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Transformers: 2-Disc Special Edition

DreamWorks/Paramount (July 3 2007), DreamWorks/Paramount (October 16 2007), 2 discs, 143 mins plus supplements, 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, Dolby Digital 5.1, Rated PG-13, Retail: $36.99

Storyboard:

Those robots in disguise crash land on Earth to wage their own war on our planet…

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The Sweatbox Review:

I have a friend who has a friend that is such a Transformers nut that he apparently advised on the movie in terms of what the characters looked like and how their personalities were portrayed. Frankly, I’ve never seen the attraction in a bunch of not-so plastic fantastic toys with too little fiddly bits that broke off if you couldn’t work out the right way of unfolding them when they “transformed”. I was just a little too old – the first time around – to buy into it all, and missed being drawn to the original animated series, though the first attempt at a big screen feature took some chances in an attempt to try something new even if on a limited budget. Again, I have friends that are mad about this stuff, but I guess you had to be a couple of years younger at least.

Flash forward several years and now that the inmates are running the asylums (as in the kids growing up on this hyper diet are now in charge of the studio greenlights) we’re seeing a whole slew of 1980s properties either being remade or re-dressed. I was shocked when none other than Steven Spielberg was not only attached to the “re-imaging” of the Transformers but that he was taking an active role in the budding franchise and that his studio DreamWorks was behind the new movie. This was somewhat akin to the weight Marlon Brando brought to the original Superman movie at the time: a serious industry professional, with a proven track record, apparently involved in what amounted to a comic book movie, or in this case, a similar kind of summer blockbuster resting on an even more unlikely basis: toys.

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Of course, the initial run of Transformers hype in the 1980s was buoyed by the cartoon series on television, which surely did as much as anything to instil the machines into the hearts and minds of a generation. Still, it was a large lump of credibility to have to swallow: that Spielberg, of all people, counted himself among those fans. This was a shrewd move: with his name in the credits, prominently displayed in theatrical trailers, it certainly brought a wider than usual audience to the picture: Transformers’ box office numbers suggest it wasn’t just the legions of 1980s fanboys that only showed up. Spielberg’s name is what got me personally interested in the project, as whatever else I thought about the franchise, I reasoned that a big-budget Spielberg-produced summer blockbuster was at least going to be well made and probably knock our collective socks off.

There was one other name that generated excitement, between fans and newcomers alike: the announcement of director Michael Bay. As the current champion of high octane, over the top, explosive filmmaking, there could have been no better choice than to bring the war between two differing factors of giant robots to our planet. I had really enjoyed his previous DreamWorks actioner The Island, despite a poorer than expected box office showing, and with theatrical previews promising some pretty nifty tricks, I eventually began to look forward to the rare non-threequel movie event of 2007.

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Whatever I or any other critic says about Transformers, nothing can take away those astonishing box office numbers, and the fact that the series is now set to continue not with just one follow up, but two, if rumors hold true. So, little of what I remark upon here is either going to encourage those who don’t like the look of the film, nor dissuade those who already know if they’re going to take home the DVD. I’ve given the movie another chance on disc, to see if a second viewing might work better on me than the theatrical screening, but to say I was ultimately disappointed for a second time pretty much tells you all you need to know.

Bay is, on occasion, an exceptional filmmaker for the brand of motion picture he helped invent during the 1990s with such films as Bad Boys, The Rock and Armageddon. But the real problem with Transformers, for all the giant killer robots, is that he uses the same old conventions here. All the known Bayisms are in full effect: heavy military personnel running about their bases jumping in and out of their cool jet planes shrouded in deep shadow against burning sunsets; the same old helicopter shots of the Pentagon and other flying machines (again Top Gun silhouetted in front of setting suns)…right down to the same old regimented music score seemingly lifted from one of Bay’s old pal Jerry Bruckheimer’s films. Actually, until the end credits, I could have sworn it was Bay/Bruckheimer regular Hans Zimmer’s touch, but it turns out that he was doing his most original stuff in years over on The Simpsons Movie. However, it’s a cookie-cutter score that might as well have been written by him, such was the repetitive, militaristic style.

