I still remember the day in 1984 when the Transformers cartoon premiered. Soon, a regular part of my weekday afternoon was watching the Autobots wage their battle to destroy the evil forces of the Decepticons.
When my dad heard I was going to see the live-action Transformers film, he wanted to know if the people who made the toys would be there. "If so," he said, "tell them they owe me a lot of money."
The Transformers have endured as a toy and cartoon concept for 23 years because they're perfect junk food for kids, with just a touch of sci-fi mythology to appeal to older fans. The live-action Transformers, directed by Michael Bay and executive-produced by Steven Spielberg, misfires by alternating between a sitcom and a deadly serious thriller about an alien takeover. In one scene, Jon Voight intones gravely about how the villainous Decepticons have overtaken the computer systems; in the next, John Turturro is all goofy gesticulations and over-the-top dialogue as a man in black. Guess which scenes play better?
Most of the plot involves the misadventures of Sam (Shia LaBeouf), a kid whose first car turns out to be a yellow robot-in-disguise named Bumblebee (so named originally because he was a Volkswagen on the show, but here he's a Camaro, the better for a car tie-in). He speaks only in radio songs and lines from TV, and spends most of his time helping Sam woo the local hottie (Megan Fox), like Stephen King's Christine with a giant robot.
Bumblebee is part of a group of robots hunting the Allspark, which is also being pursued by the villainous Decepticons, who we see menacing some Army Rangers in Qatar. Though the Decepticons don't get much screen time, we can tell they are bad because while the Autobots speak English and have large, muscular forms, the Decepticons speak a weird mixture of binary code and Asian symbols and have scrawny orifices resembling Freud's vagina dentata.
Look—this is a two-hour and 20-minute Michael Bay/Steven Spielberg film based on a toy line of robots. It is quite possibly the most commercialized film ever made: No product goes unplaced, and one kid actually shouts, "This is a hundred times better than Armageddon!" The phrase "This isn't Shakespeare" was invented for this movie.
But all the dumbness would be forgivable if it were at least fun. The action scenes are poorly edited. The robots all look alike. They have almost no personalities, except for heroic leader Optimus Prime, voiced by the cartoon's Peter Cullen (whose grave-yet-boisterous readings of lines like "Freedom is the right of all sentient beings" have a goofy, kicky energy). The comic parts of the film have a certain charm, but the gags— as in the scene in which the Allspark transforms a Mountain Dew machine into a soda-shooting Decepticon—don't have time to sink in, with more time spent letting LaBeouf and hacker Anthony Anderson do lame shtick.
Who exactly is the market for this movie? Kids such as the ones who enjoyed the original cartoon, or grown-up kids who want to see an adult version of their childhood toys? The problem with Transformers is that the filmmakers clearly want to appeal to every audience. The result is a meandering, badly paced mess. If possible, there's even less to this film than meets the eye.
Transformers is now playing throughout the Triangle.