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Transformers HD-DVD Review

Back in the mid 1980s, when I was a teenager, I knew very little about the toy/cartoon phenomenon that was The Transformers. I never saw the cartoon; never had the toys and I definitely did not see the 1986 animated feature. In fact, the only thing I really knew about it were two things: one was that the feature film was the one in which the late Orson Wells played a planet. The other was that the God-awful ’80s song “The Touch” was part of the film’s soundtrack (and used to hilarious effect 11 years later in Boogie Nights). Looking back now, I’m convinced that my ignorance of all things Autobot and Decepticon two decades ago was, indeed, pure bliss.

Cut to today. The crap ’80s songs, cheap animation and interstellar voice of Citizen Kane are long gone. For the new $150 million live action version directed by Michael Bay, we instead get state-of-the art computer animation, a $150 million budget and, oh yeah, a crap soundtrack of 2007 rock songs (Steve Jablonsky’s orchestral score, on the other hand, is quite nice). And with “Destructo Boy” Bay calling the shots, you should know what to expect: it will be loud, visually over the top from start to finish and, you know it will be long. But one thing you won’t know until you sit down to watch it is will it be any good? Remember, this is the guy gave us The Rock and the guilty pleasure duo of Bad Boys 1 and 2. Unfortunately, he also gave us the unwatchable Pearl Harbor and Armageddon.

The Autobots (good guys) and Decepticons (bad guys) are two warring robotic tribes from another galaxy. They have come to Earth to reclaim the Allspark, a cube from their home planet that will grant whoever possesses it unlimited power. Caught up in the middle of the mayhem is Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf). Sam is your typical dorky teenager who also happens to be the great, great grandson of an explorer that discovered one of the Decepticons, Megatron, and the Allspark back in the Arctic in the mid 1800s. He also happens to be in possession of his great great grandfather’s cracked glasses, which apparently have an encoded map embedded in them that will show the way to the hidden Allspark…and Megatron.

Now, being that this is a Michael Bay movie based on a line of Hasbro toys, I sat down to watch Transformers with no pretenses whatsoever of a coherent, decent plot (mission accomplished) or characters (ditto) brought to vivid life by great levels of acting (to their credit, the cast — in particular LaBeouf — do the best they can given the material) to latch onto. All I wanted from the film was two hours or so of robots kicking the crap out of each other while laying waste to half of the planet.

While the movie eventually gets around to that Bout To Knock The Other Tin Can Out, one has to endure approximately an hour of awful subplots (including one in the Middle East that seems to exist for no other reason other than to give us a couple of cool battle sequences), some rather lame attempts at comedy and five minutes of Bernie Mac. If Bay knew anything about developing characters or plot in the slightest, the first hour might have been less of an endurance test.

Fortunately, Bay knows how to handle spectacle and orchestrate mass destruction. Once Optimus Prime and his crew arrive on the scene, the film becomes a fun B-movie (with an A-movie budget) reminiscent of those throwaway sci-fi flicks from the 1950s and 60s. As one would expect from a big Hollywood popcorn flick (and one with Steven Spielberg as its producer), the visual effects and action set pieces are terrific. The interaction between live actors and the visual effects is pretty close to seamless, and those action sequences deliver the goods in grand, bombastic style, in particular the overwhelming (in a good way) final 35 minutes set in downtown Los Angeles.

Transformers wasn’t the best of the 2007 big-ticket summer flicks (sorry, Optimus and Megatron, but Jason Bourne and Remy the Talking Rat owned your tin-can asses in that department), but it certainly wasn’t without merit. While a serious overhaul of the script (more robot action, less human interaction) certainly would have been of great benefit, there is no denying that you do get a lot of bang for your home video buck. My advice: skip the first hour and enjoy the rest.

The theatrical release of Transformers was a big event for both Paramount and Dreaworks Pictures, successfully yielding over $700 million in ticket sales worldwide. It should come as no surprise that Transformers is now a really big deal for the two studios in regards to its next-generation DVD debut, especially since Paramount became an HD-DVD exclusive company (bringing Dreamworks with them) in August and has been under the microscope in terms of delivering the goods ever since. While I am hardly the biggest fan of the film itself, I can say that with this two-disc special edition, they certainly have come close to taking the fullest advantage of the HD-DVD format.

Transformers is presented in a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (2.35:1 theatrical ratio), and it is nothing short of breathtaking. Michael Bay’s movies always use a color palette that is bright and occasionally oversaturated, and this disc represents that gloriously. As one would expect from a three-month old film, the print is in perfect shape. Details are as sharp as a tack, black levels are solid and the transfer is completely free of video noise, edge enhancement and compression artifacts. If I have one complaint, it would only be that a few nighttime scenes here and there are a tad on the murky side, but that is such a minor quibble in contrast to just how great this disc looks.

When this film was announced for HD-DVD release, a major bone of contention among owners of the format was that no TrueHD lossless audio track was to be included. I mean, after all, if there were a movie on HD-DVD that required an uncompressed audio track, it would be this one. Well, that or the Angelina Jolie drama A Mighty Heart (at least that’s what Paramount seems to think).

