Reviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 07/03/07 10:00:00

"Never Send A Robot To Do A Man-Boy's Job!"
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

“So, it’s a robot that turns into a building? What’s fun about playing with a building?” That excerpt spoken by Tom Hanks in Big came late in the evolution of Hasbro’s Transformers reign in the ‘80s, but none other could sum up my feelings about the toys. And I remind you that was the wheelhouse age for the two-in-one series with a Rubik’s complex that all but buried the Go-Bots as the ghetto version. Until recently, I had never seen the cartoon film nor the television series and still hadn’t grasped how deep the fanbase was for the toys. Friends of friends have been excited about this film version for over a year where I approached it with a blank slate hoping that the part of me still enjoying random destruction and giant spectacles would be taken in despite whatever chunk of my brain director Michael Bay decides to destroy in the process. Little could I imagine that the live-action version could be such a blank slate itself, depending on lame comedy to fill in the plotless blanks and teetering between two varied audiences who deserve better than to have their childhoods destroyed by a Michael Bay film.

In the first narration not to feature Morgan Freeman in some time, the benevolent Optimus Prime gives us a brief background on why the battling factions of shape-shifting robots are headed to Earth. He’ll get back to that more in an hour. Unaware of the role his history plays in this struggle, teenager Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) has moved on from action figures and is now interested in fast cars and fast women. Needing one to get the other, his dad (Kevin Dunn) fulfills his end of a bargain to help get him halfway there. With a beat-up camaro (featuring a few special modifications) at his disposal, Sam makes a move on Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox) maybe the hottest high school girl who has ever existed.

While this is going on, we’re reminded that a situation has already begun in Qatar. American forces have been viciously attacked by a helicopter robot and has sent the survivors led by Sergeant Lennox (Las VegasJosh Duhamel) into the desert until the Defense Secretary (Jon Voight) can figure out what they are up against. This task employs the use of a skinny blonde Australian computer hacker (Rachael Taylor) who, against protocol, takes her findings to the second comp expert living in his relative’s house we’ve seen this week after Kevin Smith in Live Free or Die Hard. This one, played by Anthony Anderson, will keep us from the robots even longer and contribute to lowering the humor bar even further.

Just give us robots! Is that too much to ask for a movie called Transformers? After the reasonably satisfying opening in Qatar, the film continually makes us wait. Not in the anticipatory manner of dread associated with Jaws, but more in the vein of Jurassic Park only without the awestruck moments of discovery. Robots appear. They transform in spectacularly quick fashion and then disappear just as quickly. A battle between Sam’s Bumblebee “guardian” and a cop car (we’ll get to ID’s in a moment) is cutaway midstream only to catchup with the outcome like there was a missing Grindhouse reel. When we finally get to the moment of the hour (literally at the one-hour mark) as the noble Autobots introduce themselves beyond shiny colors and jive-like vocal patterns, the movie is still intent on hiding them for as long as possible. For all the trouble that teenagers can get into with their parents, I find it highly uncertain that a grounding is on the horizon for showing dad they’ve befriended giant talking robots.

The juvenile-aimed humor in Transformers is clearly intentional since the broadest appeal possible is a last resort when your core audience must exist in a state of arrested development to enjoy this. Not that it ever had a chance of being anything but a PG-13 actioner, but this is a film that needs big-boy action to match its big-boy toys. As the action back home languishes in guffaws and goofballs, the Qatar sequences desperately yearn for a Starship Troopers-like ruthlessness that make us take the threat of the Decepticons seriously. The wa-Wa-WAHHHH humor of the suburbs has the “PG” sensibility that doesn’t conciliate a soldier being impaled by a metallic scorpion. Of course, no one would have given Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman’s script a second thought if Bay had delivered on the action sequences.

Making a Transformers movie couldn’t be a better metaphor for Michael Bay, who doesn’t shoot action sequences so much as he allows them to run free, independently of his commands while he tries to keep up. Neglecting to set into motion a Road Warrior-type sequence or any type of serious break-the-mold car chase is proof how little imagination Bay actually has and why he’ll never be James Cameron, who would have brought the perfect amount of hardcore spectacle to set pieces that utilized the skills of all the robots into a cohesive spectacular. Even as Bay finally lets the action dominate after 105 minutes of agonizing unoriginality and more hero shots than an Iwo Jima reprint factory, there is no scope to his big city battle, no one “WOW” moment that will have people talking and no more excitement than watching the implosion of an old building on TV. Taking product placement to new levels of shame, Bay even introduces newly created Transformers out of an xBox 360 and other random appliances during the climactic scene only to completely forget that they’re still roaming free once the dust settles.

It’s such a damn shame too because the staff at ILM have put an incredible amount of detail into the special effects. Save for a broad daylight moment where the Autobots sneak upon a building and look like a live-action Presto Magix, they have given the Transformers their blood and sweat to pull off what fans have hoped for. Shia LaBeouf goes so far to prove he’s got the moviestar chops to carry a film with a manically dorky, yet cool demeanor that far outweighs the unbelievable witlessness of the script. John Turturro adds some brief life as a cocksure government official, but even his off-kilter line readings wear out their welcome as just another distraction on the long road to getting some rock ‘em-sock ‘em action.

This may go down as another film getting a pass from its hardcore camp just for finally making it to the screen as an FX triumph. Maybe they’ve put behind them movies like Christine and Explorers, which Transformers routinely steals from, but I won’t understand how they’ll be able to defend the painfully bad RZA homage to Kill Bill or a reference to how this is “100 times cooler than Armageddon.” It’s hard to tell whether Transformers is coddling its core audience or insulting them. One jumps to the conclusion that the rallying of the troops moment comes with subtitles identifying the robot vehicles by name for those unfamiliar with the Hasbro universe while earlier ones labeling the White House, the Pentagon and Air Force One (a split second before someone says they are aboard Air Force One) are for the geeks who couldn’t point them out in a pop-up book. Parents can take comfort in Transformers for the appearance of the ultra-sexy Megan Fox though, who will single-handedly put most young males in the audience through a bout of instant puberty and have them moving onto something much more meaningful like porn, which comes equipped with its own type of transformation and usually a better story.

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