Is “Transformers” the new, postmodern spectacle for the new generation of viewers who like videogames?  A shrewdly made, action-driven saga that makes the most of all the technological innovations of the past decade, “Transformers” may be the movie event of the summer season, next to which the other sequels might seem pale–like yesterday’s news.

Made 20 years after the first Transformers animated movie (in 1986), Michael Bay’s picture is an escapist summer entertainment, a pop culture phenom that has already generated toys, comic books, cartoons, videogames, websitesyou name it. Paramount (domestic)-Warner (international) release should strike gold with a movie rife for a long-term franchise; ending of this picture suggests that, too.

The second teaming of producer Steven Spielberg and Bay proves more successful than the first, “The Island,” which was overseen by Spielberg’s team of Walter F. Parkes and Laurie MacDonald.  This collaboration allows Bay to realize his potential as helmer of largely sensorial fare that’s big, noisy, and dominated by state-of-the-art visual and sound effects. 

“Transformers” received its world premiere in a European film festival, in Sicily’s Taormina, in a most suitable venue, an ancient amphitheater. Judging by the crowd’s responseas if empirical evidence was needed”Transformers’ is a must-see movie for teenagers and young adults. After showings on multiple screens at the Los Angeles Film Fest next Wednesday, a wide release should result in mega-hit of blockbuster proportions.

Right after the screening at Taormina, there were heated debates among young viewers of why the movie has utilized these particular–and not other toys of the Hasboro line; when it comes to the Transformers, everyone has his/her favorites and rank-order of action toys.

Though the CGI effects are the film’s real stars, you can’t underestimate the role of the human actors.  In a casting coup, the ensemble is appealing and balanced, too, less by gender (there are only two girls with not much to do) than race; at heart, “Transformers” is very much a boys’ picture.

After giving a strong performance in “Disturbia,” which made the thriller into an unqualified spring hit, Shia LaBeouf is extremely well cast as the likeable hero, Sam Witwicky (LaBeouf), an “ordinary” teenage boy who is more interested in girls and cars than in school.

Like most of Spielberg’s protags, Sam is a smart and witty outsider, destined for bigger things than his peers or that his bland suburban milieu would allow. When his father agrees to match funds toward his first car, Sam’s excitement quickly turns to disappointment with the purchase of a beater 1976 Chevy Camaro that appears to have a mind of its own. Bobby Bolivia (Bernie Mac), the lot owner, says he has never seen such a yellow creature.

Boys will be boys: When the hottest girl in school, Mikaela (good-looking Megan Fox), needs a ride home, Sam can’t resist. Before long, the Camaro steers the two of them together. The next morning, Sam awakens to a distinctive roar and screeching tires. Someone has stolen his car. In a valiant effort to pursue the thief, he chases the Camaro, only to find himself overpowered by a police cruiser that shockingly transforms into a menacing 20-foot robot that channels signals with a UFO. (This film contains many elements seen in Spielberg’s alien sagas, dating from the 1977 “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” to “E.T.,” “A.I.,” and War of the Worlds.”)

Looming over Sam, the robot attempts to interrogate him, but before he can comprehend his terrifying circumstances, Mikaela appears. As the two run from their mysterious attacker, Sam’s Camaro flies in to the rescue. Sections of the Camaro peel back like a banana, grinding and rising before their eyes before morphing into another giant robot.

Saved by the yellow behemoth, Sam and Mikaela attempt to communicate with their new friend who cannot seem to speak without the aid of songs playing from his radio. Soon other vehicles join them, transforming one by one into enormous mechanical beings who explain that they are Autobots from the planet Cybertron on a mission to recover the Allspark, their life source, before their enemies, the evil Decepticons, can find it.

However, before Sam and Mikaela can implement their plan to help the Autobots, they are arrested by a strange, officious government lackey (John Turturro) and taken to a clandestine command post.

The military then interferes. Army Captain (Josh Duhamel), who is in charge of a small brigade of Special Forces Rangers, and the assigned Air Force combat controller, Sergeant Epps (Tyrese Gibson), are the sole survivors of a bizarre attack on their base in Qatar. The soldiers soon discover they are the first present-day humans to come up against a powerful alien that can shift shape into a giant metallic scorpion but is really a powerful bullet and bomb-resistant robot.

When Lennox’s squad is surreptitiously transferred back to the U.S., they realize that they have experienced something shattering. They are part of a select group that includes the U.S. Secretary of Defense (Jon Voight) and members of a top-secret military unit called Sector 7 (Turturro and Michael O’Neill). They are joined by a beautiful computer analyst (Rachael Taylor, the film’s second femme) and her associate, a smart but uptight hacker (Anthony Anderson), and the unlikely pair of Sam and Mikaela. They all know about the aliens that have come to Earth in desperate search for the Allspark.