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All these elements should have ended up creating something pretty awe-inspiring; there are certainly the ingredients to make a quality action picture before you even start to consider adding the Transformers figures into the mix. But the film was obviously made by committee, and some frankly ball dropping decisions were made along the way: just who sets the climax of a movie like this, with a final fight between two huge robots (whom we have not really been set up to cheer or dislike), in a place as mundane as a street? To his credit, Bay was also interested in forgoing the animated cartoon voices and not having the machines talk, which would have been a challenge and perhaps caused a ruckus from fans, but could have pre-empted Pixar’s WALL-E and not had them resorting to the wisecracking nature that only reminded me of the banter the toys tossed back and forth in Joe Dante’s Small Soldiers.

That the story is awfully basic, capricious stuff doesn’t really help either, being some mumbo-jumbo about the Autobots and the Decepticons – two opposing tribes of robot aliens – bringing their war to Earth, where the ultimate object – the Energon (sounds like a innovation in shaving) – that can end everything one way or the other between them, lies in the destiny of a nerdy young kid. This is Sam Witwicky (see, he even has a nerdy name), played by Spielberg find Shia LeBeouf, who already has enough problems dealing with school pressure and trying to impress the local hot chick Mikaela (Megan Fox, whom Bay’s camera lingers over once a little too often, no doubt pleasing all the teenagers in the audience as well as their fathers). Suddenly, Sam and Mikaela find themselves befriended by the good Autobots and caught in the middle of their epic battle, with the survival of the world in their hands.

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It’s all silly stuff, of course, which is to be expected, but it’s not carried off with the most original of thoughts or any aplomb, hitting every predictable story beat with an iron hammer. In a summer packed with sequels and franchise extensions, Transformers was supposed to be a one-off; the start of an intended franchise yes, without question, but still the hope of many to bring a freshness to the overly familiar slate of re-runs. So why does it feel like a sequel? I think it’s the carbon-copy cutout characters, the director’s admittedly impressive but seemingly routine elements and the general feeling that we’ve seen all this before, and in better movies.

The cast do what they can with what they have: LeBeouf is the talk of Tinseltown after Spielberg picked him for the Rear Window remake Disturbia, where he proved himself worthy of jumping into Bay’s Transformers and Spielberg’s own Indiana Jones resurrection, where the young star will play Indy’s son. He’s likable enough, certainly fitting the Indiana Jones part, but his character here is just too thinly sketched and given one to many quirks: if I never hear Shia LeBeouf muttering an irritating stream of “No-n-n-n-no-nn-no-no-nn-no, no” again it will be too soon. This is something that is supposed to make him “human”, and probably an on-set improvisation, but it’s not endearing when it’s over used throughout the movie: every time he opened his mouth I was expecting him to simply utter this inane drivel again. Likewise with the young female lead, a Fox by name and looks, her character nonetheless doesn’t seem to be the nice, down to Earth kinda girl that Sam should be looking to shack up with and her role here is obviously geared exclusively to ticket sales and the simple dragging in of the small amount of men folk for whom giant fighting robots aren’t enough of a draw. Certainly, shots of Megan Fox (who is much more fun in the Lindsay Lohan comedy Confessions Of A Teenage Drama Queen for those trying to work out where they’ve seen her before) in publicity stills feature her ever so toned body and womanly charms a little too obviously, and there’s an uncomfortable moment early in the film when Bay “checks her out” with two longer than needed camera explorations of her mid-riff that just feel excessive and slightly voyeuristic for a toy film.

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The rest of the cast come along for the ride and simply go through their motions. Jon Voight is the Secretary of Defence, and Sam’s Dad is the reliable Kevin Dunn, whose stock in trade seems to be these warm-hearted authority figures. Bernie Mac appears early on as a car dealer and is in danger of capsizing the movie before the Witwicky plot has even kicked in, such is the uneven tone, and it’s a fair hour before the plot really hits top gear and the action begins. Everything else comes by way of Bay’s usual crew of collaborators, which does little to fend off the “seen it before” feel of the resulting movie. As a film that should have introduced the Transformers to newcomers, the movie begins with an all-too brief, almost token backstory explanation, unintentionally hilarious (“BEFORE TIME BEGAN…” booms the voice over!), and rushed through and without much to grip or suggest we stick around for the ride.

