There's a well-known aesthetic theory often referred to in film criticism called "suspension of disbelief." It says that in order to become lost in the world of a movie, we don't have to believe all of the events happening up on the screen, we only have to not disbelieve them. It's a cinematic law pushed to such extremes by 'Transformers' that perhaps a new edict should be named in its honor -- "suspension of all incredulity."
This, after all, is a film built around the concept of a race of warring alien beings that come to earth disguised as cars. Still, as inane as its premise may be, the true wonder of this film is that -- at least on a purely visceral level -- it works. Indeed, seemingly against all odds, 'Transformers' is the kind of gleefully stupid summer blockbuster that, whatever its faults, manages to tap into that mouth-agape 12 year-old inside us all.
The story itself has just enough of a set-up that we are allowed to kinda-sorta care about the characters before the robots show up. Future son of Indiana Jones Shia LeBeouf is Sam Witwicky, your typical suburban kid familiar from just about every Steven Spielberg flick made before 1985. He's kinda nerdy but kinda cute, wise beyond his years but not a smart-ass, and just starting to rev up a testosterone-fueled interest in girls that promises to rival his boyhood love of cars. So mom and pop (Julie White and Kevin Dunn) decide it's time for junior to get his first car. After a few minutes of let's-get-it-over-with exposition, Sam and his dad arrive at a used car lot, and 'Transformers' really begins.
It's at this point where it's impossible to continue a plot synopsis of 'Transformers' with a straight face. The car that Sam picks (or rather, the car that picks him), is actually "Bumblebee," one in a race of noble Autobots that have come to Earth to battle the dastardly Decepticons. Both are rival alien species that possess such awe-inspiring intelligence that they choose to disguise themselves on our planet in the form of clunky machinery. It seems that war has been raging for eons on their home planet of Cybertron, with both sides battling for control over a magical talisman dubbed the Allspark, which gives unlimited power to whomever (or whatever) possesses it.
No matter what I say, those who haven't seen the film will be lost beyond this point, so I won't even try to explain how the following makes sense in the world of the film. Not how Sam selling a pair of his deceased great grandfather's sunglasses on eBay turns out to be the secret to unlocking the location of the Allspark on Earth. Not how Sam's love interest, the uber-hot Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox) just happens to be the daughter of a mechanic and doesn't bat an eye with faced with a giant Autobot. Not how the military soon gets wind of Sam's new car, and sends the most unlikely special forces agent ever, Agent Simmons (John Turturro) to round up a host of teenage geniuses to help capture Sam and Bumblebee and use them to fight the Decepticons. And not how, by the time the robots finally do battle in downtown Los Angeles, all of the major characters and every major Autobot and Decepticon has somehow managed to find themselves standing on the exact same street at the exact same moment, all trying to blow each other up.
Bottom line, 'Transformers' gives Michael Bay the chance to do two things. One, it allows him to rebound from the box office fiasco that was 'The Island' with a guaranteed mega-hit. And two, it gives him the perfect material for his fast-cut, smash-a-minute sensibilities -- what better story for a filmmaker like Bay than a movie about a boy, his robot and a legion of merchandising tie-ins hell-bent on destroying the world while they destroy each other?
But for me, what makes Bay's 'Transformers' a better film than most of his previous work is that he brings a surprising level of sensitivity to the material, infusing such a genuine sense of humanity into his central characters that by the time the Autobots (led by the benevolent Optimus Prime) are hiding outside Sam's house like Godzilla-sized house pets, trying not to disturb the neighbors, it all makes some sort of bizarre, surreal sense. Yes, this is all a set-up for the destruction to come, but it is also a coming-of-age story with heart, which for a largely technical filmmaker like Bay is no small accomplishment.
I realize I'm in the minority, but it is only when the film's big third act commences that I personally begin to lose interest. It is here that Bay's love of military might takes over, as our nation's finest swoop in to try to prevent Cybertron's civil war from being staged on Earth. Of course, there's no stopping the inevitable, and so we have a nearly 30-minute extended action sequence where all manner of Los Angeles buildings are demolished as a parade of giant robots march down the streets and beat the crap out of each other.
Ultimately, how much you enjoy the climax of 'Transformers' is likely to depend on how much you love robot destruction porn. Personally, I was quickly desensitized to the action, but clearly millions of other moviegoers disagreed with me (to the tune of a nearly $1 billion worldwide haul), so I'm not going to argue that Bay got the formula wrong. Still, I can't help but feel that the director has a better movie in him -- one that truly integrates the action and his spastic visual style with a coherent, resonant story. Having said that, if you're willing to check your brain at the door and hold on tight, there's no denying that 'Transformers' is a cinematic roller coaster par excellence.
