Tuesday, July 03, 2007
The Joy of Transformers
Hello, I'm Big C, and I am a Transfan. What a Trekkie (or Trekker) is to Star Trek, a Transfan is to Transformers. The Transformers toy line, cartoon, and comics debuted in 1984, when I was 8 years old. I have been in love ever since. Unlike other pop culture phenomena, Transformers has been percolating in relative obscurity since its initial popularity faded in the 80's. Yes, for the last 23 years the Transformers toys, comics, and cartoons have continued to be produced in one form or another (see several Japanese iterations, Generation 2, Beast Wars, Beast Machines, Robots in Disguise, Armada, Energon, Cybertron, Dreamwave comics, and lately IDW's new "Ultimate" Transformers comics), but even with these successful continuations, it has never quite broken out onto the pop culture A-list. With the new movie officially released in the US today, that is about to change.
Of course, being a hardcore rabid Transfan, I have mixed feelings about this event. I want Transformers introduced to a wider audience, and I want them to appreciate it like I do. However, at the same time, I've watched Transformers evolve from its thinly-disguised toy commercial roots into a legitimate sci-fi epic in both the fan community and officially licensed fiction, and I'd like that evolution to be preserved as it transitions to mainstream pop culture icon status.
I'd been following the steady drip of information about the movie's production on the Internet for the past year, and I've had many of the same fears and criticisms that other fans had. The complete redesigns of the robots looked ugly and overcomplicated. The movie was going to give way too much screen time to the humans and the Transformers would be little more than generic movie monsters rather than legitimate characters. Bumblebee isn't a VW bug!?!?!?!
So I was both excited and a bit anxious as I went to see the first 8pm advance showing yesterday evening. I had already heard lots of positive reactions from those lucky fans who had seen the movie early either in other countries or at the Transformers BotCon convention last weekend, so I was cautiously optimistic. So here's my review from a decidedly hardcore fan's perspective.
Quite simply, the movie blew me away. It rocked. It captured the spirit of the original Transformers and put it into a real summer blockbuster action/adventure/comedy. The visual effects and action sequences were amazing. I admit I was wrong about the redesigns. The animation of the robots was very natural and fluid. When they battled, the action sequences were a treat to behold. The Autobots got plenty of screen time, dialog, and characterization. Especially Optimus Prime and Bumblebee. Optimus Prime was the anchor for this movie. He was the iconic Autobot leader we remember from the original series: noble, honorable, heroic, self-sacrificing. I'm really glad the movie-makers listened to the fans and cast Peter Cullen (the original voice of Prime from the cartoon) back into his old voice-acting role.
The human characters were well-portrayed. Shia LaBeouf stood out as Sam (Spike) Witwicky, the central human caught in the middle of the robots' conflict. The other human characters moved the story along very well, and didn't steal the spotlight from the Transformers themselves. And there was a surprising amount of comedy that worked very well with the rest of the movie.
There were also several nods to the original series in the dialog of the movie that warmed my heart. For example, Megatron (the main villain) refers to the humans as "fleshlings" which was the pejorative term for humans the Decepticons used in the original Transformers comic books. Also, Optimus Prime delivers his signature motto, "Freedom is the right of all sentient beings," and calls out Megatron at the end of the movie with his famous line from the original animated Transformers Movie in 1986: "One shall stand, one shall fall."
There was a lot to love about this movie, and I'm hoping I can get a chance to see it a couple more times in the theater this summer before I buy the DVD in the fall. It was the definition of a fun, action-packed, serious-but-not-too-serious, summer event, special effect-laden blockbuster movie. I'm biased, but I think the movie works both as a celebration of the original Transformers for fans, and a great action movie for non-fans. I brought 11 of my co-workers with me who were not die hard fans, and they all loved it.
Okay, so I've given a lot of praise, but I wouldn't be an obsessive fan if I didn't catalog all the criticisms, right? The movie overcomes its weaknesses, but there ARE weaknesses and flaws to this movie. Here's a detailed list arranged according to how much they annoyed me as a Transfan (MASSIVE SPOILERS follow; read at your own risk!):
- The Autobots may have gotten decent characterization, but the Decepticons did not. They were essentially nothing more than silent malevolent antagonists with no personality. This was partially redeemed by Megatron's character during the final act. Also, Frenzy the small Decepticon spybot stole a few scenes with his hyperactive performance.
