My love of Transformers started way back in 2007, maybe 2008, at a friend’s birthday party when I was in preschool. It was getting late, parents were being called, and the whole thing was starting to wind down. That’s when my friend’s Dad put the new hit film Transformers on their giant flatscreen TV in their basement. From the second that helicopter entered US air space, I was extremely intrigued. What is it doing there, why isn’t it saying anything, why did the music get all weird? Then it landed. Then it turned into a giant 60 foot tall evil robot. I remember almost every second of the first half of Michael Bay’s original Transformers film. Star Wars has impacted me more than this film, but I only really remember one moment from watching that film for the first time. I can describe every shot to you and hum every piece of music from that first half of this movie. I KNEW I needed to keep this ingrained in my head because there was no way my parents would let me watch this at home. Right before Optimus Prime and the other Autobots land on Earth when the movie truly starts to pick up, my mom came to get me, leaving me devastated. But on the way home, we stopped by the grocery store, and my life was once again complete. My mom picked up a copy of the movie at checkout, and when we got back home, we finished the film the very same night, and it was absolutely incredible.
The nostalgia is real for me. The sequels only get worse in terms of writing, the waning interest of cast and crew, updated character designs, and after the third film, Dark of the Moon, even visual effects. But I think most people can agree that the first film is pretty good. The script is tight, the action feels planned out, the sound design is incredible, the cinematography and framing of shots is fun, and the visual effects… These effects are incredible. The way they blended these digitally fabricated robots into a physical environment is truly a feat of practical and visual effects. Watching behind the scenes content, you can see how precise the planning was to make sure these characters looked like they were interacting with real, tangible objects, and it never draws you out of the film. To put this into perspective, there’s a great shot of a Deception crashing through a bus on a freeway. The bus splits in half and erupts in a giant ball of fire, sending both halves spinning away. He runs through the flames, and keeps moving forward. To achieve this, they got a real bus, gutted it, carefully cut it in half and then loosely reattached it, enough so it wouldn’t fall apart while diving, but enough that it would break on impact. They rigged a ton of small explosives around the cut line and added tanks of gasoline inside to make the explosion more dramatic on camera, then added a hidden pair of drop out wheels where the bus splits apart so the front half of the bus could be driven into the divider of the freeway, getting them the shot they wanted. They then added a big shield around the drivers seat for protection, and a wire to the back end of the bus attached to a mechanism off camera to help it spin away after the explosion. And they shot it. All of that time and money spent on one effect, and it looks absolutely flawless, even today. The shots were then handed to Industrial Light and Magic, George Lucas’ effects company involved with films like Pirates of the Caribbean, Jurassic Park, almost every Marvel movie, and of course, all the Star Wars films and TV shows to date. These effects are extremely creative and impressive, but after five sequels, I feel we’re effected by the overexposure of the gimmick. The blending of lighting and textures on screen make it feel so real, and I am interested to see how this film will age over the years.
There are things in this first film I take issue with like other fans. Optimus Prime is a bit too violent, (but really only becomes straight up barbaric in the sequels) the Autobots have little to do besides Bumblebee and Optimus, Makayla is overly sexualized, and Sam’s teenage boy syndrome make some sections hard to watch. But I want to make a rebuttal to some aspects commonly criticized by fans. I hear a lot that people say all the Decepticons look the same, but in my opinion that only truly becomes a problem in the sequels, when the number of bots and cons become larger and therefor have less time to be developed and shown off properly, but with seven Decepticons, this first movie does a pretty great job of staying focused and organized with them. You know Starscream from the original cartoon as a jet and they mention his name a few times, there’s that giant helicopter from the military base named Blackout, his sidekick Scorponok with a self explanatory name and design, the black and white cop car Barricade, his sidekick Frenzy, the chrome one who’s slightly smaller than a human and distinctively jittery, the tan army truck Bonecrusher with his weird claw thing, and of course Megatron, who speaks for himself. It’s a lot when listed out, but they all have a distinctive individual scene where they are the star, and a unique color, alt mode, or design that makes them special and memorable. If you go through the film, you will see that every Deception really does have their own scene where they get to wreak havoc on the different hero characters in the film, and it provides for a really fun structure that not many other films have.
Oh, and there’s Brawl, he’s a tank who has no memorable scenes and looks like he got flattened in a factory accident.
But I have a far more… Scandalous secret. I like Sam’s parents in this movie. I really do. Do they belong in a movie about giant fighting robots? No, but neither does a LOT of what shows up in this movie. And if it’s already gonna have things that shouldn’t really be in it, it should at least be entertaining. The parents have a few lines I don’t like, they go a bit too far talking about “Sam’s happy time”, and they have a minute more screen time than I really think was needed, but other than that, I think they’re great. Shia LeBeouf has great play off of his parents, particularly his dad played by Kevin Dunn when he comes home past curfew and when buying his first car. (And of course here is the obligatory praise for Bernie Mac’s performance as the used car salesman Bobby Bolivia, an iconic side character that so easily could have been a nothing role turned into such a perfect comedy vignette. I think we can all agree that a spinoff movie staring that character would have been a joy to watch.) Julie White as Sam’s mom can play fantastically off of Kevin as well, and does alright with Shia. There are a few great moments such as when Sam drives off in his “piece of crap Camaro” in front of his parents while they’re gardening, leaving an absurdly gigantic cloud of grey exhaust smoke behind him. The shot holds for about 10 seconds letting it all sink in and his mom finally goes, “Wow. You’re so cheap.” from off screen. The dad looks around in the smoke and says “It’s his first car. It’s supposed to be like that.” The delivery of these lines elevate it to the point where I’m able to see my own parents in these moments, and that just makes it all the better. I understand the criticism of the parent’s large amount of screen time in the film, but I don’t understand excessive the hatred of them, I think they’re wonderful.