We may never know just how much better a TrueHD track would sound on Transformers, but I can say that the Dolby Digital Plus audio track on this disc is one superb substitute. The sound is fully immersive, offering terrific directionality from each and every speaker, and with a deep bass channel making its presence known right from the get go, one should get ready to rattle the foundation and piss off your neighbors in the process with this track.

Given the very short window from theatrical run to home video, I was expecting the bonus material for Transformers to be on the scant side. But judging from the wealth of supplements crammed onto this set, Dreamworks/Paramount were obviously thinking ahead and given Transformers fans hours of behind-the-scenes treats to go over.

There are three supplements on disc one, two of which are exclusive to HD-DVD. The first non-exclusive bonus is a feature-length commentary by Michael Bay. I expected this track to be nothing but a two and a half hour pat on the back and at times, it certainly is. Overall though, Bay’s comments on the film and its production hold one’s interest throughout, and he even manages to throw in an occasional, and humorous, self-depreciating comment or two along the way as well.

The interactive Transformers Heads Up Display is the first of the HD exclusives. A combination of pop-up trivia track and picture-in-picture video commentary, the pop up trivia feature offers a lot of trivia tidbits on the production, while the picture-in-picture part offers interviews with cast and crew and how the visual effects were created for the scene playing in the background at the same time. HD exclusive number two is an online feature entitled Paramount HD Connect, which allows viewers who have their players connected to the Internet to access bonus content such as the Transformers Intelligence Mode, which gives you facts on the robots, location tracking and health status. I was only able to preview a little bit of this, but what I saw was pretty cool.

The lion’s share of the extras is presented on disc two. When you first pop the disc in, you may notice that the extras menu looks a bit on the lean side. But true to the Transformers famous tagline (forgive me for using this), there is more than meets the eye here. Click on one of the four choices (Our World, Their War, Transformers Tech Inspector and More Than Meets the Eye) offered, and you discover an extensive group of documentary material that runs almost as long as the film itself, all of which is presented in a very nice 1080p/1.78:1 presentation.

The four parts that comprise the Our World section can be viewed two ways: separately or as one documentary via the Play All feature (the play all feature is also available in the Their War and More Than Meets the Eye sections as well). The Story Sparks (8:35) is a look at the origins of the big screen project and features interviews with Spielberg, Bay, screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, the film’s producers, representatives of the Hasbro Toy Company and stars such as Shia LaBeouf and Jon Voight. Human Allies (13:13) is an unintentionally funny short that has the film’s human cast waxing poetic about their characters and all the work they put into them (apparently, this was before any of them read the script). I Fight Giant Robots (14 minutes) takes a look at the military training that several of the actors experienced prior to filming, while Battleground (13:38) examines the location shooting and has some fun footage of the filming of the movie’s conclusion.

Section Two, entitled Their War, is a quartet of shorts that focuses more on the technical aspects of the production. The 14-minute Rise of the Robots looks at the history of the Transformers toy line and television series as well as the fans’ reactions to the changes that Michael Bay had made to such beloved characters as Optimus Prime for his movie version. Autobots Roll Out (20:02) takes a peek at the various real-life vehicles used to portray the otherworldly heroes. Decepticons Strike (14:34) is the companion piece to Autobots Roll Out, only this time the focus is on the military tanks and aircraft used to portray the baddies.

But forget about all those insights into plot, vehicles and character. Inside the Allspark (17 minutes) discusses the one thing we all want to know more about: the digital effects. The concluding segment of this section interviews members of Industrial Light and Magic as well as Digital Domain (which Bay now owns) and shows just how difficult it was to achieve the realistic look for the robots that Bay was looking for. For an even closer look at the design of the ‘bots, check out the Transformers Tech Inspector, in which viewers can get a 360-degree examination of their favorite good or bad toaster.

From Script to Sand: The Scorponok Desert Attack, which runs approximately 10 minutes, starts up the last section of supplements. It’s a brief breakdown of the Qatar desert battle sequence from start to finish, while a collection of photo galleries entitled Concepts offers some production stills accompanied by the film’s music. Finally, we get the Theatrical Teaser and two Theatrical Trailers that do a great job at selling the film. The trio of previews is all presented in 1080p and 5.1 surround sound.

Transformers was made for home video. If you just want to just see a mega-budget version of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, you can now jump right to the action without suffering through all that extraneous human being junk. For the millions of die-hard fans out there that own an HD-DVD player (and no doubt own this disc already), this edition is Giant Robot Nirvana. The audio and video transfers are superb, and depending on how much you liked the film, the hefty amount of bonus material is icing on the cake. If you really want to show people how good High Definition DVD can be but don’t have a copy of Warner’s gorgeous 2001: A Space Odyssey disc handy, Bay’s metallic smash ’em up opus will more than do the trick.

Click here to check Amazon’s prices for Transformers on HD-DVD

Score: 7.6

— Shawn Fitzgerald

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