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Empire Magazine Greatest Movies List - #309: Transformers

I have mixed feelings about Michael Bay. On the one hand he directed one of the best action movies of the 90s, “The Rock,” which paired Nicolas Cage with Sean Connery kicking ass on Alcatraz. Then for the entire decade of the 2000s, he gave us the Transformers trilogy, which is made up of poorly edited explosions, vapid human characters, lame jokes, and plots that made less sense that poorly translated assembly instructions from IKEA. Yet these movies have made billions of dollars around the world and have their dedicated fan base, so that is probably why the first movie made it into Empire magazine’s list of great movies at number 309. 

The only reason why I went to see “Transformers” in 2007 is because it was the summer time and in the summer I really like to see explosions, gun fights and car chases on the big screen. Mr. Bay, that’s your queue. Unfortunately I was taking my summer break from the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec City where it can be very difficult to find American movies in the original English language. If you think the dialogue by Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman is laughable, you haven’t heard the dubbed French version. For one thing, in French the last two syllables of the word “Decepticon” sound an awful lot like “little moron.” Yet I think this first chapter in the Transformers saga is the best so far because they kept things simple and it was approached as an old-school B movie.

In disaster movies from the 70s, the filmmakers would follow several characters, as they would be affected by a major disaster, be it an earthquake, a burning tower or an out-of-control airplane. That was the approach taken here only instead of a natural disaster it is giant robots from outer space fighting each other for some mythical energy cube called the AllSpark. That’s a cheesy name for a MacGuffin, but it makes for a plot that is easy to follow. You have the good Autobots and the evil Decepticons. Whoever gets the big glowing cube wins. Got it.

Stuck in the middle of the war is Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) a teenager lucky enough to have a dad (Kevin Dunn) willing to pay for his first car. What he couldn’t possibly have imagined is that his scrappy looking yellow Camaro is actually a disguised scout for the Autobots called Bumblebee. The Autobots need Sam because he is the descendant of an explorer who discovered the body of Megatron (voice of Hugo Weaving) the leader of the Decepticons frozen in the Arctic. Somehow Sam is now in possession of a map with the location of the AllSpark. He was hoping to just use his car to woo his high school crush Mikaela Barnes (Megan Fox) but now he finds himself stuck in the middle of an intergalactic war. Just one of those weeks I guess.

Meanwhile around the globe the war begins. An army base in Qatar is attacked by a helicopter that turns out to be a Decepticon. The only survivors are captain Lennox (Josh Duhamel) and his team who get special clearance to meet the Secretary of Defence (Jon Voight) after they manage to defeat one of the Decepticons in the desert. Also in the mix is an analyst and a hacker (Rachael Taylor and Anthony Anderson) and Jon Turturro as Agent Simmons, the leader of his own group of Men In Black.

All of the characters converge at a secret government base beneath the Hoover Dam where there is one final round of exposition before the last big-budget battle kicks off, featuring robots crashing through buses on the highway, robots punching each other around skyscrapers in a major city, and the military trying to do whatever damage they can by shooting bullets at them. I don’t know, if I was fighting an iron alien the size of house, I would feel pretty insignificant with a pistol. Come back when you have a laser gun.

The explosions are loud, the editing is hyper frenetic, and Shia LaBeouf is mildly annoying as the leading man, but not nearly as annoying as his intruding mom (Julie White) who asks the worst questions a mom can ask a teenager. Yet the tone of the movie is playful throughout. When Sam asks the Autobots where they learned to speak English, they of course answer “EBay.” I see this as the filmmakers’ attempt to remind the audience this is all just a big joke not to be taken seriously.

If the rest of the franchise had kept the simple storyline and the silly tone, it might have garnered more critical acclaim. Not that the stupid gags and the dumb plots of the sequels stopped Michael Bay from laughing all the way to the bank, but I enjoy my summer blockbusters a lot more when they have storylines and characters I actually care about, not just amazing special effects from ILM.

Yet after watching “Pain and Gain” earlier this year, I realized Michael Bay can still make a pretty decent action movie with plots and characters when given a good script. In response to his criticism, he has said “I make movies for teenage boys. Oh, dear, what a crime.” It is not a crime, but it wouldn’t hurt to make movies for teenagers while treating them like adults every now and then.


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