Director – Michael Bay, Screenplay – Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci, Story – Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci & John Rogers, Based on the Toys Created by Hasbro, Producers – Ian Bryce, Tom DeSanto, Lorenzo di Bonaventura & Don Murphy, Photography – Mitchell Amunsden, Music – Steve Jablonsky, Music Supervisor – Dave Jordan, Visual Effects Supervisor – Scott Farrar, Visual Effects – Asylum (Supervisor – Nathan McGuinness), Digital Domain (Supervisor – David Prescott), Industrial Light and Magic & Isolve Incorporated, Special Effects Supervisor – John Frazier, Makeup Effects – KNB EFX Studio Inc, Production Design – Jeff Mann & Nigel Phelps. Production Company – DreamWorks Pictures/Paramount/Hasbro/Di Bonaventura Pictures.
Shia LaBeouf (Sam Witwicky), Megan Fox (Mikaela Barnes), Josh Duhamel (Captain Lennox), Rachael Taylor (Maggie Madsen), Jon Voight (Defence Secretary John Keller), Kevin Dunn (Ron Witwicky), John Turturro (Agent Simmons), Anthony Anderson (Glen Whitman), Tyrese Gibson (Sergeant Epps), Michael O’Neill (Tom Banachek), Julie White (Judy Witwicky), Bernie Mac (Bobby Bolivia), Amaury Nolasco (Figueroa), Zack Ward (Sergeant Donnelly), John Robinson (Miles), Travis Van Winkle (Trent), Glenn Morshower (SOCCENT Sergeant)
Peter Cullen (Optimus Prime), Hugo Weaving (Megatron), Mark Ryan (Bumblebee), Darius McCrary (Jazz), Robert Foxworth (Ratchett), Jess Harnell (Ironhide/Barricade), Jimmie Wood (Bonecrusher), Reno Wilson (Frenzy), Charles Adler (Starscream)
A missing helicopter suddenly reappears over a US military base in Qatar. However, upon landing it transforms into a giant robot and begins shooting up the base, before effortlessly hacking into the base computer system and absorbing all its data. In California, teenager Sam Witwicky’s father buys him his first car – a yellow Camaro that Sam finds on a used car lot. While Sam is trying to give a ride to the class hot chick Mikaela Barnes, the Camaro breaks down and begins to behave erratically. Sam then sees the car driving off in the middle of the night. Thinking it stolen, Sam pursues on a bicycle only to see the Camaro transform into a giant robot. Another transformer robot disguised as a ghetto blaster invades Air Force One and hacks into the mainframe, searching for information on Sam’s grandfather, an Antarctic explorer. Sam and Mikaela are threatened by a transformer that has disguised itself as a police car but are saved by the Camaro, which transforms into the robot Bumblebee. Other transformers arrive from space and Sam meets the ruler of the Autobots, Optimus Prime. Optimus explains that they are searching for The Cube, which contains the Allspark that gives life to machinery, in the hope that it can restore life to their homeworld Cybertron. Opposing them are the evil Decepticons led by Megatron. As the Decepticons also arrive on Earth, Sam joins forces with the Autobots to find his grandfather’s spectacles, which are encoded with the whereabouts of The Cube. In doing so, they find themselves fighting against the Decepticons as well as the government’s top secret Sector Seven who regard the Transformers as a threat.
The Transformers phenomenon began in 1984 after the Japanese company Takara created a line of toys known as the Diaclones. The American toy company Hasbro brought the Diaclone designs up and repackaged them under the name Transformers. The initial Transformers were simply Diaclones with different names but Hasbro later began to add their own original designs. There had been giant robot toys before but what was unique about the Transformers was that each robot could be rearranged to form cars, trucks, fighter planes and so on. (In the original designs, the chief Decepticon robot Megatron could be rearranged to form a Walther P38 pistol but this was discontinued after a number of US states passed laws banning the sale of replica guns). The Transformers became a mass-market toy phenomenon as Hasbro cannily merchandised them across a variety of media. Marvel Comics created a popular line of comic-books The Transformers (1984-91). Although, what popularised the Transformers more than anything was the animated tv series The Transformers (1984-7) made by Sunbow and Marvel Productions, the animation production arm of Marvel Comics. This also led to an animated film spin-off The Transformers – The Movie (1986). It was the comic-books and animated series that expanded the Transformers backstory out, creating the ongoing battle between the Autobots and Decepticons, which soon became populated by an entire army of Transformers (all of which were then spun out as toys by Hasbro).
