If it’s true that there’s an 8-year-old boy inside every man, “Transformers” is just the ticket to bring the kid out. Big, loud and full of testosterone-fueled car fantasies, Michael Bay’s actioner hits a new peak for CGI work, showcasing spectacular chases and animated transformation sequences seamlessly blended into live-action surroundings. There’s no longer any question whether special effects can be made more realistic: The issue is whether disposable actors can be trained to play better with bluescreens. Paramount/DreamWorks’ summer tentpole is certain to do gangbusters biz, while the sequel-screaming ending and the usual spinoffs should send ancillary through the roof.
Toy giant Hasbro will see its coffers full to overflowing after the July 4 release, perfectly timed for a consumer run on already popular Transformers figures, comic books, videogames and cartoons. “Transformers” is the apotheosis of product placement, using tried-and-true formulas in the story department as a showcase for the toys (already featured in the 1986 toon “The Transformers: The Movie”). Best of all for anyone who put coin into the production, pic builds off multiple generations of fans, from the kids obsessed with the robots at their launch in 1984 to those collecting the latest incarnations today.
Adult dweebs still enthralled by the figurines’ facile mythology have flooded the Web with complaints that the franchise has been tampered with to form a (relatively) cohesive plot, but most viewers either won’t notice or won’t care. At the center of the tale is Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), an average 11th grader psyched about getting his first car — a mysterious, beat-up yellow Camaro that lot owner Bobby Bolivia (Bernie Mac, in a brief role) has never seen before.
Sam’s attempts to impress cool girl Mikaela (Megan Fox) are falling flat, and the car’s habit of playing the right song (“Sexual Healing,” “Baby Come Back”) at the right moment only increases the initial tension. The machine really freaks Sam out when it drives away at night and transforms into a giant robot that communicates via light beam with a UFO.
Meanwhile, U.S. soldiers in Qatar have been attacked by a helicopter that transforms itself into one nasty robot, destroying everything in its path while an offshoot downloads top-secret files from the computers. Secretary of Defense John Keller (Jon Voight, doing a Southern version of Donald Rumsfeld) calls an emergency conference to analyze the data (“This is way too smart for the Iranians”), but one of the small robots has already hacked into Air Force One’s computer.
The evil robots are after Sam — or rather, a discovery made by Sam’s ancestor, an Arctic explorer. Thanks to introductory narration by good Transformer Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen), auds know what’s going on before Sam does: The planet Cybertron was ravaged by a civil war between the good Autobots and the evil Decepticons. In their search for an all-powerful cube called the Allspark, both sides learn that super-evil Megatron (voiced by Hugo Weaving) crashed in the Arctic a millennia ago, and with him the Allspark. Sam’s great-great-grandfather’s cracked glasses hold the key to its location.
It’s all very easy to follow. Sam’s car is one of the good guys, Bumblebee. He and his fellow Autobots bond (not literally, though that could be for the sequel) with the teenager, who pledges to help them out, fighting not only the Decepticons but also the uptight feds led by Agent Simmons (John Turturro).
Scripters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, together with John Rogers, had to keep the basic Transformers stories intact while placing them in a human environment, turning to plot elements from a number of successful pics including “King Kong,” “War Games” and “The Love Bug.” Pic also follows the early Steven Spielberg formula (he’s on board as an exec producer): Take a likeable young Joe with an ordinary upper-middle-class family and have him champion some aliens.
More than any of Bay’s earlier blockbusters, including “Pearl Harbor” and “Armageddon,” “Transformers” has an oddly Reagan-era feel, at times resembling an Air Force recruitment commercial. Soldiers, led by Capt. Lennox (Josh Duhamel) and Sgt. Epps (Tyrese Gibson), are as much heroes as Sam, fighting to rid the world not only of authoritarian regimes — there’s frequent speculation that Russia or China is involved, proving the Cold War hasn’t ended — but also secret government programs. Ethnic stereotypes abound, and there’s a none-too-subtle jab at the Spanish-as-an-equal-language lobby. “Freedom is the right of all sentient human beings,” intones Optimus, sounding more appropriately President Bush circa 2007.
LaBeouf is pleasantly sympathetic, but this is hardly the role to test his acting chops — or, for that matter, anyone else’s. Fox is little more than eye candy, while Bay has put together a nicely multiracial cast to broaden the pic’s appeal. Among the thesps, Turturro is so over-the-top that he provides a welcome acknowledgment of the pic’s cartoon origins.
But everyone involved knows the actors are mere props for Industrial Light & Magic’s CGI team, which has put together an impressive show of the latest tech advances — not only transforming cars and helicopters into enormous robots within a few thoroughly believable seconds, but also setting them in real spaces and having them interact with real objects. The premise for these fights hasn’t moved beyond 1925’s “The Lost World,” but the digital animation has never been better.
No wonder Bay needed a team of editors, who succeed in making the fight sequences exciting spectacles, though toward the end they all tend to become just a mess of flying wreckage and random explosions — the outcome is always predictable, if the movements themselves remain unexpected. Sound is cranked up to mega-decibels; if the action doesn’t generate stomach tremors, the bass lines will. Overly grand music used halfway through, during Bumblebee’s subjugation scene, seems to confuse it with the pic’s climax.