At first glance, "Transformers" seems like a noisy, octane-driven action flick devoid of a decent plot and littered with overt advertising for auto manufacturers such as Chevrolet and Pontiac.
At second glance, that's exactly what it is.
Although the effects-heavy blockbuster satisfies fans of cinematic eye candy and features some entertaining tongue-in-cheek humor, the spectacle is exhausting and leaves thoughtful viewers feeling as if they've paid to see a 150-minute commercial for General Motors and the military. As a fan of the 1980s Saturday morning cartoon and Hasbro toys the film is based on, I was saddened to see characters I grew up with transformed into a corporate ad tool.
In the film's first moments, a military base in Qatar is devastated when a mysterious helicopter lands and suddenly changes into a massive robot that lays waste to the area and infiltrates the computer systems. A handful of soldiers (including Tyrese Gibson and Josh Duhamel) survive the attack and trek across the Middle East in search of help. Meanwhile, high school student Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) scores his first car -- a beat-up yellow-and-black Camaro.
As U.S. Secretary of Defense John Keller (Jon Voight) and a team of communication experts hunt for an explanation, Sam's Camaro changes into a sentient alien being called Bumblebee. Through flashbacks we discover that Sam's grandfather was an explorer who happened upon a life-giving cosmic cube called the "all spark."
Now two robotic alien races -- the noble Autobots and the sinister Decepticons -- are in search of the cube and on a collision course with each other. Car chases, Godzilla-esque robot battles and explosions ensue as the Decepticons hunt for the cube and the Autobots cozy up with Sam.
LaBeouf is an excellent casting choice. The young actor supplies the film's humor and offers its target audience a human character to relate to. But the talents of Gibson, Voight and John Turturro (as a sarcastic government agent) are wasted in roles unworthy of their collective charisma, although Voight's presence does lend the picture a bit of respectability. The insipid script is reminiscent of an after-hours movie on the Sci-Fi channel and features unbelievable characters, such as brilliant techie Maggie Madsen (Rachael Taylor) -- an Australian bombshell with a wardrobe better suited for nightclubs than the Pentagon.
The visual effects are stunning, although it's sometimes difficult to tell what's happening when the robots battle -- wheels, glass and metal bang around with the expected amount of headache-inducing cacophony. Some of the Autobots, such as Bumblebee and leader Optimus Prime, are a treat. And the relationship that develops between Bumblebee and Sam is one of the movie's high points.
Despite the classic catch phrase, "Transformers" is not more than meets the eye.
Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action violence, brief sexual humor and language. 2 hours, 24 minutes.