"Freedom is the right of all sentient beings" --Optimus Prime
Note: In the following joint Blu-ray review, both John and Jason offer their opinions of the movie, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Thoughts.
The Movie According to John:
When Paramount released the high-def version of their 2007 blockbuster "Transformers" exclusively on HD DVD, it was quite a feather in the red camp's cap. It also galled Blu-ray followers that the HD DVD became one of the biggest selling high-definition movies of all time, and it's been a long ten months or so waiting for Paramount finally to issue it in a BD set. But it's here, and it's better than ever with a higher video bit rate and a new Dolby TrueHD soundtrack.
Now, before we begin, a caution: If you are fourteen years old or younger or if you grew up a fan of the "Transformers" action figures and animated TV series, you will want to ignore my review and skip immediately down to Jason's slightly more positive comments. That's because you will love this new, live-action, CGI "Transformers" film. It's explosive, colorful, fast-paced, and eye-catching, everything you could possibly want from the franchise. However, if you are an adult and not already a "Transformers" fan, you may find the movie more than a bit long, loud, and frenzied.
I remember back in the 1980s visiting a toy shop in Carmel, CA, and seeing several huge "Transformer" figures, about two or three-feet tall and extremely well detailed, and thinking how great they looked. But then I wondered what I would do with such a plaything if I ever bought one, and after looking at the price tags I abandoned the idea altogether. But comparisons with the current movie are apt. Both the superdeluxe toy and the new movie look great--colorful and complex--and they would both probably be fun to look at for a time; yet both of them are essentially empty and devoid of much entertainment value except as transitory showpieces. Still, a momentary diversion is all that "Transformers" strives for, and for the most part it succeeds.
When Machines Turn Bad:
The plot involves two sets of thinking robotic machines, one set good, the other set bad, both groups capable of morphing their shapes into any number of other mechanical objects. They come to Earth looking for something called an Allspark, a space cube capable of generating enough energy to destroy or recreate entire worlds. A teenager, Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf), is caught in the middle of this technological tug-of-war, and he inadvertently and reluctantly takes sides with the good guys, Optimus Prime and the Autobots, against the baddies, Megatron and the Decepticons.
I have no objection to this cataclysmic story line. What I object to is that the movie is way, way too long telling its story, the final battle going on for at least forty-five hectic minutes. I found myself fidgeting through the second half of the film and almost nodding off during the climactic shoot-out.
When Directors Turn Bad:
Michael Bay directed "Transformers." Some of his previous films include "Bad Boys" and "Bad Boys II," "Armageddon," "The Rock," and "Pearl Harbor." In his favor, I liked the excesses of "The Rock," for me the only one of Bay's films that succeeded. Otherwise, he tends to overindulge himself. Whatever works in a film he does again and again. For example, there is enough eye candy in "Transformers" to satisfy anybody's fun factor for at least a lifetime, and the Transformers' CGI transformations look splendid. At least, the first few times we see them. Unfortunately, Bay seems to think that since it looked good once, he should repeat it unto the threshold of pain, so we get to see virtually the same transformations about 800 times. By the end of the movie, they become little more than a yawn.
As I said before, I think maybe you either have to be very young or have grown up with the "Transformers" franchise in the 1980's to appreciate the film fully. The audience I saw it with in a theater were equally divided between younger children and men in their late twenties and thirties, with both groups seeming to enjoy themselves. As an adult, though, I found the movie gaudy, blaring, frenetic, and, as I say, long. At almost two-and-a-half hours, it overstays its welcome by a good thirty minutes.
Anyway, what should I have expected? It's a movie based on a series of toys and cartoons. Darn right it's going to be juvenile and cartoony. What I didn't expect, though, was the movie's huge similarity to "Independence Day." There is the same interweaving of multiple plot strands and several sets of characters, all of them coming together at the end, and there's even the same government cover-up of alien technology involved.
