hard to tell what bit came from where. The fight scenes are shot in the shaky-cam, not-quite-perfectly-framed, you're-really-there technique that’s becoming common in action movies nowadays, and with the robots as complex as they are it gets really, really hard to tell who’s doing what to whom. Even the first robot brawl, between a single Autobot and a single Decepticon, left me lost.
None of these flaws are enough, however, to sink Transformers as a piece of escapist celluloid entertainment. Make sure you manage your liquid intake before and during (I had to dash out to the loo midway through my first viewing; thankfully I saw it twice this weekend gone), don’t expect Citizen Kane with giant robots and you will have a great time. I strongly discourage anyone who's thinking about seeing this film from waiting for the DVD; the oomph of a spectacle as spectacular as this will only be diluted on the small screen.