It’s absolutely absurd to me that i’ve spent nearly the last decade-and-a-half defending the undeniable quality of Michael Bay’s 2007 epic action film Transformers. The director’s style has since come under fire, but unfairly so. While he may favor action and explosions over characters and depth much of the time, he also lets his on-screen talents breathe and their innate charismata supply the depth and audience investment as those qualities seep into the film surrounding them.

Likewise, his knack for kinetic camerawork and careful choreography has elevated his movies beyond mere paint by numbers shoot’em ups.

These are where style and substance meet, albeit unbalanced at times. But it’s those very sensibilities thatenabled him to give the Hasbro franchise the push it needed to be fun and frisky, defying all odds that this project was going to be terrible. It’s anything but.

With previous projects that may have been larger in scope than they needed to be, Bay was the perfect man for the job and would finally have a production whose scale could keep up with the director’s own colossal ambitions.

Transformers follows a quirky high schooler, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), who discovers that his great-great-grandfather, an Arctic explorer, had stumbled upon one of Earth’s biggest secrets, an artifact known as the AllSpark, which could be used to exterminate mankind if it got into the hands of an evil alien race called Decepticons a faction of Transformers who can turn into everyday machinery here on our planet. Their counterpoint, the Autobots also Transformers are serving as the protectors of the humans. With the help of his classmate and love interest, Mikaela (Megan Fox), Sam must help the Autobots retrieve the AllSpark before the Decepticons track it down first, but their efforts may be

halted by the US government who turns out to know a lot about this conflict as well.

Bay divides his story up into sections. There’s the main plot with Sam and Mikaela. Then there is another subplot following a group of army soldiers who get caught up in all this mess overseas. Then there are the government hackers who try to track down the Decepticons themselves.

The characters in each section are separately learning about the classified information (and of course will come together eventually in the end), but the director also approaches each subplot with the mindset that they must be able to stand on their own. And he succeeds, keeping each one engaging by sprinkling talent across his film into each section. Transformers is filled with actors who are refreshingly and collectively able to bring their individual A games while never outshining one another.

Transformers is a movie so flashy that you forget how much humanity it actually has.

Anthony Anderson plays one of the hackers, getting his time to shine as we get to see his absurd living situation, and then later on as he gets a chanceto adlib in an interrogation room. Jon Voight plays the Secretary of Defense who must maintain stoicism in the face of outrageous conspiracies at the risk of possibly needing to eventually swallow his pride.

Tyrese Gibson and Josh Duhamel are the soldiers fighting Decepticons in Qatar and we become invested in their stories as well. Gibson as the comedic relief and Duhamel as the father who longs to meet his newborn daughter for the first time.

You could argue that these subplots detract from LaBeouf and his character’s plot, but they also help build this massive universe and give Sam’s accomplishments a greater perspective, creating depth without having to explicitly state any of it. Sam is deemed insignificant, but has impacted this immense world around him in a way only we, the audience an outsider can fully witness and appreciate. It’s then when we realize that Bay has fully achieved his cinematic power, conveying this story in a way that’s totally separate and unique from any other medium, making it clear why the audience’s role in film is so specific and unique and, dare I say, important.

Transformers is a movie so flashy that you forget how much humanity it actually has. The themes aren’t overbearing and the depth is able to occur without being spelled out. Petty issues are taken care of swiftly and we’re able to enjoy the journey without stressing about the drama.
This dynamic cast, which also includes John Turturro as a bumbling government agent, and Kevin Dunn and Julie White as Sam’s adorably goofy parents, helps with the perfectly blended comedy that’s able to have fun all while allowing us to still feel the weight of the events. The humor is peppy, but never flippant or undermining of the task at hand. Despite all of the grandeur, somehow Transformers still lives and dies by LaBeouf, who gets lost in his admittedly simple role and makes the should be tropism of Sam feel completely and totally lived in. His ability to balance his convincing everyman with the skills of a comedic prodigy takes this film from a very good action movie with snappy dialogue to a downright classic with performances that transcend the words on the page. The actor lifts up every other character he encounters and, like Sam himself, gets little notice for the small, yet significant role he’s playing in making this giant movie a success.
Set in Los Angeles and the surrounding areas, the film utilizes its various locations and settings to really help build this world and establish an intent and craft that goes beyond thoughtless storyboarding. Somehow Bay is even able to make something as mundane as an aqueduct or an underpass become so memorable and iconic.

Despite all of the grandeur, somehow Transformers still lives and dies by LaBeouf.

Some of the minute details can be convoluted when we really stop to think about them, especially at the tail end of the second act, but they also never get dumbed down for the audience. I’m not sure if it’s more disappointing that the intricacies become confusing, or impressive that it barely bothers us. George Lucas achieved a similar kind of result with the first Star Wars film. We don’t care the best elements from every great action film that had come out before, but inventing techniques and perpetuating his chosen style for reasons that fit the scope of his characters and the size of the Transformers themselves. The first Iron Man movie in 2008, just one year later, was able to be effective without an overabundance of helicopter shots and building smashing (although it definitely took some notes from Transformers for Tony Stark’s suit structuring). And I’m sure 2012’s The Avengers about what the Old Republic was or why Obi-Wan needs to take the Death Star schematics to Alderaan, but boy do these flashligh sword things look cool!

Unlike even his most famous descendants, Bay wasn’t using his now-staple action conventions for aesthetic alone, but out of necessity, first and foremost. He was not only creating an ultimate hybrid of the best elements from every great action film that had come out before, but inventing techniques and perpetuating his chosen style for reasons that fit the scope of his characters and the size of the Transformers themselves. The first Iron Man movie in 2008, just one year later, was able to be effective without an overabundance of helicopter shots and building smashing (although it definitely took some notes from Transformers for Tony Stark’s suit structuring). And I’m sure 2012’s The Avengers could have done so as well. Instead, it couldn’t avoid trying out these tricks utilized by Bay and playing around with his blueprint, which was laid out several years earlier.

Relentlessly fun, Transformers made 30+ minute action sequences acceptable and also seems to have a better understanding of the physics behind its effects than many films that followed. With the superhero genre seeming to dictate the pop culture zeitgeist these days, it would be hard to imagine it without Bay’s influence, particularly with Transformers. He pushed the boundaries of the action genre in ways that have been copied hundreds of times since.

Anyone who admires the MCU, yet pokes fun at the first live-action Transformers, needs to understand how Bay’s accomplishments changed the cinematic landscape and pop culture as a whole. Whether you like it or not, Michael Bay is one of the most influential directors of his generation. His trademarked style has now become the norm for the modern blockbuster. If you compare the early Fast and Furious films to those that have come out post-Transformers, you’ll see a big difference in how the action sequences are dispersed throughout the narratives. It’s now okay the sacrifice some character depth for crafty action instead of pandering to an audience by forcing pathos. Bay hasn’t always been able to strike that proper balance, but Transformers gets pretty close to where he likes it when it comes to his brand of populist filmmaking.

I implore you to take a closer look at 2007’s Transformers with an open mind and see for yourself why it’s actually quite amazing.

About the Author: Ethan Brehm

Ethan Brehm

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