Exactly the same amount as meets the eye

Michael Bay, 2007
Shia LeBeouf, Megan Fox, Jon Voight, Peter Cullen
Brief Summary: Autobots wage their battles to destroy the evil forces of the Decepticons
Less Brief Summary: Transformers is a touching story of a socially awkward boy who manages to snag the girl of his dreams against a backdrop of chaos, and the touching story of a soldier in the middle east struggling to survive overwhelming odds to make it back home to his loving wife and the daughter he hasn’t yet met.
Oh, and it’s got giant robots in it.
I went to see Transformers last night on the assumption that, this being Michael Bay, it would be a big, beautiful mess: a lot of flashy and exciting and visually impressive action sequences, linked together with a nonsensical and very think spackling of plot.
As it turned out, I had it exactly backwards.
For some reason, the thing that they did, despite it being really obvious, did not occur to me until about the second scene of the film, when we first meet Sam Witwicky (LeBeouf): It is hard to make a successful mainstream movie that is “about” giant CGI robots — the fans would hate it because of all the things they got “wrong” (Megatron is an alien spaceship, not a Walther P38. Now, Megatron hasn’t been a gun since the end of the original series, what with it being a really bad idea to sell a realistic replica of a gun to children to play with. And, I suppose the fact that Megatron no longer violates the law of conservation of matter quite so blatantly soothes my inner geek), and non-fans wouldn’t like it because it was, well, about giant CGI robots. So what they did instead was to make this a movie with giant CGI robots, not about giant CGI robots.
Transformers is not a giant fighting robot movie. It’s not even quite a monster movie, with the thin veneer of plot encasing a story in which Godzilla really is the star. Transformers is a disaster movie. It’s a story about a small band of people struggling to survive under fire from a barely-comprehensible menace from space which spits destruction indescriminantly and against which mankind is essentially powerless.
In point of fact, I was reminded of nothing so much as Deep Impact (Some would say that Armageddon is a closer fit, being another Bay big-flashy-lights-and-splosions feast, but Transformers is much more about the human drama than Armageddon). In fact, we’ve even got a “meteor” strike as the protoform Autobots crash to Earth.
And since here there be spoilers, you’d better wait until after the jump…

So what happens in this movie? Well, we open in Qatar, where Captain Lennox and his suitably ethnically diverse team are all talking about what they’re going to do when they get to go back home. I am frankly amazed that any of them survived that. Fortunately, Captain Lennox has a newborn daughter back home that he’s never met, and this seems to be the exception to the law of Retirony: You’re allowed to live if you want to meet your child.
Anyway, a Pave Low shows up and trashes their desert base, then turns into a big honking robot, and, um, trashes their base. This, I’m told, is “Blackout”, though I can’t recall ever hearing his name on-screen. The Decepticons do not talk much, and I believe only Barricade, Starscream, and Megatron speak in English, each getting about two lines apiece. The original draft called for the Transformers not to speak at all, as it looked a little silly, but people more fearful of being lynched by the fans prevailed. Lennox and his gang of misfits escape, thanks to a young native boy. I say “thanks to” not because he does anything, but because this is, after all, a disaster movie, and we all know that natural disasters will go out of their way to avoid killing children or dogs.
Next, we meet Sam, who is giving his presentation on his great grandfather in his class on Convenient Plot-Related Backstory 101. Sam is selling the possessions of his arctic-exploring-and-did-I-mention-he-went-crazy-and-claimed-to-have-found-some-kind-of-giant-robot ancestor to get money for the car that his dad is going to buy him. We also meet Red Herring, the school bully who taunts Sam in a way that suggests that the writer doesn’t know the difference between high school and kindergarten. I kept expecting Sam to stand up to Red at the end, proving that he was a Real Man After All, but it never happened. Red Herring’s girlfriend is Mikeala (Fox). We can tell she’s going to be an important character later in the film, because she gives Sam a sympathetic look. Also, she is much, much more attractive than anyone else in the movie, so it’s pretty clear that Sam and Mikeala will kiss at some point.
