Movie Review: Transformers

Transformers is 47 kinds of big-ass, balls-out bad-ass.

Here’s the scoop:

Thousands of years ago, an alien Rubik’s Cube called the All Spark created a world called Cybertron and filled it with living, shape-shifting metallic lifeforms. The noble Autobots were the planet’s purveyors and protectors of goodness … until they were forced to become freedom fighters by the treachery of the evil Megatron and his unstoppable armada of vicious Decepticons. In the ensuing centuries of chaos and war, the All Spark cube was lost to the depths of space.

Guess where it landed!

(The where isn’t as cool as the when.)

Flash forward to now. At an American military base in Qatar, a commando team led by Captain Lennox (Josh Duhamel) and Sergeant Epps (Tyrese Gibson) find its all-too-brief break from combat interrupted by the brief respite from combat interrupted by the eerie arrival of a helicopter bearing the markings of a chopper that was shot down months ago.

(It’s one of the coolest, spookiest ideas I’ve ever seen in an action movie.)

Even with the base on full alert, no one is prepared when the chopper suddenly rises — in a violent, mechanical hurricane of shifting pieces and moving parts — into a giant robot that lets loose with a barrage of guns, missiles and energy weapons. He is the Decepticon scout called Blackout. With a frame that looks both skeletal and muscular and rotors draped down his back like blades, he sets out to slaughter every human life in sight on his way to sucking down the top secret information stored in the base’s computers. Lennox and Epps and a few survivors escape into the desert with the knowledge that whatever’s happening is far from over. And there must might be something following them …

Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is an American high school kid who wants a to impress a girl named Mikaela (Megan Fox). Sam’s friend warns him that Mikaela is an “evil jock concubine,” and given her propensity to date the kinds of cruel, muscle-bound meat-heads who live to make life for guys like Sam a living hell, he might be right. But Sam sees something underneath Mikaela’s sex-on-legs surface that most guys’ eyes never get past. And his fortunes just might change for the better when he gets his first car, a well-worn yellow Camaro that literally chose him just as much as he chose it.

Because, you see, the car is Bumblebee, the Autobots’ point-man on a vital mission thousands of years in the making. It seems the fates of the long-lost Megatron and one of Sam’s ancestors are intertwined in a very Raiders of the Lost Ark kind of way, and that Sam unknowingly has in his possession an old family artifact that’s the key to the location of the All Spark. If Megatron gets it first he’ll use it to turn Earth’s technology against itself, creating a new home that he can rule for all time.

Megatron’s lieutenants will go to any lengths to ensure their master’s success. In addition to Blackout there’s Scorponok, who burrows into the desert sands to hunt down the commandos Blackout didn’t kill the first time around.

Barricade is a wicked black police car who’s perverted the old “Protect and Serve” motto into “Punish and Enslave.”

Bonecrusher is claw-bearing armored vehicle, and Devastator is a heavily armed (and armored) tank with as many spikes as cannons.

Frenzy is tiny enough to mimic CD players and cell phones, but fights back with terrifyingly ferocious tenacity.

And don’t forget Starscream, who rules the skies as an unstoppable, staggeringly maneuverable F-22 Raptor.

Outnumbered and out-gunned are the Autobots, who follow via Bumblebee’s signal to Earth. Jazz is sporty and agile, with bravery and attitude far greater than his small size. Ratchet, the team’s chief medical officer, is the kind of healer who can also bring down the hurt when duty calls. And speaking of hurt, the team’s weapons master is the heavily built and massively gunned-up Ironhide. Their leader, of course, is the greatest Transformer of them all — Optimus Prime. A big rig with a big heart, Optimus will sacrifice anything — including himself — to keep Megatron from doing to Earth what he did to Cybertron.

Their war, our world. Luckily, the Autobots are not alone. In addition to Sam and Mikaela and the commandos who survived Blackout’s initial assault, a pair of young computer hackers (played by the always-hilarious Anthony Anderson and stunning Australian beauty Rachael Taylor) help Secretary of Defense John Keller (Jon Voight) unravel the crippling mess the Decepticons have made of military communications before it’s too late. Voight’s Keller is the kind of defense secretary who’d rather pick up a gun and fight alongside the men he’s most certainly sending to die than hide behind desks and lies, and it’s one of the best roles Voight has had in years. John Turturro even shows up as an agent of a top-secret shadow unit that knows a lot more than it’s telling about the secret history of the United States and a certain metallic artifact (or two).

If the film sounds busy, it is. There’s a 10-minute stretch in the middle that’s a little slow for its own good, and a few times you might catch your breath long enough to wish that more time would be spent developing the Transformers instead of introducing yet another human character.

At their worst, these quibbles are only minor. That’s because director Michael Bay and producer Steven Spielberg have delivered what’s easily one of the biggest, greatest summer blockbusters of all time.

If you love airplanes like I do, this movie’s for you.

Though they don’t see any action, there are several Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighters taxiing around Bay’s runways.

Lots of F-22 Raptors get scrambled to intercept various threats, not to mention the fact that Starscream himself chooses an F-22 for his vehicle form. (And why wouldn’t he? It’s only the most bad-ass bird in the sky, with top-secret capabilities that most of us will never know.)

And when the Lennox/Epps teams calls in an air strike on Scorponok, the Air Force responds with a mix of A-10 tank-killers — with their missiles (guided by laser designation from the troops on the ground) and the the massive Gatling guns they’re literally built around — and the vicious AC-130 flying gunship, which lets loose some artillery that will blow your mind.

Then there are the exhilarating car chases, which continue to be a Bay staple and benefit from his obvious love for filming automobiles in action.

And the coolest part of all this gorgeously filmed machinery is the fact that, at any given moment, any of these vehicles might just transform — with awe-inspiring believability — into gargantuan, walking/talking war machines that proceed to pummel each other in magnificent displays of spectacular robot carnage.

The Force is strong with Shia LaBeouf. He’s currently cracking whips and taking names alongside Harrison Ford as they film next year’s Indiana Jones movie, and he gives this movie everything he’s got. And just as Ford got his big break from a fantasy movie, think of this film as LaBeouf’s Star Wars. With a smart head on his shoulders and one of the most admirable work ethics in Hollywood, he’s poised to become an actor we’ll be watching for decades to come. Congratulations, young man. You deserve it because you’ve earned it.

Megan Fox is much like Mikaela in the sense that no matter how luscious and lithe she might be on the outside, there’s something very special and vital happening on the inside that comes right out through her laser-blue eyes. (Expect her to start showing up in Wonder Woman casting rumors any minute now.)

The Autobots and Decepticons interact seamlessly with the humans, their environments and each other. The only problem is that the script focuses more on humans than robots. We get to know the Autobots a bit if only through their interactions with each other, but the Decepticons aren’t really explored at all — they’re basically just killing machines. But there’s one line that defines the Megatron/Starscream dynamic, and Barricade has the most personality of all of them because his “bad cop” persona when interrogating Sam matches his “evil police car” exterior. Hopefully the inevitable sequel will spend a little more time on the robots’ personalities.

Speaking of personality, Bay was smart enough to listen to the fans and bring back Peter Cullen (from the original cartoon) as the voice of Optimus Prime. Nothing will prepare you for the first time you hear Cullen’s warm, weathered voice coming out of an Optimus who looks as real as the shoes on Shia’s feet. It’s a classic movie moment if there ever was one.

Bay’s trademark camera moves and slow-motion shots are all over the place, but a movie like this they never feel out of place.

Transformers is big on heart, laughs and especially action, with Bay delivering a Spielberg-sized masterpiece that will be discovered and enjoyed for a long time to come.