When Michael Bay was announced as the director of Transformers, a big-screen version of the '80s cartoon franchise about alien robots who hide among humanity disguised as vehicles and other machines, it seemed like the perfect match of director and subject; whether that's a compliment or an insult is a matter of your perspective. Bay's movies (Bad Boys II, Armageddon) have always looked like a bizarre hybrid of truck commercials, Army recruitment ads and country-music videos: high-gloss, quick-cut, back-lit visions with an emphasis on surface sheen and a minimum of scripting or storytelling to get in the way of the next explosion or action moment. Transformers may represent the ultimate symbiosis of director and subject: Transformers is, in many ways, a long-form commercial, co-produced by Paramount, DreamWorks ... and toy manufacturer Hasbro.
Transformers, the movie, may sell Transformers, the toys, but it doesn't do much of anything else. You can't go into Transformers expecting it to make a lot of sense, or to work as science fiction (it is a movie about giant robots who shift shape, after all) but I don't think it's too much to ask that it could, at least, be competently and coherently made, which it isn't. There's no rhythm to the big moments of action -- they're too quickly-cut and closely-shot to be clear or comprehensible -- and the script, credited to Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, is littered with failures in both simple taste and basic storytelling.
The human characters are as stiff and inhuman as the robots; they include Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), a young man who we first meet when he's presenting his explorer grandfather's personal effects as part of a high school genealogy project, and trying to sell them to finance his first car. Sam's great-grandfather explored the North Pole, but came back home a shattered man, ranting and raving about some "Ice Man" he'd seen in an underground crevasse. Sam's search for wheels brings him to a low-rent used car lot, where a older Camaro catches his eye -- and, it turns out, vice-versa: The Camaro's, yes, a robot in disguise, there to protect Sam and help find one of the film's central plot devices. Meanwhile, an Army base in Qatar is approached by a helicopter -- which all records say was lost in Afghanistan three years ago. The helicopter then reveals itself as one of the bad robots, blowing up the base as part of an effort to hack into the Defense Department's computer networks.
This all comes after a thick, gravy-like serving of exposition that opens the film, explaining where the good and bad robots come from, and how they're all hot on the trail of something called the "All-Spark," a huge, massively powerful whatsit that gives the robots something to fight over. And again, I don't know how you could come up with any plot that could make Transformers plausible, but the problem here isn't the plot (or, more correctly, isn't just the plot); it's in the execution, in the dialogue, in the tone and feel and shaping of the film. There's not a single scene in Transformers that doesn't contain either some leaden, limp cliché or some basic failure of good storytelling. Of course, Sam's unattainable dream girl Mikaela (Megan Fox) is a stone-cold hottie who knows cars and engines inside and out; of course, our group of soldiers under attack in Qatar is led by the dedicated Sergeant Lennox (Josh Duhamel), who only wants to get home to see his wife and baby girl.
But complaining that a multi-million dollar summer movie contains clichés is like complaining a multi-million dollar house contains bricks; the problem isn't the material but the shape of the construction -- and the mortar of dialogue, character and scripting that's supposed to make the cliché's connect. When we first meet the good-guy Autobots, a big moment in a big movie clearly aimed at kids, why does the first thing out of the mouth of the Porsche-robot Jazz have to be "What's up, little bitches?" When our hero-bot, Optimus Prime, destroys Sam's family's bird bath, why does he say "Oops -- My bad," as if he were a 16-year-old mall girl instead of a 16-ton robot? When the requisite shadowy government agency who knows about the aliens (see also Predator 2, Independence Day, Men in Black) shows up, why does the film have to neuter any sense of menace or suspense by having their leader played by John Tuturro, giving a goofy, goony performance that punctures scenes before they even start? When the shadowy government agency has captured Sam's car, Bumblebee, and Sam insists on seeing him before he'll help save the day, why does Duhamel's soldier pull his gun to back up Sam's request -- despite Duhamel and LaBeouf not having shared so much of a line of on-screen dialogue? And why does the film have to have the faintly racist idea that comedic relief consists of, mostly, Black men (Bernie Mac, Anthony Anderson) shouting at women?
None of the elements above are unexpected (or even unappreciated) in a mega-million action thriller: Snappy introductions, threatening agencies, heroes bonding and backing each other, a smattering of comedy. They're all part of the muscle and marrow of genre entertainment. But they're so badly handled here (and bear in mind that this is just a top-of-my-head list) that they feel like watching a drunk figure skater weave and stumble through the compulsory exercises, hoping they'll pull it together for the big finish. But then again, I heard someone outside my screening of Transformers say – without irony or sarcasm – that "It's not about the script; it's about the CG." That may be one of the most chilling things I've ever heard from a moviegoer, suggesting a world view where, to paraphrase 1984, if you want a picture of the future of entertainment, picture a CGI boot stamping on a human face – forever.
But the fact is that the effects in Transformers, even in the film-ending robotcalypse, are poorly-shot and framed. There are precious few long, stable shots of the transformers, uh, transforming; They're mostly done fast and up-close as if trying to distract us from how clumsy the effects are. And the long-shots commit another cardinal sin of computer-generated effects, where the massive, metallic good and bad robots move with no sense of gravity or inertia, just the hollow flimsiness of a Mylar balloon. Just as Peter Jackson's King Kong was hurt by moments where the title ape moved like a blow-up doll and not a flesh-and-bone mammal, the robots here feel like hollow shells made of tinfoil and fishing line, not huge hulks of alloy and metal.
I am not predisposed to dislike summer entertainment and genre films; in fact, I'm predisposed to like them a little too much. I could watch Spider-Man II or The Empire Strikes Back or X-Men 2 or Aliens (all huge franchises, all huge sequels, all heavy on special effects) over and over again. And I have, because for all of their money and gloss, they're well-written, well-constructed, well-made movies about human beings, made by people who understood that all the groovy effects and high-concept ideas you can imagine fall flat and lie there rotting without a structure of human feeling and intelligent writing to support them. Transformers is supposedly about robots who turn into cars and back again; what it's really about is big Hollywood turning money into stupid and back again – because as bad as Transformers is, it's going to make cash hand over fist as long as audiences want their major motion pictures giving them spectacle instead of storytelling and junk effects instead of real entertainment.