'Transformers' is easily Paramount's most anticipated next-gen title of the year (if not ever), so there's a lot riding on the picture quality of this disc. And though I worried at first that the film's dark and grimy visuals might not lend themselves very well to high-def, I'm happy to report that this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 presentation handles the tough material with aplomb. Pick just about any one of the film's big scenes (of which there are many), and the wow factor ranks very high indeed.
Michael Bay's visual style has always been one of overkill, and 'Transformers' is no exception. But this is arguably his most ambitious film stylistically, falling roughly into three distinct acts. The first third or so of the flick, with all the exposition leading up to the initial reveals of the main Transformers is quite "dirty," with heavy use of filters to dress down colors and add a more diffused look. Once the Autobots arrive on the scene, the second part of the film takes place almost entirely at night, with hotter contrast but brighter hues, and the image really pops here. Finally, the extended city battle with the Decepticons is again awash with harsh daylight, and so much CGI and fast-cutting that the last 30 minutes of the movie often looks like one big ball of motion blur.
Impressively, this transfer handles it all very, very well. Despite the edgy contrast which results in the usual hot whites, detail ranges from excellent to exceptional, with even the widest, most CGI-crammed vistas finely textured and rich. Colors, while again all over the map, are rendered accurately and without noise or loss of stability. Unfortunately, there is some over-saturation in spots, making the image blur out in areas of solid colors and/or giving fleshtones a bit more of an orange-y wash than actual human skin. The level of sharpness can also be a problem at times -- I was surprised to see noticeable jaggies on slow horizontal pans (such as tracking shots of cityscapes, or chrome on vehicles, etc.), giving the presentation an edgy, digital sheen. All other aspects of the transfer are perfect, though, with rock solid blacks, an absolutely pristine source and not a hint of compression artifacts -- remarkable considering the film's length and intensity of fast action.
Does 'Transformers' look absolutely "perfect?" No, but it is pretty damn close. And stylistically, this is somewhat of departure for Bay (at least compared to the perfume commercials passing for movies that have comprised most of his past work), so the nod to a newfound scumminess is appropriate. Make no mistake, you'll get plenty of fantastic demo material out of this one.
When audio specs for 'Transformers' were announced, there was a collective sigh of disappointment from early adopters when we learned that there would be no high-res audio tracks included on this disc. Given that this is such a flagship title for the studio, the decision was quite the head-scratcher.
I had the opportunity to attend a special 'Transformers' media event with Paramount late last week, and the question was asked almost immediately -- why no Dolby TrueHD or uncompressed PCM? The studio's answer was that due to space limitations on the disc, the decision was made to limit the audio to Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 Surround only (here at 1.5mbps). Unfortunately, this confirms the long-held theory that the 30Gb capacity of an HD-30 dual-layer HD DVD disc has forced studios to choose between offering a robust supplements package (as they've done here) and the very best in audio quality.
That said, it is hard to imagine any film taking a Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 Surround track to its zenith better than 'Transformers.' This is one very aggressive experience. Discrete effects are constant and pounding, but the lack of subtlety here is exactly what fans want. Directionality, imaging, accuracy of localized effects, and the sheer depth of the soundfield are all top-notch for a standard Dolby mix. Even the front soundstage is impressive -- stereo effects are pronounced, and when the sounds ping-pong (as they do just about any time a robot transforms), it can give goosebumps.
Also superior are all technical aspects of the mix. As you would expect, this is the kind of disc your subwoofer will devour. Even at moderate volume levels I was blasted back by the sheer low frequencies churned out by my poor sub. The depth of sound -- from the effects to the score to the dialogue -- is again first-rate for standard Dolby Digital. Volume issues are also, thankfully, not a problem.
(Reviewer's Note (08/15/08): I originally rated this audio mix five stars, because at the time, I felt it had no faults that I could discern. Also, high-res audio had not yet become standard on next-gen releases. However, Paramount has since released 'Transformers' on Blu-ray with a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround audio track, one that I have feel is, by comparison, superior, and which I also rated five stars. As High-def Digest does not alter old reviews or ratings on past reviews, the five-star audio rating for this HD DVD of "Transformers' will remain as originally scored.)
I may have issues with the lack of high-res audio on this disc, but at least those sacrificed bits didn't go to waste. Paramount has really loaded this two-platter set, not only with a superior set of extras carried over from the standard-def DVD (all presented here in terrific-quality 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 video), but also with a host of cutting-edge HD DVD exclusives (see the section below for more on those).