Sam gets his car, a battered old Camero, after it mysteriously destroys all the other cars on the lot. Oh, for fun, he’s destroyed that used car dealer’s livelihood. Tee-hee. If you’ve been paying attention, you know that this old camero is Bumblebee, everyone’s favorite Autobot, despite the fact that he’s small, underpowered, and terrible at his job (He’s supposed to be a spy or something. He’s bright yellow and gets caught every single time he goes on a mission). He proves this by smashing up a VW Bug, and having a bumblebee-emblazoned air freshener.
Sam takes his new car down to Plot Convenience Lake, where he ditches his best friend, Mr. Not-A-Major-Character-In-This-Film to give Mikeala a lift after she has a fight with Red Herring. At this point, Bumblebee tries to get Sam laid by playing romantic music and conveniently breaking down near Generic Scenic Overlook We Will Return To In The Last Scene. At this point, we learn that the beautiful Mikeala is “more than meets the eye” as she turns out to not be vapid and shallow (In case we missed the memo, she helpfully asks Sam if he thinks she is, and he doesn’t. Despite the fact that Red Herring had pointed him out to her right before bullying him in the first scene, she’d given him a sympathetic look, they’ve had three classes together since first grade, and she doesn’t seem to have a clue that she’d ever seen him before) when she turns out to know about cars. Though, frankly, I’m in some doubt about her gearhead skills, as she points out the carburetor on an obviously fuel-injected engine.
Anyway, standard practice for Bumblebee, he steals himself, and Sam gives chase, only to get arrested and hassled by Officer Unrealistically-Stupid-And-Crazy of the local police.
Meanwhile, Jon Voight leads a bunch of experts and some vague but attractive teen geeks in an attempt to make sense of the hacking signal from Qatar to help them decide which country to bomb, which gets mooted when Frenzy (Scripted as Soundwave, but changed when they decided he was nothing at all like Soundwave) hacks Air Force One and downloads key files about Grandpa Plot Convenience’s discovery. It seems that the old man’s glasses, currently for sale on ebay, have been etched with the location of the all-powerful Allspark cube (which is also available on ebay), which the Decepticons are seeking, and they set off to find the mysterious LadiesMan217.
Sam gets chased by Bumblebee for a bit, then he gets chased by Barricade for a bit, conveniently bumps into Mikeala, and they get chased some more. We’re now about an hour into the movie, and finally get to see some Giant Robot Fight Scenes. And here’s where it all goes terribly wrong.
See, the folks behind this film really wanted to make the transformers look vaguely plausible. Great effort was expended to make sure that they didn’t grossly violate physical laws and that all the parts of the robots corresponded to parts of the vehicle forms (Knight Rider fans take note: except for Optimus and Barricade, all the car-shaped Transformers turn into GM vehicles) and they looked like they really were made up from parts of the vehicles. and they transformed in a way that made sense.
We totally would not have cared.
In the action sequences, everything moves so fast, and the transformers, up close, don’t really look like much of anything. It’s all but impossible to work out what the hell is going on, who is fighting, who is winning, or, really, anything. Make it simple, and make everything a bright primary color, and for God’s sake slow it down a bit. At least let the framerate of the camera keep up. The fight scenes are jittery and confusing.
Sam, Mikeala, and Bumblebee escape, and Mikeala insults Bumblebee, so he kicks them out, finds a concept Camero on its way to the Plot Convenience Car Show, and reforms himself into a much nicer car. Bumblebee is mute, so he hauls them off to see some big metal balls crash to Earth. These turn, in short order, into the Autobots, and we finally meet Optimus Prime. He lays the exposition on pretty thick, yada yada, Megatron frozen in the arctic, yada yada Allspark Cube, yada yada Bring Us Grandpa’s Glasses. The Autobot army consists of Optimus Prime (who has a mouth, except when fighting. I know it burns, but they did the same thing in the last series of the cartoons. Annoyingly, the Movie Version Optimus action figure does not have a removable face shield, though last year’s model did.), Rachet (who looks enough like Bumblebee in robot mode that I kept getting confused), Ironhide (who basically does nothing at all in the entire movie), Bumblebee (who is, as I said, mute, thanks to a broken voice box. He gets better), and Jazz (He’s always called “Autobot Jazz”, to “minimize” confusion. He’s the only Transformer who is clearly meant to be African-Cybertronian-American, and I think we all know where that’s headed, given how hard it is for this film to avoid a cliche).
