Less Than Meets the Eye 

Transformers wastes a cool — if silly — concept and eye-popping effects.

As a child of the '80s, I owned a few Transformers — those souped-up matchbox cars that could be twisted and rotated into robot-like action figures. But I never bothered to figure out the backstory. Hey, look: The big rig turns into a robot! Cool. The concept was simple. The "why" seemed beside the point.

In need of a narrative to fill out and justify a two-and-a-half hour running time and nine-figure budget, the new Michael Bay-directed Transformers attempts to explain the why. There's something about an ancient alien war. Decades-old Arctic exploration. Secret government agencies. A mystical, energy-supplying cube called an "Allspark."

At the core are rival tribes of transformers — "non-biological extraterrestrials" that are "robotic organisms" made of "self-regenerating molecular armor" — whose interstellar conflict has landed on Earth. The "good" transformers are called Autobots and are commanded by a candy-colored 18-wheeler called Optimus Prime. The "bad" transformers are Deceptacons, led by the long-dormant metallic monster Megatron.

If this all sounds very silly, it's because it is. Transformers is a movie for school boys or should be: There are gee-whiz special effects to ooh and ahh over, a blue-eyed, brunette dream babe (Megan Fox) to lust for, and a believably Everykid protagonist (Shia LaBeouf) to identify with.

Unfortunately, hack auteur Bay can't settle on a tone. Is this a self-referential action comedy geared toward the nostalgia of thirtysomethings who think of Transformers as just another bit of beloved cultural detritus from the '80s? Or is it a sincere sci-fi action-adventure geared toward kids who don't grasp how ridiculous it all is?

Ultimately, Transformers tries to work on both levels. But instead of appealing to different audiences with a consistent but multifaceted tone, Transformers attempts to appeal to different audiences with a shifting, uncertain tone. And the result is unsatisfying. At times the movie is a knowing, wisecracking action farce. At others it is a solemn and sincere message movie for awed 8-year-olds.

The special effects here are plenty cool. I had no interest in Transformers at all until I was surprised by the eye-popping images from the film's trailer. And at its best, the movie's fun comes from simply watching everyday objects morph onscreen into, um, "robotic organisms." A military chopper transforms into a stomping robotic monster upon landing. A portable stereo and cell phone morph into shifty spy-bots. A Mountain Dew vending machine — gotta mitigate that big budget with a little product placement — springs to life.

Because of its central conceit, Transformers should have audiences anticipating that every common mechanical object could be on the verge of springing to life. But Bay can't be bothered to play the audience in this way. That would require at least a modicum of filmmaking skill or nuance. And when the action is more conventional, Transformers goes nowhere.

Ultimately, what Transformers resembles most is James Cameron's Terminator 2, in which robotic, shape-shifting rivals from a more advanced world waged war across present-day Earth while human onlookers and allies crowded the edges. Since Transformers director Bay (Armageddon, Pearl Harbor) is nothing if not an ersatz Cameron, Transformers is essentially an infantilized reworking of the T2 concept: There's less gravity here, less relentless, punishing action, less knotty narrative to chew over. Sadly, the box office will probably be about the same.

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