Movie Information

The Story: Giant robots from outerspace battle each other to either save or destroy the earth. The Lowdown: Unbearably long, loud and pointless exercise in CGI destruction aimed at '80s nostalgia for a popular line of toys.
Genre: Giant Robot Movie Based on Toys
Director: Michael Bay
Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, Anthony Anderson
Rated: PG-13

Michael Bay doesn’t merely pander to the lowest common denominator, he redefines it by lowering it. Nowhere is this more evident than in Transformers, a movie that makes even the most witless comic book or video-game adaptation look like a major addition to the art of film.

Conceptually, Transformers is perhaps something of a landmark, coming as it does on the 30th anniversary of Star Wars, the movie that taught the movies how to make a second fortune by marketing toys and dolls (rechristened “action figures”). Transformers ups the ante by being based on a line of toys that debuted in 1984 when Hasbro bought the U.S. rights to them from the Japanese company Takara. The toys, as the name implies, could—with the right twisting, turning, wrenching and occasional swearing—transform from everyday objects (like cars or planes) into fanciful robots. There were good-guy robots, the Autobots, and bad-guy robots, the Decepticons. The idea, of course, was that metal-on-metal mayhem would ensue. To generate that action (and promote the toys), a cartoon series and a line of comic books were cooked up.

Now we have something in the range of $150 million summer-blockbuster movie courtesy of Bay, Steven Spielberg, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (the guys who wrote Mission: Impossible III), Dreamworks, Paramount and, yep, Hasbro. (What’s next? The Big Wheel Movie co-produced by Marx?) OK, I know, I know—I’m not the target audience for this mish-mash. I never played with the toys or doted on the cartoons. True enough, but thinking back on my own childhood, I can’t say I’d keenly anticipate the prospect of Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots: The Movie or Captain Kangaroo Saves the World (even if the latter promised the dirt on Mr. Greenjeans and Dancing Bear).

Looking at Transformers with no nostalgia for either the product or the decade that spawned it, all I see is a remarkably stupid movie driven by cardboard characters, CGI-effects work and a lot of noise for a mind-numbing, butt-punishing 144 minutes. All in all, it’s pretty typical Michael Bay stuff that fetishizes any and everything military and dotes on wholesale destruction. It falls with the grace of a landed fish somewhere between an Army-recruiting commercial and a mindless orgy of unconscionably bloodless destruction, assuring us that violence is great fun and no one gets hurt.

Spielberg’s participation seems only to have borne fruit in the realm of the human story line, which trades on the worst excesses of Spielberg’s love affair with functionally dysfunctional families and cute pets in suburbia. As a result, we’re treated to a plot that has Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) living with a doting, if somewhat dippy, set of parents (Kevin Dunn, Gridiron Gang and Julie White, The Astronaut Farmer) and a pain-killer-addicted chihuahua. He ends up buying a clunker Camaro that chooses him as its next owner and turns out to be no ordinary car (didn’t Herbie just pull this stunt with Lindsay Lohan in Herbie Fully Loaded?), but an Autobot named Bumblebee. This, of course, launches the whole Autobots vs. Decepticon plot when the big-cheese bot named Optimus Prime (which sounds like either a desirable lending rate or a line of speakers at Radio Shack) shows up to explain what’s going on.

There’s also a sizable chunk of Spielbergian “cute” comedy involving giant robots trampling mom’s flowers, arguing amongst themselves and in one notable case, taking a leak on a fussy government agent (John Turturro). There’s even a cute—albeit lethal—bad-guy robot. (Can’t you hear it? “I called George Lucas—George knows his robots—and he says robots do cute things!”)

There’s some gag-making clever stuff with Bumblebee (in car form) playing matchmaker for Sam and hot babe Mikaela (Megan Fox, TV’s Hope and Faith) by tuning his AM(!) radio to instructive and/or mood-setting pop songs, all of which ultimately poses the question: How kinky is it to make out on the hood of your car if the car is a sentient being? Is this some kind of ménage a trois mechanique?

