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Hi-Def Review
HD-DVD review by Peter Schorn of The Digital Bits

Transformers (HD-DVD)

1080p - Analog Full ResolutionHD-DVD FormatDolby Digital Plus

Buy this DVD now at Amazon!

2007 (2007) Dreamworks/Paramount (Paramount)
Released on HD-DVD on October 16th, 2007

Film: B+
Video (1-20): 17
Audio (1-20): 18
Extras: B

Specs and Features:
144 mins, PG-13, AVC 1080p widescreen (2.40:1), 2 HD-30 DL discs, 2-disc Elite Red HD packaging, audio commentary with director Michael Bay, HDi interactive Transformers H.U.D. option (with PiP video, production trivia & more), 4 Our World featurettes (The Story Sparks, Human Allies, I Fight Giant Robots and Battleground), 3 Their War featurettes (Rise of the Robots, Autobots Roll Out and Inside the Allspark), 2 additional production featurettes (From Script to Sand: The Skorponok Desert Attack and Concepts), theatrical trailers, Easter eggs, web-enabled features (Intelligence Mode with GPS tracker, factoids and Transformer status indicator, Sector 7 Transmissions, additional features TBA), animated film-themed root menu with audio/"in-film" menu overlay, scene access (28 chapters), languages: Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 (English, French and Spanish), subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish and Portuguese

I like to think I've got my sci-fi geek bona fides in order: Star Wars permanently changed my life; I've watched plenty of Star Trek; I read Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein books in high school. Nothing too lofty; nothing too pulp; and I was able to have girlfriends, too. Despite the respectable nerd CV, I have to admit to being at a loss when reports concerning the live-action Transformers starting clogging the series of tubes called "teh Intarwebz" (sic) because I never watched the show and knew little more than the "robots in disguise" tag from the jingles. That they were making a live-action version of the old toy commercials-cum-cartoons wasn't particularly surprising, though the presence of master action filmmaker/flashy hack (pick one) Michael Bay as director seemed oddly slumming for the auteur responsible for Pearl Harbor.

What was particularly lost on me was the kafuffle over Optimus Prime's lips and flames. Huh? Who cares about this stuff? Every leaked detail that came out was met with great fanboy wailing, gnashing of teeth, and flagellation. To read the hysterically emo message board posts, you'd think their childhood memories were being torn away by Megatron Bay and made into Armageddon-flavored animal crackers. Whether Han Solo shoots first or second, that's a matter of global importance; all this racket over robots seemed ridiculous. So, I had no expectations going into the theater this summer other than wanting to see giant robots fighting and tearing [stuff] up and by that measure Transformers (un film de Michael Bay) is a rollicking success.

Since just having mindless 'bot battles may have seemed a little thin, a whole lot of plot structure and characters have been larded on to supposedly engage the audience. As we're told by stentorian Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen), the cosmic MacGuffin of the Transformer universe is a mystical cube called the Allspark which creates life wherever it goes. It brought life to the planet Cybertron, but was lost in their wars and eventually landed on Earth where good robots (Autobots) and bad ones (Decepticons) will shortly fight for its possession.

After a slam-bang opening sequence in which an Army helicopter transforms into the evil Blackout and destroys the entire air base in Qatar leaving no survivors beyond one squad including Lennox (Josh Duhamel) and Epps (Tyrese Gibson), we shift to twitchy high school teenager Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), who is using his history class oral report to hawk artifacts from his explorer great-grandfather. Amongst the items is another MacGuffin, a pair of spectacles upon which is encoded the location of the Allspark, but he doesn't know that; he's just trying to raise some cash to get a car. He sees it as his ticket to adventure and a means to get to know his foxy classmate Mikaela (Megan Fox, who resembles a young Jennifer Connolly) a little better. Little does he know...

The ride he gets is a rusty yellow late-Seventies Camaro which exhibits curious behavior as if it has a mind of its own. One night, the car takes off with Sam in hot pursuit of what he thinks is a car thief. He is shocked to discover that the car stole itself because it has turned into a giant robot. (Don't you hate it when that happens?) Freaked out, he's unsure of what to do, but he knows things are serious when a police car turns into another robot demanding to know where the glasses are. Eventually he meets the whole gang of Autobots - Ratchet, Ironhide, Jazz, Bumblebee (his car) and Optimus Prime - and learns of his ancestor's discovery under the Arctic ice: the evil Decepticon leader (and Sony product soundalike), Megatron (voiced by Hugo "will genre for food" Weaving).

