Long, Incoherent, and Kind of Fun

The accidental charm of Michael Bay’s Transformers.

Optimus Prime tries to save the Earth in Transformers

My viewing companion and I both agreed that Transformers (DreamWorks) was way too long and incoherently scripted, with action sequences that were notable mainly for their deafening noise level. So why were we both in such manically good spirits afterward, eager to revisit the goofy highs and clunky lows of the past two-plus hours?

Even attempting to recap the story is fun: You see, before time began, there was the Cube. That’s the movie’s first line (spoken in voice-over by veteran voice actor Peter Cullen, as the robot hero Optimus Prime) and the foundation of its nut-cake cosmology. (To what extent this universe differs from the mythos of the original TV series or the animated 1986 movie, I leave it to greater minds  to discuss.) The Cube is sort of like the black monolith in 2001. It floats through deep space, covered in runic writing, and plays some enigmatic yet indispensable role in the creation and maintenance of life on the planet Cybertron.

That planet was once home to two alien races: the upstanding Autobots and the sneaky Decepticons. (Does anyone but me hear the echo of “Democrats” and “Republicans” in these names?) After centuries of warfare destroy their planet, these shape-changing robots wander the galaxy, seeking the Cube to re-establish their world. Through a laboriously established yet thoroughly incomprehensible series of events, the map to the Cube’s whereabouts exists only on the lens of a pair of antique glasses. These potentially earth-saving specs now belong to a high-school kid named Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), who’s attempting to sell them on eBay to earn some money toward his first car.

Sam never sells those glasses, but he does get the car, a rusty yellow Camaro with a black racing stripe. It’s not quite machine enough to impress Mikaela (Megan Fox), a gearhead hottie who gets a ride home from Sam one afternoon. But when the car unfolds into a friendly metal behemoth that does battle to protect Sam and Mikaela from an evil police-cruiser-turned-Decepticon, it’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship between a boy and his wheels.

You know the way a grade-schooler, attempting to recap the plot of a recently seen movie, will backtrack, repeat himself, get lost in trivia, then skip forward to the final fight scene, all the while sputtering adorably about how cool the monster was? The story line of Transformers proceeds something like that. Besides the two teens in the Camaro, it’s got an Army unit in Qatar being attacked by a robotic helicopter, a sexy Australian computer hacker (Rachael Taylor) who becomes the unlikely adviser to a baffled secretary of defense (Jon Voight), and an officious secret agent (John Turturro) who’s after those glasses for reasons of his own. The screenwriters, Alex Kurtzmann and Robert Orci, don’t bother to explain as they go along; they just pile up the bang-crash action sequences and, when things get too confusing, screech to a halt for some plodding explanatory dialogue.

Michael Bay seems to have taken to heart the criticism that his movies (Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, The Island) tend to be bloated and self-serious. He leavens this one with attempts at humor that don’t always work: A scene in which the Autobots hide from Sam’s parents in his suburban backyard and get peed on by his Chihuahua is a cringeful low point. But even if some of the deliberately comic scenes fall flat, the whole movie has a lightness of tone, an affection for its own cheesiness. I loved a late scene in which the Autobots gather to wrap up any remaining plot threads in a long conversation, leaning casually against a tower of the Hoover Dam. (The best part is that, even after this expository kaffeeklatsch, viewers still have no clue what’s happening.)

If you know your Transformers mythology—or just like to watch really big robots whale on one another—you won’t mind that the individual ‘bots are scarcely distinguished from one another. But their interchangeability meant that this viewer misread the outcome of the climactic battle scene (for details, listen to the Slate spoiler special on Transformers). Michael Bay’s action sequences are crudely effective—that is, you duck when he throws a car at your head—but they’re far from elegantly choreographed. Especially if you’ve just seen an action ballet like Live Free or Die Hard, in which physicists seem to have calculated the precise trajectory of every airborne vehicle, the stunts in Transformers suffer from a problem of diminishing returns.

Transformers, which was executive-produced by Steven Spielberg, harks back to suburban-boy-saves-world dramas like E.T. But finally, it’s more like a technically souped-up reworking of those Disney kids’ comedies of the early ‘70s, The Love Bug or The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, with LaBeouf in the Kurt Russell role. The final scene is pure teen wish fulfillment: Imagine making out with your girlfriend on the hood of your sentient Camaro, as your own personal robot bodyguard looks on fondly (all right, that part’s a little creepy). Meanwhile, the vanquished minion of your enemy, a robot-cum-fighter plane named Starscream, vanishes into the night sky, leaving the promise of a sequel in his wake.