None of this matters, of course, since it’s all about giant robots fighting each other and destroying lots of real estate. If watching big toys duke it out amidst lots of collapsing masonry is your thing, this is your movie. So why the full-star rating? Well, Turturro provides a few bright moments, and Kevin Dunn drives a beautiful Austin Healey 3000, which is blessedly spared the indignity of transforming into anything. Those elements are worth a half-star increase. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action violence, brief sexual humor and language.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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10 thoughts on “Transformers

  1. Steve

    I agree with the Michael Bay stuff, but I think that’s why he was perfect for this movie. The target audience (me included) simply wanted to see giant robots duking it out in a live action film. It’s like our childhood dream come true, short of our own vehicles transforming into giant robots. If another director tried this stunt, they may have wanted to put meaning or philosophy into the movie, which just would not work and ruin the franchise. I like to pull meaning out of movies, but for Transformers, I got just what I was looking for: mindless entertainment.

  2. Ken Hanke

    Mindless, I got. Entertainment, I didn’t get. But as I freely admitted, I am not a part of that era. Still don’t think I’d want a movie about my childhood toys, though. (Granted toys were much cruder back then. It didn’t matter, though, having to play with them by oil lantern and all.)

  3. Andy

    Anyone looking for an intellectually challenging motion picture should know better than to expect to find it in a movie called The Transformers.(I guess they thought that calling it Giant Robots Kick Ass would be stretching things even by lowest-common-denominator standards). However, anyone in search of Optimus Prime being a smart-ass bad-ass while engaging in an increasingly preposterous series of action/adventure set pieces will likely have little cause for complaint.

    This attempt to resuscitate the Transformers franchise, after the passage of 23 years and the remainder of Mr. Hankes’ mental faculties, is surprisingly effective at doing what it sets out to do. No, it ain’t art, but then it doesn’t purport to be. Good heavens, it doesn’t even purport to make much sense as near as I can tell, which is a good thing, because it doesn’t. All it asks of the viewer is to not think about it, just sit back and enjoy the ride. And, frankly, it’s a good ride—a little too long—but still a slick, unpretentious vehicle that’s built for speed.

  4. Ken Hanke

    Well, you’re certainly at liberty to like it. If it’s a ride you enjoy, be my guest. For me, it’s almost a compendium of everything I dislike in modern movies.

  5. TRANSFORMERS is more for people looking for a resurrection of a franchise that they fondly played with in childhood – and even though I’m in that crowd and enjoyed it when it came out, I’m also in the majority when referring to it as summer spectacle that can be enjoyed on the big screen and then understandably discarded for world-class filmmaking. It has several great moments (I dig Bumblebee and Ratchet!), and is appropriate material for Michael Bay (whose casting of Jessica Biel in the pallid TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE remake was that film’s only redeeming aspect, for me at least). But it had none of the authentic craft of the Ray Harryhausen movies (eat your heart out, overused CGI!), and the Spielberg-Bay collaboration is no shock, especially when producer Spielberg pulled off a WAY bigger stunt with Tobe Hooper in 1982 with POLTERGEIST (who helmed the original MASSACRE). Still, I can’t help but think: IS there actually a old childhood franchise out there that we can bring to the screen with some real effort in terms of intelligent story structure and true visionary filmmaking (a la Danny Boyle)?

  6. Vince Lugo

    Thinking about this film again in anticipation of the sequel, I recall that I was not enthusiatic about the prospect of Michael Bay directing it as I am not a fan of his other work. However, from a fan’s perspective, I think he did the best he could with what is essentially a pretty silly concept (although before this film was even announced, I had come up with an outline for a trilogy that I still feel would have had a stronger story if no one had beat me to it). I enjoyed this film, but the major flaw is that the final battle in the streets is confusing and it’s hard to tell who’s who. Hopefully the sequel will improve on that.

  7. Ken Hanke

    I cannot begin to imagine anything — other than not making another one of these movies — that would make it palatable.

  8. andy

    I find it hillarious that critics are paid to objectify totally subjective experiences.

  9. Ken Hanke

    That’s not what we’re paid for and anyone who tells you their critique is objective is either delusional, or lying.

  10. jasondelaney

    Now that the second film is upon us, I can’t wait to see you rip it to shreds. Please, Ken, spare no weapon in your impressive arsenal. Warn everyone that it’s fan abuse pure and simple and my condolences to those that go and see it.

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