When Transformers came out in 2007, it was a cute movie about big robots that turn into cars, with a somewhat lovable hero and a cute boy-and-his-first-car storyline. Purist fans of the 1980s cartoons weren't thrilled, but the rest of us enjoyed it. But now that it's had three awful sequels, people want me to disavow it. I will not.
Welcome back to "In defense of," io9's semi-regular series defending works of pop culture (and science) that are unfairly dismissed or despised.
I've actually gotten flamed in the comments here on io9 before, for saying that I thought the original Transformers movie was a pretty good film. And based on interactions and articles I've seen elsewhere, liking Bay's first crack at adapting the "robots in disguise" franchise is an unacceptable opinion to have nowadays.
But Transformers still holds up pretty well, as a movie — if you can forget the other three in the series. It's a movie with a decent character arc for its hero, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBoeuf), in which he rescues a junky old car and fixes it up to impress the girl he likes (Megan Fox) — only to find that the old beat-up car is actually an alien robot, with a mind of its own. What's nice about the first hour or so of Transformers is the way that personal, all-American story is interspersed with scenes of a mysterious, sinister, series of events in the desert, which the movie's military heroes are struggling to come to terms with. Michael Bay, who has often had problems with shifting tone seamlessly, actually manages to convey a sense of menace and rising intensity, while also keeping the Witwicky story pretty cute.
Also, Transformers has the best character — a young Australian hacker named Maggie Madsen, who figures out the meaning of the alien signals when nobody else can and basically runs rings around all of the national-security honchos. One of the worst decisions in the Transformers sequels was dropping this character in favor or more "funny bro" sidekicks.
Transformers is absolutely your standard "tentpole" action movie, in which everything escalates to a big brawl in the city, and Optimus slugs it out with Megatron. It's not a brilliant character study, or a small, intimate portrait of wine connoisseurs, or anything. But judged as a big tentpole action movie, it's pretty darn good. Alas, it suffers from the same thing as Casino Royale, the first J.J. Abrams Star Trek, and a few other films — inferior sequels have damned it by association. It's especially hard to appreciate all the things that Transformers is doing pretty well, when you've seen them done badly over and over in the following movies.
But if you can just put Transformers 2, 3, and 4 out of your mind, you've got a good popcorn movie here.
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