Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Zaki's Review: Transformers

Peter Cullen is Optimus Prime.

Even when I was a kid, when the names of voice actors didn't mean much of anything to me, I knew. Peter Cullen is Optimus Prime.

And now, he is again. But we'll talk about that in a second.

It seems a safe bet that anyone who grew up at anytime past the 1980s pretty much knows the basic concept at the core of Transformers, the splashy summer entertainment from director Michael Bay and exec-producer Steven Spielberg: Giant alien robots show up on Earth. Some are good, some are bad. Property damage ensues. It's funny, I've taken the whole "Transformers" thing at face value since I was a wee one, so it wasn't until I saw the movie try to make sense of the storylines laid out in the various cartoon shows and comic books that I realized that, y'know, this stuff is hard to take too seriously.

In that sense, Bay took probably the most sensible approach when dealing with this material, which was to play up the spectacle and highlight the humor. By no means does that imply that it's ever completely reduced to a joke, but clearly if you're looking for the dirge-like seriousness of Sam Raimi's latest Spider-Man flick, this probably isn't the place to hang your hat. The unfortunate side effect of this tactic is that actual character development is left by the wayside, substituted instead by cliched Hollywood shorthand (i.e. Josh Duhamel is a new dad who has yet to see his daughter, Rachael Taylor is a brainy-but-cute tech-head, Tyrese Gibson is...well, he's black).

The one exception to the mostly-ciphers that populate the human cast is the young lead. By the time the credits rolled, something had happened that I didn't think was possible: I liked Shia LaBeouf. That's not to say I'd ever actively disliked the guy, but after seeing him as the token "kid" character in one too many Hollywood blockbusters lately (I, Robot, Constantine), I had sort of rolled my eyes when I heard he had the lead role of young Sam "Spike" Witwicky. Still, I'm happy to admit when I'm wrong. The guy's got talent, and he effortlessly anchors a movie that, let's face it, isn't really about the human characters.

With that out of the way, what is one to make of the titular titans who populate the CGI portion of the cast? It's schizophrenic indeed, equal parts eye-popping and incomprehensible. The movie is at times so laden with having to introduce the various robot characters, often with interchangeable names and vehicle modes, that one can't help but feel lost at times. In this sense, the script (by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci) does something very smart in gradually rolling out (pun unintentional) the robots over the course of the first hour.

By weaving the story of the robots (good and evil) scouring the globe searching for the McGuffin-esque "All-Spark" with the story of young Sam (LaBeouf) buying his first car and trying to win over a girl who is clearly out of his league (Megan Fox), it gives a chance for the uninitiated to gradually understand the Transformers world and mythology (and don't even get me started on the very post-modern notion that a toyline has its very own elaborate "mythology"). Of course the car turns out to be the heroic Autobot Bumblebee, and eventually we meet his compatriots, including their noble leader Optimus Prime.

As someone who grew up with the original animated show, I have to admit to feeling a chill the first time we see Prime move his lips (yes, lips) and hear the voice of Peter Cullen come out. More than just satisfying some nostalgic urge, the subtlety and nuance Cullen lends to the characterization of the Autobot leader shows how integral his presence here was. Human characters and Hollywood-cliche love story notwithstanding, it's Cullen's iron-toned Optimus who occupies the movie's CGI-center. My only qualm is that we don't spend nearly enough time with the character.

Still, for every yin there's a yang, and it isn't long before the much-anticipated appearance by head-baddie Megatron (a Decepticon, for those not versed in "Transformer" arcana), voiced here by Hugo Weaving. Sad to say, but Weaving's impact is felt here about as much as Orson Welles' voice in the 1986 Transformers animated movie -- i.e. not at all. More unfortunate still, the promised throw-down with Prime is so beset by Bay's trademark whiplash-inducing camerawork that it's hard to make out much of anything at all besides shards of broken glass, chunks of debris, and flailing metal appendages.

I realize of course, even as I'm typing this, that in the end it's hard to be overly critical and nitpicky of something like this without sounding like an old grump. Transformers gives you pretty much exactly what you want from a summer movie. It's big, it's loud, and boy-howdy is it dumb -- but it's also unquestionably fun. Just don't expect a whole lot more than meets the eye. B


Faith said...

This movie was so much an "introduction" movie that I was half expecting a tagline that read: "Optimus Prime will return in...Transformers II!" The closest to that was probably the little Starscream bit at the end.

But with all the 80's toy movie hype, surely the next will be "Rubik's Cube: Search for the Sacred Pattern"?

DAC said...

Great review, as always Zaki. When I heard "My name is Optimus Prime." I got a lump in my throat, too. Just like being a kid again.