Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Rubik's Robots

In the 1980's there was a line of toys that had everyone
scrambling to own--they were simple yet complex. There
were different combinations, but only one solution.
This was the Rubik's Cube (and its kin), and it made
someone a lot of money.

"Transformers", arriving today on DVD and HD-DVD is
another attempt to perplex, entertain and the make
the wealthy studio system wealthier.

The modern filmmakers at Dreamworks had a puzzle similar
to Rubik's, with their Transformers license. How could
they match up at least six different sides to perfection?

The various factions they seem to be dealing with:
1. The fanbase (the story has spread from toys to comics,
animated series, animated feature films, graphic novels)
2. CG junkies who must have their fix of photorealistic
3. Attention deficited mainstream America
4. The non-fans--"Transwhat?"
5. Hasbro and Takara (makers of the original toys)
and their various toylines
6. Advertisers (supposedly product placement helps
reduce the ballooning budget for this type of movie)

After viewing the film in the theater, and also a couple
times on DVD, it seems like most of the surfaces align
well. The robots themselves seem to have been rolled
in scrap metal, Katamari-style. They change form
effortlessly, thanks to ILM and their army of computer
graphicians. These artists have come a long way from
"Roger! Roger!" and Jar Jar in The Phantom Menace.
Look for a reference to Jurassic Park featuring
a bad human's transportation.

It is interesting that the Autobots
(good guys) all take the form of automobiles/trucks,
and the Decepticons are primarily imitating military
vehicles. Does that cast an evil shadow over
armed forces? Cars are quite villainous--mine
breaks down regularly.

The story would have been a lot shorter
if the Autobots landed in the military base, and
assumed shapes from the American arsenal. But then
would the evil Decepticons have chosen cars, or
maybe construction equipment? The original fans
might have cried "foul", but there were other
liberties taken (Bumblebee reassigned from his VW
bug design).

The original cartoon had many robot variations,
including dinosaurs. There was even a cool computer
animated "Beast Wars" TV show. The Transformers
are portrayed with a "blending ability" in the
new movie--how about multiple forms for the same
character? Maybe Optimus Prime could have arrived
with his flat-nose truck design, and been pressured
into something different. Using Bumblebee's color
scheme and size he could probably pull off a
taxi cab, bulldozer or short bus.

With the Rubik's Cube, you couldn't just solve one
plane without changing the others. Sometimes the
film seems to use the "screwdriver" method (who
would do that to a harmless Rubik's Cube?) to solve
plot situations. The military is all over a
Decepticon helicopter overseas, but meteors landing
on Earth are met with people toting camcorders,
dissing "Armageddon". There is a good showdown at
the end, assembling military and civilian
forces. There is a Crazy Taxi approach to harming
humans who are in the way, but I did see Megatron
flick a bystander like a bug. Optimus races past
a crashing helicopter to save the hero, King Kong-
style--why not help out both situations? Cityscapes
under attack are still touchy--I think "Spider-Man 3"
featured a skyscraper with several floors exposed,
with the inhabitants scrambling to stay inside.
Transformers handles the collateral damage much
better--one scene shows an Autobot leaping over
a woman in the street in slow-motion, to engage an
evil opponent yards away. Visually pleasing and PC!

The story, like toys, MTV, and fast food, is meant to
please average tastes. Think "Battle Royale with
Cheese". As an upsell, look for the new live-action
"Iron Man" trailer after the closing credits. It
looks sharp.

So most of the puzzle is complete, the movie looks
great, but does the non-believer feel compelled to
give in and buy the DVD (or related merchandise/toys)?
Could the move to only release the title on HD-DVD
alienate those who have spent thousands on a Blu-Ray
home theater experience?

The HD-DVD format could bring certain things into
focus--the Mountain Dew/Burger King/auto ads strewn
throughout the film; the director's love of lens flare,
and using blazing light sources as transitions.

Is HD-DVD a Decepticon or an Autobot? In twenty more
years, what will remain as a treasure from this age--
the Transformers, Blu-Ray, or the Rubik's Cube?