Trust the Gene Genie

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Autobots are watching over you

The problem with taking something like "Transformers" and putting it on screen is that, well, you're taking something like "Transformers" and putting it on screen.

As I'm sure everyone knows, Transformers were toys launched in 1984 -- coupled with a cartoon -- that could change from vehicle to robot. Not to get all Gen X, but for a certain segment of the population at that time, Transformers were the end-all, be-all of toy and cartoon creation. Simply put, they ruled.

But like most of my generation, I almost forgot about Transformers as I reached adulthood. In fact, I had to Google most of the generation one toys just to remember the names of the Transformers I had -- toys that were in some respects as real to me as my friends at the time. A little sad? Probably. A little scary? Certainly.

I never got into the comic books and I never followed the toys after the late 1980s. But I remember finding out four or five years ago that the original cartoons had been released on DVD and getting very, very excited. And I threw them on the Netflix queue and sat down to watch them when they arrived. Needless to say, the experience was deflating. The cartoon itself was terrible -- everything from the animation to the storylines.

But hearing the music, hearing the sound effects and surprisingly hearing Optimus Prime's voice put me in a flashback -- not unlike the Vietnam vet that hears a truck backfire and is immediately taken back to his foxhole in the jungle fighting Charlie. Those sounds just took me back to a time when a concept like a car disguised as a robot could effortlessly and completely capture the imagination. And it surprised me. And all the love and fascination I had with these toys came flooding back.

Anyway, getting to my point, I saw the movie last night. I hadn't been this excited to see a movie in a long, long time. I was kind of skeptical at first, as I'm sure many were, when news of the movie broke and set photos leaked. But after seeing the second full-length preview back in May it all melted away. Especially when I saw Prime transform and it was accompanied by the the old school sound effects. They had me from that point on, hook, line and sinker.

So let's review the movie.

"Transformers" is underwhelming and exciting all at the same time. The first scene to show a Transformer actually transform -- from a Skiorsky military copter to a robot -- was incredible. All those of hours of imagining it in your head as you played with the toys as a kid, all those walks to school where you looked at the cars you passed by and wondered if they were Transformers and what would they look like if they transformed and then there it is on the big screen. Industrial Light and Magic's special effects, its computer animation, was photo real. I really don't think it could have looked any better. It was simply breath-taking. And as a credit to ILM it never really got old. It was fun watching the vehicles transform every single time it happened.

Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman, the two principle screenwriters, probably had as difficult a job as the artists and computer techs at ILM writing the script. They had to take a premise -- that originated as a half-baked backstory for the toys' marketing scheme -- and make it work in a convincing and credible way for the big screen. I mean, these are alien robots that come to earth and then take the shape of everyday vehicles and the good guys, despite coming from a planet that has no human cars, are called Autobots.

But, for the most part, they pull it off. And maybe a little too well. There was a lot of exposition in the movie, a lot of talk explaining every last detail about the Transformers' existance, motivation and history. Show, don't tell, boys. That said, the cleverest move by the writers was having Prime explain why they're called Autobots. In the film, "auto" is short for autonomous whereas for the toys and cartoon, it was obviously short for automobile. Pretty smooth.

The film's major flaw, and I'm sure this comes as no surprise to anyone, is Michael Bay. To his credit, he keeps the film fun and keeps the action moving. However, the film lacked a cohesiveness. It moved so fast it never had a chance to congele. Rather than feeling like it was the story that was sweeping you along, you felt like it was Bay, making sure you never stayed long enough in each scene to see him pulling the levers behind the curtain. Contrast that with a filmmaker like James Cameron who's known for his love of technology, his revolutionary special effects and the soul he can imbue even in mechanical creations and you realize in the right hands "Transformers" could have been much better, more "Terminator 2" than "Armegedon."

In fact, whether it was laziness on Bay's part or hubris, he references his own films many times in "Transformers" -- most notably a scene where Shia LeBeouf runs across a rooftop, flare in hand as fighter jets fly overhead a la "The Rock," the only Michael Bay film I really enjoy. I would have enjoyed seeing more interaction between the Transformers themselves, rather than just their strings of one-liners in the battle scenes. Yes, I'm complaining that there wasn't more character development for a group of transforming alien robots. And this may be the only fanboy complaint I have, but c'mon, only one scene with Megatron and Starscream together? At close to two and half hours, you'd think they could have at least worked one more scene.

Shia LeBeouf, the boy in the writers' boy-and-his-first-car story hook, does a convincing job acting with machines. There's a genuine sincerity there -- played against some amazingly dumb dialogue -- that keeps the movie from devolving into pure camp. Bernie Mac's cameo was also a refreshing comedic where many of the film's intended jokes fell flat. John Turturro was the billed comic relief and while he out-acted most every one on screen, too much what he put across felt forced.

The masterstroke, however, was bringing back Peter Cullen to voice Optimus Prime. It was the one voice that stood out in the cartoons, one filled with wisdom and compassion and heroism. It's surprising I know, but it was that gravity he brought to the character that made him so memorable to entire generation. Bring him back to voice Prime for the movie was just brilliant. Mainly because the writer's kept those character traits intact. It was the same Prime on the screen last night as the one from the cartoon 23 years ago.

Interestingly enough, USA Today picked up on that facet of the show's fandom. Last week they wrote that Optimus Prime, as the ultimate hero with that amazingly compassionate voice, served as a surrogate father to a whole generation of latchkey kids.

The movie is celebratory and wonderfully visual. It was a lot of fun and certainly easy to watch. My only regret walking out of the theater was leaving with the a sense that the movie could have been that much better.


diana said...

That really is a stroke of genius to have the original Optimus Prime voice in the movie. Can't wait to see it Rob, thanks for the great review. Now I won't have super high expectations and enjoy it just as much.

Dan said...

Have you seen Ratatouille?

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