Together, the colorful group strategizes a plan of attack to save the world from the battling Transformers. However, when Sam and Mikaela realize that the government plans to destroy their new friends the Autobots, along with the evil Decepticons, they devise a plan of their own to save mankind.

The real stars of the movie are the special effects, which are awesome and reflect never-before-seen such sophisticated technology. In the first hour, there’s balance between the human players, the disparate storylines, and the visual and sound effects.

However, this being a Bay picture, the last 40 minutes or so, are all special-effects. Bay gives up on plot and centers on one awe-inspiring chase scene after another, causing the kind of wreckage to Downtown L.A. seldom done before (viewers who hate La La Land will have a double pleasure). End result of this assault on the sense is emotional exhaustion, and when the picture is over, you are relieved.

Helping to enjoy (or endure) those assaults is a goofy sense of humor and tongue-in-cheek remarks, which are sprinkled throughout the tale. And in this respect, “Transformers” brings to mind such classic American blockbusters as “Ghosbusters,” “Men in Black,” and “Independence Day.”

As a 2007 movie, penned by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and John Rogers, “Transformers” is linked to the zeitgeist in many complex and even contradictory ways. Bay and his associates have made no secret that they had actively sought the military involvement in the production (See Comment). In sequences, you can spot a gung-ho spirit that recalls vantage 1980s “Reagan” inspired movies, such as “Top Gun” and other right-wing flicks. But overall the film is careful enough not to take this perspective to an extreme and counters it with more contemporaneous political touches, with more than one reference to the current administration.

Replete with references to many films and pop culture works, from “Top Gun to “War Games,” “Transformers” doesn’t neglect Hitchcock and his McGuffin either-pay attention to a pair of glasses that once upon a time belonged to one of Sam’s ancestors; they keep appearing and disappearing in the most unlikely places.

While the young members of the cast act in a sincere, straightforward manner, the vet ones, such as Torturro and Jon Voight play their parts more broadly, in tune with the cartoonish nature of the source material. Along with the actors, voices were also well chosen. Peter Cullen offers the narration by Transformer Optimus Primus, while Aussie Hugo Weaving voices the evil Megatron.

Bay’s detractors may find sufficient ammunition to criticize his work, which is rather escapist and not too deep. But it’s all relative: “Transformers” is way above his previous sentimental and senseless actioners, like “Pearl Harbor,” “Armageddon,” and “The Rock.”

There’s no denying that a mega-effort like “Transformers” calls for a different set of skills. If this picture represents a new trend, then Bay may redefine the role of the Hollywood director in the new millennium, one who’s much more of a facilitator or orchestrator of special effects technology, vis-a-vis plot and human actors, than a helmer committed to precise mise-en-scene, poignant plots, and in-depth characterization.

Bay still lacks the natural instincts that Spielberg has as a storyteller, his ability to connect in a direct, deeply emotional mode with the viewers through seemingly simple yarns about quintessentially American families and children. That said, what could have easily been the equivalent of a crowded and loud amusement park, full of attractions and rides to choose from, turns out to be a more unified and slightly more involving film than is the norm with summer escapist flicks, probably due to Spielberg’s aggressive yet welcome creative interference.


Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf)
Sgt. Epps (Tyrese Gibson)
Capt. Lennox (Josh Duhamel)
Glen Whitmann (Anthony Anderson)
Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox)
Maggie Madsen (Rachael Taylor)
Agent Simmons (John Turturro)
John Keller (Jon Voight)


MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 142 Minutes.

A Paramount release of a DreamWorks Pictures, Paramount Pictures presentation, in association with Hasbro, of a di Bonaventura Pictures production.
Produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Tom DeSanto, Don Murphy, Ian Bryce.
Executive producers, Steven Spielberg, Michael Bay, Brian Goldner, Mark Vahradian.
Co-producers, Allegra Clegg, Ken Bates.
Directed by Michael Bay.
Screenplay, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci; story, Kurtzman, Orci, John Rogers.
Camera, Mitchell Amundsen.
Editors, Paul Rubell, Glen Scantlebury, Thomas A. Muldoon.
Music: Steve Jablonsky; music supervisor, Dave Jordan.
Production designer, Jeff Mann.
Art directors, Sean Haworth, Beat Frutiger, Kevin Kavanaugh.
Costume designer, Deborah L. Scott.
Sound, Erik Aadahl; sound mixer, Peter J. Devlin.
Visual effects supervisor, Scott Farrar; visual effects, Industrial Light & Magic, Digital Domain.
Special effects supervisor, John Frazier.
Animation supervisor, Scott Benza.
Stunt coordinators, associate producers, Matthew Cohan, Michelle McGonagle.

*Reviewed by Marco Zannetti; Levy also contributed to this essay