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Transformers exactly what meets the eye

by Glen Baity

Briefly, here’s what you need for a Transformers movie: 1) giant robots that talk, 2) a large city for them to brawl in, and 3) the narrowest sliver of a plot. And here’s what you don’t need for a Transformers movie: 1) Humans. Michael Bay’s Transformers (after all these months, I still shudder writing those words together) has a lot of humans, and since they’re doing more than running and screaming, they can only get in the way. And so they do, but more on that in a minute. A lot of people hate Michael Bay – not just film critics – and not without reason. The opening of his latest film is a prime example: The words onscreen inform the viewer that the first scene will take place in “Qatar: The Middle East.” For some reason, I thought of that great Michael Bay spoof, Team America: World Police, which named all its settings in relation to their distance from the US. Anyway. The film’s plot is graciously simple and as lovably silly as it ever was: A technologically advanced alien race, once peaceful, has been divided into two warring factions, the Autobots and the Decepticons. They travel through space, staging battles on various planets, seeking an ancient artifact each side wants for its own purposes (think The Da Vinci Code, but with robots). That object crashed to earth 100 years ago, and now the Transformers have become aware of its presence. The villainous Decepticons will kill anything in their path to get to it; the noble Autobots have sworn to protect Earth’s inhabitants. Glorious chaos ensues. Outside of that conflict, of course, there’s plenty of superfluous human drama. Vanity Fair It-Boy Shia LaBeouf stars as the teenage descendent of an Arctic explorer who discovered Megatron, the Decepticon leader, frozen in ice near the turn of the 20th century. Megan Fox plays the out-of-his-league love interest, swept off her feet in the midst of the alien invasion. Both of them, it should be noted, do a perfectly fine job, and in truth, it’s not all that bad having a human element to this story. But the film is overburdened by underdeveloped characters, and many of them seem to have been cast by pulling names out of a hat. Anthony Anderson, for instance, plays the World’s Greatest Hacker. If you’re keeping score, that’s Anthony “Kangaroo Jack” Anderson. Brilliant. Toss in a wasted John Turturro and a trio of supporting “hackers” who look like Abercrombie models and you’ve got… well, a pretty standard Michael Bay movie, a giant orgy of stupid interrupted far too infrequently by something awesome. Transformers gives an executive producer credit to Steven Spielberg, who seems to have given Bay some much-needed guidance on staging an action sequence. Conventional wisdom has always held that action is Bay’s bread and butter, but go back and watch, people – the emperor has no clothes. Bay’s films have always been visually incomprehensible, and it’s nearly impossible to follow the thread once the bombs start to detonate. Not so here. When the giant Transformers face off in the middle of a crumbling Los Angeles, it’s excellent stuff, and several moments play like the best Saturday morning cartoon ever. There are welcome nods to longtime fans – Optimus is voiced by Peter Cullen, reprising his character from the cartoon – and the appearance of the robots, while modernized for theaters, stays true to the original character design, with special care given to the robots’ impressively lifelike faces. Putting that aside, however, Transformers is essentially a Bay film underwritten by Hasbro. In a purely cynical way, it’s a match made in heaven. I can’t think of a filmmaker more enthusiastic about selling off his creation piece by piece in the form of product placements (anyone who witnessed the Xbox tournament in The Island will know what I mean). That’s not such a poor fit: the original and much-loved “Transformers” cartoon series was, after all, made specifically to sell toys. But there’s something innocent about the original series that gets lost here. Part of it is that Bay is selling more than action figures. Everything here bears a corporate mark, from Sony to General Motors – at one point, even a drink machine festooned with Mountain Dew logos transforms to join the fray. It’s also, like so many blockbusters these days, far too long, and it’s hard to imagine anyone who didn’t own a Starscream figure in the ’80s enjoying it very much. Even those, like me, who sat glued to the television series will have to endure a lot to recapture that old feeling. But this film, while it has its undeniably cool moments, isn’t the “Transformers” you remember. Instead, the Michael Bay version is exactly what you’d expect: Armageddon 2 with Autobots and Decepticons standing in for an asteroid the size of Texas. Adjust your expectations accordingly. Argue the merits of original series v. Beast Wars when you send your e-mail to glen.baity@gmail.com.

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