For the first five minutes of Transformers -- a sound-and-fury tornado of effects that could only entertain during summer's dumb-dumb dog days -- you will believe that bombastic blockbuster director Michael Bay was the right choice to helm the project. Peter Cullen, who has voiced heroic robot Optimus Prime since the original Transformers cartoon of 1984, explains the series' legacy as his velvet voice establishes this new movie's driving quest: The search for a hidden cube that is the centerpiece of an age-old war. Geeks will go crazy.
The film's final 45 minutes lend credence to the notion that Bay deserved the job. Essentially an endless battle between the Autobots (good) and the Decepticons (bad), the conclusion of Transformers raises the bar for summer movie special effects to an unattainable height. Bay and the wizards at Industrial Light & Magic cram so much eye candy into every frame, my corneas have cavities.
But it's that bloated mid-section of Bay's overlong extravaganza (clocking in at a punishing 144 minutes) that will test the patience of casual Transformers fans who can't distinguish Megatron from a Mitsubishi Montero but paid decent money to see stuff get blown up real good. After blasting to life with a military-meets-robotic-might opening, Bay shifts his thriller into neutral and stretches his painfully simple plot to the breaking point in order to bridge a broken second act.
The Transformers are robots (in disguise) from a distant planet that can morph into assorted vehicles. Optimus Prime leads the Autobots, and is opposed by Megatron's Decepticons. We are told their conflict has destroyed the Transformers' native world. Now the battle has shifted to Earth.
Screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman provide the bare minimum of character development, assuming (perhaps correctly) that audiences will care more for the renegade robots than for the dumbfounded earthlings with which they must interact. The head human hero is Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf, once again playing the charming geek), who stumbles on diminutive Autobot Bumblebee when his father, Ron (Kevin Dunn), purchases a beat-up Camaro in a used-car lot. Sam initially uses the car to impress shallow Mikaela (pretty but vacant Megan Fox), but eventually drags her into the conflict once Bumblebee and the rest of the Autobots reveal their greater purpose.
Transformers takes too long to reach high gear. Once the robots touch down near a Middle Eastern military base, Bay plods through rites-of-passage scenes that halt precious momentum. Sam hides his metallic allies from his parents (Dunn and co-star Julie White give the year's most annoying performances to date), even though telling them he has discovered massive robots would solve most of his artificial problems. Meanwhile, Defense Secretary John Keller (Jon Voight) and the mysterious leader of a covert government agency (John Turturro) conduct simultaneous investigations into the random robotic appearances that are shaking up our planet.
There's a certain level of acceptable stupidity in a summer movie, which Bay oversteps. Optimus Prime tells Sam the Transformers learn to speak by absorbing the Internet, yet a villain frozen for decades speaks perfect English when thawed. After the cube is discovered, Air Force officials -- led by Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson -- decide to hide the coveted device in the middle of a populated city! All of this, plus there's the casting of Kangaroo Jack star Anthony Anderson as a brilliant computer hacker. The boisterous comedian seems like an odd choice until you realize Bay encourages his actors to shout their dialogue and project every emotion as if the movie's lone audience member was stationed a mile away. Even in the quiet moments (and yes, I recall one or two), the Transformers cast pretends they are as large as robot warriors.
Speaking of, how about those robots? They are, admittedly, eye-popping creations. If nothing else, Transformers is big-screen entertainment. The shock-and-awe of ILM's accomplishments will lose scope and decibels on a home-theater system, no matter how high-tech. But where the initial Transformers cartoon, animated movie, and subsequent comics promised "more than meets the eye," this update only satisfies the visual-effects junkie in all of us.
Less than meets the eye, actually.