Now is probably the time to address the two main human characters, Sam Witwicky and Makayla Banes. They are ok. They are fine. I have very little to say about them, and that’s not inherently bad. They both serve their purpose to the plot and act as a first hand connection to the robot world. Clearly they can take Michael Bay’s scripts and ideas and execute them EXACTLY how he wants them, which I’m sure made for a great filming experience, and they do have their moments of decent chemistry when searching Sam’s room for his great grandfather’s glasses and when talking in Sam’s car early on in the film. But without Autobots and Decepticons, they really couldn’t hold a movie. In the second one they do get a few good scenes together and feel like they genuinely do have better banter, but considering everything else in the second one, it’s too little too late. I personally don’t mind the subplots involving the military and hackers, they have their ups and downs, but I’m never bored while watching them, it always feels like you’re learning some new information or getting an enjoyable scene out of it. Obviously, I do have feelings about the military portrayal in this film, but that feels like a whole other essay to write, and overall the group of soldiers here are decent characters and are great at adding realism to the fantastical situations they’re involved in. The characters here have decent banter between each other and feel like a complete working unit, and when they come together with the Autobots and hackers towards the end it’s pretty satisfying. The stuff with Frenzy and Scorponok are my favorite bits in the movie, with that desert attack scene and the Air Force One stealth attack scene being extremely enjoyable and memorable. The cinematography is also great, using a full range of saturation, from the deep orange light of sunsets, the blinding neutral tans and whites of the desert in day, the blue darkness and white highlights of night, and the stark white concrete of the Hover Dam and Mission City in the final battle. It makes for a great look that hasn’t ever truly been replicated again, or at least not as well as it’s done in this film. The score for this film is fantastic as well, people like it a lot and so do I, particularly the track Autobots, which acts as a theme for the heroes and the movie as a whole. The score as a whole has many incredible ear worm themes and leitmotifs (a short reoccurring theme assigned to a character, relationship, idea, etc.) that feel consistent with each other, but unless they are playing those parts, the score consists of too much fast paced drums and deep brass BWAAAAHs for my taste, but I still hear those great themes in my head all the time.
The last thing I should touch on before I finish is the Autobots. I’ll start with the good. In this movie, Optimus Prime is wonderful. His design in my opinion is perfect, his shaping, colors, dialogue, and of course, his performance by the legendary Peter Cullen, all add up to make a super solid portrayal of Optimus. I think besides one or two moments of un needed aggression, this Optimus is wonderful. Caring, noble, but also willing to do the hard stuff when necessary. Bumblebee is also very likable as Sam’s guardian. Very plucky, stoic, and fun to watch as he interacts with the human characters. (Not to mention, that concept Camaro is WONDERFUL) But besides those two, every Autobot in this film is either too violent, a blatant stereotype, or just unlikeable or boring. Sometimes all three at once! (in the case of Jazz, he exclusively plays rap and hip hop music and his opening and line in the film is, “yo, what’s crackin, lil bitches,” so yeah…) And this is a problem for me, because while I know their names and remember their rolls in the story, they simply are not as memorable, interesting, or fun as the Decepticons in this movie. Bumblebee and Optimus have enough time onscreen to be developed, but everyone else only gets mere seconds to shine, and typically that moment is a bad offensive joke or a very quick action beat that doesn’t hold long enough for it to sink in. Earlier this year I started collecting the Studio Series figure line, a collection of transformers toys based on the live action films aiming to make the best movie accurate figures on a budget, and in my opinion, they tick all the boxes for the figures I’m looking for. I made a list of figures I wanted to get, and I ended up getting all the Decepticons from the first movie, (minus Brawl, of course) Bumblebee from the first movie, (cause I need a fourth Bumblebee in my collection…) and Optimus from the first movie. That’s it. I don’t like these characters enough to be involved with them, and that’s disappointing to me. The sequels had a real opportunity to develop the Autobots more, and they didn’t, instead they chose to add more and more bots until they all just became momentary visuals or background characters, which really sucks.
Despite the flaws, this movie is fantastic. I enjoy this movie in every way I think someone can, and I still make an effort to watch it every year or so. I would recommend watching the film with a quality set of headphones on and a clean laptop screen in the dark. The sound design especially for the transformations is top notch, and with the speakers mere millimeters from your ears, it brings it to a whole new level of immersion. Overall, this movie is one I really enjoy, and since I re watched it earlier this year, I’ve been rediscovering how much I love the movie and how well structured it is, having a nice balance of unique and memorable action, bits of dialogue that help to progress the plot without breaking tension or rhythm, and obviously some dumb stuff that isn’t that great, but it all goes by somewhat quickly. And while everyone says that Bumblebee (2018) will forever be the best Transformers movie, I’m still holding out for a movie as entertaining, thrilling, and well assembled as this one, just with a few less stereotypes, more time developing our hero characters, and a bit stronger of a moral compass for the ones were rooting for.