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Transformers   C

DreamWorks Pictures / Paramount Pictures

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Michael Bay
Writers: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman
Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Tyrese Gibson, Josh Duhamel, Anthony Anderson, Megan Fox, Rachael Taylor, John Turturro, Jon Voight.

Review by Rob Vaux

It has giant robots.

They look really cool.

They blow stuff up. A lot.

Anything else you need to know about Transformers is utterly and completely redundant. Like most Michael Bay films, it begins and ends with pure empty spectacle. No subtext, no message, no real appreciable point. Just a lot of colors and sound designed to tap into a scientifically calibrated portion of the adrenal gland. You don't watch Michael Bay movies; they happen to you. Like hurricanes or street crime. No one presumes to apply artistic criteria to the sight of a high-rise being demolished. Why should Transformers be any different?

Indeed, I think Bay's detractors (of which I am a semi-regular member) become incensed mainly when he attempts to introduce actual storytelling elements like character and plot to his films. We know he doesn't have the knack for it, and no one in the audience wants to indulge in such exercises. Talking is for the Merchant-Ivory crowd. So it comes as no surprise that the worst parts of Transformers involve Bay's feeble attempts to make us care. For a film about machines, the human cast is huge -- and largely dull as dirt. We have a U.S. sergeant in Qatar, for example (played by Josh Duhamel), who stands on ground zero when the titular shape-shifting robots launch their first attack. He has a wife and young child stateside -- one of those so-called bits of "character" that the film trundles out with the solemnity of Talmudic Scrolls. Yet it doesn't elevate him above video-game cipher level, and Bay's disturbingly genuine attempts to emphasize his human connections make for truly ridiculous viewing.

The film is more at home with empty posturing, either bravado of the "We've never seen anything like this!" variety (adroitly delivered by Jon Voight's Secretary of Defense) or cheap and vaguely offensive punch lines (such as Anthony Anderson's computer hacker screaming at his grandmamma). Even then, however, they feel like fig leaves donned by a flasher: the false modesty involved is insulting. Transformers comes closer to success with its central character: a 16-year-old boy whose emotional comfort zone forms the crux of Bay's directorial ethos. And to his credit, he actually elicits a decent performance out of Shia LeBeouf who, as young Sam Witwicky, becomes the audience surrogate for all the ensuing mayhem. Witwicky has the usual awkwardness of kids that age -- shy around girls, picked on by bullies, routinely reminded of his painful inadequacies -- which Transformers assuages into an extended empowerment fantasy when the crappy Camaro his dad buys for him turns out to be a gun-toting robot in disguise.

Did I mention the robots? Yeah, the film has some of those. Nice-guy Autobots who came to save the planet from destruction and evil Decepitcons who, um, haven't. They're all looking for a magic cube hidden by the government beneath Hoover Dam, or something. If the Decepticons get it, they'll make all our technology go rogue, and that would really suck. Sam holds the key to the cube's location in his great-grandfather's spectacles (don't ask), which is why that POS muscle car turns out to be an Autobot named Bumblebee, charged with keeping him safe.

None of that knowledge is necessary to enjoy the film's obvious purpose -- watching vehicles turn into big-ass machines and pound the snot out of each other -- yet a fair chunk of Transformers devotes itself to nothing else. The first hour assaults us with Byzantine exposition, chock full of sternly enunciated gobbledygook and occasional swipes at emotional honesty... almost quaint in their child-like crudity. Bay apparently diverts from the "core mythology" of the original Hasbro line of toys, but still tries to invest it with enough gravitas to satisfy its old-school fans. So Autobot leader Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen, who pulled the same duty for the long-ago cartoon) makes noble statements of transcendent goofiness, while Bumblebee finds time between bashing Decepticons to help Sam score with the smoking hot grease monkey (Megan Fox) from his history class (see "extended empowerment fantasy," above). Moments like these attain a risible camp of which the filmmakers seem blissfully unaware, and which serve no purpose other than periodic downtime between the gratuitous money shots.

Thankfully, at nearly two-and-a-half hours, Transformers still has plenty of space for things that go boom. And whatever his faults, Bay most definitely knows how to go boom. The Transformers themselves are difficult to distinguish at points, but the same can be said of the human cast... and the humans don't look nearly as nifty when they're throwing each other into buildings. The F/X work is top-notch, of course, and while the combat is as bloodless as an old episode of The A-Team, its sheer kinetic power still gets the toes tapping. The final half-hour descends into a gloriously incoherent robo-slugfest, but the best sequences actually come earlier, as the U.S. Army squares off against marauding Decepticons in the Middle Eastern desert. As long as it sticks to that agenda, Transformers does fine; there's even a few quieter moments that touch promisingly on the machines' hidden nature. No one onscreen can be entirely sure if that incoming SUV is as harmless as it seems, or if that air strike they called in may conceal the very enemy they're trying to stop. Such notions take admirable inspiration from films like The Birds, as danger lingers in plain sight and the ordinary world takes on ominous tones of lurking menace.

Wow, did I just compare Bay to Alfred Hitchcock?! They're gonna have me shot! And to be sure, at the end of the day, Transformers is still a big thick slice of stupid. Though pleasingly presented, it remains senseless noise, and its occasional efforts to prove otherwise rank among the most inadvertently funny moments of the year. Yet none of that should surprise anyone, and I would be lying if I said it didn't deliver what it promises. Therein lies its infernal power. I suspect that even the harshest critics have room for a Michael Bay film or two in their hearts. They keep the DVDs hidden in the sock drawer next to the porn, and take it out under cover of night when no one can ever see them. Bay excels at that kind of guilty pleasure, and long after this summer has faded into memory, a few good people out there will probably still shuffle their feet and mumble, "Yeah, well I kinda liked Transformers." The C grade at the top of this article stands for "critic-proof," a badge that conveys as much dignity as a big dumb robot movie can bear. Is it good? Sweet mercy, no. But there's really no point in trying to hate it. It knows itself too well and has too damn much fun to deserve that kind of grief.

Review published 07.02.2007.

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