Shia LaBeouf is good as Sam Witwicky, the ordinary, put-upon teenager caught up in extraordinary events. Kevin Dunn and Julie White are fittingly moronic as Sam's parents. In teen comedies, you'll remember, parents are either idiots or completely absent from the scene. Megan Fox as Sam's friend Mikaela is appropriately foxy. Josh Duhamel as Captain Lennox is acceptably heroic in a second plot strand. Rachel Taylor and Anthony Anderson almost disappear from the movie after making brief appearances in what might have been the beginnings of yet another subplot that the filmmakers discarded partway through the script. John Voight keeps a straight face as the Secretary of Defense, John Keller. The late Bernie Mac has a cute part early on as a used-car salesman. And thank goodness for John Turturro as an uptight government agent, because he seems like the only actor in the picture who realized the whole affair probably started out as a campy, tongue-in-cheek thriller instead of the dead-serious movie or outright comedy that most of the cast play it for.
Despite my reservations, I have to admit that "Transformers" was better than I expected, even though it's still no award winner. Sure, it's lightweight fun for the kid in all of us, but I would emphasize the word "lightweight."
John's film rating: 6/10
The Movie According to Jason:
In a summer of $200,000,000 comedies ("Evan Almighty") and $300,000,000 action spectacles ("Spider-Man 3"), one film flew under the radar, relatively speaking. "Transformers," the second big-screen adaptation of the Hasbro toy line about two sets of vehicle morphing robots, delivers in all the places that spiders, pirates, and surfers couldn't: It's a crowd-pleasing, rock-´em, sock-´em, explosion-laden 143 minutes, with no pretense of being anything more than it is.
In all honesty, the "Star Trek," Borg cube-inspired Allspark is the MacGuffin in this story, conveniently dropped into the plot as an excuse to watch cars turned into robots, those robots fire rockets and missiles and energy weapons at each other while puny humans carry on like it's the end of the world. Knowing this, how deep a story can an audience reasonably expect? Not very. But we don't go to any film based on a 1980s cartoon, let alone a Bay film, to be wowed by superior acting or a revolutionary script. We go to see stuff blown up really good. And, on that count, "Transformers" delivers the goods better than any pure action movie of the last five years.
Every aspect of the film is a wonder to behold, not just the buildings when weapon blasts eat out chunks of their sides or the massive robots wrestling with each other in Ultimate Fighting Championship-type encounters. Either Industrial Light and Magic has progressed leaps and bounds beyond the effects houses that handled "Spider-Man 3" and "Pirates of the Caribbean," or those other outfits are grossly incompetent. From a rational standpoint, there is no way that what is on screen could come from miniatures or stop motion. But from a moviemaking standpoint, how can Spider-Man swinging through the streets of New York look so obviously fake and cartoonish, yet the Autobots and Decepticons so convincingly real?
They blend in with their surroundings so completely and interact so flawlessly with the human actors that it's not outside the realm of possibility the production team assembled full-size robots for every sequence in the picture. There are no jerky movements, not so much as a detail out of place. Scorch marks, dents, dings…even the way each individual gear moves when one of the Transformers walks. The effects are bar none the best we've seen this year, outside of "300."
Even the actors fulfill their end of the bargain. Of course, they're not asked to do a whole lot besides run, jump, slide, yell, and pull triggers. With Josh Duhamel (TV´s "Las Vegas"), Tyrese Gibson, Anthony Anderson, Jon Voight, John Turturro, and Bernie Mac, a cast which reminds us more of "Armageddon" than "The Rock," takes shape. Without fail, everyone in the film does what they were contracted to do: Duhamel provides the good-looking poster boy; Mac provides a welcome breath of humor early on; Voight is his patented bewildered government official (here the Secretary of Defense); and Turturro is the man we all love to hate.
But the majority of the acting duties fall to LaBeouf, who scored a role in "Indiana Jones IV" based on his work here. The reason is pretty obvious. He can go from a regular teenager worried about getting a car and a girl to near action hero in three seconds flat, pulling off both roles with equal authority. And he makes us believe every quick-thinking quip really comes to him in the spur of the moment, as opposed to being the brainchild of scriptwriters. LaBeouf can headline a summer action movie like this one, and he can anchor a good drama like "Disturbia." With the right mix of films in his future, he should have a long career in Hollywood.