Disc one kicks off with a solo screen-specific commentary from Michael Bay. Although he has a reputation as an arrogant, obnoxious guy (hardly the type of person you'd want to spend 143 minutes with), I have to say that the director really won me over with this consistently engaging track. Granted, he bounces all over the place, starting on one aspect, interrupting it with another (whether it is to make fun of Shia LeBeouf's "mangy" hair or John Turturro's underwear), and then veering off yet on another, but somehow he manages to keep it all together, tackling everything from the getting that first call from executive producer Steven Spielberg, to the CGI advancements required to bring the film's robots to life, to staging the ridiculous amounts of action. Simply put, this is a great commentary.
Moving on to disc two (the rest of disc one's extras are comprised of the HD-DVD exclusive supplements which are tackled in the section below), we have the bulk of the video-based material, most of which takes the form of a two-hour documentary broken up into little parts.
The "Our World" section of the doc kicks off with "The Story Sparks" (9 minutes), which proved to be my fave of the bunch. As you might expect, Bay, Steven Spielberg and all of the main cast and crew appear by way of interviews, but what's cool here is that we also take a trip to Hasbro's headquarters to get a look back at the history of the original Transformers toy line and cartoon series. There is some hilarious vintage footage of old commercials, plus reactions from the fervent Transformers fan community. This one reminds us that 'Transformers' truly was an highly-anticipated "event," and that like any high-profile comic book movie, the die-hard fans had their knives out and sharpened for Bay and his collaborators to fail.
The content gets a bit more traditional with the next three segments. "Human Allies" (13 minutes) introduces us to the main characters, including their casting, and relative thoughts on tackling a movie about toys. There are also some funny thoughts on "Bayham," i.e., the director's legendary on-set enthusiasm. "I Fight Giant Robots" (14 minutes) focuses on the military aspects of the movie, including Bay's insistence on receiving cooperation from the Army to ensure that the movie would be accurate (or as accurate as possible considering the nature of the story). "Battleground" (14 minutes) is an extension of this, with extensive on-set footage that illustrates how intense filming such gargantuan action sequences can be. It's surprising just how many of the stunts were live-action and not CGI -- and damn is that Optimus Prime truck scary.
The second section of the documentary is dubbed "Their War," and focuses on the Autobots and the Decepticons. "Rise of the Robots" (14 minutes) looks at the big decisions that had to be made -- which robots, what they would look like, and how to deflect the inevitable fan backlash in reaction to the changes that needed to be made in bringing iconic characters to the big screen.
Next, we have "Autobots Roll Out" (20 minutes) and "Decepticons Strike" (14 minutes). We learn here that 'Transformers' forced new advancements in the art of CGI rendering -- apparently the multitude of working parts of the robots and the need to create photo-realistic textures proved to be an incredibly complex undertaking. Finally, rounding out the documentary material is "Inside the Allspark" (17 minutes), which goes into even more minute detail on the various CGI elements -- animatics, renderings, surface texture, light sources, etc. I wished for a bit more of a genuine wrap-up to the whole doc here, but this one certainly tells you just about everything you need to know about creating a CGI robot.
The remaining extras on disc two include the 9-minute "From Script to Sand: The Skorponok Desert Attack," which is a straightforward dissection of said effects scene. Then there is the "Concepts" photo gallery, a two minute montage of production stills from the movie. This was the only section of the supplements that left me underwhelmed. With all of its various robots, a movie like 'Transformers' really cries out for extensive concept art and various renderings, not just a few stills.
Finally, you'll find two Theatrical Trailers and one Teaser for 'Transformers.' (Note that hidden as an easter egg is a third theatrical trailer, plus a bonus one for the upcoming 'Iron Man'.)
Depending on your point of view, 'Transformers' is either Hollywood high-concept entertainment at its finest, or at its most insipid. To be sure, it's everything you'd expect from a movie based on a toy line and directed by Michael Bay -- loud, one-dimensional and filled with enough robot destruction for ten other movies.
This HD DVD is an impressive effort from Paramount. The transfer is very strong, and despite a lack of high-res audio, the Dolby Digital track still manages to earn a perfect five-star score. Finally, this two disc set is filled with extras that are both substantive and cutting-edge, boasting quality content and some genuine advancements in web-enabled technology. While there are some chinks in the armor here and there, this is certainly a top tier HD DVD release that's a must-own for fans of the film, and an easy recommend for anyone desiring some over-the-top demo material.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.