If Michael Bay loves the military so much, why doesn’t he just marry it? The reigning maestro of mindless summer crap, Bay is fervently turned on by war machinery and the men and women who wield it, his endless shots of cocking guns and screeching fighter jets balanced by droolingly romantic magic-hour vistas of heroic soldiers walking in slow motion. He’s a weapons fetishist, which makes him a natural fit to helm Transformers, a project (based on the 1980s Hasbro action figures and TV show I once adored as a kid) that affords a superlative opportunity to slobber over not only the mighty U.S. armed forces but also gigantic robots who—equipped with machine guns, laser canons, missile launchers, and seismic bomb-thingies—are intricately designed, outrageously powerful WMDs disguised as cars, planes, and other earthly devices. From the get-go, slobber he most definitely does, his film commencing with a bot attempting to steal ultra-covert national security information by ambushing a U.S. military outpost in Qatar, a nocturnal attack notable primarily for its wealth of tank-flipping explosions, visual incoherence, and elaborate orchestration of mayhem, all of which Bay imagines as some sort of superpowered 21st-century version of Pearl Harbor’s centerpiece sneak attack.
And like his Pearl Harbor, Transformers feigns interest in human drama while lavishing most of its TLC (and copious FX budget) on wide-scale conflict, in this case a series of battles between man and machine that culminates in a full-on slugfest between the rival Transformer factions in downtown L.A. Tethering those extravagant sequences together is the story of Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), a dorky high-schooler whose father buys him a beat-up yellow Camaro as his first car, finds out the vehicle is really a towering extraterrestrial robot named Bumblebee, and then winds up at the center of a war between the good Autobots and the evil Decepticons, both of whom covet a life-giving cube that Sam’s great-great-grandfather discovered—located next to frozen Decepticon leader Megatron—underneath the Arctic ice. In the warm portrait of Sam’s home life and relationship with his father (Kevin Dunn), executive producer Steven Spielberg’s influence can be gleaned. Yet it’s all just a pretense, as Bay affects mild concern for Sam’s plight but, in truth, cares not a lick for any of his caricatured characters, whose overriding purpose is to spout platitudes and give the audience a person’s-eye-view of the cacophonous maelstrom, and whom the director treats as mere pesky narrative requirements for his principal heavy artillery action.
Bay dials down the insensitivity that poisoned Bad Boys II, but that doesn’t mean it’s altogether absent. Unrepentant ogling of Sam’s sidekick Mikaela (Megan Fox)—she’s sexy, digs cars, and has a criminal record (the hot girl trifecta!)—is standard-issue for such a geeky popcorn flick. But there’s no constructive reason to have American grunts criticize their Latino comrade for speaking Spanish, nor for positing African-Americans (both Bernie Mac and Anthony Anderson) as buffoonish clowns—car-dealer Mac even employs a Bozo—prone to yelling at Mom/Grandma. Bay’s familiar lack of humanism extends to his callous disregard for those perishing in the Transformers’ fights—we’re actually asked to gasp with delight at a presumably full commuter bus being torn in half by a rampaging robot—and also, ultimately, to the Transformers themselves. Admittedly, the filmmaker finds himself in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation with his titular figures, as the time spent on their (source material-faithful) personalities makes them seem too cartoony for the otherwise realistically rendered proceedings, and yet his compensatory decision to largely ignore said personalities turns them into vacant, uninteresting sentient gadgets. Only with Bumblebee, who speaks via commercial radio soundbites, does Bay give his technically impressive CG contraptions real, soulful life; otherwise, they’re just whirring, mutating, similar-looking contraptions constructed out of shiny, angular chrome parts.
Even when the director stumbles upon something that works, he still manages to muck it up, whether that means tediously prolonging a scene in which the Autobots hide from Sam’s dad, or having Bumblebee pee on John Turturro’s cocky special-ops commander. That said, the film mostly adheres to the typical Bay template: a mise-en-scène defined by its willful indifference to spatial dynamics (Lord only knows how one image is geographically related to the next), cinematography so glossy one fears the actors and sets will slide right off the screen, one-dimensional performances, and simplistic lip-service to the concepts of patriotism, sacrifice, and courage. One would think that a story about undetectable enemies infiltrating home soil might provide fertile opportunities for contempo subtext, a notion further stoked when Josh Duhamel’s army stud, amid a city street skirmish, tells civilian Sam, “Everyone’s a soldier now!” Alas, Transformers is so hot and bothered over its reassembling robots that it can barely muster the energy to develop even an up-front text that makes sense, such that when the final battle erupts, identifying combatants as well as motivations proves nearly hopeless. “This is easily a hundred times cooler than Armageddon,” says one witness to the Transformers’ arrival. Perhaps, but, of course, that’s not saying much at all.
Confession: Transformers doesn’t suck as hard the second time around, possibly because I can now pause and rewind the image in order to put a robot face to all the flying junk throughout the film’s climax. Something that hasn’t changed is my appreciation of the film’s elaborate sound design, which is still ringing in my ears. Color saturation is sick, as is shadow delineation, and edge haloes are barely noticeable, and though there are some instances of artifacts, combing, and chroma noise throughout, the film moves so fast you may not even notice them.
Another confession: Not having ever heard Michael Bay speak on a commentary track before, my first impression of the man is that he isn’t as big of a jerkwad as his films would have us believe. Which is not to say that he isn’t, at the very least, a jerk. He makes no attempts to address the minstrelsy of the film’s minority characters, tellingly speaking about the origins of his involvement with Transformers (phone call from Spielberg, tour of Hasbro, death threats from fanboys) straight on through the Skorponok desert attack scene, when Amaury Nolasco’s Fig is no longer spitting out gratuitous Spanish. On his actors, he’s pretty much condescending when talking about Shia LaBeouf’s enthusiasm during the actor’s audition and Megan Fox’s difficulty putting the "tough" into her performance. On fanboys, note how he admits to listening to their qualms only to question their intelligence for picketing outside an office that he moved out of two years ago. And on the military, he asks why they let him use their stuff, to which he answers: "They look good at what they do in my movies." This idea that Bay’s movies are pretty much shills for the U.S. Army is echoed throughout much of the features collected on the second disc: the four-part "Our World" and "Their War" and the three-part "More Than Meets the Eye," which is chockablock with concepts and trailers. Amidst the interviews that appear throughout the first part of "Our World," a recurring, highly suspicious trend emerges: comparisons to Spielberg movies, as if Bay and Spielberg made movies on the same planet. Beyond that, the sketchiness is kept to a minimum, though the neat but incessant focus on the original cartoon show suggests a desperate need on the part of the filmmakers to prove to the fans that the film was not too drastic a departure.
The movie is "more than meets the eye": an elaborate advert for the U.S. military. "Be all that you can be" would have been more honest.