Then there's the plot. The Allspark has been kept in a U.S. landmark for decades, and its power signature has been masked from everyone by reinforced concrete. I'm sorry, but concrete? Are you serious? This thing has the power to destroy entire worlds and concrete keeps all manner of scans from seeing its location? And the final decision to move the cube is just as bewildering. Why, outside of the "blowing stuff up good" rationale, would anybody agree to this plan?
Hell, we can bat around all manner of plot holes or head scratchers, but that wouldn't be fun. For the sake of argument, though: Why are people continuing to run from the scene of the final battle twenty minutes after its started? Is the government so desperate as to be recruiting analysts out of high school? And why, for the love of everything rational, does the military consistently discount the one person with any credible information on the Transformers or the Allspark? Not that it really matters: This is an action movie with no agenda.
If there is one aspect of the film that doesn't quite live up to what it should be, it's the introduction of Optimus Prime and the final battle with Megatron. When Optimus finally comes on the scene, there should be a bombastic score, something to herald the coming of the hero the fans want to see. There isn't that sense that everything will be okay once he's arrived. Think of how Darth Vader is introduced in "Return of the Jedi," with the Imperial March. Prime is a hero worthy of that level of reverence.
And that final battle is the one flat action sequence in the film. The other scenes are kinetic, with dizzying camera shots and a clear idea of who's doing what to whom, a directing style many action directors can learn from. Yet there's no sense of drama or excitement about the final battle; this is the titanic match up between Luke and Vader or Picard and the Borg Queen, but it comes off as feeling run of the mill.
Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention a major disappointment: the classic "Transformers" theme song is nowhere to be found in the film. It had been remixed for the 1986 animated movie, but it's absent here. The whole thing didn't need to be included; but part of it over the end credits would have been welcome.
"Transformers" isn't supposed to be anything except loud, action pulp to fill a summer slot and rake in the money. Oh, yeah, and sell toys. It's a family-friendly film, with no real objectionable content. However, there is a large amount of fighting and peril, which might cause a smaller child to have problems. The movie rates a strong 7/10 because it delivers on its premise and doesn't get bogged down in plot trivialities. And summer action never looked so good.
Jason's film rating: 7/10
The film showed up pretty well in a theater, and Paramount's Blu-ray disc reproduces it much as I remember it from my local movie house. Using an MGEG-4/AVC codec and a dual-layer BD50, the video engineers maintain the film's original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and its somewhat dark, oversaturated hues. What we see is a relatively clean screen, free of excessive grain, even in darker outdoor shots, so free of grain, in fact, that it leads me to think that perhaps Paramount applied some grain filtering to the transfer. Colors are bright, rich, and deep, perhaps a tad too bright, rich, and deep for real life, and a touch glossy and glassy, too; but they're all appropriate for a cartoonish movie like "Transformers." Definition is, as we might expect, excellent, the crispness of the delineation serving to point up every detail in the mechanical creatures. Any slight motion blur I noticed in the transformations on HD DVD (which may or not have been intentional), I didn't notice as much in the BD edition.
Incidentally, Rob Moore, Vice Chairman of Paramount Pictures, has said that "Because of Blu-ray's expanded capacity we are able to elevate the bit rate used for the picture as well as present uncompressed audio in the form of Dolby TrueHD." So I compared the picture quality of this Blu-ray transfer to the picture quality of the HD DVD using side-by-side players but found little discernible difference. Nevertheless, the changeover from one HDMI input to another took several seconds, and the mind is a notoriously fickle instrument when making comparisons, so there may easily have been bigger differences I didn't notice than just motion blur.
When Paramount issued "Transformers" on HD DVD, the big audio controversy swirled around their decision not to include a lossless track on what was possibly their highest-profile HD DVD release of all time. The HD DVD's Dolby Digital Plus track was excellent, but missing a lossless track annoyed audiophiles and videophiles no end. I thought the most likely reason the studio didn't include a lossless track was that they didn't have room for it on the disc, but what do I know. In any case, with Blu-ray's increased disc capacity, the studio engineers have now rectified the situation with a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack.
