Dreamworks SKG

Directed by Michael Bay

With Shia La Beouf, Megan Fox, and Josh Duhamel

Rated PG-13

Since the dawn of the blockbuster era 30 years ago, cynical observers of Hollywood have suggested that certain movies are made only to sell toys. Transformers, however, marks a new evolution in this ancillary-driven approach: a movie that has been made only because of toys that have already been sold.

What had been sort of evident since the project was announced became abundantly clear at a packed, rowdy preview screening, where a representative for one of the radio station promotional partners led an impromptu call-and-response. “Transformers!” sing-songed the guy with the microphone; “More than meets the eye!” shouted back fully half of the audience, most of them in the demographic that would have played with the vehicle-into-robot toys and watched the animated series in the 1980s. This wasn’t just another big-budget summer spectacle. It would be a full-on Gen-X nostalgia trip, the kind where a cheer went up when the opening credits announced that the production was made “in association with Hasbro.”

Thus we get this revival of the civil war between the noble Autobots and the conquest-minded Decepticons, brought to earth in the quest for a powerful object called the All Spark. Caught in the middle is a nerdy high school student named Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), whose first car turns out to be not just a battered old Camaro, but an Autobot scout named Bumblebee sent to protect him. It seems Sam has in his possession an object (a pair of glasses) that’s a key to finding both the All Spark and the Decepticons’ leader Megatron (voiced by Hugo Weaving) — and the Decepticons have already demonstrated that they’re willing to destroy entire military bases to obtain that information.

Never mind that the glasses ultimately seem to be a huge red herring in the quest for the All Spark, since it’s just one example of a ridiculously over-stuffed story. In addition to Sam’s improbable hook-up with hottie classmate Mikaela (Megan Fox), the script by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman includes Sam’s anal-retentive parents; a team of soldiers who survived the first Decepticon attack, including one (Josh Duhamel) who just wants to get home and meet his baby daughter for the first time; a super-secret government agency led by John Turturro; and an Australian communications expert (Rachael Taylor) who appears to be preparing for an eyeliner-wearing contest with Capt. Jack Sparrow.

It’s busy, it’s silly — and none of it matters when the big metal critters are dominating the screen. The Transformers truly are kick-ass movie creations, not just as tools for the battle sequences, but in the way their intricate foldings and unfoldings genuinely result in characters that look like they could be turned into helicopters or Hummers. When we actually get to see them in action, they’re an amazing combination of organic fluidity and mechanized bulk.

Unfortunately, this is a film directed by Michael Bay, so don’t count on getting nearly enough sense of what that action is. Bay’s technique could best be described as “frantic,” since the English language doesn’t have a word for what “frantic” is when increased by a factor of 20. We wind up with a climactic battle sequence in downtown Los Angeles that could have been exhilarating, but instead become a blur of edits that makes it nearly impossible to figure out the relative locations — or even identities — of the good guys and bad guys. Bay has no time for clear filmmaking choreography — though of course he’ll find time for his trademark 360-degree camera maneuver, or a rib-nudging reference to his own Armageddon.

Then again, rib-nudging on the level of a George Foreman body blow is really what a movie like Transformers is all about. You expect audience-conscious moviemaking like this to include a gag about outsourced Indian customer service centers, the 21st-century equivalent of a joke about airplane food. You shrug at the realization that La Beouf is the only human character with as much personality as any of the CGI creations, since they’re the reason we’re all here in the first place. You nod along with the in-jokey “more than meets the eye” reference, or voice actor Peter Cullen reprising his original role as head Autobot Optimus Prime, or the cartoonish dialogue pronouncements like “One will stand, one will fall.” It’s all less than it could have been, and no more or less than exactly what meets the eye: a big party for anyone who was ready to applaud the moment a truck turned into a robot, just like it did in their bedroom 20 years ago.

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