The robots themselves are by turns rather engaging, and overly annoying. Certainly the effects are top notch – there is, for all the things that don’t work, nothing that can be said against about how well they integrate into the live-action. But as with many films being made today, the action is all too close up and interested more in spectacle, fooling the eye into thinking we’ve seen something we didn’t (or couldn’t because the camera wasn’t positioned far back enough). Everything is shot to fill the frame, and just once I would have liked to have seen a robot transform in one shot, clear as day, at a fair distance, to get a good idea of how these things work: as it is all the transforms only seem interested in whizzing everything past quickly or throwing out chunks of metal here and there that cover up the fact that these cars, trucks and whatevers couldn’t possibly ever convert into the machines we see before us.

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Credibility is stretched to breaking point by some music system boombox thing turning into a Decepticon spy, the resulting robot never in a million years being able to accommodate the structural and component alterations needed to believably pull such a transform off without a bunch of whirrs and cuts to disguise the effect. The plot also has some major structural deficiencies: there’s some hokum about how the Hoover Dam was built around one of the earliest, deadliest Decepticons to be found on Earth, but none of this rings true when you take into account when the Dam was actually built and the overall timeline of the supposed historical events in the story.

Though the film made a bucket of money, no doubt pleasing new DreamWorks owners Paramount as well as Bay himself, who must have been relieved the film wasn’t another The Island for his (same) employers, Transformers is anything but a classic in waiting. It’s an odd movie that hit the right nerve for audiences this past summer, but will probably struggle in years to come to retain its place in the memories of moviegoers. If giant robots kicking the heck out of each other and blowing stuff up does it for you, great, but given the talents behind the camera I was expecting it to all be a whole lot cooler. As it is, this is a big, jumbled, noisy mess of a movie, with very little under it’s shiny, shallow exterior. More than meets the eye? No chance.

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Is This Thing Loaded?

Just as one would expect for a movie that admittedly kicked some seriously major moolah butt in theaters, Paramount have gone the whole hog in bringing DreamWorks’ movie to DVD. It’s available in multiple configurations: a single disc standard release, as this 2-disc Special Edition, and on HD-DVD, the only high definition format Transformers will be available on (for a good while at least) now that Paramount have ridiculously taken money from Microsoft to drop the competing Sony Blu-Ray format, switching from being one of the more intelligent “format neutral” players in the hi-def war and thus delaying it further for those unsure which side to join. Luckily, we still have good old standard DVD, and this 2-disc set packs both discs with terrific content.

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On Disc One, director Michael Bay enthuses over Transformers in a full length Audio Commentary, buried in the Set Up options. Although I wasn’t a big fan of his movie, I have a lot of time for Bay due to liking a lot of his previous efforts – the vastly superior The Island is well worth checking out on disc. Bay always comes over well and even rather humble in his commentaries, far less egotistical that the reported mad man he’s portrayed as when he’s on set in the director’s chair. The track, which covers a lot of detail in its 140 minute run time, is scene specific but has been edited together from at least a couple of sessions, with someone off microphone feeding Bay topics to keep talking over. This process doesn’t feel forced at all; Bay is clearly watching the film as he speaks, and indeed to fill well over two hours with a solo track is quite a feat in itself. He’s very relaxed and everything is covered, from the broadest animation of the robots to the smallest minutiae, leading to an engrossing track that contains very few spaces. The need for the film to make big numbers (as with any movie that has a “product placement coordinator”) is clear towards the end where, during the credits, Bay starts rolling off how much dough the movie has made as of the time he is recording the commentary (a week before the Japan opening), and then gets to grips offering up some brief initial thoughts on a Transformers 2.

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Here was a pretty neat thing: at the end of the movie, after Bay concludes his discussion, another secret menu screen pops up offering the Iron Man trailer, Beagle 2 Transformers teaser and Rise Of The Autobots website previews, all in anamorphic widescreen. Not accessible from the main menu, even though I checked for an Easter Egg option, this menu only seems to come into play at the end of running the movie.

Disc Two has its many pre-production, shooting and post-production featurettes split into three various themed areas, the first being Our World: cast and crew interviews, stunt training and on-set access. The Story Sparks (8:30) talks to the leading players, including Spielberg explaining the basis behind the movie, which is pretty fun and a little odd to hear him speaking so enthusiastically about something like the Transformers toys and characters. It’s an infectious spirit, and much of the bonuses reveal how excited the crew were in making the movie and how much fun it was on set – if only that could have been transferred to the final screen version. There’s plenty of clips from the animated series and comparisons between the two, though amusing is Bay’s initial reaction to being offered the director’s chair: “I’m not going to do a toy movie!”

