The first words we hear are narration: "Before time began, there was The Cube." You know you're in for a treat when a movie starts like that. This Cube wound up on Earth, and two races of mechanical, shape-shifting beings -- the good Autobots and the bad Decepticons -- have come to our planet in search of it. The Decepticons want it for power and will gladly kill any humans who get in the way, while the Autobots, who won't harm humans under any circumstances, want to destroy it.
The aliens take the form of our mechanical devices -- cars, trucks, helicopters, and portable stereos (yeah, that seemed weird to me, too) -- but can also change (or "transform," if you will) into awesome-looking robots that can shoot lasers and stuff. One of the Autobots, disguised as a beat-up Camaro, gets himself onto a used-car lot, where he's purchased. I don't know how the transaction took place, given that the car just showed up out of nowhere and the lot owner wouldn't have a title for it, but there you go.
The proud owner of the Camaro is Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), a slightly spacey high-schooler whose dad has helped him buy his first car. Turns out the Camaro, whose Autobot name is Bumblebee, chose Sam on purpose, because Sam is in possession of a family heirloom that may hold the key to discovering where The Cube is.
The Decepticons suspect this too, having learned a lot by stealing top-secret U.S. government documents detailing artifacts found on an old Arctic expedition. The Decepticons want Sam; the Autobots want to protect Sam but use his knowledge. Sam is suddenly very popular, including with a hot chick from his class, Mikaela (Megan Fox), who is on hand for the sole purpose of giving Shia LaBeouf someone to kiss at the end of the movie.
Meanwhile, a group of U.S. soldiers are attacked by a Decepticon in the desert. The onscreen title tells us where this takes place: "QATAR," followed by the explanatory "THE MIDDLE EAST," because we're idiots who don't know where Qatar is. Familiar names like Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson play the soldiers, but don't get too attached. Most of them simply disappear once the movie doesn't need them anymore.
Back in the States, a room full of nerds is ordered by Defense Secretary Keller (Jon Voight) to figure out how these mechanical terrorists are hacking into the government's system. One of them, an apparently Australian blonde named Maggie (Rachael Taylor), declares with breathless certainty, "There's only one hacker in the world who can crack this code!" Good thing she happens to know him! And that he happens to live nearby! Whew! He's played by Anthony Anderson, and the two of them wind up involved in the military's efforts to stop the killer robots, with Anderson providing additional support in the form of wisecracks.
Part of the problem with all this is that the battle is really between the Autobots and the Decepticons, with Earth (well, Los Angeles, mostly) as the battleground. Introducing a third side, i.e., the military, just complicates things. Does the Army know that the Autobots are good guys? Can they tell them apart? Can WE tell them apart, lacking any prior knowledge of what distinguishes an Autobot from a Decepticon? Since the Army is shooting every robot it sees, including the good guys, does that make the Army bad guys?
The Autobots are led by a semi truck named Optimus Prime (voice of Peter Cullen). There is a momentous scene halfway into the movie when all of the Autobots, the heroes of countless men who were young boys in the '80s, gather together and introduce themselves to Sam. To a certain audience, it must be like seeing Clark Kent change into Superman for the first time.
And wouldn't you know it, the movie ruins it, just whizzes it down the ol' pant leg. One of the Autobots is a black guy (I guess) named Jazz, and he talks all jivey and stuff. Then there's one who gets fussy when a dog pees on his robot foot. They all sneak over to Sam's house to wait for him while he goes inside to retrieve the important family heirloom, and these massive figures, these powerful and noble-minded alien beings, start bumbling around like a bunch of girls at a slumber party. Doh! We accidentally ruined Dad's new lawn! Whoops! We stepped on Mom's petunias! An Autobot actually utters the words, "Sorry, my bad." The jivey one says, "What up, little b****es?" Later, in an act that perfectly summarizes the movie's mindset, one of the robots uncorks his oil pan (located in his crotch area) and "urinates" all over a villainous human. Har!
Optimus Prime does fill us in on the backstory, though. The Autobots and Decepticons lived in peace back on planet Cybertron, until the Decepticons betrayed everyone. And you have to wonder, how did no one see it coming that a group of beings called "Decepticons" might behave, I don't know, deceptively?
Here on Earth, the Decepticons are mean and have names like Megatron and Bonecrusher. One of them takes the form of a police car in order to blend in ... except that where it should say "To Protect and Serve," it says "To Punish and Enslave." Hardy-har, funny joke, but you're kind of blowing your cover with that, aren't you? I wouldn't tolerate that kind of nonsense if I were Megatron. I'm just sayin'.
The film was written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (the duo behind "The Legend of Zorro" and "Mission: Impossible III") and directed, if that is the right word, by Michael Bay. Bay has directed only six films prior to this, yet is as reviled as if he had made 50 bad ones. "Transformers" is closest in spirit to his "Armageddon," with its testosterone-fueled plot, its rag-tag assortment of disparate characters, its unnecessary tacked-on romance, and its frequently inane frat-boy humor.
Bay still loves to film the fight scenes in Confuse-O-Vision®, too, rendering incomprehensible action that might have otherwise been exciting.
I noticed, however, that even when I knew who was firing lasers at whom, I still didn't care very much. Yet the preview audience, which we knew to be full of lifelong Transformers fans, which had audibly reacted to seeing the Camaro's pristine engine in the same way they'd have reacted if they'd seen Halle Berry's breasts -- the audience that applauded every time a familiar (to them) Transformer was introduced, they went nuts at the battle scenes. It wasn't that what the robots were doing to each other was particularly spectacular -- goodness knows we've seen humanoids and mechanical creatures fight before -- but it seemed to be the sheer fact that it was THESE robots, the robots of the audience's childhood, that delighted them so.
Speaking as one who remembers the Transformers phenomenon of the mid-'80s but has no emotional connection to it, I say the movie is often laughably corny, no more thrilling than any typical action movie, and akin to "Independence Day" in its reliance on questionable science and dubious logic. I think it must be a film that succeeds only for a specific target audience: people who already love Transformers. For the rest of us, it's no bigger or better than a lot of other summer blockbusters, and quite a bit more senseless than many.