6/29/2007, 8:19 a.m. ET By DAVID GERMAIN
The Associated Press
(AP) — With "Transformers," Michael Bay has either made a big, dumb summer adventure for the little boy in all of us or the world's most-expensive General Motors commercial.
Actually, it's a great deal of both, but as good as director Bay is at blowing things up and crafting wild visuals of those shape-shifting toys that were all the rage in the 1980s, "Transformers" is far more effective as a car ad than an action epic.
Images of the sleek new Camaro that Chevrolet is introducing for the 2009 model year are pervasive throughout the movie, and the car winds up a more memorable figure than the robot Transformers themselves (though the machine characters do have more personality than any of the humans on screen).
The Hasbro toys inspired an animated TV series and movie 20 years ago, and this version essentially is another cartoon, though it's live-action seamlessly blended with an overload of computer-generated effects.
In case you missed the 1980s, Transformers are giant, sentient robots made up of a gazillion moving parts that shift around to turn the big guys into all sorts of things — vehicles, jet planes, helicopters and such.
In the tale fashioned by writers John Rogers, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (all three sharing story credit, the latter two taking the screenplay credit), Autobots — the good guys in the Transformers universe — have come to Earth looking for the Allspark, a cube-shaped power source that's kind of the mother of all spark plugs.
But the Autobots' evil enemies, the Decepticons, have shown up, too, looking for the same thing. Their nasty leader, Megatron, wants to use the Allspark to transform Earth's machines into a new race of evil robots and wipe out the organic infection called humanity.
So that we don't end up watching two-hours-plus of dueling between glorified can openers, the filmmakers add a bunch of puny humans to become flies in the axle grease.
Shia LaBeouf leads the flesh-and-blood cast as Sam Witwicky, a teen who wants to hang with cars and girls, not behemoth robots. Sam's dad coughs up cash to help the youth get his first car — a beat-up 1970s Camaro with a mind of its own — sort of the Herbie the Love Bug of muscle cars.
Turns out the vehicle is benevolent Autobot Bumblebee, which later transforms into the 2009 Chevy Camaro you've been hearing so much about. Both Autobots and Decepticons are stalking Sam because of a discovery about the Allspark his great-grandfather made a century earlier while exploring the Arctic.
Sam and his school's No. 1 babe, Mikaela (Megan Fox), wind up at the center of the 'bot battle, whose combatants include the noble Autobot leader Optimus Prime and his foot-soldiers Ironhide, Jazz and Ratchet, and such dastardly Decepticons as Barricade, Bonecrusher and Starscream. World Wrestling Entertainment could learn a thing or two about naming heroes and villains from these metal giants.
The action shifts aimlessly among an ineffectual ensemble of humans, among them Jon Voight as the secretary of defense, who seems to be running the country all on his own; Tyrese Gibson and Josh Duhamel as U.S. soldiers who encounter Decepticons in Qatar and later engage them in a street fight back stateside; John Turturro as a shadowy government operative; and Anthony Anderson and Rachael Taylor as computer experts helping to track the Transformer incursion.
Bernie Mac pops up in a fleeting early role as a car dealer. His good humor is missed later as the rest of the cast lumbers about like lifeless, well, robots.
LaBeouf remains likable though much blander amid the shallow character development here than he was in this spring's thriller "Disturbia." Everyone else — surprisingly, Turturro included — seems to be on automatic pilot.
Bay's certainly not an actor's director — this is the man who made "Pearl Harbor," after all. Yet his previous menace-from-the-sky saga, "Armageddon," at least mixed up a fair amount of humor amid the explosions.
The visuals are the real stars here. One of Hollywood's grandest big kids, Steven Spielberg, is an executive producer on "Transformers," so you know going in the movie's not going to skimp on spectacle.
Though they grow repetitive, the robots' transforming scenes — joints bending, appendages stretching, gears whirling — are too cool to ever become boring. The action sequences are so turgid it's sometimes hard to tell which 'bot is doing what, but with Bay steadily hurling fireworks you won't really pause much to think about that, or about how truly inane the story is.
The Autobots do provide some sparks of camaraderie and frivolity that liven up the deadening moments among the humans.
"We've learned Earth languages through the World Wide Web," Optimus Prime tells Sam.
Not so silly, really, considering the opening credits for the studios and production companies behind "Transformers" include the plug, "In association with Hasbro."
First, comic-book publishers took over Hollywood. Now it's the toy makers. Killer robots from space don't sound so terrifying, next to that.
"Transformers," released by DreamWorks and Paramount, is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action violence, brief sexual humor and language.
Running time: 144 minutes. Two stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.
Copyright 2007 Associated Press. All rights reserved.