Human Allies (13:10) naturally focuses on the live-action cast, particularly the central duo of Shia LeBeouf, who talks about his time on set, and Megan Fox, whose audition test is glimpsed at as well as more excessive shots of her stomach, which turns out to have been a casting requirement! The military cast and advisors’ experiences in making the movie are explored in I Fight Giant Robots (14:00), which joins the actor recruits during basic training camp in preparation for the war zone battle scenes. Battleground (13:30) extends to show things being blown up in a variety of the movie’s locations, following director Bay and his team as they set up the big set pieces for Transformers. All of the Our World featurettes can be selected in a Play All configuration for a 49:20 total, with content and language appropriate to the movie’s PG-13 rating.

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Their War: the robots, production design and digital effects puts the spotlight on the movie’s giant computer generated stars themselves. Rise Of The Robots (13:40) goes back pre-film to the origins of the toy line to talk to Hasbro consultants about the history of the Japanese created characters and how the company was able to interject the notion of a backstory and set up the good guys from the bad’uns. Emphasis is placed on the phenomenally successful animated series and how the resulting 20 years of Transformers spin offs and fan reaction both influenced and informed the creation of this eventual blockbuster. Autobots Roll Out (20:00) is all about the product placed cool cars licensed for the Transformers to become during their adventure on Earth, with a nod to Bumblebee’s Volkswagen past and the general changes made for their live-action debut.

Jumping sides to focus on the bad guys, Decepticons Strike (14:30) sees Bay playing with the military’s toys. Bay plainly knows his stuff and revels in his position of being able to utilise these amazing aircraft in his film, obviously proud of being able to present cutting edge hardware in his movies. Most awesome is the “tank graveyard”, where literally hundreds of disused mock-ups were available to the director and his crew to dispose of as they wished. Finally, Inside The AllSpark (17:00) takes us into the digital realm to explore the visual effects work contributed by Industrial Light & Magic and the now Bay-owned Digital Domain. Following the process from Design and Animatics, though Production, Animation, Creating Emotion and Transformations, to Paint And Texture and Lighting And Reflections, we’re given a peek at the many animatics created for the major action scenes and, uniquely, the live-action fighting style shoot that planned out the robots’ battle choreography. Again, a Play All option runs all these featurettes together for a total running length of 65 minutes.

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Almost finally, More Than Meets The Eye: desert attack, concepts and trailers rounds up a little more material, though there are none of the deleted scenes, which are more than hinted at in the other supplements. From Script To Sand: The Skorponok Desert Attack (8:50) further expands the film’s major first half battle sequence in minute detail through production footage. Design, Location Scouting, Production and Visual Effects are all briefly touched on, alongside on-set, animatic and final composites. Presenting a number of very evocative and inspiring pre-production images, Concepts runs through a slide show style selection of paintings accompanied by some score music. At just two minutes, there is a ton of fantastic sci-fi imagery in here. In a dedicated Trailers menu, and running 6:30 in a Play All sequence, the Beagle 2 teaser preview is repeated (from the “secret menu” on Disc One) along with theatrical trailers #2 and #4 from Transformers’ publicity run, which promote the robot and human casts respectively.

Lastly, there are a number of fun Easter Eggs hidden on the second disc. Several pages of DVD Credits are accessible from the main menu by going to Set Up and hitting the Left button on your remote, while in Our World, nudging the Down key as I Fight Giant Robots is selected brings up a jokey “Bay-Bot” commercial featuring the director’s head on a toy Transformer. In the Their War section, select the AllSpark option and key Left to reveal a hidden icon which leads to a 2:30 clip of Bay really getting involved on set: in a cameo appearance which was cut from the final film. In More Than Meets The Eye, while highlighting From Script To Sand, tap the Up key to follow the hidden icon to a rather pointless 1:20 clip of the casting sessions for Sam’s dog, and in the Trailers sub-menu, select #4 and hit the Right key for a bonkers two minute bit of on-set footage that shows the filming of a no-doubt pivotal scene in which a young scream queen has her clothes ripped off by a bolt of electricity. Nope, it doesn’t make any sense to me either, and from the looks of the resulting shot, it’s a good thing it was ultimately deleted from the movie.

