When I was a kid, a toy was just a toy. G.I. Joe never turned into a jeep or a rifle; he just remained G.I. Joe. Although I was in college for the initial wave of Transformers, I get the appeal. A fierce-looking robot can twist and fold into, say, a rolling truck, so a Transformer combines the "playability" of toy vehicle, action figure and Rubik's Cube. That's three playthings for the price of one.
As a commercial property, the Hasbro line showed its facility for changing up. It transformed into a TV cartoon with a complicated backstory and a fan base that keeps the faith a generation later. The new film version proves the Transformers can morph into a live-action motion picture, although director Michael Bay can be at once the franchise's greatest champion and worst nemesis. To borrow the Transformers' terminology, the Pearl Harbor and Armageddon director ultimately falls on the side of the righteous Autobots rather than the nefarious Decepticons, but it's a pitched struggle.
Masquerading as tanks, helicopters, etc., rival factions of alien robots search Earth for the Allspark, a supposedly all-powerful cube. The flesh-and-blood side of the story, scripted by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, seems already overrun by androids. As a high school hottie with mechanical aptitude, Megan Fox comes across as a Hollywood sex-bot right off the assembly line. Anthony Anderson's gluttonous, excitable hacker? Joke-bot. Jon Voight's no-nonsense secretary of defense? Authority-figure-bot.
Shia LaBeouf provides nearly the sole human touch as hapless high schooler Sam Witwicky. To raise money for his first car, Sam plans to sell a family artifact that may provide the location of the Allspark. He ends up with a beat-up Chevy Camaro that seems strangely eager to be purchased. Transformers' first act draws on elements of Herbie and Christine, with the car radio prompting romantic cues such as "Sexual Healing" and, later, pursuing him with no driver. LaBeouf makes a game straight man even during obvious jokes and has an intensity that sells the presence of the computer-generated giants that eventually surround him.
Confronted by a squad-car-turned-mechanical ogre, Sam's panic takes on an extra edge when the robot booms, "ARE YOU EBAY USER LADIESMAN217?" The question offers a note of subtlety amid Bay's chest-thumping bombast; these robots know we've been on the Internet! Another director could have capitalized on the paranoia instilled in this premise: that machines aren't just mindless tools or status symbols, but beings with their own inhuman agenda. But don't expect such sinister implications from a film that frequently seems to have General Motors in the driver's seat.
We don't see much of the heroic Autobots in their mechanical glory (reminiscent of samurai armor) until the film's second half. (The pumped-up preview audience cheered at the sight of a shiny Peterbilt truck even before it rescrambled itself into Optimus Prime, the good robots' leader.) Transformers stands out in an era of celebrity voices by casting many of the original speakers from the old cartoons. Without famous associations or knowing irony, Peter Cullen gives Optimus Prime a seriousness that suits the role's status as a would-be icon, although it's hard not to laugh at a declaration such as, "Autobots, let's roll!"
Transformers even includes an extended slapstick scene with Sam trying to keep his cool at home while, outside, the impatient Autobots accidentally trample flower beds, walk into phone lines, etc. It comes across as the film's attempt to "humanize" the giant alien robots, and although the humor clunks, you can appreciate the attempt to distinguish the Autobots from the Decepticons. They're better at using their zillions of moving parts to strike action-hero poses.
It's a little odd that Transformers features U.S. troops in the Middle East and builds to a climax rife with urban destruction without ever echoing the war in Iraq or 9/11. It features some fuzzy political satire about government secrecy, with John Turturro, as one of the "Men in Black" types, acting as though he's in an update of Dr. Strangelove. More often it's a love letter to the American military, celebrating hardware with a zeal worthy of Top Gun. With a defense secretary as a hero and not a whiff of present-day subtext, Transformers is a film Donald Rumsfeld could love.
Overall, though, the essential purpose of Transformers isn't to develop rich characters or pointed themes; it's to show huge machines smashing each other and their surroundings. By the spectacular standards of fireworks displays, kick-ass rock concerts and demolition derbies, Transformers delivers. The imposing early scenes give the film a sense of menace and scale absent from the American Godzilla from 1998. In an early highlight, a deceptive "helicopter" ambushes an American base in Qatar and, later, Josh Duhamel's stalwart soldier leads his troops in a battle with an oversized, weaponized techno-scorpion.
By the time the Autobots and Decepticons race down busy highways and square off in a crowded downtown, Bay constructs propulsive set pieces and thrilling images, such as Optimus Prime and his archenemy Megatron leaping through a skyscraper, smashing through the floors and erupting from the other side. For all its pandering comedy and flat characterizations, Transformers offers sights you've never seen in a movie before – which should be the minimum standard of a would-be summer blockbuster. It's undeniably fun to watch Bay play with the most expensive toys on the planet.