Quick question: which movie would you rather see — one directed by Michael Bay or by Nelson Shin. Without question, I’m certain the majority of hands that would go up would be for Bay. Even if you can’t name more than five of his films, just hearing the name alone evokes a feeling of action. So what’s my point? Well, to illustrate, I need to take you back a bit…….it’s 1986. Thousands and thousands of pre-teen and teenage kids come home from school every day, make a glass of Nestle’s Quick, open a box of Lemonheads and turn on the TV to the local affiliate that carries The Transformers. Unlike many of the other cartoons that aired during that time, The Transformers upped the ante just a bit. Yes, it was your classic ‘good vs. evil’ show, but it was so much more. The storylines were intricate and faithful to the universe. It’s actually amazing to think that our young minds were able to digest some of the subject matter that took place on the show. If you just tuned in for robots bashing each other, you’d get that. But if you really watched closely, you’d see so many other themes. The struggle to preserve one’s heritage while honoring the existence of another’s. The difficult choices that leaders sometimes need to make. It was a show to be proud of. Even then, there were some who couldn’t see past the medium of animation to realize the depth and strength of the story. But despite the claims from others that it was “just a cartoon”, we kept watching.Turn the page to August 8, 1986. All of the blockbusters have already debuted…..save one. And now those thousands of kids who were drinking Nestle’s Quick after school were now petitioning with their parents for the right to see the continuation of the Transformers saga — The Transformers: The Movie. It seemed a little campy — even back then. And I was slowly growing a bit ‘too old for this stuff’. But that 84 minutes sitting in the theater really changed me. It was one of the most incredible movie experiences of my young life. The movie was groundbreaking for an animated feature. For one, it acknowledged the path that the storyline was headed in on the television show — almost as if the writers from the TV show Lost decided to just take off a year from writing the show and deliver a film from point that the season finale left off. It was daring — major characters died in the feature. It introduced new characters to the universe. And most of all, it just gave hope. I watched it recently and it holds up almost as much now as it did then. I thanked my mother for taking me to see that movie after we left.It’s hard to watch a movie that calls itself “The Transformers” without acknowledging all of the history and details that I know about the universe. When I first heard that this movie was in production and that it wouldn’t be animated, I was kind of puzzled. But that puzzled feeling gave way to trust, as I heard it was receiving the big budget Hollywood treatment. Last summer when I saw the teaser, my expectations started dropping. The movie started to look more like a Godzilla-esque movie monster feature than a movie that features the characters I’d come to respect.OK, I’m dragging. I’ll get right to it. I didn’t like it. I’m not saying I hated it. But this isn’t a Transformers feature. I don’t care that Peter Cullen and Frank Welker’s voices are featured. This isn’t the Transformers. It’s what Michael Bay sees the Transformers universe as, and clearly he isn’t a fan of the animated feature, much less the movie.There are some things about the movie that I respect. The Autobots and Decepticons were always after Energon Cubes to try and restore energy to their home planet of Cybertron. The translation here was that there was one cube that both groups were in search of. This works. The voice work of Peter Cullen and Frank Welker definitely gives me the “illusion” that the filmmakers care a bit about the series. They utter phrases that most who’ve seen a few episodes would understand. But I struggle to think of any other redeeming qualities about the film.The worst thing about this movie are the design of the robots. I can totally ride with the fact that the look of the characters needs to evolve a bit to give the feeling that this could take place today. But the design that they went with is so outlandish that it just takes away from your enjoyment. When the robots are on screen, often you have to squint to tell who is who. Instead of looking for facial features or the shape of the robots, you quickly realize that they’re almost all shaped the same. When Megatron is talking to Starscream, with the exception of some detail in the faces, you can barely tell them apart. When Optimus Prime and Megatron are fighting, I could barely tell which one was which. The only thing that saved me was the slight color and detail that was on Optimus Prime. Without this physical distinction, they’re just a bunch of robots on the screen throwing each other around.The previous point actually gets into one of my pet peeves. Directors: if you’re listening to this, please — for the love of all that is good in this world — stop with the shaky cam. This film suffers from the same problems that I felt Batman Begins had — too much camera trickery. The camera is whipping around and dipping through space so much that it creates a false sense of action and often you can’t tell what’s really happening. It’s almost like watching a Bruce Lee film where the camera gets in too tight and all you see are punches and kicks. Yes, it’s action packed, but what the hell just happened?There are too many problems here for me to run down all of them. But just to name a few:
- Bumblebee doesn’t talk…and they use a stupid excuse for him not talking. And when he does talk, it’s just not what it could have been.
- Megatron flies — as a plane.
- A Decepticon takes out an entire Army in Qatar — but a small group of soldiers takes out Bumblebee with a few special ops soldiers and some nets.
- There’s this concept that’s almost as ruining to the story as Qui-Gon Jinn explaining midi-chlorians as the reason for Jedi’s in The Phantom Menace. This same “cube” that the robots are seeking has the ability to change any electronic device into a Transformer. Does it turn into an Autobot? Decepticon? Who knows. All you know for sure is that there’s a Mountain Dew transformer shooting soda cans because somebody touched it with the cube during the battle.
- Tyrese doesn’t die.
- Way too much comedy. Everyone’s trying to get a laugh. They even make Optimus Prime say, “my bad”.
OK, maybe I’m a little too close to the original series to objectively review this film. But even as a film that has nothing to do with the previous series, it fails. It’s just a bunch of scenes with robots clanking metal and uttering phrases in between battles.I know that I’m by myself in my review of this film. And I’m sure that there are those who loved the series that will still appreciate this film for what it is. The crowd that I saw the film with was resoundingly in approval. They applauded at the end. This movie will undoubtedly be very successful. The crime is that the very young kids won’t ever know (unless they view the DVDs) just how great a leader Optimus Prime truly was. It’s fitting that they made no elusion to the “Autobot Matrix of Leadership” in this film. Those things onscreen were not the Transformers that I grew up with.The real question is how history will remember this film 20 years from now. You can still find people who smile thinking of how incredible it was to go into a theater and see Optimus Prime, in a true sign of leadership, hand down the Matrix of Leadership to an unsure and unready Hot Rod. It was jaw-dropping to discover that a Transformer existed that was large enough to transform into an entire planet-destroying mechanism. It still sends chills down my spine to think of the moment when all hope seemed lost and when an evolved Megatron (now Galvatron) had the Autobots completely on the ropes — only to discover that the Matrix of Leadership was there to “light their darkest hour”. It was wild. It was spiritual. It was a movie that will honor a special place on my DVD shelf.Somehow, in 2027, I don’t think we’ll appreciate this movie nearly as much. Because frankly, there isn’t much there. It’s shallow. It takes from the original series, but sadly it gives nothing back. It adds nothing to the universe other than the privilege of saying that it’s a live-action Transformers move. And I hoped for so much more.If you need your fill of a summer action blockbuster, check it out. But don’t expect much more than robots throwing each other around. And that certainly isn’t what the original series was about.