Also running along on a parallel track are a pair of hackers - Maggie (Rachael Taylor) and Glen (Anthony Anderson) - who are working with Defense Secretary Keller (Jon Voight) trying to try and find out who or what is hacking into the national security network to get the information about... you know what? It doesn't matter. No, seriously, it doesn't. The perverse beauty of Transformers is that despite having three sets of characters beyond the 'bots, they are almost totally dispensable, starting with the hackers who come off as barely able to load a DVD properly on the first try. There's no one to really identify with or care about beyond Sam and even he's superfluous. The movie is called Transformers and that's who the real stars are.

The photorealism of special effects is getting to the point that it's hard to believe that that the same ones and zeros that created the world of Tron are now capable of such seamlessly integrated visuals that it looks as if Bay and his crew actually built thirty-foot-tall hydraulically-powered animatronic robots for the actors to interact with. How realistic are the effects? When they use a full-scale physical model of Bumblebee in a few shots, it's immediately obvious that it's not real. (Did I just write that?) Kudos to ILM and Digital Domain for their work; Oscars all around!

What makes Transformers work far better than its component parts would imply - as I was synopsizing the "plot" I realized just how extraneous it all was - is Bay's knowing use of all his stock tricks. The pornographic fetishizing of the latest military hardware? Check. The obligatory ultra-slow-motion shots of people walking or standing up? Present. The ridiculous quantities of property-destroying mayhem? Oh hell yeah! But where Bay moves smartly this time out is in getting in on his own joke and winking at the crowd that he too knows that it's all a trifle. From a kid excitedly proclaiming robot-carrying meteors crashing in his neighborhood as being "easily a hundred times cooler than Armageddon" to aping the circling camera from a Bad Boys II gunfight, Bay loosens up and has fun which helps the audience have fun, too.

As skeletal as the story may be there are plenty of instances of warm humor involving Sam's amiably daft parents (Kevin Dunn and Julie White), their broken-legged Chihuahua, Mojo, and between the Autobots. One set piece involves the 'bots trying to be nonchalant and unseen as they tear up Sam's freshly landscaped backyard instead of waiting in their product-placed GM vehicle forms in the alley. What could've been personality-free hunks of metal are transformed (no pun) into a squad of cranky warriors familiar from years of mutual battle. LaBeouf's energetic performance also sells us on the reality of these mighty visitors the same way Bob Hoskins sold us the residents of Toon Town in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Without this grounding, the illusion would've been dispelled and we would've know he was playing against long window washer poles.

In what seems a counter-intuitive detail, Transformers actually works better in the home theater than it did in real theaters. At the show, the frantic flailing and whirring of these rockin' sockin' robots was overwhelming and hard to follow. But when viewed on a screen big enough to show the detail but small enough to fit within the center of the field of vision, the geography of the action is clearer. Sometimes bigger ain't always better.

As a highly-anticipated HD-DVD showcase disc expectations were high and for the most part the 2.40:1 anamorphic transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus audio tracks (English, French, and Spanish) are up to the task, but there are some minor glitches in the system. Picture-wise, the 1080p AVC MPEG-4-encoded presentation is very good with deep saturated colors - perhaps too saturated - inky black levels and excellent detail. The metal flake of Optimus' flames was more apparent here than when I saw it twice at the theaters. However, Bay's golden-toned lighting of many scenes (which makes even interiors look like they were shot at sunset) gives LaBeouf and Fox complexions that are downright orange. Other actors in other locales look natural and this is the way it looked at the theater, but it's more pronounced here. There are also a few instances where chrome highlights exhibit some jagged edges. The biggest deficit is an extended period - when John Turturro's crazed Sector Seven agent appears - where the overall brightness level is insufficient, docking off another point.

The lack of a TrueHD audio option due to space constraints of HD-DVD versus Blu-ray has been editorialized about already and shall not be rehashed here, but there have been had plenty of DVDs with house-rocking tracks in the antiquated Dolby Digital and DTS formats, so the lack of uncompressed audio shouldn't be a deal-breaker. For the most part, the very active sound presentation envelopes the listener in audio mayhem that matches the visuals. More impressive is the fact that no matter how noisy things get, the dialog comes through loud and clear without having to ride the volume control. Too often, action films lull you in the talky parts and then blast your eardrums and frighten your pets when the bam-booming starts; Transformers doesn't.

