When I was growing up in the 80's, Transformers were my favorite toy line and the Tranformers cartoon was my favorite cartoon. As an adult, I find my kids are still into the current iteration of the toy, so I hold this film franchise (that's actually what Michael Bay has called it) to be quite a bit more sacred than other comic movies such as X-Men, Fantastic Four, Spiderman, etc. To me those are great action flicks, but for me Transformers needed to be something more. If the movie follows this book as it should, then I will certainly not be disappointed; but I could see how long time fans might be a bit let down with certain details.
So beyond this point I'm writing a "spoiler free" section and then below that I will detail some more specific info. In neither section will I give away: the ending, who dies, any major turn of events in the plot, etc... However, in both I will talk generally about: flow, character development, general comparisons between what's in this story and what was in the story of the 80's Transformers cartoon.
Before getting into content, I will say that I'm not a huge fan of Alan Dean Foster. I will go light on him because he was given the task to transform a screen play into a novel. He is the reason I give this 4 stars and not 5. I realize his task required him to write inside a box, and to be fair I don't think I've found a novel based on a screen play that I would give five stars to. Still, I felt as if here just as in Alan's prequel Transformers novel "Ghosts of Yesterday", the book seems quickly written and often goes a bit stale in creating imagery. There were times when I just wished I had a copy of the screen play. That's all I'm going to say about his writing style. So on to the review.
First, the book is full of action, but if you're wanting action every five minutes with no plot, then you may be let down. While I'm not sure how the movie will be (Bay might be going after a completely different style here), if the movie follows the book it's going to flow very much like other Michael Bay blockbusters such as Armageddon and The Rock. I feel Michael Bay does an excellent job at blending character development with action, and keeping a consistent pace, but if you don't like Bay's past work, my guess is you will not like the flow of the Trasnformers movie.
If you take the number of pages to this book: 291 and calculate it out for a two hour and twenty minute film (that's a rough guess) there will likely be a very detailed action sequence happening once every 10-15 minutes in the movie (think: Independence Day in term of pace) with the last 30 minutes of the film most likely being almost non-stop action.
Comparing the general story in this book to the Transformers television show, the biggest difference is that the story is told here from a human perspective. While I'm sure this change will upset long time fans, the truth is it makes for much better story telling to relate to people through human characters, this is true of all good science fiction writing. In terms of movies, Spielberg certainly lives by this rule and it works and it works here as well. In a cartoon geared for kids, it's easy to tell the story from the robots perspective, but the cartoon never tried to pull off what this story does, that is (within limits) make you believe Transformers are real for its duration and regarding personality: the Transformers most certainly have it in the book. It's expressed not only through what they say, [LIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD] although there is a good bit of English language communication between Transformers and their dialog is not dry. They are treated as non-organic alien robots with greater than human intelligence able to communicate with us and with full understanding of our technology and how to manipulate it.
As far as the story goes: there are essentially three sets of characters that are apparently not connected in any way (at the beginning of the story anyway) that the story follows and in the movie I assume (in Michael Bay style). We'll see a lot of transitions between these three sets of characters as the three story lines become one. So you have a military group stationed in desert of Qatar with a lead character. You have another group at the Pentagon in Washington with a few lead characters and then you have civilians: Sam "Spike", his friends and family. The most character development goes to Sam as he is really the lead in this story and it's with Sam and his friend Mikaela that we find character growth in this story. We also find a bit of growth (although less pronounced) in Optimus Prime and Bumblebee).
Essentially three plots start out independant and sort of weave together, but it's handled very well. It works and it makes for a real page turner, which I think will translate into a very fast paced movie. If you imagine the grander of Independence Day in terms of special effects "WOW" factor and pace; combine that with the great emotional connection to characters that Spielberg typically brings you get the idea. No, this is not ET or A.I. redone, we're probably not going to see that depth of emotional attachment to characters, but there will probably be more audience emotional attachment to some of these characters than any other Michael Bay film to date and I'm including the non-fans who have no investment going in. It's going to be a great movie, potentially Michael Bay's best film.
This is exactly the kind of story I was hoping for, something more mature than the cartoon I remembered as I kid, yet something accessible to older children. This is probably going to get a PG-13 rating and not aimed at younger kids. There's going to be a bit of sexual innuendo, there's going to be some death of humans and Transformers. Some of the Transformers with personalities will die very violent deaths in this story, so if you're a parent know that this may not be suitable for younger kids.
If you're a die-hard fan feeling like you got cheated. Well, I understand the pain of having something you care so much about be changed by a big budget. But what's really to say? You got your movie back in 1985. That's been done. Regardless of who handled it, Transformers would have had to have gotten an update and a major change in perspective to grow beyond a novelty flick. If it's going to be big budget it has to have mass appeal and I feel this story has that appeal. I think it has the appeal to do what the X-Men movie has done for the comic and what Smallville has done for the Superman comic, that is- give the series a new [better] origin story and a fresh direction. Overall it paid enough respect to the 80's cartoon to make me happy.
Someone else said Megatron doesn't even show up until the end.... Well, that's true, but there is a very good reason for it. It's a key element in the plot and I think it not only makes sense it works well. You have to keep in mind Transformers is a planned as a trilogy by Dreamworks, this is the first part of a bigger story (they are working on the script to the two sequals right now). But even at that, there's so much going on, we don't need to see Megatron right away.
I love the way the autobots are treated and Bumblebee in especially is very funny and comes to life in a unique way. The rumor has been that he can not speak and while that's true (sort of true), I think what they've done with his communication is very entertaining and cool. The way the relationship between spike and bumblebee is built up is perfect for this story and something they will probably build on in the sequels.
If I could change a few things: I think there should have been more a dynamic between Megatron and Optimus Prime. I would have shown some backstory on Cybertron. This is something they may build on in sequels, but it's not in this story. Also I wish they would have started on Cybertron or at least brought a space view of Cybertron in. In the book we never "see" Cybertron. However, the book does start in space so there is hope for the movie to include Cybertron in the opening shots. Generally, I wish Megatron would have a been a gun. Generally, I have no problem with the reworking/modernizing of the Transformer robots and their disguise modes. Coming into the story I did have a bit of a problem with it, but the thing is, this story is its own thing. It's still very much the Transformers story fans will know at core, but it' also very different from the 80's cartoon.
The book is roughly 300 pages and the big finale occurs in the last 50 pages, accounting for big special effects sense. That means the last the intense action at the end of the movie will be the last 15-30 minutes of the film.... While I'm fine with that, I did feel a bit unsatisfied with the ending. I won't give away who dies, but I will say a major character is apparently dead at the end of the movie... While not a cliff hanger like the second Matrix movie or X2, the Transformers book does end with you expecting a sequel.
I think people who love action movies; the people who never read an X-Men or Spiderman comic, but love the movies will also love Transformers as a great live-action film adaption. I found myself caring very little for example, that Soundwave is not in the movie and that Frenzy is a very strange alien looking thing. If you're worried about the characters changing, I say just give this a chance and don't expect an G1 movie, it's just a new interpretation of the Transformers story and I pretty good one at that.
This story feels very much like the first act of a bigger story.