Expected to sell more toys than any other movie franchise this summer, “Transformers” got its start more than two decades ago as a line of Hasbro toys. It’s also been a comic-book series, a 1986 cartoon movie, a video game and a television show.
The latest toy collection is designed to launch Michael Bay’s $100-million-plus big-screen version of “Transformers,” which resembles a mixture of Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” (Spielberg is one of the producers) and “Lord of the Rings” (the “Transformers” are extraterrestrials looking for a cube that has unique powers).
What keeps the movie from being just another special-effects extravaganza is Bay’s sense of humor — and Shia LaBeouf’s smart, live-wire performance as Sam Witwicky, an awkward teenager who buys his first car.
Lucky for him (and sometimes not), his beat-up 1970s Chevy Camaro turns out to be an alien robot. The car becomes so animated, insisting that Sam claim it at a used-car lot, that the dealer is only too happy to get rid of it. Once he’s the owner, Sam finds himself in the midst of a war between good invaders from space (Autobots) and evil ones (Decepticons).
Meanwhile, Sam is doing the usual coming-of-age stuff: arguing with a teacher about his grades, trying to keep his parents from knowing just how much mischief he’s causing, arranging his first date and delivering a series of double entendres with an astonishingly straight face.
As he proved in “Disturbia,” LaBeouf’s whimsically innocent manner can lift even the direst scenarios. Whether he’s spying on a homicidal neighbor or trying to prevent the extinction of the human race, he’s usually one step ahead of the audience — which can’t help feeling the need to catch up.
“Transformers” begins with a creation myth (“Before time began, there was the cube”), told from the perspective of desperate extraterrestrials approaching Earth. A mysterious attack on an American military base in Qatar follows, and the Secretary of Defense (Jon Voight) is baffled by reports that there are no survivors.
International relations turn tense because no one knows the nationality of the attackers, or why they’re so good at breaking into the military’s computers. A willfully obtuse federal agent (John Turturro) tracks down Sam and his girlfriend, Mikaela (Megan Fox), and the alien battles heat up.
As with most Bay movies, too much is never enough. The explosions are spectacular, the alien creatures transform themselves into 20-foot giants, and mere humans almost can’t compete. A subplot involving an American soldier (Josh Duhamel) goes nowhere; when he and his wife are dragged into the finale, they seem like refugees from another story. While Rachael Taylor and Anthony Anderson have a couple of strong scenes as computer experts, their potential is mostly ignored.
The screenplay is largely the work of Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtsman, who wrote Bay’s 2005 box-office bomb, “The Island,” as well as “Mission Impossible III.” They’re now working on a “Star Trek” prequel.
They provide LaBeouf with a few good lines and situations. But in the end it’s his personality that carries “Transformers” and turns it into more than an empty spectacle.