There is probably just one thing that the average rabid Transformers fanboy needs to know about this movie to decide to see it: The Transformers do indeed appear, as well as transform from vehicles into robots. If your sense of nostalgia and “holy shit, dude, cars changing into giant robots” overpowers your interest in involving storytelling and effective movie-making, then by all means stop reading now. Go see Transformers, and revel in having the sensibilities of an 8-year-old.
For the rest of us, though, merely conjuring up fond memories is not enough to give a movie as listless and inconsistent as Michael Bay’s Transformers an instant pass. Giant robots that beat each other up are inherently exciting, though, so it’s frustrating to see the filmmakers behind this behemoth actually turn such a premise into something tedious and boring, stretched out to nearly two-and-a-half hours and saddled with a tone too somber for camp and too silly to be taken seriously.
Since this isn’t a cartoon (for the pop-culturally illiterate, the Transformers became popular as an animated TV show in the 1980s), the robots can’t just fight each other, so they come to Earth and entangle humans in their battle for the cosmic MacGuffin called the Allspark. The good Autobots, led by Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen, a veteran of the Transformers cartoon), enlist the help of everykid Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), whose ancestor happened to have accidentally encoded a map to said Allspark on his glasses, which are now in Sam’s possession.
The serious tone of the movie only highlights the absurdity of the mythology, especially when Cullen explains it in his over-enunciating way that’s perfect for Saturday-morning cartoons but comes off as stilted and goofy in a live-action blockbuster. Basically, there’s this thing that’s really important, and both the good guys and the bad guys (known as Decepticons) are after it. Sam and his burgeoning love interest, Mikaela (Megan Fox), ally with the Autobot known as Bumblebee, who doubles as Sam’s car, a Camaro (all of the movie’s cars are product-placed GM vehicles).
Given the relative simplicity of the story and fans’ desire to see as much hot robot-on-robot action as possible, it’s baffling that Bay and his writers pace the movie so slowly, with numerous diversions and dull sidetracks delaying the inevitable Autobot/Decepticon showdown. Optimus Prime doesn’t even show up until an hour into the movie. Once the robots finally do go at it, the action is chaotic and hard to follow. The slick redesigns of the characters have made them more modern but less distinctive, and it’s often difficult to tell who is fighting whom. All the CGI wizardry (and it is undeniably impressive) can’t substitute for narrative coherence.
At times there’s the sense that a dive into all-out camp would have worked well, as in John Turturro’s over-the-top performance as a gung-ho government agent, and all of the extremely sappy dialogue about sacrifice and morality among the Autobots themselves. Although LaBeouf has proven himself strong leading-man material, the human characters here are really just window dressing and rarely exhibit more than one personality trait each. Which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the rest of the movie were exciting enough to distract from the copious shortcomings. As it is, only those undemanding inner 8-year-olds are likely to find anything here to appreciate.
Transformers 2 stars
Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, Jon Voight, Josh Duhamel
Directed by Michael Bay
Opens Tuesday (early screenings Monday night)