Michael Bay doesn’t merely pander to the lowest common denominator, he redefines it by lowering it. Nowhere is this more evident than in Transformers, a movie that makes even the most witless comic book or video-game adaptation look like a major addition to the art of film.
Conceptually, Transformers is perhaps something of a landmark, coming as it does on the 30th anniversary of Star Wars, the movie that taught the movies how to make a second fortune by marketing toys and dolls (rechristened “action figures”). Transformers ups the ante by being based on a line of toys that debuted in 1984 when Hasbro bought the U.S. rights to them from the Japanese company Takara. The toys, as the name implies, could—with the right twisting, turning, wrenching and occasional swearing—transform from everyday objects (like cars or planes) into fanciful robots. There were good-guy robots, the Autobots, and bad-guy robots, the Decepticons. The idea, of course, was that metal-on-metal mayhem would ensue. To generate that action (and promote the toys), a cartoon series and a line of comic books were cooked up.
Now we have something in the range of $150 million summer-blockbuster movie courtesy of Bay, Steven Spielberg, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (the guys who wrote Mission: Impossible III), Dreamworks, Paramount and, yep, Hasbro. (What’s next? The Big Wheel Movie co-produced by Marx?) OK, I know, I know—I’m not the target audience for this mish-mash. I never played with the toys or doted on the cartoons. True enough, but thinking back on my own childhood, I can’t say I’d keenly anticipate the prospect of Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots: The Movie or Captain Kangaroo Saves the World (even if the latter promised the dirt on Mr. Greenjeans and Dancing Bear).
Looking at Transformers with no nostalgia for either the product or the decade that spawned it, all I see is a remarkably stupid movie driven by cardboard characters, CGI-effects work and a lot of noise for a mind-numbing, butt-punishing 144 minutes. All in all, it’s pretty typical Michael Bay stuff that fetishizes any and everything military and dotes on wholesale destruction. It falls with the grace of a landed fish somewhere between an Army-recruiting commercial and a mindless orgy of unconscionably bloodless destruction, assuring us that violence is great fun and no one gets hurt.
Spielberg’s participation seems only to have borne fruit in the realm of the human story line, which trades on the worst excesses of Spielberg’s love affair with functionally dysfunctional families and cute pets in suburbia. As a result, we’re treated to a plot that has Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) living with a doting, if somewhat dippy, set of parents (Kevin Dunn, Gridiron Gang and Julie White, The Astronaut Farmer) and a pain-killer-addicted chihuahua. He ends up buying a clunker Camaro that chooses him as its next owner and turns out to be no ordinary car (didn’t Herbie just pull this stunt with Lindsay Lohan in Herbie Fully Loaded?), but an Autobot named Bumblebee. This, of course, launches the whole Autobots vs. Decepticon plot when the big-cheese bot named Optimus Prime (which sounds like either a desirable lending rate or a line of speakers at Radio Shack) shows up to explain what’s going on.
There’s also a sizable chunk of Spielbergian “cute” comedy involving giant robots trampling mom’s flowers, arguing amongst themselves and in one notable case, taking a leak on a fussy government agent (John Turturro). There’s even a cute—albeit lethal—bad-guy robot. (Can’t you hear it? “I called George Lucas—George knows his robots—and he says robots do cute things!”)
There’s some gag-making clever stuff with Bumblebee (in car form) playing matchmaker for Sam and hot babe Mikaela (Megan Fox, TV’s Hope and Faith) by tuning his AM(!) radio to instructive and/or mood-setting pop songs, all of which ultimately poses the question: How kinky is it to make out on the hood of your car if the car is a sentient being? Is this some kind of ménage a trois mechanique?
None of this matters, of course, since it’s all about giant robots fighting each other and destroying lots of real estate. If watching big toys duke it out amidst lots of collapsing masonry is your thing, this is your movie. So why the full-star rating? Well, Turturro provides a few bright moments, and Kevin Dunn drives a beautiful Austin Healey 3000, which is blessedly spared the indignity of transforming into anything. Those elements are worth a half-star increase. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action violence, brief sexual humor and language.