Because the Transformers franchise has become an unwieldy cloud of toxic waste over the years, most seem to have forgotten how enjoyable the first one was. Michael Bay gets an awful rap for these, and by all means he deserves any shade thrown his way for some of the sequels, but I’m still convinced they only got made to cash in on the massive Asian market, I’ve heard that stuff like this is huge over there. This first film is a little saner and a lot more focused though, with a sort of 90’s Amblin infused vibe crossed with big budget CGI disaster mayhem of our current era, which is par for the course in a film directed by Michael Bay, as are lens flares, a grossly backlit slow motion kissing scene, explosions, fetishistic attention to the details of military protocol, montages of various factions of Americana playing out and um…cameos from loud sassy African American actors. Based on the Hasbro toy of the same name as well as probably an animated show that came before it, Bay ramps up the scale, special effects, human characters and exposition to somewhat plausibly set the Autobots and Decepticons loose in our world, engaged in noisy warfare over the All Spark, a cube of untold power that looks not so distantly related to the Tesseract. Caught in the middle is Shia Lebeouf as Sam Witwicky, a nervous teen whose family history hides something related to the Tranformers mythology, naturally sending him and the obligatory super hot love interest (Megan Fox) on a wild goose chase of stuff blowing up. There’s also various military factions caught up in the squabble including intrepid soldiers Josh Dumahel, Amaury Nolasco and Tyrese Gibson, research scientists Rachael Taylor and Anthony Anderson, Jon Voight as the grave Secretary of defense, John Turturro in pure comic relief form as a hapless federal agent and uh… Bernie Mac too, as the world’s saltiest used car salesman. The Shia Lebeouf angle has a cool 90’s sort of Joe Dante vibe, right down to the presence of consummate 90’s dad Kevin Dunn, naturally playing Sam’s father. While it goes a little off the rails in a final battle that pretty much levels an entire city to the ground and numbs any sense of realism to a dull roar, there’s a lot of fun to be had with the film, especially in the special effects used to bring these mechanical goliaths to life. Bumblebee is always a fan favourite, Optimus Prime looks fantastic and Hugo Weaving brings the vicious Megatron to life nicely. Steve Jablonsky almost outdoes his score for Bay’s The Island here, giving a magisterial composition that’s large and loud enough to accompany the Transformers on their journey and fills the film with noise, as the does the Oscar nominated sound design. Like I said, the sequels have become an impossible wall of deafening, uncalled for noise in the years since and it’s a shame because this one gets tainted in people’s memory when it’s still a good time.
I won’t pretend to be a fan of horror remakes other than Rob Zombie’s Halloween, but when they cast Sean Bean as iconic highway madman John Ryder in the inevitable second lap of Robert Harmon’s horror classic The Hitcher, I perked up. Bean, like Rutger Hauer in the original, is one of my favourite actors of all time and I had to to see what he did with the character (he pulled out of another contract and jumped a plane just to accept this gig). The good news is.. he lives up to Hauer’s original asphalt angel of death, and I’ll fight anyone who argues. The bad news? The film doesn’t. It’s one of those dodgy, hit or miss Platinum Dunes horror updates (avoid Jason and Freddy like the plague, but their first Leatherface incarnation is quite good) and really misses out on the atmospheric, haunting pace of the first, where nightmares and reality blend into the mirages appearing on the desert horizon for lone motorist Jim Halsey… the thing is, here Jim isn’t alone at all but travelling with his girlfriend and that takes some of the primal fear out of it. Zachary Knighton fills C. Thomas Howell’s shoes and a surprisingly adept Sofia Bush plays the gal, on a road trip for spring break when they’re suddenly tormented by Bean’s Ryder, an intense creation by the actor that carefully avoids any callbacks or mimicry of Hauer. How could he though? Rutger made that role his own and Bean wisely does the same with a sardonic, smouldering aura all his own, and wins a spot in horror pantheon as a worthy update on this boogeyman of the backroads (he’s also better than Gary Busey’s kid was in that god awful sequel that no one wants to admit was even made). Everything here gets a torqued update, from the infamous body tied between two trucks scene (yuck) to the car chases (that Trans Am tho) to the violence itself, to legendary highway super-cop Lt. Esteridge, trading in cucumber cool Jeffrey DeMunn for hilariously hammy Neal McDonough, who kills it as the only officer who isn’t a bumbling moron. But who needs all that sound and fury when you’re trying to throwback to an atmosphere classic? I guess go your own way, but it really doesn’t do the Hitcher legacy any justice. Aside from Bean who elevates his scenes to horror greatness, it’s a slapdash, needlessly gruesome slice of knockoff cash grab slasher fare that takes everything that was spooky, shadowy and mysterious about the first one, shines a big broad daylight aesthetic on it that shakes off the cobwebs we never wanted gone in the first place, like Bon Jovi trying to cover a song by The Cure. There is, however, one moment that gets it right and rises to a level of quality deserving of the Hitcher brand. It’s right at the end, everything has gone haywire, all the cops are dead, all the cars have been thoroughly blown up, and Ryder makes one last dash to escape. Sofia Bush takes up a dead cop’s shotgun and musters one final confrontation with him, as the score by Steve Jablonsky swells to adrenaline heights and we get an exchange of dialogue between the two, both beautifully delivered, that is the first shred of originality the film displays and almost, *almost* redeems itself. Where was that for the previous eighty five minutes? In any case, this holds a spot in my heart simply because I’ve watched it enough times and has crystallized into something nostalgic, which as we all know sometimes supersedes what we know is quality from that which we know is not. Worth it for Bean, the score and that supersonic final scene.