Less Than Meets the Eye

25-Jul-07 5:14 PM by
Filed under Reviews; 7 comments.

A live-action movie based on a 1980s cartoon? Even if I loved Transformers as a kid (and the original show has aged surprisingly well), I didn't have much hope for Pearl Harbor director Michael Bay to translate this children's property into a successful summer blockbuster film.

Yet after hearing positive word-of-mouth for Transformers, I allowed my expectations to be raised… and therein lay my downfall.

For anyone mentally above the age of, say, 30, and is therefore unfamiliar with this franchise, here's a synopsis: the Autobots and Decepticons, from the planet Cybertron, are benign and malevolent robots that disguise themselves as Earth vehicles. In this film, they've come to our planet to recover the Allspark, the non-sentient cube of unknown origin that first breathed life into their mechanical bodies. Control of the Allspark will grant its wielder mastery over all robotic life, whether it be used for niceness or bad.

If that had been what the movie was really about, it might have stood a chance. Unfortunately, its true focus is its two sexually-charged, teenaged protagonists (Shia LeBeouf and Megan Fox). In fact, Bumblebee's first mission is apparently to help the guy get the girl, which sets the tone for interspecies interaction: when dealing with humans, the Autobots are as thick as molasses. An agonizing scene wherein they are supposed to wait outside while LeBeouf retrieves a pair of eyeglasses from his parents' house plays host to immature and unbelievable behavior of both 'bots and biologicals. I suppose I should take into consideration the fact that we actually see the Autobots arrive on Earth during the time frame of the movie, meaning they've had no opportunity to acclimate to local culture (except what they claim to have gleaned from the Internet).

Continuing the anthrocentric trend, the film's primary antagonists are not the Decepticons, but the government. John Turturro and his henchmen can't tell a good guy from a bad one, so they indiscriminately assault and arrest whatever mechas they come across. Turturro's schizophrenic character is poorly written as some sort of schizophrenic good cop/bad cop who randomly, snidely remarks about how he's made horny not by Megan Fox, but by her criminal record.

As a result of all this biological interference, the robots (isn't that what we came here for?) have very little opportunity to be anthropomorphized. Their personalities are barely developed, with the likes of Megatron, Starscream, Ironhide, and Jazz given few scenes and even fewer identifying characteristics. And though I don't question the quality of the CGI that brings these robots to life, I do take exception with the decisions made of how to use it. Though the cars and tanks are easily distinguished from each other, their robot forms are not as easily identifiable, except for the bright colors of Optimus Prime or Bumblebee. And robots should never, ever have lips. At least the words (if not the dialogue) are satisfactory, with the original Optimus Prime, Peter Cullen, reprising his role. It's tolerable that we're missing Frank Welker as Megatron (and Orson Welles as Unicron).

It's a good thing I didn't review this film for Computerworld.com, as the technological terminology was just deplorable. What kind of virus is a "spider-bug"? How can a DNA-based virus hack a computer faster than a regular one? (Later, the Decepticons are referred to as "Non-Biological Entities". So much for DNA.) And since when is hacking detected by listening for audio signals? Is this CIA or SETI?

Ostensibly, this film is about a boy who discovers giant robots and gets caught up in their large-scale battles. For those reasons, I can imagine loving this film as a kid, just like I did Masters of the Universe, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. And though I'm still sufficiently immature to enjoy the original cartoon, this modern day remake doesn't live up to its animated predecessor.

7 Responses to “Less Than Meets the Eye”

  1. Philip Davidson adds:

    Well, for one computer hacking was originally done by sounds in the movie WarGames (from the early 80's), so that part was plausible to me, I guess. I thought this was actually a nice retake on the "children's property." I found it amusing and cool, if lacking in plot as many claim (not me). On a purely entertainment value I thought this movie scored at least an A. This show was never specifically robot oriented — there has always been the boy and the girl (and a few other people too!) and the plots of the TV show usually involved those human characters as much if not more than their robotic counterparts. A lot of it having to do with the human-computer interaction (back in the days of the show you couldn't just write off that Megatron learned about the glasses from the Internet…) The only way they could get in to the character development you are looking for is through a series of episodic expositions — i.e. what they did in the cartoon. If it didn't cost so much, I think a Transformers mini-series or TV show would have excellent success — I know I'd watch it.

  2. Ken Gagne adds:

    WarGames and its phreaking and war dialing occur in the era of dial-up modems, so it makes sense that audio signals were used. But I don't remember signal analysis being used to identify or trace any hacking in that movie.

    I don't think we need to resort to an episodic installment in order to get to know our stars. For example, LeBeouf, Fox, and Turturro all had more characterization than the robots did. Why couldn't they have flip-flopped that focus? Yes, there were humans in the original cartoon (and they gave LaBeouf the same surname, Witwicky), but they were of equal or lesser importance than the Autobots — not the stars. This is Transformers, not Biologicals.

    And yes, there will be (yet another) TV series. See the IMDb.

  3. peterw adds:

    Once more I've gained by not having more than passing acquaintance with the original series. So apart from the basic premise and a few names, it was all new for me.

    On that basis, I was able to sit back and enjoy the movie as a big "cartoon". (In other words, don't analyse the plot too carefully, just enjoy the ride!)

    And what's more, my wife is no big fan of action (and "boys' toys") movies, but she enjoyed this one as well!

  4. Brian F. adds:

    Pure entertainment value from someone who enjoyed the original series in my early teen years: solid B+.

    Was it Blade Runner, Alien or Terminator (keeping on your robotic theme?) Uh, no. But was it supposed to be? Hell no!

    Bay (nor the movie studio) didn't create this film with a high-brow audience in mind. Take a gander at the box office receipts and it will give you a good inkling of why the kiddies have been flooding the movie houses.

    I didn't go into the theater expecting Citizen Kane or some seminal adaptation of what was basically an 80s cartoon brought to life.

    Low expectations and I came away pleasantly surprised.

  5. Ken Gagne adds:

    Of course the kids are flooding this movie; as I said, I would be too if I were a kid. But box office receipts do not a good movie make.

    As I also wrote, I was expecting neither Citizen Kane (never seen it) nor Blade Runner (didn't like it). No, I was hoping "this modern day remake [would] live up to its animated predecessor"; I was expecting, in your own words, "an 80s cartoon brought to life." I didn't get it.

  6. Brian F. adds:

    Let me see if I understand this.

    You've never seen Citizen Kane, commonly considered the best film EVER made…

    You didn't like Blade Runner, commonly considered one of the best Sci-Fi movies ever made…

    And it seems you still hold a special fondness for Masters of the Universe, commonly considered one of the cheesiest and hokey Sci-Fi/Cartoon adaption movies ever made…

    Roll all those together, and I'm supposed to take your Transformers review seriously again because…??

  7. Ken Gagne adds:

    I'm supposed to take your Transformers review seriously again because…??

    You never took it seriously in the first place. And given that you have an agenda of attacking my credibility, I'm not very vested in your opinion of my review, since you are apparently focused on proving one of us right and the other wrong.

    These are opinions you're debating, not facts. Enjoy your films, and let me enjoy mine.