Every few years Hasbro have tried to relaunch the Transformers line and there have been an inordinate number of incarnations. Since the demise of the Marvel comic-book, there have been various Transformers comics from other independent companies. On the small screen, there has been an incredible profusion of different series – some dozen or so titles, including spin-offs, Japanese language anime and OVA versions. Trying to keep track of the differences between each of these is a major research headache – the fact that other sites have catalogued these in studious detail surely demonstrates there are people out there with far too much time on their hands. The most well-known of these other series was the computer-animated Beast Wars: Transformers (1995-9) and Beast Machines (1999-2000) from Mainframe Entertainment, which set the Transformers in the prehistoric past where they had to transform into various animal forms to survive there. There have been several attempts to create live-action Transformers-styled films before with films like Gunhed (1989) and Robot Jox (1990).
This live-action version of The Transformers was an idea that bubbled around for a few years before ending up in the hands of director Michael Bay. Michael Bay is a director who has become associated with a certain type of movie – one that involves a great many explosions, vehicle chases and the mass destruction of property. Bay has directed films such as Bad Boys (1995), The Rock (1996), Armageddon (1998), Pearl Harbor (2001) and The Island (2005). Almost all of Michael Bay’s films are full of mindlessly epic action movie bombast and spectacular special effects for their own sake. His films come with massive budgets and are usually greeted with derision – at the same time as they end up being massive audience hits. Pearl Harbor, for instance, was both the biggest budgeted and the top-grossing American film of its year and also for a time widely considered one of the worst films ever made.
Bay’s Platinum Dunes production company has also been behind a number of recent remakes of 1970s/80s horror films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), The Amityville Horror (2005), The Hitcher (2007), Friday the 13th (2009), A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014), as well as original genre films like Horsemen (2009), The Unborn (2009), The Purge (2013), Ouija (2014), Project Almanac (2015), A Quiet Place (2018) and the tv series The Last Ship (2014-8), and outside of that Bay has also produced the teenage alien film I Am Number Four (2011).
Michael Bay had originally rejected the idea of Transformers, considering a movie about toys to be beneath him but later reconsidered. (Bay’s reasons for this appeared to be his realisation that the property could have been a hit – something he clearly needed after the disaster of The Island. Say what you will about a director accepting a property they otherwise consider beneath them only because they see the potential for a hit in it). That said, the idea of seeing the Transformers conducted in live-action has such an appeal to it that it is hard to see how it could not be a hit – even despite Michael Bay.
Much blog space has been devoted to the debate over the minutiae of the Transformers’ transformation into live-action – that the designs of various central characters have been changed; that Bumblebee transforms into a Camaro rather than a Volkswagen Bug; that Megatron doesn’t get to become a giant handgun; that the animated series’ young mechanic hero Spike Witwicky gets a name change from Spike to Sam. I was never into the animated Transformers in my teens so feel detached from such issues. On screen, Transformers is exactly what one expected it would be. We get to see the various familiar characters incarnated as vast hulking battle machines and some nifty scenes with them transforming into vehicles and vice versa. Michael Bay holds his side up and creates enough mass destruction to make any side of a Middle Eastern war zone green with envy – all of which it should be noted happens without ever seeing a single person killed on screen (Transformers comes with a PG rating).
For the most part, Michael Bay is in his element and doing what he does best – concentrating on the explosions and mass destruction. There are no scenes that one can point to and say that Transformers topples over into the moronic or the tiresomely excessive as you could about almost every other Michael Bay film. There is the odd moment – a small Decepticon robot that morphs about like a constructor kitset while squawking in a high-pitched voice, which brings back unpleasant memories of No 5 in Short Circuit (1986) – and in some of the Transformers spouting cringe-worthy colloquialisms – “You want a piece of me?” (although at least the script justifies this by mention of how the Transformers learned to speak by watching Earth tv broadcasts). The ongoing gag about Bumblebee playing songs on the car radio that echo Shia LaBeouf’s state of mind comes across as more of a lame idea than particularly cute or funny.
Transformers is a film that is handmade for Michael Bay. The special effects and mass destruction are the stars of the show. Here Bay and Industrial Light and Magic expectedly put on a dazzling show. There are some fabulous action sequences with the Skorponok being attacked by soldiers and fighter planes in the Qatar desert, or the highway battle between the Transformer factions. Michael Bay gets right into his elements in the last 20 minutes of the film, which becomes a non-stop wall-to-wall orgy of mass destruction with the Transformers battling one another in hand-to-hand combat in the streets and various humans cowering beneath.
