Transformers (2007)

Composed by Steve Jablonsky

Michael Bay entered Hollywood’s search for pre-existing material (comic books, old television shows, and action figures) to bring to the big screen. He was to direct the first live-action film based on the line of Transformers toys, good and evil robots that can into  vehicles, although animals and weapons are not out of the question. The film itself is inspired by the beloved animated series from the 80s, featuring Optimus Prime, Megatron, Bumblebee, and the All-Spark, one of the many items of power battled over by the noble Autobots and the sinister Decepticons. The movie see Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) buy a new yellow car in hopes of impressing and wooing hot girl Mikaela (Megan Fox). It turns out to be Autobot Bumblebee, who is racing against the Decepticons to recover a map to the life-giving All-Spark. Gradually more Transformers, as well as a governmental organization, show up and set the stage for a final destructive battle.

Unfortunately, as the budget for the fascinating special effects did not allow for too much screen time for the Transformers, Michael Bay ended up focusing on a wide range of human characters, many of who could have been cut from the film with ease considering the final product runs two and a half hours long. Despite the typical overbearing action and special effects, as well as a generous helping of stupid and/or juvenile humor and characters, the film actually isn’t too bad, a decent fun adventure with its good moments (the sequels are another story). One recurring Michael Bay touch is the Media Ventures score with ostinato rhythms, heroic anthems, and choral chants to make everything feel more epic. Steve Jablonsky, who after a fairly original score for Steamboy has found his talents relegated to mimicking previous Media Ventures scores, got the job with predictable but not bad results.

Overall the music is fairly simplistic in structure and utilizes many stock Media Ventures tropes with noble power anthems and heavenly choir for the heroes and more ominous vocals and sinister electronics for the Deceptions. Electronics are a large component, with some New Age-style underscore and lots of synthesizer-laden action cues. The electronics do match the robots vs. robots setting though I think they were chosen simply to get that typical dumb blockbuster sound. I have to say that I find the music to not be as unoriginal as some claim. Many reviewers in 2007 argued that Jablonsky’s score could fit into almost any action/adventure setting. This is true to a point, though I doubt it would fit into an ancient Roman setting as some of these reviewers suggest. I will criticize Jablonsky’s theft of the five-note motif from the Terminator theme. Also, many of the rhythmic sections are heavily plagiarized from Batman Begins, featuring that film’s ostinato. The difference is that Jablonsky’s new themes replace the two-note core of Hans Zimmer’s Batman theme.

Originally, Sony only released an album full of mainly unrelated songs, as it had been done earlier in the year with their other blockbuster Spider-Man 3. While the original score for that film still has yet to get a release, a massive online petition convinced Sony to release an hour-long album for Transformers. Jablonsky capitalized on the delayed release, tweaking and refining many of the cues for a better presentation on album. The result is a mostly satisfactory experience which should please most listeners. The album can be divided into two parts. The first seven of twenty tracks are more focused on showcasing the various themes while the remainder is a mostly chronological presentation of other highlights. This does a good job of identifying the themes that mix together more in later cues, though they are for the most part obvious anyways.

Each Transformer faction gets several themes to themselves. “Autobots” is essentially the opening cue for the movie, a stirring, noble theme for the good guys that is often accentuated by heavenly choir. Its appearances are few on CD, but make a good impact, especially at the climax of “You’re a Soldier Now.” Optimus Prime, the top hero of the franchise, gets his own individual theme, showcased of course in “Optimus” with patriotic woodwinds and dramatic percussion. In-film it first appears in quite emotional fashion in “Arrival to Earth” when the character debuts to the question “Are you an angel?” (not in the Anakin Skywalker sense). It further doubles as a general emotional identity for the heroes.

“Decepticons” introduces the titular villains’ theme. It’s a simple low throbbing electronic piece with a chanting male choir. For this particular track, the choir gets louder and higher-pitched as it goes along, crescendoing with pounding drums before quieting down and segueing into the next track. The Decepticon theme may be much simpler than the Autobots’, but effectively conveys their potentially apocalyptic villainy. In a more intelligent film the contrast between the Autobot and Decepticon choir could be linked to the clash between angels and demons. As with the Autobots, the Decepticons’ head honcho, Megatron, gets his own theme. It’s a more generic, stately villain theme that only makes an album appearance at 0:44 in “Optimus vs. Megatron” (though it is foreshadowed by a similar melody in “Soccent Attack”). The third theme is a mischievous droning ditty in “Frenzy” that represents the smaller Decepticons.

