With the recent release of the fifth installment in the extremely profitable yet critically maligned Transformers franchise – Transformers: The Last Knight – let’s take a road trip to July 2007 and examine the film that began the worldwide phenomenon. Titled simply Transformers, the first film in director Michael Bay’s loud and fast franchise suffers from a lot of the same issues that plague the later movies in the series, but at least manages to breathe life into a beloved cartoon franchise in a unique way.
Chief among the issues that plague Michael Bay’s Transformers movies is the amount of time spent focusing on the human characters instead of the titular robots, and the first film in the franchise does not escape this issue. Instead of using the entirety of the films screen time to highlight the story of the massive metal monsters, the audience is “treated” to a story revolving around a set of human characters with the Transformers taking something of a backseat in their own movie. While the human element provides characters that the audience can relate to, most fans and critics alike agreed that the movie would have benefited from far less human screen time and far more Transformer time. The fact is that moviegoers paid money to see Transformers transform and fight – not humans running around.
There is something of a “saving grace” in regard to the humans, however, in the form of Shia LaBeouf’s Sam Witwicky. LaBeouf delivers his lines in exactly the type of way you would expect a quick-thinking high school junior would, and his timing and expressions inject an over-the-top yet surprising genuine sense of humor and wittiness into the film. The films other human lead, Megan Fox’s Mikayla Banes, does a fine job in her role as well, although it is obvious that her occasionally over-sexualized character is just there to draw in an audience. The rest of the human cast – Josh Duhamel, John Turturro, Rachael Taylor, Anthony Anderson, and Jon Voight, among others, all do fine but don’t offer anything particularly substantial or fresh to the movie.
As for the Transformers featured in the film, a few stand out while the others all blend together into a pile of metal in the background. Peter Cullen – voice of Optimus Prime in the original cartoon series – lends his voice to the same character here, and does so in spectacular fashion. Prime is easily the most recognizable Transformer in the movie – part of the reason being Cullen’s deep and commanding voice that fits the character so well. Opposite Cullen’s Optimus Prime is Hugo Weaving’s Megatron as the primary antagonist, and while we don’t get to spend too much time with him, Weaving makes him feel menacing and iconic. Bumblebee is the other Transformer that stands out, acting as Sam Witwicky’s guardian throughout the movie, and although he doesn’t technically speak, he’s the emotional core of the Transformers team – evident through his expressions and softer facial design.
Speaking of character design, this iteration of Transformers is vastly different from every other version seen to-date. Whereas the classic and modern cartoons and toys have typically featured robots made up of simpler geometric shapes, Bay and his team of mad scientists have come up with far more complex designs for their versions of these characters. While the idea is sound – if cars, trucks, and planes had the ability to transform into giant robots, they’d have millions of individual parts to consider and showcase – it may not have been the best idea to make this concept a reality. Due to the extremely complicated design of the characters it is often difficult to tell exactly who or what you’re looking at, and near impossible during all the action sequences in the film. It tends to just look like a lot of scrap metal flying around aimlessly while characters make stupid jokes. Transformers is not driven by plot or character development, but instead the desire to put cool action sequences on film. Unfortunately, it doesn’t even do that very well.
At the very least, Bay’s Transformers and its many sequels offer fans of these characters a unique version of the franchise to watch and more toys to buy. Ultimately, however, that fact doesn’t transform this movie into anything more than the pile of scrap metal that it is.