It’s been more than 20 years since 80s toy phenomenon The Transformers hit the big screen. Back then it was the first time a range of children’s playthings had been made into a TV programme and then movie, chiefly to sell more of the Hasbro products. The Japanese company is one of only three credits before the film starts here, the others being production company Dreamworks and studio Paramount. To say this is just another elongated advert for a new line of Transformers may be very true, especially given the 143 minute runtime, but director Michael Bay has lavished a budget in the region of $200 million on a glorious visual feast to ensure it isn’t a dull promotional video.
If you aren’t a child of the 80s, or at least didn’t live through the craze, you’ll probably be in the dark as to why so many adults have been acting like impatient kids waiting for this film. Well, the Transformers are a race of robots who can change into various modes of transport split into two factions: the good Autobots and the evil Decepticons. The inevitable battles between them made for great toys and television, the highlights of both being the transformations of the robots. But bringing such characters to life in glorious live action was always going to require CGI of the highest quality and a rather large wallet. So it’s no surprise how hotly anticipated this movie has been given the knowledge that Bay is known for throwing every penny he gets at the screen to make his films look amazing whatever the content. On this occasion, that is probably all that matters.
Bay fills the screen to bursting point with action, slowing it down for eye-opening feasts of effects that would be missed otherwise.
The story is a simple set up to bring the two factions of the Transformers to Earth: a cube offering great power was once found by the US government in Antarctica, and they both arrive in America on the hunt for it. Caught up in the middle of this search is teenager Sam (Shia LaBeouf) whose granddad Captain Whitwicky (William Morgan Sheppard) found the cube. While trying to woo over foxy classmate Mikaela (Megan Fox), he becomes central to both the Autobots and Decepticons plans to get to the cube — the question is, who will get there first. Of course, it is all told through Sam’s eyes as he gets to know the Autobots and helps battle the others, leading to plenty of cheesy moments, including Sam getting the chance to hit on the girl of his dreams, appreciate the role of family and live out every child’s fantasy of making friends with giant robots. Fortunately for the adults, there is support from Jon Voight as Defense Secretary John Keller and John Turturro as a Government Agent to lend a more authoritive hand as well as Tyrese Gibson and Josh Duhamel as soldiers who get caught in the robot crossfire. They all take a back seat when any of the Transformers are onscreen and, after about 40 minutes, its the CGI that steals the show completely.
Transformer fans will be relieved to hear that Optimus Prime, Megatron, Starscream, Bumblebee , Jazz, Ironhide and Ratchett all feature although they are given a 2007 update in terms of detail that loses a lot of the simple 80s appeal. Even so, these new incarnations are mightily impressive and when metal grinds against metal, it makes for top-notch entertainment. Starscream shoots down a squadron of fighter jets, buildings are torn apart and the streets become a war zone for the giant creations. Bay fills the screen to bursting point with action, slowing it down for eye-opening feasts of effects that would be missed otherwise, however at times the camera angles seem ill-placed to really capture what is going on. One of the best scenes is away from the action when the Autobots are waiting for Sam outside his house, hiding from his parents who keep peering out the windows. Seeing Optimus Prime and co straddling a home is very comical and gives a rare chance to appreciate the hours of work that has gone into the CGI.
The combined effect of nostalgia factor, cheesy story and impressive effects makes for a fun cinema treat, but Transformers is not the easiest movie to enjoy. Kids will lap it all up, including the daft plot, but it is far too long and slow-paced to begin with and when the final face off between good and evil foes arrive, it can’t quite justify the near two hour wait as it feels like Bay has thrown a lot of battle sequences together without much thought other than “Let’s just throw it all in anyway and hope it dazzles”. Yes, it does dazzle, and yes, it is be the reason Transformers are back on toy shelves in such prominence — there is also every chance of a sequel, which is nothing less than expected in this era of Hollywood franchises. Is it the blockbuster of 2007, though? No. Transformers is going to put a smile on fans’ faces, and may find a few new ones too, however there will be a lot of people wondering why so much money has been lavished on a few computer graphics and a nonsense story about robots who can turn into cars. You’ll either get it, or you won’t. This fan just about did.