I spent a little time comparing the BD's TrueHD track to the HD DVD's DD+ track and, adjusting for level differences, found the TrueHD a marginal improvement. Both tracks produce room-shaking bass, with a strong, well-focused impact; midrange of remarkable clarity; and treble that glistens. The front-channel stereo spread is wide, and the filmmakers take all the advantage they can of the surrounds. Rousing, pinpoint directional noises from all five main speakers do a lot a to sell the show. The advantage of the TrueHD track is its being a touch smoother overall, not quite so bright or forward as the DD+, and maybe a bit tauter in the deepest bass. The soundtrack is among the best I've heard on any disc, so it must be doing something right.
The sheer quantity of extras remains the same on the two-disc Blu-ray set as on the two-disc standard-def and two-disc HD DVD editions. They will thrill fans of the film, I'm sure, especially as most of them are in high definition. Non-fans, however, may simply see them as more of the same. Disc one includes the feature film; twenty-three scene selections; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
In addition, disc one includes a commentary by director Michael Bay in which the filmmaker seems to me a somewhat immodest fellow, his comments often self-serving. Then for Profile 2.0 Blu-ray players there is "BD-Live" for further on-line features like an "Intelligence Mode," "GPS Locator," "Profiler," and "Menubots," among other things I did not access. Probably of greatest use, though, is the "Transformers H.U.D.," a "Heads Up Display" that is a picture-in-picture affair featuring various bits of pop-up trivia about the film as well as shots of the filmmakers discussing various scenes as the scenes are playing out. Finally, we get an "Iron Man" trailer and a "Transformers" teaser and "Rise of the Autobots" trailer.
Disc two (a BD25) includes a number of other bonus items in high def, duplicating the second disc in the HD DVD set. It's divided into three categories: "Our World," "Their War," and "More Than Meets the Eye." In "Our World" we find "The Story Sparks" (HD), "Human Allies" (HD), "I Fight Giant Robots" (HD), and "Battleground" (HD), segments that one can play separately or all at once. Together, they total about forty-nine minutes and provide information on the origins of the movie, the actors, the military background, and the special effects in the battle scenes.
In "Their War" we find "Rise of the Robots" (HD), "Autobots Roll Out" (HD), "Decepticons Strike" (HD), and "Inside the AllSpark" (HD), about sixty-five minutes total, covering the background of the toys and cartoons and the special effects of the cars and such. In this section we also find "Transformers Tech Inspector," where we can look at each of the autobots up close in an interactive mode.
Then, in "More Than Meets the Eye" we find a nine-minute segment called "From Script to Sand: The Skorponok Desert Attack" (HD) and, better, a series of beautiful concept art (HD). Also on disc two, we find trailers--two theatrical trailers and a teaser trailer, all in HD. Lastly, I understand there is a series of Easter eggs in the set: a Michael Bay cameo appearance, "Bay Bot," "Girl in Dress," and "Casting Mojo," but I never looked for them.
The two-disc BD case comes housed in an attractive slipcover. But here's the thing: The thin, translucent-plastic slipcover contains all the disc details printed on it. The BD case itself has a cover with nothing written on it front or back, only the title on the spine. Therefore, if you want to read about what's inside, you have to use the slipcover, something I don't generally do. I usually leave slipcovers in a drawer upstairs because I see no need for them in my collection. Except in this instance.
It's huge; it's loud; and it's filled with things that crash and blow up in glorious high-definition picture and sound. "Transformers" is everything you'd expect from a colossal summertime blockbuster. However, looking for logic, sense, reason, even sanity in a story based on a children's toy would be stretching the point. The movie is for the eye and the ear, not the brain. It turned out a lot better than I thought, though, by looking and sounding so very good on Blu-ray disc, so I've got to give it credit. Big, dumb, and attractive in this case is good enough.
As Mikaela says, "This car's a pretty good driver."