Bay Bombs Again

Running Time 144 minutes
Written By Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman
Directed By Michael Bay
Starring Shia LaBeouf, Josh Duhamel, Jon Voight

With Transformers, director Michael Bay has once again claimed the year’s top honors for loud, stupid filmmaking. Never content to merely entertain, he assaults, launching a computer-generated broadside of aural and visual artillery for an almost interminable two and a half hours. I didn’t sleep through it the way I Novocained my way through the awful Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, but by the time it ended, I thought I might have vertigo or whiplash, or both, and I certainly lost more than a few of my remaining I.Q. points. The target audience for this trash craves the first two, but nobody can afford to endanger what’s left of an already compromised I.Q.

It didn’t have to be that way. Dragging myself into a summer blockbuster based on a defunct line of Japanese robot toys, I’d set my expectations very low—even lower than for something starring Bruce Willis or Lindsay Lohan. And in its first 45 minutes, Transformers actually showed promise—little moments of frivolous, popcorn-flicky fun. Credit that to Steven Spielberg, who executive-produced this sprawling mess. For a heartbeat, it seemed like Mr. Bay (schlock purveyor of Armageddon, The Island, and Pearl Harbor) might have learned something from the man who perfected the genre with Indiana Jones. The audience at my screening laughed, cheered and chewed the cheesy premise hook, line and sinker. Then the Transformers showed up. In this line of cheap, plastic robots popular with socially challenged preteens in the 1980s, the bad guys are the Decepticons. The good guys are the Automats—er, Autobots. The leader of the bad guys is Megatron. The leader of the good guys is Optimus Prime. That’s about all we need to know about them, except they destroyed their home planet fighting over a shiny cube alternately called “The Allspark” or simply “The Cube.” Said Cube, we eventually learn, is the source of the robots’ transforming powers. Or something. For reasons known only to the screenwriters, The Cube has landed on Earth, and the Decepticons and Autobots have brought their interplanetary grudge match to our neck of the woods, forcing otherwise professional actors to run around Los Angeles yelling, “Where is The Cube?” “Protect The Cube!” “We must find The Cube!” What exactly the Transformers plan to do with The Cube is never clear, but from what I gather it will have at least the same impact as a musket attack on a holiday weekend in Nantucket.

Since no post-9/11 action flick exists without a nod to the current war on terror, the story kicks off at a U.S. military base in Qatar, where the Decepticons stage a phony terrorist attack to hack our defense computer network for data on the location of that gosh-darn Cube. The attack is foiled by some touchy soldiers (Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson), but not before triggering a national emergency that works the secretary of defense (Jon Voight, doing his best Rumsfeld) into a lather. The action shifts to suburban L.A., where the nervous and tragically named Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is trying to scrape together the money to buy a car for his 16th birthday. He finally gets it in the form of a battered yellow Camaro with less personality than Herbie the Love Bug, sent by the soon-to-arrive Autobots to protect the kid and help him work his mojo on classmate Megan Fox. Unbeknownst to Sam, his grandfather played an instrumental role in discovering the Transformers 80 years earlier, before he went trapezoidal in the noodle. Soon the government, the Decepticons and the Autobots are all chasing Sam in the kind of harmless, entertaining style Spielberg once brought to E.T. and The Goonies. The movie-star credentials the talented young Mr. LaBeouf established in the superior thriller Disturbia have not gone to waste. Courting both his girl and his car, he keeps the audience in the mood for high fives.

But by the time the Transformers crash the movie like a junkyard plague for their epic Cube-seeking showdown, whatever good will the movie earned gets trashed in a New York second. John Turturro arrives as the head of a top-secret government team assigned to track and smash the robots, and the Department of Defense entrusts the future of mankind to a 16-year-old kid, his girl, and a talking yellow car. All you really need to know about the final evolution of the lot is that the original discovery of the Transformers gets traced back to … Herbert Hoover? Jon Voight deserves an Oscar nod for keeping a straight face while saying “Herbert Hoover” and “Decepticons” in the same sentence.

Of course, any good summer spectacular should pay off with hot, mind-blowing action scenes. Not this time. Considering Michael Bay’s ludicrously bloated reputation as an “action auteur,” the big, climactic battle is one of the most convoluted, confused, and cacophonous he’s ever put on film, which, if you saw the imbecilic Armageddon, is really saying something. No screen cut lasts more than two seconds, and the good robots and bad robots all look exactly alike. I could never tell who was winning, who was losing, who had The Cube, or why it mattered so much in the first place. They could have spliced in battle footage from Godzilla and it would have made just as much sense. Transformers will, however, seriously compete for special-effects Oscars. In sci-fi epics like The Lord of the Rings and the execrable Star Wars prequels, even the best CGI has betrayed itself in moments of disposable cartoonish fakery. Not this time. The marriage of the computer-animated robots and their real-world environment is seamless. Never do you doubt the presence of actual, 30-foot-high, mutating robots walking among us. Sadly, the movie itself is so mind-numbingly moronic that I just couldn’t force myself to care.

Bay Bombs Again