I wanted to like Transformers, Michael Bay's newest, loudest, Hollywood romp. I collected the toys as a kid and to me they were the apex of childhood entertainment. It's a car. It's a robot. It's a car again? It's a cartoon show! What else could I ask for? Unfortunately the live-action movie gets stuck. Transformers starts off great but changes into a train wreck about half-way through.
This amazing cinematic transformation is the result of a common summer-movie blunder–the basic fact that a project is going to be huge regardless of what happens, so it is simply handed off to the special effects department (in this case the ubiquitous Industrial Light and Magic) while the writers and actors ad-lib much of the film. Most people will not mind one bit simply because of the Transformers themselves. They are the coolest creations I have seen in a movie all summer and you can hardly tell that they live and die in the CGI world. It's all very seamless.
The movie does a nice job building up momentum and urgency. You witness a Decepticon (the evil cadre of Transformers) searching for a unique power source known as the Allspark, and trashing a U.S. military installation in the process. The protagonist Sam (Shia LeBeouf) is introduced, a teenager who unknowingly possesses the key to the location of the Allspark. Sam learns that the Autobots need what he has. The fate of the universe (or something) hangs in the balance. The movie's foundations set, it then transforms into a real mess.
The Autobots bumble about Sam's backyard, crushing his dad's flower garden, freaking Sam out. They inexplicably attempt to hide from Sam's parents who peer out the window wondering what is making all that noise. Meanwhile, remember, the fate of the universe hangs in the balance. Then John Turturro shows up and even the Autobots are rendered powerless next to his manic riffing. Turturro was presumably given a lot of leeway when playing the cliche role of uptight government agent but it comes across as a leftover caricature from his acting school days.
The Uptight Federal Agent is just one of many blatant stereotypes Transformers manages to cram into the movie. There's also the hyper and fat hacker who lives with his grandma. There's the apathetic, Indian phone operator. There's a jab about the intelligence of Iranian scientists. There are comments about the Japanese. There's a token Latino soldier. There's the incredibly hot, super-smart signals intelligence analyst. Most of these characters have no purpose what-so-ever other than to be involved in the biggest movie of the summer. Their appearances and ad-libbing quickly brings an impressive movie back down to earth. You realize that this movie about Transformers actually follows all of the very basic and mundane plot sequences and character stocking that we have come so used to in summer blockbusters.
I found the characters in the cartoon show (not to mention the cartoon movie) to have more depth. Who even watching Michael Bay's rendition knew Starscream existed until two hours into the movie? That's no fun. We weren't even allowed to find out how evil Megatron was until the final, frantic battle scene where the characters decide to take the Allspark the middle of Los Angeles so the Transformers can destroy a lot of infrastructure. Oh, and one of the Autobots dies. But we never really got to know him anyway. A sad waste.
There is a difference between this movie and Spiderman, another famous summer blockbuster. In the latter, characters were taken seriously and allowed to develop. The movie was exciting but also efficient and smart. Transformers is a bloated mess where the plot becomes nothing but a vehicle to cram in as many enthusiastic actors, products, and explosions as possible. In this way, I suppose, the whole thing is the perfect twenty year evolution of the original TV show, which surely had no other purpose than to sell toys to children like me, high on sugar. Michael Bay turned out to be the perfect choice to defrost this franchise and let it run wild.