***SPOILERS TO FOLLOW!!! TRANS-VIRGINS SHALL NOT PASS!!!***
Michael Bay’s giant fucking robots are here, and they are dead-set on destroying lots of property, so it’s fortunate that, in anticipation of the edifice-toppling third-act tilt, they’ve landed in Los Angeles, where great architecture is as disposable as a socialite’s virginity. The only drawback to Bay’s final fit of mechanical mayhem – and he is currently without peer when it comes to the staging of this stuff – is that one must endure a distended middle section bafflingly dedicated to a hunt for an antique pair of eyeglasses, which would be kind of like Spielberg pausing the ruthless forward-momentum of Jaws to have Chief Brody and Hooper chase Quint all over Amity for forty minutes just to charter the Orca.
To be fair to Transformers, it wouldn’t be a patch on Jaws even if it did have a lean second act, but that can be said of every adventure/action film made since Spielberg’s shark hunting classic. And why the hell drag Jaws into this review? Transformers aspires to profitability, not perfection; it’s a film based on a popular toyline, which places it somewhere on the dubious source material continuum between The Jerky Boys and The Garbage Pail Kids Movie. Though devotees of 1986’s The Transformers: The Ninety-Minute Animated Commercial will maintain otherwise, why take seriously the opinion of someone who misted up in response to the death of an upright talking truck?
Interestingly, Bay, and writers Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci (working from a story by John Rogers), do spend a good deal of screen time trying to establish Bumblebee as E.T. with a V8; that the inevitable, heart-tugging Passion of the Chevy Camaro – and all fourteen stages of the assembly line are depicted – isn’t as embarrassing as, say, a thirty-year-old who sacrificed his sexual prime to collect toys should earn this creative team some kind of special commendation (shit, if Superman Returns can win a Saturn, give ‘em one of those). Notwithstanding its visual f/x trickery, that’s easily the greatest miracle worked by Bam Bam Bay: kids are going to fall in love with Bumblebee and wail every time he’s endangered (which is often).
There’s something deeply discomfiting about this, but it wouldn’t be a Michael Bay movie if there weren’t lingering regrets about one’s enjoyment. The inconvenient truth of Transformers is this: the earth’s savior runs on diesel fuel. And one hasn’t been paying attention to Bay’s libertine cinema if they expect that the unapologetically excessive filmmaker will explicitly address global warming or, Gore forbid, the environmental benefits of driving hybrids (that said, one could argue that Bay is being unusually restrained by not having Megatron shot put a Prius). For parents struggling to raise their kids green despite the juvenile lure of sports cars and trucks and all manner of heavy machinery, Transformers is going to spin donuts on their good intentions. The machines are the show: Optimus Prime is a brawny badass, Megatron is a Mach 3 shattering spacecraft and the aforementioned Bumblebee is the little Camaro that could.
It takes a fairly brave young actor to topline a movie like this, but Shia LaBeouf wasn’t quite the Next Big Thing when he took the role. Post-Disturbia, however, the kid seems set for big-time stardom; he’s a nerd with sex appeal. And, unlike Matthew Broderick’s David Lightman, his eventual copulation with a fetching member of the opposite sex isn’t at all implausible (in that it’s at all plausible that anyone on this planet could potentially get with the factory-built Megan Fox). Projects like Transformers, which call for performers to react to nothing for a good chunk of the shoot, are frequently dismissed as cash-ins (and they are for all involved), but when audiences exit the theater without a word of criticism for the visual effects team, that usually means the actor has done his/her job sensationally well. And that’s the key to Transformers‘ effectiveness: there’s a human heart beating in and around those 1s and 0s. And Shia never once looks ashamed or bored or oblivious during his myriad interactions with his autobot pals; he sells the film simply by being engaged. The only reason the movie doesn’t grind to a complete halt during the Quest for Corrective Lenses of Enlightenment is due to Shia’s boundless sense of play. The sequence in which his character contends with a clutch of curious autobots as he simultaneously tries to allay the concerns of his slightly tipsy parents – this will be a scene that pisses off many, but it’s impressively managed by Bay, who, it must be said, allows for more improvisation than any major action filmmaker working today – is a triumph of sorts for Shia; the audience never once doubts that there are five thirty-foot-tall robots clambering about outside his bedroom window (never mind that his parents need to be far past tipsy to not see what’s transpiring in their immaculately-kept backyard).
Transformers won’t make Shia a star nor will it change the minds of Bay’s many detractors, but there’s no denying that both have delivered something of value here. Granted, "value" is a debased term in the middle of the summer movie season – especially this summer, which has thus far been a steady succession of high-profile disappointments. But Transformers is the event moviegoers have been waiting for. It’s got giant fucking robots doing huge fucking damage to a lot of fucking expensive hardware and property. Expecting much more than that out of a picture like this is to be an idiot.