By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 2, 2007
"Transformers" uncovers man's greatest love -- for machines that whir, click, rev or destroy.
But before you dismiss this movie as toy porn for overgrown boys (not that there's anything wrong with that), consider this: Never was this goofy rapture explored with more fun. For the non-Transformer heads among us, who couldn't tell an Autobot from a Decepticon, it's a wonderfully playful experience.
Director Michael Bay -- of "Armageddon" and "Pearl Harbor" -- has superbly universalized the Transformers franchise, a behemoth of a subculture that includes a 1980s animated television series, comic books, the Hasbro line of toys, a 1986 movie and Japanese TV spinoffs with titles such as "Transformers: Super-God Masterforce."
Sure, his movie (co-produced by Steven Spielberg) targets those who grew up with profound or casual familiarity with the Transformers. He's deeply aware that potent childhood memories are at stake here. Which is why "Transformers" has some of the best action sequences you'll see all summer, including a way-cool shootout between a tank-size, scorpion-tailed Decepticon and American soldiers in the Middle East desert.
But in Bay's hands, the movie's about more than explosions and robots. It's also a warmly appealing comedy centered on delightfully jittery teenager Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), who has to not only save the world but also watch for the facial blemishes and dorky moves that might jeopardize his other pressing project--getting into the good graces of comely new companion Mickaela Banes (Megan Fox).
Sam's worries don't end there. He has to tiptoe around a pair of particularly inquisitive parents (Kevin Dunn and Julie White), who remain blissfully unaware of his mythical responsibilities. (As Sam's mom, White is the movie's ultimate scene stealer -- at one point engaging Sam in a frank discussion about self-gratification, oblivious to the gigantic robots lurking outside the house, scuffing up the lawn.)
We could outline the outer-space conflict that brings good alien robot Optimus Prime (voice of Peter Cullen) and his evil adversary Megatron (Hugo Weaving) to Earth, and how they desperately seek an all-powerful cube of life-giving energy, hidden somewhere on the planet. We could explain how Sam's involvement stems from a startling discovery made by his great-great-grandfather in the 1870s. But the joys come in discovering these things for the first time, and enjoying such eye-bulging special effects as Sam's dusty old Camaro -- his first car! Bought by his dad! -- turn into a building-size (and sweet-natured) transformer by the name of Bumblebee (voice by Mark Ryan).
That boy-and-his-machine relationship follows the affecting tradition of films such as Brad Bird's animated "The Iron Giant," featuring a heart-melting affection between a 9-year-old boy and his giant robot from outer space, or the second and third "Terminator" films, in which the young John Connor befriends the imposing Terminator, as far more terrifying machines threaten humankind. For audiences, the emotional pull comes in finding a hint of humanity amid all that circuitry. And in "Transformers," we seek, and find, the same connection.
"Transformers" also underscores how emotionally connected we have all become to technology -- our cars, computers, cellphones and BlackBerrys. We personalize our various machines, as if they're the inorganic equivalent of the wet-nosed family dog. We customize ring tones on our cellphones. We agonize over the right desktop images. We demand Bluetooth and GPS in our vehicles. We think of those instant messaging beeps as the chirpings of friendliness. So what's so crazy, really, about a blitzkrieg action flick that takes that irrational sense of attachment and runs with it, laser projectiles flying overhead? It's just another day in the hi-tech neighborhood.
Transformers (144 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for intense sci-fi action violence, brief sexual humor and language.