Michael Bay, thou hast been redeemed. After an unprofitable attempt to explore his existential side in “The Island” two summers ago, the director of such big-budget funstrosities as “Armageddon” and “Bad Boys II” returns to what he does best in “Transformers”: bombarding the audience with special effects, over-the-top acting and pyrotechnic mayhem.
And, hey, more power to him. Based on the iconic 1980s TV cartoon about extraterrestrial robots that disguise themselves as trucks, sports cars and other earthly conveyances, “Transformers” isn’t all that compatible with understatement, anyway. When the climactic centerpiece involves two 40-foot-tall metal behemoths mashing each other with rockets and samurai swords on the streets of Los Angeles, why spoil the party with such high-friction flourishes as restraint and subtlety? This is the sort of grotesquely entertaining action blowout that inner 10-year-olds — and flesh-and-blood 10-year-olds — will love, love, love.
If you want to get all deep about things, Bay — and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (“The Legend of Zorro”), adapting from the original Japanese story line —– do offer a rather novel twist on mankind’s “mystical bond” (that’s a direct quote) with his machines.
They help us score chicks. After a thrillingly explosive opening scene in the desert of Qatar – in which a U.S. Army base is obliterated by a metallic, scorpion-shaped Transformer — the action shifts to suburban California, where runty teenager Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf from “Disturbia”) dotes over his first car, a smoke-sputtering, early-model Chevy Camaro. Unbeknownst to Sam, this is no ordinary Detroit beater, but an “Autobot”: one of the good-guy Transformers aligned against the villainous “Decepticons.” It’s also a romantic facilitator. When Sam nervously puts the moves on sexy classmate Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox from TV’s “Hope and Faith”), the Autobot wryly broadcasts situation-appropriate music over the radio (for instance, Player’s “Baby Come Back”). LaBeouf makes for an effectively hormonal hero – you can practically smell the pheromones wafting out of poor Sam’s glands.
They have a sense of irony. Sam’s bonding process with his new wheels is hastened by the arrival of a Decepticon that looks like a police squad car. (Evidently, Sam’s late, crazy grandfather once led an expedition to the Arctic Circle and uncovered a key piece of Transformer technology now in the kid’s possession … and the Decepticons want it back.) Amusingly, the decal inscription on the cruiser doesn’t read “To Protect and Serve,” but “To Punish and Enslave.” Ha-ha. Leave it to the Decepticons to exterminate mankind with a wink.
They moralize. Soon, Sam is brought into the confidence of Optimus Prime, a big-rig-shaped Autobot who follows a strict “hurt no humans” policy. In addition to the samurai sword, the hulking robot wields a fearsome arsenal of self-deterministic adages, including “Freedom is the right of all sentient beings!” and “Humans have the right to choose!” Outstanding.
They help us defy authority figures. As if the Decepticons weren’t a handful enough, Sam is hassled by a federal ninny named Agent Simmons (John Turturro, slumming it with admirable gusto) who wants to incarcerate the Camaro and submit it to a cruel series of mechanical tests. Not too worry – with Armageddon fast approaching, Sam finds allies in a pair of gallant U.S. fighting men (Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson) and the U.S. Secretary of Defense himself (Jon Voight). There’s also a good-natured – if meandering – scene in which the Autobots help Sam pull one over on his nettlesome folks, played by Kevin Dunn and “Desperate Wives” scene-stealer Julie White.
Last but not least, they’re brand conscious. Unerringly, for their terrestrial guises, the Autobots select late-model General Motors automobiles, all of which prove supremely capable of decimating large swaths of downtown Los Angeles in the movie’s carnage-ridden finale (a mammoth spectacle of urban warfare that easily warrants a special effects Oscar). Sure, it’s a rather shameless display of product placement, but Sam’s special friendship with sentient Camaros and Pontiacs does speak to a larger theme in the Transformers mythology.
In the end, it’s just a story about a boy and his faithful car.
>> Rated PG-13 (intense sequences of sci-fi action violence, brief sexual humor and language), 144 min. Grade: B-