Some of Michael Bay’s action scenes are even surprisingly lyrical and poetic. (I can’t believe that I am using the term poetic in the same sentence as the name of Michael Bay). Like the image of a vast, hulking Transformer clambering up out of a swimming pool with water pouring off its carapace and stepping over an awe-struck young girl below. Or the thrill that comes in the slow-motion shots with vast machines passing over bystanders’ heads and keeping going, or the heroes fleeing down highways as vast humaniform robots come rapidly pursuing behind as though roller-skating while barrelling through other vehicles in the way.
There is a scene where the Autobots end up hiding all around the Witwicky property trying to avoid being seen by Shia LaBeouf’s parents, despite being nearly half the size of the house, that is amusing in a goofy kind of way. (Although the major credibility hole about the scene was the failure of such massive machines not to leave gigantic foot imprints in Mr Witwicky’s carefully manicured lawns). The one complaint about the visual effects is that the Transformers faces tend to look like crudely digitised faces circa the mid-90s and the era of ReBoot (1994-2001).
Michael Bay’s films all come across as being ardently red, white and blue in their American patriotism. Perhaps why I liked Transformers more than all of Michael Bay’s other films is that, aside from being less bone-headed and cock-struttingly macho, it is also less flag-waving. That said, it does have enough gleaming militarism to fuel several major world wars – Bay seems to love the stuff of soldiers running to avoid explosions, aircraft carriers in formation, helicopters gliding in slow-motion across sunset skies, command staff talking urgently into comsets in military double-speak. The US military cooperated with the filmmakers and allowed shooting access on a number of its bases, including White Sands and Edwards Air Force Base. Amid this, the film does seem to hold the view that the US military is a benevolent rather than virulently hated martial presence in the Middle East. Although, for all his flag-waving patriotism, Michael Bay also celebrates a defiant anti-governmental individualism – in an almost identical scene to one that appeared in Armageddon, Shia LaBeouf holds back on agreeing to help the military and demands as his price of his help that Megan Fox’s criminal record be expunged. The other downside might be that Michael Bay tends to trade in derogatory racial caricatures – Amaury Nolasco as a Latino soldier who is constantly told to “speak English” and especially Ravi Patel as a Qatari telephone receptionist.
Michael Bay’s focus on the bustle of the military in operation also tends to give the film a density of verisimilitude that distracts from the fact that there is not much to it as a story. Indeed, there are times when you feel that Transformers has simply ripped a bunch of pages from the script of Independence Day (1996) – both films are premised around various parts of the world being trounced by alien forces amid lots of gleeful mass destruction; the story cuts between the dramas surrounding various people confronting the menace, including one storyline involving a decryption expert trying to decode messages hidden in the aliens’ radio signals; while the means to fighting back against the menace is discovered inside a top secret government facility where the US military has hidden a powerful alien artefact for decades. The Cube and the quest for the Allspark are no more than what Alfred Hitchcock used to call McGuffins.
For all that, Transformers is a film that is fun in a switch-your-brain-off kind of way. It is the sort of film that appeals squarely to the 14 year-old boy at heart inside every man, the same audience niche that made a tv series like Knight Rider (1982-6) into a hit. Indeed, Transformers is aimed like a precision missile straight into the male aged 14-28 demographic. It has been cast with young youth leads, although this is a film where the human element plays a distinct third fiddle to the machines and explosions. Nevertheless new and rising star Shia LaBeouf holds his end of the show up and plays with a great deal of everyday likeability. On the other side of the coin, Megan Fox has little in the way of personality – the most she is characterised by Bay is in a series of over-the-top hyper-eroticised poses lounging over the hood of the Camaro with her midriff exposed and dripping with sweat.
Michael Bay and most of those involved here returned with two sequels Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) and Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011) and Bay with a new cast on Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) and Transformers: The Last Knight (2017). This was followed by Bumblebee (2018), a spinoff that acts as a prequel, where Bay steps back to a producer position. Transformers was parodied in Meet the Spartans (2008).
Screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci also wrote The Island (2005), Mission: Impossible III (2006), Star Trek (2009), Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), Cowboys & Aliens (2011), Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013), The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) and Star Trek: Beyond (2016). Prior to this, Kurtzman and Orci had started out as writers/producers on tv’s Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001), Jack of All Trades (2000-1), Alias (2001-6) and would go onto create and produce the tv series’ Fringe (2008-13), Hawaii Five-O (2010– ), Sleepy Hollow (2013-7), Matador (2014) and Scorpion (2014-8), and to produce the films Ender’s Game (2013) and Now You See Me (2013). On his own, Alex Kurtzman went on to direct The Mummy (2017) and produce the tv series’ Salvation (2017-8), Star Trek: Discovery (2017– ) and Star Trek: Picard (2020– ).
(Winner for Best Special Effects, Nominee for Best Cinematography at this site’s Best of 2007 Awards).