Lennox (remember him) and company finally make it back home, after a fight in the desert against Scorponok. Scorponok loses his tail to their one weakness: being shot by a REALLY BIG GUN. Scorponok is basically just an animal with no real intelligence or communications skills to speak of, which demonstrates that they missed the mark: Scorponok was included, I assume, because since his debut in Beast Wars, he’s always been a hugely popular character. This was because he was a great character. Not because “Hey, giant robot scorpion? Cool.”
At this point, everyone in the movie acts like a total asshole for about forty minutes. Sam goes home, Optimus threatens to kill his dog, the Autobots do some keystone cops hide-from-the-parents stuff, and keep pestering him as he tries to find the glasses. He does, after a five minute conversation about masturbation with his mom, and seconds before the elusive Section Seven, a Top Seekrit Government Agency, shows up and hauls Sam, Mikaela, and Sam’s parents off to Indefinite Detainment On Unspecified Charges. Section Seven is lorded over by a jackass, who makes juvenile threats and is basically just Red Herring had he been written as a high school bully instead of a grade school bully. Sam and Mikeala escape, but then get caught again, and this time, Bumblebee (who else?) gets captured too. Bumblebee did manage to urinate lubricant on Older Red Herring though, which was worth a cheap laugh.
Back at the Pentagon, a virus Frenzy put in the mainframe brings down every communication network on the planet. Except for the cell phones we’ll see civilians using at the climax. Tom Banacheck shows up as the head of Section Seven, having been promoted from the Secret Service after the Bartlett administration, much less the asshole than the team leader he sent to kidnap Sam, and expositions at Voight about how there’s giant alien robots, identical to the one that destroyed that mars rover we lost a few years back (Very identical; it’s the same photograph. How the one the marines took in the desert at night could be identical, even down to the position of the sun, to one taken on Mars is a mystery).
The Autobots find the glasses, dropped in the scuffle, and decode the co-ordinates of Megatron’s original destination. Though, as it turned out, they needn’t have bothered, as Section Seven’s Department Of Storytelling Conveniences is already hauling every character in the story there.
See, if you read history, you know that Roosevelt had the Hoover Dam built as a massive public works project. This is all a tissue of lies. Actually, Hoover built it, to hide the Allspark cube, and the frozen Megatron, having been yoinked out of the arctic. Sam agrees to help in exchange for expunging Mikeala’s criminal record, which we’d see as a big character moment for Sam, if he’d had any sort of reaction beyond dull surprise to finding out she had one in a scene so unmemorable that I didn’t mention it when it happened. We’re shown the power of the Allspark, when they use it to turn a cell phone into a tiny killer robot. Sam will later set it off by accident, justifying a line of “Real Gear Robots” toys based on tiny everyday objects as random pieces of technology come to life (I think it is telling that the MP3 Player is a Decepticon. His motto? “Download, Distribute, Destroy.”).
Frenzy, who had been hiding in Mikaela’s purse (well, bits of him; what was left after she decapitated him with a reciprocating saw replaced her cell phone), pops out and starts busting shit up. Sam persuades them to release Bumblebee, with the help of Lennox, who bizarrely decides to mount a kind of coup against Section Seven. See, they’re vaguely evil, I think. We’re supposed to feel good when the President disbands them at the end. Though the only things they ever actually do are keep Megatron on ice, keep the Allspark safely buried, and act like assholes. After one more stab at assholery, Red Herring Senior becomes useful and marginally heroic. Bumblebee shrinks the Allspark down to convenient pocket-size, and Lennox decides that this defensible fortress well away from civilization is a worse place for the Allspark than the middle of a crowded city (It actually did kinda make sense at the time, but still), so him and the boys escort Bumblebee, Max, and Mikaela out of the Dam, with Megatron and Starscream (who is barely even in the movie) in hot pursuit. Starscream is a total non-character; Megatron gets to tell him that “You have failed me,” but there’s no hint of his duplicitousness, or that he really has any sort of character at all beyond the fact that he blows stuff up. None of the Decepticons really have any discernible personalities, except maybe Frenzy. Megatron himself might have had one, if he were in the movie for more than five minutes. As it is, he just gets to spout little evil platitudes about conquest and destruction.