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I think the thing to say here is that the supplements – all presented in 16×9 with optional subtitles in three main languages – gave me a renewed appreciation for the Transformers film the crew turned out, even if I can’t count myself among its many fans. But this extra material is simply a knockout grouping of the required interviews, production stories and generous amounts of on-set location footage that really show the cast and crew’s working attitudes to big, explosive and expensive movies like these. Though the film didn’t win me over, it sure looks like fun to have created, and the commentary and extras just cover so much ground that it’s well worth upgrading to this 2-disc collection even if your interest in the movie is only out of curiosity. Personal reaction to the main feature aside, I was hugely entertained and found this to be an excellent bonus package.

Case Study:

The standard Transformers 2-disc DVD actually comes in a snazzy package: a clear plastic slipcover that reveals the heads of the Autobots and Decepticons on either side of the front and back of the package. A removable slip – that can then be safely stored inside – outlines the plot and the discs’ contents, with image emphasis on the human cast, particularly once again for no real reason other to entice eager young men, Megan Fox’s rear and front ends. An insert announces the fact that a real life Bumblebee Chevy Camaro is in the works and offers the opportunity to enter the sweepstakes to win one of the first off the production line. The keepcase itself is clear plastic, with a suitable metal sheen printed on the reverse, which is quite cool but might have seen the real estate go to something more inventive. Disc art is Paramount’s usual simple grey, with the text keyed out, confusingly rendering the title as two words: already a trick to get to grips to with that capital F in the middle of the name. Is it Transformers, TransFormers or Trans Formers? It seems the title is as interchangeable as the robots themselves!

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Ink And Paint:

I’m not sure if Transformers was shot digitally or on film, but it looks like film, scanned in and recomposited to include the visual effects. Certainly this is a digital transfer from the final digital negative, with absolutely rock steady imaging, but I couldn’t call it demo material. It’s been graded for a high contrast look, where deep blacks even appear in the brightest of day scenes: an intended style decision that’s true to the theatrical showings, but that gives the DVD compression a lot of work to do. There’s nothing abhorrent that will stick out to most, but nothing ever sits still, which doesn’t help the technology try and make any cheats to pack everything in. As a result, the bitrate rests on average between 4-6 Mbps, jumping slightly higher up to 6 or 7 during the major battle scenes. Sharpness is good though, and despite a little mosquito noise on expected text areas, it’s good enough to be able to see where Megan Fox shaves her underarms, thus probably exposing more than was meant to meet the eye!

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Scratch Tracks:

With the overlong 143 minute movie taking up the chunk of the disc space, and just enough room to include director Bay’s comments, we unfortunately don’t get a no-doubt would have been whackin’ DTS track, settling instead for a pretty punchy Dolby Digital mix, available in English, French and Spanish flavors. The same three languages are also selectable as subtitles. A pretty dynamic 448Kbps track, the Dolby 5.1 surround goes nice and ape in the big moments, also rendering the dialogue suitably clean. With the exposure Transformers has gotten this year, and its box office pull, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some technical Academy Awards going the robots’ way next year, with the visual effects and certainly the sound design and editing being worthy of consideration. There’s no reason a good Dolby track can’t measure up to the best out there, and this is unquestionably a very good Dolby track!

Final Cut:

While I can appreciate the concept of machines being able to convert themselves into other machines (all those moving parts and motors must do something, right?), I was never a fan of the cheap and tacky toys, and this incarnation of Transformers just didn’t leave much of an impression on me. The idea of explosions king Michael Bay taking on a Transformers movie is ultimately much more appealing than the final result, which recycles numerous elements and far outstays its welcome by at least 25 minutes. Bay has fun with the opening, which suggests a much more enjoyable flick is about to unspool, but the rest of the film is simply all too by the numbers, right down to the current trend of having big action scenes where you can’t see what’s going on because everything has been shot too tightly for the later-added CGI. Granted these effects are amazing, when you can see everything, but I just don’t understand how a director as crazy, explosive and right for the job as Michael Bay could ever turn in a Transformers as bloated, bland, run of the mill and ultimately flat, uninspired and boring as this. The 2-disc DVD – the first released of the big summer blockbusters, perhaps in an attempt to pick up quick sales before the competition comes along – adds great value for fans of the movie (who should pick it up quick while it’s under $25 online), but if you don’t count yourselves among them, the movie itself isn’t going to transform anyone.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

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OVERALL DVD

 

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