“The All Spark” introduces a theme that isn’t as apparent in the film thanks to all the noise and in fact seems to have been expanded for the album release. This theme has a wide purpose, but seems to be centered on Sam Witwicky. It appears in scenes with Bumblebee, Sam’s Autobot friend and the only Transformer to really be a full character (albeit heaving more like an especially intelligent dog at times), and discussions about the All-Spark maguffin. This theme’s introduction on album is in warm Americana mode, conveying both the All-Spark’s life-giving properties and Sam’s everyman status. It further serves as a grand heroic conclusion to the otherwise rambling electronics and Batman Begins ostinato of “Bumblebee.” It sometimes gets a truncated variation for insertion into action cues (0:27 in “Sector 7”). The final thematic track, “Deciphering the Signal,” is an urgent rhythmic piece for the hackers, extraneous characters who seek to understand what’s causing all the recent alien phenomena. Of course this is a Michael Bay film so there’s a lot of American military involvement (which annoyingly diverted attention away from Transformer-on-Transformer fights throughout the first three films). “Scorponok” introduces a simple aggressive rhythm that eventually turns into a heroic motif.

The second and longer part of the album begins with “Soccent Attack.” It starts strong with a stately yet villainous melody and some Deception chants, but slides into very uninteresting action material. “Sam at the Lake” is a goofy piece for Shia Labeouf’s constantly stammering sex-driven teen. “Scorponok” is one of the more popular cues of Jablonsky’s score, and centers around the Military theme in aggressive fashion until the theme gets heroic for an airstrike. I’ve heard some people complain that “Scorponok” is a rip-off of Dead Man’s Chest’s “The Kraken”. It’s a fair criticism, the rhythms and tunes are different enough.

“Cybertron” is a bland emotional piece which features a five-note motif at the one minute mark that is suspiciously similar to the metallic theme from the Terminator franchise. “Arrival to Earth” is far from bland and is a definite highlight. It’s an emotional cue with heavenly choir as the Autobots land on earth to save it from evil. Jablonsky provides a scene-specific motif that tells us the rest of the good guys are here. The scene in the movie itself is among the best, and the track is made even better by an angelic reference to Optimus Prime’s theme (3:06) and the return of the Autobots theme. The album sags with “Witwicky”, a comedic suspense piece which always fails to hold my interest, and the very uninteresting action cue “Downtown Battle.” “Sector 7” and “Bumblebee is Captured” are two tracks which meld into each other. The action music is simply okay, but things get better when Optimus Prime’s theme appears at the end for a downer moment.

The final battle cues are satisfactory, although they start to ramble on at a couple of moments. “You’re a Soldier Now” is a neat combination of several of Jablonsky’s themes. Action rhythms lead to the Decepticon theme (0:50). The Batman Begins ostinato returns with the Autobot theme. After a brief reprise of the Optimus theme (2:15), it finally climaxes with a racing iteration of the Autobots theme as Optimus Prime charges into the scene as a truck and transforms (with the Terminator motif also appearing again). “Sam on the Roof” features a brief iteration of the All-Spark theme before Decepticon chanting intervenes. The Decepticon theme builds up for Sam’s defining hero moment. “Optimus vs. Megatron” is the finale of the action cues, although not as good as the last two. The Autobot theme makes a noble appearance before the action picks up with a dramatic rhythm and Megatron’s theme. Generic action noise takes over for a bit. Almost two minutes in the Military motif makes a Batman Begins-style appearance as the soldiers take out one of the other Decepticons. The B section of the Autobots theme comes in for the conclusion of main fight (3:07). “No Sacrifice, No Victory” is a good climax, featuring Optimus Prime’s theme and then a reprise of the Autobots theme.

I wouldn’t rate Transformers too highly, although I do enjoy it. It has a good number of engaging and entertaining themes. A lot of the material between the themes is un involving or mere noise, reflecting the overbearing soundscape of Michael Bay films, but the whole product is a fun listen with a decent batch of themes and several satisfying emotional cues.

Rating: 6/10

Tracklisting

  1. Autobots (2:33)
  2. Decepticons (3:52)
  3. The All Spark (3:35)
  4. Deciphering the Signal (3:09)
  5. Frenzy (1:57)
  6. Optimus (3:16)
  7. Bumblebee (3:58)
  8. Soccent Attack (2:07)
  9. Sam at the Lake (2:00)
  10. Scorponok (4:57)
  11. Cybertron (2:46)
  12. Arrival to Earth (5:27)
  13. Witwicky (1:57)
  14. Downtown Battle (1:33)
  15. Sector 7 (2:05)
  16. Bumblebee Captured (2:17)
  17. You’re a Soldier Now (3:28)
  18. Sam on the Roof (2:03)
  19. Optimus vs. Megatron (4:00)
  20. No Sacrifice, No Victory (2:58)

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