John Voight, the pretty geek, and her comedy relief fat hacker stay behind with Red Herring Senior to call for an air strike using an old radio. The message gets through, and Frenzy accidentally decapitates himself (again).
The rest of the Autobots join Bumblebee and the marines on the way to the city, and big, flashy, hard-to-follow fighting ensues. Bumblebee (who else?) gets his legs torn off and gurns for a bit. Megatron, having taken the scenic route, finally shows up, as does Optimus, who took a breather to fight Demolisher before the fight scene proper. Optimus tells Sam to take the Allspark and get to the rendevous point where military helicopters will rescue him, and also tells us for the fourth or fifth time that if he can’t beat Megatron, Optimus will sacrifice himself by shoving the Allspark into his own chest, destroying the both of them. He has to say it again in case we missed it the first time. The big problem here is that Optimus is still a pretty vague character, and it’s hard to get worked up about the prospect of him sacrificing himself. The only transformer we’re close to caring about is Bumblebee, and his injuries are what’s really got our attention now. Mikaela demonstrates her car-theiving skills by hotwiring a tow truck. Fortunately, this truck is from before 1982, and therefore the steering column doesn’t lock. It’s also a magic tow truck, switching from a stick shift to automatic every time it’s shown. She hauls Bumblebee out of his own wreckage and drives him around to shoot at things while Sam runs like a little girl.
Megatron tears one of the Autobots in half. It’s impossible to tell who from what we see, but given what we know about Jazz’s ethnicity, there’s only one good candidate (And, indeed, Autobot Jazz dies). Megatron goes after Sam, Optimus saves him, there’s fighting, and Peter Cullen successfully channels Patrick Stewart for a minute to give a speech about how wonderful humanity is.
Lennox daringly does some kind of motorcycle run at one of the Decepticons, Barricade or Blackout, and, somehow knowing that they have a weak point under their chestplates, kills him. Or maybe he just shoots him and one of the Air Force jets Starscream hasn’t destroyed blows him up. It all happens so fast. Megatron also takes one to the chest, which doesn’t hurt him, just blows a hole in his armor.
Optimus seems to think that he’s losing, even though I couldn’t really tell, and demands that Sam, who is basically pinned between the two leaders, shove the Allspark into his chest in heroic self-sacrifice. Now, if you weren’t paying close attention, you might expect Sam to do just that, have Optimus die a Disney Death, then come back from the dead, healed by the power of the Allspark, in a new stronger form to trash Megatron for good.
Instead, Sam shoves the Allspark into the big hole in Megatron’s chestplate. Optimus, seeing his only chance at not being in the sequel evaporate, shouts at him not to do it, but he does it anyway. The Allspark evaporates, Megatron’s insides do some blowing up, and he dies. Then, Optimus does something really fanwanky and reveals that Megatron is his brother.
Megatron and the rest of the Decepticons are vaquished, except maybe Scorponok and one or two others, it’s so hard to tell. Bumblebee decides that it’s time for him to start talking, and says he wants to stay with Sam. Section Seven is disbanded, and bits of Jazz and the Decepticons are dumped into an ocean trench, leaving no evidence that any of this ever happened, except for the thousands of eyewitnesses.
The film ends with Lennox going home to meet his daughter, and us cutting back to Makeout Point, where Sam and Mikaela, well, make out. I think we can safely assume that kissing is as far things will go, as, even though Spike, er, Sam, has revealed himself to be a Real Man After All, and I found the evolution of their relationship to be surprisingly believable, I think he’d still be hard pressed to perform given that he’s laying on the part of his car that turns into Bumblebee’s thigh, with Optimus Prime watching him. Heck, the Optimus Primes I have are only about 10 inches tall, and I still have to avert their eyes before I get my freak on.
Optimus voices over at the end, calling forth all the Autobots out their in the universe to come on down and make Earth their new home. After all, we’ll need some new toys for the sequel.
Overall, I think the human side of this movie was fairly well done. Aside from the “Everyone acts like assholes” sequence in the middle of the film, I found the characters moderately compelling, and I found myself actually believing the relationship between Sam and Mikaela as it grew — there are a lot of nice touches there.
But, like I said, this is not a movie about giant robots. It’s a disaster movie featuring giant robots.

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