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Transformers

Plot Sold Separately

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King of the Summertime Explosions Michael Bay is back. If you want to see huge metal things from outer space fight, drag race and cause mega-mayhem, his latest action film Transformers should satisfy those base desires. If you want anything as sophisticated as plot, character development or dialogue deeper than “Go to Def Con Delta NOW!” — just keep moving.

Arriving here from planet Cybertron in the 1980s, Transformers were wildly popular toys. Despite being robots, they could turn into ordinary objects and lurk among us! They kicked off a long-running TV cartoon, and in 1986, turned up in an animated film. Now, the Transformers return to the big screen and, thanks to the marshalling of computer technology unimaginable in their formative years, appear in live-action form.

The drama, briefly: Two batches of warring robots — good-guy Autobots and bad-guy Decepticons — show up on earth, looking for their wayward critical power source, a buzzing metallic cube. A few earthlings — very, very few, considering the entire planet is at stake — suit up to help the Autobots get the cube, defeat the Decepticons and save us all. Yaaaay!

There’ve been some changes in Transformer personnel (and licensing tie-ins) over the years. The new gang breaks down and re-arranges thusly. Among the Autobots, Bumblebee is a 1976 Chevy Camaro that later upgrades itself to the 2009 model (oooh, TV commercial of the future!); Jazz is a Pontiac Solstice; Ratchet becomes a Hummer; Ironhide flips into a GMC Topkick 6500 pickup; and Optimus Prime, who, despite being the Autobot leader, lacks corporate sponsorship and simply morphs into a generic big rig.

Over on the dark side, head baddie Megatron is an alien jet; Barricade, a Saleen S281 police cruiser; Starscream converts to a Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor fighter jet; Bonecrusher is a Force Protection Buffalo Mine Protected Clearance Vehicle; Blackout shifts into a Sikorsky MH-3 JM Pave Low III/IV helicopter; and the undersized, comic-relief bot, Frenzy, moonlights as a CD boombox.

Presumably the bad guys have a sardonic sense of humor that causes them to gravitate toward law-enforcement and defense vehicles. (Also left unexplored, why a bunch of military subcontractors would attack General Motors.) And it’s telling in today’s militaristic-toy-fantasy scenarios that no robot turns into anything generally useful — like a city bus, or even a family car that gets decent mileage.

In the meat world, the defense of Life As We Know It is in the hands of a few plucky teen-agers: Sam (Shia LaBouef), proud owner of the not-really-a-Camaro; his sexy gearhead gal pal Mikaela (Megan Fox); the world’s greatest hacker (Anthony Anderson); and the world’s greatest analyzer of sound waves and Aussie hottie, Maggie (Rachel Taylor).

Critical adults top out low, too: There’s DefSec Keller (Jon Voight); federal agent Simmons (John Turturro) of “Sector 7” (no, you’ve never heard of it); and two — count ’em, two — brave uniforms in the trenches, Tech. Sgt. Epps (Tyrese Gibson) and Capt. Lennox (Josh Duhamel), both clearly recruited for their impressive arm musculature. Across the board, the actors’ performances are as nuanced as you’d expect when on the run from a crazed giant stapler (though I’ve got a soft spot for LaBouef who deserves better than this).

Once again, Bay tapped his homies at the Defense Department for lots of real military locations, personnel and gear, thus making Transformers a wildly expensive U.S. military promo film (“Enlist and fight giant robots!”). The first attack is on a U.S. base in Qatar, where Special Forces take a lickin’ from a Sikorsky helicopter-turned-killer-robot. Oops, getting’ blown up in the Persian Gulf by an entity that looks friendly — that’s a little awkward. Bay and the DoD crew likely gambled that by summer 2007 the exploding sands of Iraq would be a fuzzy memory, and not an ever-present grim headline.

Even as a mindless summer romp, Transformers really tries our patience, clocking in at two-and-half hours. Early on, there’s so much padding around teen romance, parents-just-don’t-understand and goofy nerds that I thought the film had transformed into Tuesday night on The WB.

Also interminable was the closing battle where the good and bad Transformers wrestle on the streets of L.A., while our heroes form a meager defense against airborne pedestrians and masonry. It’s the WWE meets a demo derby, with a splash of Fallujah firefight thrown in, and all scored to tedious mook rock.

Thrills are decidedly absent from this actioner (and forget chills — danger level: zero). Instead, Bay plays for laughs with plenty of humans and robots quipping and jiving. And if it took minutes (even hours) to re-arrange the toys from robot to truck, the time — and the delight — of transformation here is significantly reduced. A few whirrs and clanks, and CGI makes it happen. Whatever.

If the robots have distinctive personalities and histories, they get short shrift here; in fact, a lot of significant plot seems missing: How or why to these robots transform? Why are they emotional? Do they sleep, and dream of electric sheep?

And how exactly can you kill them? Some die under fire; others don’t. Apparently, if kept frozen, the robots go dormant. At the film’s end, the army secures a bunch of Decepticon parts “seven miles below the ocean in sub-freezing temperatures.” Are we supposed to shake our heads that the screenwriters don’t get the essential concept of water — or feel superior to the foolish military brass and buy our tickets now for Transformers 2: Up from the Ocean’s Depths?

Once again, Bay — who gave us the equally bombastic Armageddon and Pearl Harbor — has likely transformed crap into box-office gold. Lucky for him, but what about us? At one point, young Sam understandably laments: “I bought a car, and it turned out to be a robot.” That’s how it goes, young’un: I went to a movie, and it turned out to be a car commercial.

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