June 5, 2007


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Transformers (PG-13)
Michael Bay brings the Hasbro toys back to the big screen in the live-action movie Transformers, a CGI-packed piece of the Michael Bay oeuvre that is actually a little less than meets the eye.

Michael Bay is a wiz with movie trailers. He’s directed many films — Pearl Harbor and The Island for example — that have made some fantastic movie trailers. Thrills, excitement, explosion-packed action, these movies (according to the trailers) feature all of these. Heck, the early trailers for Pearl Harbor gave me chills.

The trailer.

The movie Pearl Harbor was a different story. So I really shouldn’t have been so surprised when the trailer for Transformers — which made the movie look like some cartoon/toy-influenced variation on Independence Day, you know, in a good way — turned out to be selling a movie that feels more like a direct-to-video variation on Independence Day with nods to the unfunniest riffs from I Love the ’80s.

We begin with a ponderous bit of narration by Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) about a cube called the All-Spark that can turn any machine into a Decepticon (bad guy robot). The leader of the Decepticons is Megatron and after his battles with the Autobots (good guy robots, of which Optimus Prime, the robot who can turn into a Mack truck, is one) turned their home planet of Cybertron into a wasteland, they’ve all dispersed into the universe to … (and if you think this is long, keep in mind that I’m actually summing up the narration) … in any event, now all of the key characters are more or less on Earth, hiding in plain sight as vehicles of some kind. (As you’ll remember from the toys, the Transformers whirl around and, well, transform from car or truck into giant robot.)

Meanwhile, a teenager named Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is trying to eBay the artifacts of his semi-famous explorer ancestor (who apparently went a little nuts after an expedition to the North Pole) in hopes of raising money to buy a car. Sam gets to the used car lot and finds that the combined $4,000 from him and his dad aren’t going to get him very far, car-wise. In fact, the only thing with character he’ll probably be able to afford is the beat-up yellow Camaro that seems to be trying awfully hard to get Sam to pick him.

Sam gets the car and the car actually helps our slightly dorky hero get hot-girl Mikaela (Megan Fox) to hang out with Sam for a while. Sam decides his car is indeed the greatest car ever — that is until it steals itself and drives riderless to a junk yard where it turns into a giant robot.

Hey, all used cars have hidden problems.

After another riderless car chases Sam and Mikaela, Sam figures out that his car is good and that some cars are bad. A whole posse of good cars — including Optimus Prime, who tells us that Sam’s car is named Bubblebee — shows up to get a pair of glasses from Sam that belonged to his crazy explorer relative. As it turns out, they hold the key to part of the ongoing struggle between the Autobots and the Decepticons.

Meanwhile, a Decepticon has attacked a U.S. military base in the Middle East and used an on-site computer to hack into the government’s most secret files. Another Decepticon attacks Air Force One and uses that computer to spread the word about some grand Decepticon plan for destruction.

And in the most irrelevant meanwhile, young, lip-gloss-addicted computer programmer Maggie (Rachel Taylor) works with a whole team of techie know-it-alls to attempt to figure out the source of all of this hacking.

The movie regularly switches between Sam, soldiers who survived the attack and are trekking through the desert to bring photographic evidence of the Decepticon to the government (their number includes Josh Duhamel, sort of a taller, TV version of Brad Pitt) and the tech team (the stars of that group being Tyrese Gibson and Anthony Anderson). We also get a smattering of scenes with the slow-on-the-uptake Secretary of Defense (Jon Voight). Though the non-Sam scenes make up at least half the movie, they make just about all of the boring. Shia LaBeouf is by far the best thing this movie has going for it and, even though many of his scenes feature serious flaws in dialogue or story, the scenes without him are exponentially worse.

I legitimately went in expecting — or at least hoping — to like this movie. I mean, battling robots — what could go wrong? Michael Bay, I suppose, is the answer there. We get a movie (an unnecessarily long movie at two hours and 20 minutes) filled with his stock shot of helicopters taking off dramatically and soldiers readying themselves for action (Bay really likes his military/weapon porn), his power-ballady score and his ridicule-worthy “moments” between Sam and the hot girl, both in perfect light and with hair blowing. A tight 90-minute movie about destruction-hungry robots and a plucky teenager with his first car could have been a great popcorn romp. This is a slog. There are too many plot threads with not enough story. In the end, there’s no real reason to care about the soldiers or the tech geeks or any of the characters not directly connected to Sam. Michael Bay constructed this movie very much as though it were Independence Day but — and I can’t believe I’m about to say this about a Roland Emmerich movie (Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow) — Transformers doesn’t have that movie’s emotional resonance. I know.

I want my Michael Bay movies short, explodey, funny and short. And that movie might be floating around somewhere inside Transformers but there’s too much other action flotsam and blockbuster jetsam to make that thrilling popcorn movie easy to spot. I know Transformers wanted to be my big Fourth of July-period action spectacular but, sorry, Mr. Bay, Live Free or Die Hard did it first and better. C-

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action violence, brief sexual humor and language. Directed by Michael Bay and written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and John Rogers, Transformers is two hours and 20 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Paramount Pictures.