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Movie Review

Rock 'em, sock 'em robots

With lifelike effects and more humanity, '80s action figures get a new look in 'Transformers'

By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / July 2, 2007

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The trouble with most megabudget action spectaculars is that you can't always tell where the money went. Director Michael Bay doesn't have that problem. When you see a mine clearance vehicle turn into a deadly 30-foot rollerblading robot in his new "Transformers," it's pretty obvious where the money went.

At 2 1/2 hours, "Transformers" is a partly impressive, partly inane buck-banging toy of a movie. At stake is protecting whatever parts of Earth aren't destroyed in battles between warring metallic factions from outer space. The film starts off like an alien-invasion picture, telling the Transformers story as though it were "Independence Day." The new movie offers a much better time than that one. But unlike the mid-1980s cartoon TV series the film is based on (which had only a few humans), the earthlings-to-robots ratio favors the earthlings, which leaves the Transformers themselves riding the sidecar in their own movie.

Transformers, of course, comprise the good Autobots and the evil Decepticons . Both factions are imposing robots who contort themselves to become machines like trucks and supersonic fighter jets. In a dicey bit of cross-promotion, the movie uses the occasion to hawk Hummers, Pontiac roadsters, and GMC trucks, which are some of the vehicles Autobots turn into. The Decepticons become ominous cop cars ("to punish and enslave" reads the motto) and anonymous military vehicles -- more intimidating but harder to buy.

They're all only vaguely like the old Hasbro action figures who, in addition to the series, were featured in a great animated epic movie in 1986. The full colorful bodies of the original Transformers have been upgraded to look simultaneously skeletal and steroidal. Picture the Terminator crossed with whatever was after Sigourney Weaver in the "Alien" movies. One nasty little shape-shifting critter, however, is all limbs and funny growls: a little bit Gremlin, a little bit Johnny 5. And because they lack the distinctive girth and vivid design of the cartoon, when they fight, it's frustrating trying to tell who's the Autobot and who's the Decepticon .

In any case, they've brought the fight on their planet to this one. Both sides are in pursuit of a cubed life-force called the Allspark that in Decepticon hands could turn simple machines into robotic weapons of destruction. But there's a horny teenage boy unwittingly in the way. His name is Sam Witwicky , and to play this smart aleck on a parental short leash, Shia LaBeouf seems just to have wandered over from the set of "Disturbia."

Sam knows something about the Allspark that he doesn't know he knows. Otherwise, he just wants a car and a girl. He gets both: a dirty, yellow used Camaro and Mikaela (Megan Fox ), some jock's new ex (apparently she's used, too). Written by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci , the movie playfully folds in Sam's pursuit of her with the Decepticons' pursuit of him. Meanwhile, the Camaro (a personable Volkswagen Bug in the cartoon) is an Autobot named Bumblebee , who introduces Sam and Mikaela to his fellow four Autobots, including their leader Optimus Prime . Reassuringly, the velvet-throated Peter Cullen still provides the leader's commanding voice.

To find the cube, these guys are in a hurry for Sam to fetch an important planet-saving prop from his house. While the kid and his girl slip inside, the Autobots stand around impatiently, only halfway heeding Sam's instructions to stay hidden. Instead, they trample his parents' lawn and peer into the windows, barely avoiding an encounter with Sam's dad and tipsy mom (Kevin Dunn and Julie White ), who are anxious to know what their son is doing in his bedroom.

This is a fantastic sequence. For one thing, the effects -- which are state-of-the-art throughout "Transformers" -- are put to brilliant use. Sure, Sam's Craftsman-style house gives us a vivid sense of the Autobots' scale and textures (the contrast of cold, gleaming metal against soft, dark wood). But crowding around it and stooping over to peek inside, they seem incredibly lifelike. Bay even allows the humans their humanness, too -- elsewhere, John Turturro and Anthony Anderson are very funny in smallish parts, and White steals the movie. (Blockbusters this expensive with effects can't afford big stars. So they're a boon for good and affordable character actors like Dunn, Anderson, and White --and for us, too.)

Before that moment at the Witwickys' and well after it, Bay tries to blow us away with action sequences set gratuitously on an American army base in Qatar, aboard Air Force One (Jon Voight is the secretary of defense), at Hoover Dam, and on the heavily peopled avenues of one of his custom composite cities (call it Los Detroitangeles). They're the sort of muscular spectacles you expect from the demolitionist who used Cuba as a playground for Will Smith and Martin Lawrence to upend in "Bad Boys II."

But Bay can do mass-scale disorder in his sleep. That little actionless sequence, with its playful comedy and light suspense, is a side of the director we haven't seen before. Steven Spielberg is one of this movie's producers, and these scenes imply his influence. The delicate touch on display for these 20 or so minutes, which feel like some of the quieter scenes in the "Jurassic Park " movies, prove that Bay can do more than crush bones. They also suggest that finesse in a blockbuster might be the most mind-blowing special effect of all.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/ movies/blog.

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