Transformers (Dreamworks/Paramount Pictures, PG-13)


Where Bay succeeds is in boiling a long-running, continuity-laden franchise down to the bare essence of what makes it so appealing in the first place.  The result, much like Bryan Singer’s first X-Men film, is true enough to the original to satisfy the diehards but streamlined to appeal to a mainstream crowd.


When it was announced that Michael Bay would be handling the directing chores on the oft-delayed live action Transformers movie, fans of the franchise were extremely vocal in their displeasure. But really, can you blame them? Whereas other properties with nerdish leanings were handed off to directors with artistic pedigrees and a stated love for the characters (Bryan Singer and X-Men, Sam Raimi and Spider-Man), Bay had been quoted as considering Transformers a "stupid toy movie," and his reputation as a maker of mindless action flicks did little to quell fears. As images of the robots’ updated designs began to leak, the once hotly anticipated movie now seemed destined to be a disaster on par with Roland Emmerich’s 1998 take on Godzilla.


Which is why it’s so pleasing to report that this is not the case. Transformers is not a brilliant movie, but it is a solidly constructed, entertaining summer blockbuster. Where Bay succeeds is in boiling a long-running, continuity-laden franchise down to the bare essence of what makes it so appealing in the first place. The result, much like Bryan Singer’s first X-Men film, is true enough to the original to satisfy the diehards but streamlined to appeal to a mainstream crowd.


Tyrese Gibson, Josh Duhamel, and their cohorts in the US Army.The action opens at a forward Army base in Qatar, where a mysterious helicopter ominously hovers to the ground before suddenly transforming into a massive, insectoid robot and opening fire. With the base left completely devastated by the attack, two beleaguered sergeants (Las Vegas‘ Josh Duhamel and singer-turned-actor Tyrese Gibson) lead a small crew of survivors across the desert, desperately hoping to get word of the attack back to the Secretary of Defense (an under-used but effective Jon Voight) before their pursuer, a huge mechanical scorpion, finishes them off for good.


Meanwhile, half a world away, a young everygeek named Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is taken by his father to buy his first car. The slick used car salesman Bobby B. (Bernie Mac, in a hilarious cameo) tells Sam that "the car picks the driver," and sure enough, a certain yellow-and-black 1974 Camaro seems dead set on going home with the Witwickys. When Sam tries to use the old beater to impress class hottie Mikaela (Megan Fox), the car acts like it has a mind of its own, but that doesn’t prepare Sam for when the car literally steals itself. Sam follows, only to discover his car isn’t just a car, it’s a robot in disguise named Bumblebee, and it’s not alone.


After barely surviving a run-in with another robot (this one disguised as a police car), Sam and Mikaela meet Bumblebee’s cohorts the Autobots. The group’s leader, the gravel-voiced Peterbilt semi Optimus Prime (voice of Peter Cullen, Optimus’ original voice from the 1980s cartoon), tells the youths that they are part of a benevolent race of sentient robots called Transformers who have come to earth in search of the Allspark, a powerful cube that they use to create life. The Autobots want to take the Allspark back to their home planet of Cybertron to regenerate it, but Megatron (voice of Hugo Weaving), the malevolent leader of the Decepticons, wants the Allspark for his own nefarious purposes. From there, it’s a race against time, as the Autobots and Decepticons both desperately search for the Allspark, and all of humanity is soon caught in the middle of an all-out war.


Megan Fox as Mikaela and Shia LaBeouf as Sam Witwicky.As has occasionally been the case in other Transformers incarnations (most notably the 1980s Marvel comics), there is a much heavier emphasis placed on the human beings in the midst of the conflict than on the robots themselves. This could have potentially destroyed the film if it weren’t for LaBeouf, who does absolute wonders as Sam. Sam is not only the heart of the movie, he’s also its sense of humor, and the script by Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman (the pair behind Mission: Impossible III and Bay’s The Island) gives him plenty to work with. The story puts Sam consistently in over his head, whether its dealing with his parents, his crush on Mikaela, or the giant robots threatening to destroy humanity, and LaBeouf’s flawless comic timing makes his every reaction completely believable even as the scenario he’s trapped in is anything but.


The trade-off, unfortunately, is that the robots themselves don’t get much screentime except during the budget-busting action sequences, with only Bumblebee and Optimus Prime given anything very substantial to do. Bumblebee is the center of several hilarious scenes in the film’s early scenes, but Cullen as Optimus truly shines; his voice has a deeper, rougher edge than it did 20 years ago, infusing Optimus with the feel of the grizzled war hero and giving the film some much needed gravity. The Decepticons, sadly, are treated more as personality free monster-movie bad guys, and the main internal conflict between leader Megatron and his conniving second-in-command Starscream is totally ignored.


Optimus Prime lays down the law.The action sequences, it should be noted, are positively mind-blowing in both their scope and complexity. The new robot designs (a major sticking point for some fans) tend to work well and the transformations are a sight to behold, but because the robots don’t have as strong a resemblance to their vehicle mode when they transform, it can sometimes be difficult to follow the action, particularly in the final battle when all the robots are in battle at once. Bay, fortunately, seems to have learned his lesson from Pearl Harbor: there are moments of schmaltz, particularly between Sam and Mikaela, but Bay doesn’t dwell on them, instead letting them zip by to get back to the action and humor that this film does so much better.


Transformers nerds can of course find plenty of nitpicking details to complain about (the Allspark, for instance, smooshes together three totally different concepts from the series: it’s called the Allspark, but it works like the Creation Matrix and looks like the Underbase), but the filmmakers seem to not only be aware of it but acknowledge it. Sure, Bumblebee isn’t a Volkswagen bug in the movie (due to a hefty endorsement deal with General Motors), but he’s sitting next to one on the used car lot and has a "bee-otch" bee-shaped air freshener on his rearview mirror. The overall movie isn’t perfect, but it echoes the spirit of the source material and manages to entertain for nearly every one of its 144 minutes. | Jason Green

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