Remember the first time you saw Jurassic Park? Fourteen years ago, it was unlike anything that’d come before it. Special effects had brought prehistory to life, with warmth and wit bonuses amid the scaly carnage. Fast forward to 2021. Pension for some, kids for others, robots for all. You’ll sit there with your super-sleek cyber-phone, call up an old pal and say, “Do you remember the first time we saw Transformers?” Fourteen years on, it will be remembered as 2007’s jaw-dropper. Special effects have brought your childhood to life, humour and humanity bonuses amid the metallic carnage.
A marriage of bombast and brain – director Michael Bay and exec producer Steven Spielberg – only time will tell how much influence the Beard had over the Bad Boy. An LA street battle, decimation ruling supreme? Pure Bay, as his exhilarating highway chase from The Island is vamped up with office block-sized mechanoids. The family squabbles in the Witwicky home of Sam (Shia LaBeouf), where he hides aliens from his parents? Sheer ET Spielberg. It’s a dichotomy shaping the whole film; one extended vehiclenoid money shot, spliced with a human peril drily summed up by LaBeouf: “I bought a car... turned out to be an alien robot.”
Plot-wise, just ride with it. Plausibility be damned. The set-up’s brief: “Before time began there was a cube… Some wanted it for good, some for evil,” guffs the opening A–Z voiceover of how the Allspark (that life-giving cube, kids) wound up on Earth. The gist? The Autobots (goodies, on their way) must stop the Decepticons (baddies, already here) before they find it. The key to where the said Allspark is was imprinted on a pair of eyeglasses belonging to Archibald Witwicky who – back in the 1800s – stumbled upon Megatron (a nasty piece of work). The specs are now on eBay, with Archie’s descendent Sam having decided to hock them to buy a car…
Robots aside LaBeouf is the star, impressing in two very different double acts. First there’s his sentient car Bumblebee, sent to protect Sam from the Decepticons. It’s the sort of car that plays ‘Sexual Healing’ when its owner’s looking to pick up the marvellously bendy Mikaela (Megan Fox, the pic’s hot-panted heroine). Touching in, yep, an ET sort-of-way, man and machine build a believable bond… A bond that LaBeouf’s second sparring partner, Agent Simmons (John Turturro), is eager to break. A member of super-secret agency Sector Seven, Turturro has a ball, spouting increasingly deranged one-liners (“Criminals are hot!”). Taking itself as seriously as any film based on a toy line should, it’s only old favourite Optimus Prime who falls victim to tone, his dull do-gooder struggling next to sidekick Ironhide’s snarl. (“The parents are irritating. Can we take them out?”)
For every drop of heart and hilarity, though, there’s a giant metal fist, a mid-air shape-shifting skirmish or the cheer-stoking sequence where Autobots arrive in meteors. This is the stuff of pop legend over 20 years in the making, played out by boys on their bedroom floors. This is Bay’s territory and as special effects go, the robots are as “What the…?” as the Jurassic dinos. Flawless. However – peculiarly for a man whose films invariably clock in at the bum-killing mark – you’re left wanting more. The best film Bay’s made, it’s also his second shortest. In a summer of sequels full of worlds we know, the brevity of Transformers’ opening scenes leaves little time to settle, turning sidestories such as that of hacker Maggie (Rachael Taylor) into awkward diversions with many drifting off before saying bye-bye.
But such complaints are piffle in a film blessed with an extraordinary sense of fun. It’s even possible to forgive the godawful sub-Linkin Park theme seemingly tossed together on a PS2 music generator. What’s more – if you’re looking for it – there’s Spielbergian redemption at play too, a childlike outlook suggesting an extraterrestrial attack is exactly what the world needs to heal our wounds. As the Decepticons strike, the US blames Iran, North Korea… But it’s not our war, it’s something bigger. We are, as Prime tells Megatron while hanging off a crumbling building and changing from a lorry, “a young species, much to learn.” We’re primitive folk in need of a unifying event to help us forget our earthly woes. This will do.
The sense of occasion is undeniable as Bay, Spielberg, Shia and peerless special effects fashion what should be the hit of the summer. The start flitters, but this is a rare film that leaves you itching for more. Roll on the sequels.