You know how movies are always front-loaded with the little ads and announcements for all the production companies that had a hand in making them? “A Monster Movie Production of a Visual Popcorn Film — In Partnership With La Brea Studios and Megarich Partners LLC”? Well, this one, the opening credits inform us, was created “in association with Hasbro.” And you have to laugh. There it is, right out in the open, no beating around the corporate teat hoping to feed your consumerist greed: this is a two-and-a-half-hour cartoon advertisement for toys. We knew it would be — what else could it have been, since the original material was the same?
How perfectly appropriate, then, that Michael Bay should be tapped to direct this. All his movies look like advertisements already, usually like Air Force recruitment propaganda fetishizing hardware. He’s the perfect guy, isn’t he, to make a $150 million cartoon?
Turns out he is: this is the movie Michael Bay was born to make. And I say this in all seriousness and with all due respect, particularly as a longtime hater of Bay’s superficiality and inability not to put a glossy plastic sheen on the most profound of subjects (like patriotism, as in Pearl Harbor, and justice, as in Bad Boys II). But here? Why, glossy plastic sheen is exactly what’s called for. No, really. It’s giant robots stomping around and beating the crap out of one another. We must thank the gods of cinema that Bay — and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (who both wrote Mission: Impossible III and The Island) — didn’t feel the need to inject anything meaningful or complicated into this giant Erector set of a movie. There’s absolutely nothing smart, deep, or subtle to be found in Transformers. Which is precisely the way it should be.
I never thought I’d ever say such a thing, but we must admire Bay for being resolute in his inconsequence. Transformers works only because it is gloriously, emphatically meaningless and cheerfully, genially brainless. It’s like a big dumb dog — you just can’t hate it.
The story is completely beyond the point, but basically, there are two opposing factions of alien robot things that come to Earth to wage their war. Don’t ask why — it doesn’t matter; it’s just totally freakin’ cool, okay? They can make over backward human technology to their own purposes, so that a giant alien robot, like the one hilariously named “Bumblebee,” can suddenly look like a beat-up (but still cool) old Camaro, and then later decide that it wants to look like a waaay cooler late-model Camaro. Also, giant alien robots — at least the “good” ones who want to protect humanity from the “evil” ones — are totally into helping a guy get laid. Like Sam Witwicky (the ever charming Shia LeBeouf: Surf’s Up, Disturbia), who acquires the Bumblebee Camaro and soon finds it helping him woo the lovely Mikaela (Megan Fox), who is ridiculously unbelievable as a high school junior, but didn’t I say this was wildly brainless? (She actually gets to do some cool action-movie stuff later on, and generally fares much better than the standard action babe sidekick usually does.)
I suppose if you wanted to look for something accidentally intelligent and/or substantial here, you could possibly frame an argument for this being something of an ode to the competence of the American military, on the grunt level, as long as they’re divorced from and out of communication with a thoroughly ineffectual leadership. Like how the cutie American army sergeant, Lennox (Josh Duhamel: Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!), and his ragtag team manages to kill a buttload of evil alien robots, but the minute the bungling Secretary of Defense (Jon Voight: National Treasure, SuperBabies: Baby Geniuses 2) gets involved in the mess, things go straight to hell… until Lennox saves the day again. But I’m probably reading too much into that: it’s harder to fetishize an old guy in a suit leading a meeting of other old guys in suits than it is to fetishize a handsome young man in military fatigues wielding some kickass firepower. The one comical aside about the U.S. president — he’s apparently a Ding Dong-eating moron — is probably just a coincidence.
Last week I wondered whether the tediousness of Live Free or Die Hard didn’t signal the end of the action movie; now I’m thinking that probably, yes, the slam-bang toy box of hardware and wiseassery that has dominated at the multiplex for the last two decades may be over. Because Transformers feels like the pinnacle of the genre: I’m not sure there’s anywhere to go from here. When a giant alien robot can tell a horny American teenage boy, in all earnestness, “Sam, you hold the key to Earth’s survival,” I think it means we’re done.
But at least we went out on a bang.