Where there is an anomaly is in the LFE action. The first time I saw it theatrically, I was blown away by how bass-heavy the mix was especially in one moment known as "the Ironhide Flip." The second time, at a different theater that clearly didn't have their subs properly balanced, it was a less-satisfying experience. Viewing it at home on a system that handily reproduced the DTS-fueled battering ram at the gates of Minas Tirith on the extended The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, I was disappointed by the lack of wallop. Granted, few home systems are as powerful as a cinema's setup, but there should've been more junk in the trunk. Whether TrueHD would've provided more of the desired low end is irrelevant; it could and should have been done with this Dolby Digital Plus track.

Moving on to the optional equipment, the feature disc's extras lead off with a feature commentary by Michael Bay who gives a good, freewheeling talk about various aspects of the production, including his politically incorrect edict that no white man would be allowed to paint Optimus Prime's Peterbilt-form flames; that only a Mexican cholo would be able to properly bedazzle the leader of the Autobots. While he's a Type A personality, he's not too arrogant and it's a good track. There is also the Transformers H.U.D. - an automatic version of the gimmicky U-Control feature on Universal titles. Along with various production trivia along bottom, relevant picture-in-picture windows pop up with synchronized animatics, on-set interviews and whatnot including tape of the film's tow truck catching fire during one stunt and Hugo Weaving performing his Megatron lines, sounding much different before the secret sonic processing sauce is added. It's informative and unobtrusive, unlike the web-enhanced mode I'll cover below.

Transitioning to the second disc there are nine featurettes divided into three categories clocking it at a little over two hours, all presented in HD. The Our World section breaks into The Story Sparks (the genesis of the project), Human Allies (cast interviews), I Fight Giant Robots (military assistance and hardware), and Battleground (filming massive action scenes). There is plenty of behind the scenes footage that gives a good sense of what a production of this scale entails. Bay's omnipresent bullhorn gives rise to an amusing payback from his crew and the danger of flinging real cars around is illustrated when a sedan is hurled into the second floor of a backlot building!

Since Our World focuses on the humans, it's no surprise that Their War covers the metallic marvels. Rise of the Robots, Autobots Roll Out, and Inside the Allspark shows the evolution from the first toys to the intricate CGI creations of the film. One decision was that the robots wouldn't mass-shift meaning Megatron wouldn't shrink down into a pistol and Optimus would be a long-nose Peterbilt. The robots would have to fit inside their mobile forms and then retain recognizable car parts when walking around. Bay's experience shooting car commercials was invaluable as he explained to the special effects houses how light interacted with hard, shiny metal forms, ensuring further realism.

The leftover bits - From Script to Sand: The Skorponok Desert Attack (self-explanatory) and Concepts (a brief art gallery slideshow) - and an assortment of trailers and Easter eggs, including a hi-def trailer for the upcoming Iron Man round out the included extras. Revelations include the means for getting the sand to kick up - explosive primer cord underneath carpeting and sand - which served as motivation for the cast to run like hell as if they were being chased by something that could do them bodily harm.

At this writing, the web-enhanced features are incomplete and a mixed bag. The Intelligence Mode is kind of neat with a GPS tracker, humorous trivia factoids about the characters popping up along with indicators of which 'bots are in the scene and their status. It eats up a lot of screen real-estate, running the movie in a box, so it's best for those looking to add an extra spin on their tenth viewing. Far less worth it are the Sector 7 Transmissions - six of which are available - but after spending several minutes downloading the first one to get perhaps 15 seconds of footage, I didn't care to waste the time checking out the others.

Upcoming updates promised include the ability to create and share playlists of favorite scenes - I'm guessing Megan Fox scenes will be more popular than scene with Sam's folks; another in-movie guide to behind-the scenes; and Menubots, which transforms your in-movie menu bar to look like your favorite Transformer. I don't see why any of this stuff couldn't have been shipped on the disc in the first place other than time constraints or a desire to remove features in order to "give" them later as "bonuses." "Ship now, patch later" is the bane of computer gaming; it would be sad to see this as a next-gen video business strategy. Not everyone has their players connected to the Internet - I had to switch from my standalone Toshiba XA2 deck to my Xbox 360's add-on to check these features - so this requirement will mean most viewers probably won't access this content at all. Hey, movie studios, would you kindly ship everything on the discs in the first place, please?

In a summer full of "threequels" - Spider-Man, Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean, Bourne, Ocean's, Rush Hour - along with a fourth Die Hard and fifth Harry Potter films, Transformers was one of the few "original" films in 2007 and despite the misgivings of some hardcore nerds, it was a fine popcorn action flick that has been transformed into an excellent HD-DVD package. Autobot fans, roll out and buy it!

Peter Schorn
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