Culture > Movies

Prime battle

Movies | Transformers works until it transforms itself

Issue: "When the base cracks," July 21, 2007

It's a small detail, but when Transformers filmmaking duo Michael Bay (director) and Steven Spielberg (producer) hired veteran voice actor Peter Cullen to speak the part of Optimus Prime, they did something right. Against the temptation to update the heroic robot's voice, Bay and Spielberg tapped into the gravelly baritone that helped make the freedom-loving Optimus Prime and the Transformers an Americana emblem of the 1980s.

The choice of Cullen speaks clearly about what audience Bay and Spielberg are targeting with the 144-minute CGI spectacle of three-story sentient robots. Transformers (rated PG-13 for CGI violence and sporadic harsh language) was made not for kids today, but for people who played with the Hasbro toys in the '80s and early '90s.

Many elements of the old Transformers cartoon series return. The idealistic Autobots become locked in an apocalyptic battle with the evil Decepticons. But the movie's main storyline-a tale of teenager Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) and his more-than-meets-the-eyes Camaro-makes Transformers inappropriate for young children or sensitive teens.

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But for those who can take it, the first 100 minutes of Transformers works exactly like a summer blockbuster should. Witwicky and his love interest, classmate Mikaela (Megan Fox), accidentally get caught up in the robots' battle for control of the Allspark-a powerful relic roughly analogous to Tolkien's Ring of Power. In the process, the Autobots befriend Witwicky and Fox.

This part of the film works well because Bay manages to use the sentient robots as comedy straight men to the foils of the human characters.

The formula breaks down when it becomes clear that the humans need the Autobots to defeat the Decepticons. Prime's corny lines then land flat against Decepticon leader Megatron's equally thick evilness. In these scenes, the comedy is unintentional.

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