Transformers, Optimus Prime, Megatron, Michael Bay, Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel Jon Voight, John TuturroWatching the live-action adaptation of Transformers, one sits and wonders if Michael Bay will deliver on the franchise’s famous promise of being “more than meets the eye.” In many ways, the film delivers. But in others, it feels like it’s all been done before.

Even though it feels like you’re a third of the way through the movie before you get a chance to get a good look at one of them, the three-story robotic monstrosities known as the Transformers are a marvel of visual effects work. Hats off to Industrial Light and Magic for their innovations in kinematics that allow for the explosive unfolding and reassembling of complicated machinery into the heroes and villians we’ve grown up with.

No detail is spared in the transformations. Several close-up shots demonstrate the complex but true-to-form physics of displaced joints and appendages. You literally see the gears turning. And, of course, they sell it by adding the infamous “chh-chh-chh-chh!” noise that countless little boys made themselves when playing with the toys growing up. Good call.

Bonus points as well go to giving the role of Optimus Prime to Peter Cullen (who originated the character in the cartoons). Hearing his rich baritone deliver Optimus Prime’s lines just feels right – like an old pair of slippers (even if Cullen had to audition twice (!!!) to get the role).

As a side-note, there was some fan outrage when the role of Megatron was turned over to Hugo Weaving, but it’s a non-issue. Weaving does some interesting things with the tight-lipped Aussie snarl he perfected as Agent Smith in The Matrix Trilogy. You won’t even recognize him until he’s on screen for a good 10 or 15 minutes. No disrespect to Earl Hammond (who originated the role of Megatron in the cartoons), but his addition probably would have put the film over the top in terms of cartoonishness.

Not that Bay doesn’t do a good job of that on his own. Carrying his signature style (sweaty and grimy heroes walking in slow-motion against back-lit scenery) the action sequences deliver full-throttle excitement. There is always something awe inspiring to look at. If you would have flipped on the lights during the Optimus Prime/Bonecrusher fight over the Los Angeles freeway, I’m sure you would have seen a sea of slack-jawed amazement. Sometimes it’s almost impossible to soak it all in as Bay brings the battle in close for a robot-on-robot death match. Speed, fluidity, and explosive force are all hallmarks of his trade and there isn’t a movie better than Transformers for Bay to use his entire bag of tricks.

However, for everything that the movie does right, there are areas that come up short. Specifically, the screenplay. Five writers had their hands in this thing and it shows. Anytime a character speaks, they really shouldn’t because most of what they say are melodramatic cliches.

As far as the performances are concerned, Shia LaBeouf as the lead knows his role is to act as our witness – to allow the story of the Transformers be told through his eyes. At times his delivery comes off like a spastic Vaudeville routine. A lot of fast talking and stumbling over his words. But he holds his own.

Megan Fox as his romantic interest offers little than a sweaty midriff to look at. She looks half-asleep through most of the movie. Her background as the daughter of a grease monkey felon is inconsequential and only inserted to mask the fact that she’s only along for the ride as arm candy.

Josh Duhamel is serviceable as an Army Ranger who’s squad first encounters the Transformers in the desert of Quatar (ooo, topical!), but he’s no Timothy Olyphant. Tyrese Gibson as his war-buddy is pretty much there to taunt the evil Transformers after calling in an air strike with the summer’s newest non-catchphrase “Bring the rain!”

There’s a curious amount of military involvement in the film, which felt odd at first for a science-fiction movie about giant robots. But considering this is an alien invasion of sorts, the response is appropriate. Maybe it just feels odd since the original cartoons never really addressed the human response to Transformers being on Earth. They carried out their war in our backyards pretty much undisturbed. But if you’re applying real-world logic to the film, the government would be on this pretty quick.

Seeing all of the tanks, jets and helicopters made available to Bay by The Department of Defense, it’s easy to see why Bay has a strong following among the NASCAR set. He makes the soldiers out to be more quick-witted, heroic and ass-kicking than Rambo. I’m not saying we couldn’t use a little positive representation of our men in uniform, but I was surprised at the level of American gung-ho spirit in a movie whose source material comes from Japanese robots.

That said, there’s almost too much military action. There’s so much at the beginning, we’re not introduced to Shia’s character until almost 40 minutes in. By the third act of the movie when John Tuturro and his secret government agency that smells like a Men In Black rip-off shows up, the film veers dangerously close to plagiarizing Independence Day when it’s revealed how much the government knew and when they knew it.

If I could express any other complaint about the movie, it would have to be the amount of product placement that Bay can’t seem to divorce himself from in his films. From eBay to Burger King to each of the good-guy Transformers depicted as GMC vehicles, the stamp of marketing executives are all over this film. At one point, there is a convoy of all the vehicles that looks like a commercial I’d see while watching The Office. Lens flares, close-ups of the GMC logo, swooping overhead shots from a helicopter. I leaned over to Cami and whispered “The all-new 2008 Bumblebee with 0% financing and factory rebate!” Hell, even a Nokia phone and a Mountain Dew vending machine transform into robots! Of course, the movie itself is a gigantic commercial to sell toys. It pretty much tells you as much in the opening credits when it reads “In partnership with Hasbro.”

Ultimately, Transformers is a big, dumb Hollywood action movie that brings the fireworks for the Fourth of July holiday. It doesn’t disservice the characters I grew up with and loved as a child, but it really doesn’t bring anything new to them other than the amazing photo-realistic transformations in the effects work. If you like Bay’s other action movies, you’ll love this one. If you’re not already a fan, there’s nothing here that will convert you. Take Transformers with a grain of salt and you’ll have a rollicking good time at the movies.

Rating: 7 out of 10