TRANSFORMERS is a good-natured sci-fi romp complete with super secret government agencies, uber-hackers that are barely old enough to vote, and rampaging robots from outer space. Those last would be the eponymous Transformers, sentient robots on a mission. What sets this effort apart from the pack is the way all of that furthers a much more important storyline. That would Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf), who is about to experience two of the most important rights of passage in the life of an 11th-grader: his first car and his first crush, at least the first one that returns his affections. Or even notices him for that matter.
Of course that car, a yellow 1975 Camaro that’s seen better days, is a robot from outer space in disguise, or rather, a Transformer transformed into a car. The good news is that it’s not one of the rampaging ones, except in self-defense against the bad Transformers who are just rampaging fools. The Camaro also has a soft spot for Sam, using the radio to dial up appropriate mood music while he attempts to pitch woo at Mikaela (Megan Fox), who until now has only had eyes for jocks with big muscles, bigger egos, and tiny little brains. Sam, with the Camero’s help, turns her around, though, as does Sam’s obvious puppy-dog devotion to her that he fails to disguise with inept but endearing bravado. Sam, though, is the unwitting heir to an interstellar secret of apocalyptic importance, and so in timely fashion, all the robots, good and bad, converge on him. So does Section 7 in the person of Simmons (John Turturro), the nerdy agent of of the black ops government agency that knows more about the robots than they let on and is unfettered by the rule of law.
The first act of the film is all but flawless, with Sam bantering with his lawn-obsessed father and his mother who is given to dressing up the family Chihuahua with bling-bling, while coping with a car that steals itself, as well as the girl who isn’t afraid to hop into the passenger seat when given the chance. The other plot lines are more standard-issue. There’s the army guy (Josh Duhamel) in Qatar who witnesses the first attack by the bad robots and tries to get through to the Pentagon by way of a surly, disengaged operator. On the home front, there’s the analyst (Rachael Taylor), with the thick Aussie accent, very pointy shoes, and a brain that is even better built that her body, though the latter distracts the Secretary of Defense (Jon Voigt) and his bully boys from taking her too seriously at first.
Things are fast-paced, which helps with a few of the more far-fetched elements at work here. Like a computer guru being able to translate alien language into English, or the giant Transformers milling around city streets not being noticed as they crouch beside houses and behind trees. The pace and the clever writing turn both into fun instead of faux pas. The script is more than just something from which to hang a series of excellent special effects. The characters are well-drawn and are given dialogue that is as fast-paced as the action. In that vein, LeBeouf invests the same emotional commitment here that he does to all his work and it pays off. Be it scampering through the ruins of Los Angeles in the climactic final battle, to the pain of watching his dream of having wheels turn into a nightmare, to agonizing over that magic moment when his first kiss seems inevitable, he treats Sam as an infinitely complex, infinitely real character, albeit one negotiating a world turned upside-down with a surplus of hormones and logic that doesn’t apply anymore. It’s the reason the relationship with the Transformers works, because if Sam cares about them, so will the audience. The CGI reinforces that, with a subtle interplay of mechanical parts making the faces of Sam’s pals rich with expression while still strictly mechanical. And when it comes to the transformation of the Transformers, it’s a thousand fiddly bits all moving at lightning speed, appropriate clacking, and wicked precision that is infinitely fascinating to watch every time it happens.
The second act, alas, has a lot of territory to cover, literally and figuratively, bringing all the characters together, doing a series of reveals, and, of course, getting that battle for planet earth out of the way. Things continue to zip along, but the pace becomes more frantic, and that final battle sequence, while technically still first-rate, drags on for what seems like several days. Call it director Michael Bay’s signature move. It’s as though the effects folk were like the proverbial kid in a candy store. Sure, the first several pounds of fudge, jawbreakers, and licorice whips are great, but eventually there’s the dyspepsia of overindulgence with which to contend.
TRANSFORMERS works for more than just the built-in fan base who grew up on the old cartoon series and the toys. This is a fantasy for which suspension of disbelief is a pleasure. Sleeker, spiffed up, and daring to rely on solid storytelling as well as twitchy little imps made out of what looks like very shiny knives and a badass attitude