Don't get me wrong: Transformers is mercilessly inhuman and totally hysterical from frame one. Director Michael Bay never met a rhetorical apocalypse he didn't love. Dude could film a round of Jenga with greater shock and awe than the collapse of the World Trade Center. There are mini-robots hiding inside his mega-robots. His lens flares have lens flares. He evidently controls the magic hour with the flick of a switch and flips it willy-nilly for "poetic effect." In what may constitute the zaniest authorial signature in contemporary cinema, he has a habit of arresting an action set piece in order to indulge outlandishly backlit, monumentally pointless romantic interludes.
These are dutifully performed by a nitwit named Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) and a slab of she-plastic named Mikaela (Megan Fox). Wit-wickety-wickety-whack is a descendent of an intrepid Arctic explorer whose eyeglasses were imprinted with the location of an intergalactic magic cube after he stumbled upon the frozen form of Megatron, leader of the Decepticons, an ancient race of avant-garde shape-shifting doodads. Whack Attack becomes the center of a resurgent feud between the Decepticons and their sworn enemies, the peaceful Autobots, when he auctions his grandpappy's spectacles on eBay in order to raise money for his first car. Enter Bumblebee, a vintage Camaro suggesting an overcompensating nephew of Herbie Fully Loaded, plus Bernie Mac in a neo-minstrel cameo as a jive-ass used-car salesman.
Meanwhile, an American military base in Qatar has been attacked by angry metal scorpions that hacked into an Army database as part of a Decepticon plan for cube-enabled global domination or whatever. In the ensuing geopolitical crisis, Secretary of Defense Keller (Jon Voight) enlists the standard clutch of tech-head hotties to make sense of the madness and cover demographic gaps. (Feisty Latino? Check. Amusing Negro? Check. Computer nerds? Check. Militaristic gearheads? Check. Zaftig Australian über-hackers? Check.)
But I digress. Point is, giant robots turn into cars! (More specifically and profitably, they turn into Pontiacs and Hummers and GMC pickup trucks.) And jets! And helicopters! And boomboxes! And cell phones! And then they fight each other! All sarcasm aside, that's pretty much awesome. On some very basic level, I don't think you can fuck up the essential kick of a movie about metamorphic robots — no, not even you, Mr. Bay. Let us acknowledge that Transformers is not simply a story of humanity being attacked by a sophisticated breed of technological nihilism — it is that assault. "To punish and enslave" reads the motto of a Decepticon in the shape of a cop car. That isn't a threat, but a promise: Transformers is an invitation to mechanized stupefaction.
The decline of Western civilization, etc. Now let's return to the only thing worth discussing — indeed, the only thing the movie shows any legitimate interest in. Transformers is a showcase for next-level special effects, but its transformations deliver the idea of astonishing virtual engineering without exactly representing it. Each transformation sets off the super-complex shift/flip/pivot of a thousand hydraulics, hatches, gears and gun barrels in an impressive but largely unintelligible blur. The press kit marvels at the construction of Optimus Prime, head of the Autobots, an eighteen-wheeler comprising 10,108 moving parts — of which maybe 500 register to the human eye. I can image warehouses full of animators and designers fastidiously constructing these frame-by-frame mutations, ensuring the proper fit and shine of every steel plate, oblivious to the dissolution of their craftsmanship when accelerated into the larger action. "More than meets the eye" has been delivered rather too literally.
When Bay decelerates for the obligatory post-Matrix slo-mo showstoppers, the result is, well, showstopping. Corkscrewing fighter jets flower into automatons — leaf on leaf of deadly hardware snapping into place as they unload missiles or a hailstorm of bullets — then compact back to flight, zipping through the street and upending a spectacular path of flaming vehicles in their wake. When graspable, the shit is off the hook, and there's enough to latch onto in the outrageously sustained finale to send you staggering out of the dark stammering, "Whoa..."
But by and large — and we're talking really friggin' humongous here — Bay is ignorant of what Steven Spielberg, serving as a producer, has always understood about action: Any yahoo can yield a couple hundred million dollars and max out the CGI, but it takes old-school filmmaking chops to connect synthetic mayhem to the gut.