- Starscream, the traitorous Decepticon lieutenant was almost completely wasted. He didn't even show up until the final act (like Megatron). But, unlike Megatron, he got only one line of dialog and that was it for the whole movie. The well-known relationship between Megatron and Starscream from the original series was completely overlooked. Which is a shame since Megatron and Starscream were the only "real" Decepticon characters included in the movie.
- Jazz's death was a major letdown. It would be one thing if Jazz had gotten significant screen time, and if his death had been portrayed as a noble sacrifice to buy his comrades time during the battle, so that we might actually care about his death. Unfortunately, he just gets in the way of Megatron, and Megatron rips him in half, end of story, too bad so sad. Jazz was originally perceived as a "black" character since he was into pop culture and music, and was originally voiced distinctively by Scatman Crothers. In the new movie he is voiced by Darius McCrary, who played Eddie Winslow in the 90's sitcom Family Matters. I find it ironic that even in a movie about giant alien robots, the old slasher movie stereotype rings true and the "black" robot gets killed first.
- The Decepticon tank was supposed to be named Brawl, but there was a subtitling error and he was named Devastator. As any fan knows, there is another very well-known Devastator character in Transformers, and we were hoping the name would be saved for the sequel so that character could be done properly. Hopefully they will fix this error when the movie is released to DVD.
- The humans were able to kill the Decepticons too easily. I wanted to see the Autobots getting the most licks in on the Decepticons, rather than have the humans do most of the damage. Sure the humans could help with a distraction or a critical attack, but let the Autobots be the heroes. In the final battle sequence, Ironhide and Ratchet all but disappeared while the human soldiers took out Brawl and Blackout (with some help from a disabled Bumblebee).
- The fates of Barricade (the police car Decepticon) and Scorponok (the scorpion Decepticon) were left untold at the end of the movie. Neither Decepticons were destroyed (or even present) in the final battle, and after the euphoria of the action sequences wears off we're left wondering what happened to them. Perhaps this will be explored in the sequel.
- I liked most of the comedy in the movie and thought it was well placed, with just a few exceptions. The masturbation joke (while funny) just doesn't fit in a Transformers movie. Likewise Bumblebee "peeing" on one of the government agents. The cell phone customer-service rep joke also fell flat for me. And the quasi-political jokes that had a bad voiceover impersonation making fun of President Bush and other jokes made about Americans who speak Spanish as well as English were inappropriate (and slightly insulting for both liberals and conservatives alike). They will make the movie seem dated 10 years in the future, and could be completely cut with no adverse effect to the movie.
- The Allspark (Creation Matrix) is the source of all life on Cybertron, but if it merges with one Cybertronian's spark, it will be destroyed? Huh? That sounds like saying you can destroy an electrical power plant by hooking it up to a AA battery.
- Optimus Prime's plan is sacrifice himself and the Allspark if he can't defeat Megatron? I don't think he's thought this through. If Optimus destroys himself and the Allspark but doesn't defeat Megatron, he leaves the human race at the mercy of a very pissed-off Decepticon leader, with no other Autobots powerful enough to stand in his way. That's not noble sacrifice, that a stupid plan. If Optimus wants to sacrifice himself, he needs to make sure he takes Megatron with him to ensure the safety of the humans and his fellow Autobots.
- I'm still not a fan of having Bumblebee be a mute for most of the movie. It's a contrived and irrelevant change from the source material that was unnecessary to the story. And after being in that condition for the whole movie, he suddenly regains his voice at the end for no apparent reason. Presumably Bumblebee's contact with the Allspark near the end of the film healed him the same way it healed Frenzy, but there was no exposition to explain this and no visual cues to show this. And Bumblebee waited a good 30 minutes in the movie between his contact with the Allspark to his first words. Still, having said all that, I can't complain about the execution of his character in the movie. Bumblebee's actions spoke very well for him, and his radio-speak worked very well. I just have issues with the decision to make him a mute in the first place.
If I may make a few wild predictions:
- Transformers will win the Oscar for best visual effects next year.
- It will be hailed as the best summer blockbuster this year (I hope!).