You’re going to see these cars as the heroes. You’re not going to see the other actors. These cars are the stars, literally, in the movie.
— Dino Bernacchi, GM’s associate director of branded entertainment (“GM hopes movie will transform sales,” AP 2 July 2007)
Why are we fighting to save the humans? They are a primitive and violent race.
— Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen)
You’d expect a summer action movie directed by Michael Bay, CGIed out the whazoo by Industrial Light and Magic, and based on toy cars to bring the noise. And indeed, Transformers does exactly that. Big and boomy, it filters faux nostalgia, fiery explosions, and irksome stereotypes to achieve completely seasonal combustion.
The point here is excess. For 144 minutes, the film pummels and pounds, delivering explosions, combat troops, speeding vehicles, computer codes, giant robots — and more explosions. By the time it reaches its final extended fight scene, Transformers‘ multiple climaxes have overwhelmed any preceding storyline, leaving viewers awash in sound and visual effects, so much crashing, shooting, roaring and flaming that it’s hard to know who ends up where or why any of it matters.
The movie begins with a brief gesture toward plot, when an opening voiceover offers cursory backstory: some time ago, the good Autobots and the bad Decepticons fought over a “cube” that has the power to “create worlds and populate them with life,” and in the process, destroyed their own planet. Just how the robots have selected earth as a destination is unclear, but they do arrive in time to disrupt a seemingly ongoing war in the Middle East (at least US Air Force troops are stationed there, specifically, near Qatar). A Decepticon disguised as a helicopter assaults a unit that includes the very buff Sgt. Epps (Tyrese Gibson), the stalwart Captain Lennox (Josh Duhamel), and the chatty ACWO (Aircraft Control and Warning Officer) Figueroa (Amaury Nolasco). As Lennox looks forward to holding his new baby for the first time and “Fig” is taunted by buddies for his use of Spanish and “magic voodoo powers,” the robot descends with a fiery fury, blowing up buildings and vehicles and menacing a cute little Arab boy, whom the troops make it their business to rescue (yay Team USA!). The men launch instantly into raucous action mode, making clear their knack for killing large mechanical objects.
The plot here splits off into two other strands, first to Secretary of Defense John Keller (Jon Voight), who gathers together great minds to decode the odd sound made by the robots (“This is way too smart for the Iranians,” they deduce). At least one of these minds is housed inside a lithe young body: the brilliant Australian Maggie (Rachael Taylor) takes a few quick looks at the problem and knows not only that they will need to take up “quantum mechanics,” but also that she needs to secret away a copy of the code to her geekboy mentor Glen (Anthony Anderson). (He wears a Clinton Portis jersey, and first appears yelling at his off-screen grandmother, then goes on to display both video-gaming and donut-eating prowess.) Their efforts lead to the discovery of a super-secret US government project, “Sector 7,” which has been examining a bad robot who crash-landed in the Arctic decades ago, eventually identified as Megatron and eventually voiced by Hugo Weaving.
The alien STARSCREAM goes on a destructive rampage
Maggie’s very brief show of world-saving expertise is complemented in the film’s third sorta-storyline, involving high school students. Scantily clad jock’s girlfriend Mikaela (Megan Fox) has her own skills, notably pertaining to cars. This enhances her appeal to classmate Sam (Shia LaBeouf), whose father has just bought him a 1976 yellow Camaro — from a dealership run by the disconcertingly buffoonish Bobby Bolivia (Bernie Mac). Really an Autobot named Bumblebee, the car conveniently conks out, enticing Mikaela to fix it and granting Sam a thrilling look at her midriff (“I’m cool with females working on my engine,” he gushes).
The boy-girl relationship, however, is secondary to the boy-car. On discovering that Bumblebee is in fact a self-transforming robot (“My car stole itself,” he sputters to the 911 operator, while watching that car stand up), Sam is initially alarmed but then, entranced. And once he meets the other Autobots — including red-and-blue-colored leader Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) and “black” Jazz (Darius McCrary), who uses street slang and throws gang signs — the boy-car story overshadows all the others. (There are, it should be noted, no girl robots in Bay’s “updating.”)
Sam Witwicky (SHIA LaBEOUF, center front) turns to an alien, OPTIMUS PRIME, (rear) for help
Sam provides commentary on the action (following an Autobons versus Decepticons battle, he gasps, “This is easily 100 times cooler than Armageddon!”) and helps defeat those wily Decepticons, in part by running his own deceptions against his mom and dad (who remain blissfully unaware that he has a set of shiny macho robots hiding in the backyard, even as one of them whines, “The parents are very irritating. Can I take them out?”). When Sam’s mother (Julie White) at last notices his post-battle appearance (“Why are you so sweaty and filthy?”), he puts her off by speaking something like truth: “I’m a child, a teenager!” (She then asks if he’s been masturbating in his bedroom, connecting the dots for you, if not her wholly embarrassed son.)
It’s a clever enough response, exasperated and ironic, because of course he doesn’t see himself as a typical teenager. When at last the gigantic showdown comes, he’s fully embraced by the team and aligned with the troops (who make it home from the desert in time to save the US from invasion) as well as squads of government agents. “Everyone’s a solider now!” exults Lennox as the last — long, rowdy, incoherent, spectacular spectacular — battle begins. Optimus rallies his robots by declaring their purpose. Even if the humans do look awfully primitive and violent, he’s got a global — no, a galactic — view. Declaring his absolute judgment and the intrinsic virtue of bringing democracy to all planets, he announces, “Freedom is the right of all sentient beings.” Except, of course, the Decepticons. Evildoers only have the right to punishment, again and again and again.