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Since the dawn of the blockbuster era 30 years ago, cynical observers of Hollywood have suggested certain movies were made only to sell toys.
Transformers marks a new evolution in this ancillary-driven approach: a movie that has been made only because of toys that already have been sold.
What had been sort of evident since the project was announced became clear at a packed preview screening, where a rep for a promotional partner led an impromptu call-and-response.
"Transformers!" sing-songed the guy with the microphone. "More than meets the eye!" shouted back half of the audience, most of them in the demographic that would have played with the vehicle-into-robot toys and watched the animated series in the 1980s.
This wouldn't be just another big-budget summer spectacle. It would be a full-on Gen-X nostalgia trip, the kind where a cheer went up when the opening credits announced that the production was made "in association with Hasbro."
Thus we get this revival of the civil war between the noble Autobots and the conquest-minded Decepticons, brought to Earth in the quest for a powerful object called the Allspark. Caught in the middle is a nerdy high school student named Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), whose first car turns out to be not just a battered old Camaro, but an Autobot scout named Bumblebee sent to protect him. It seems Sam has in his possession a pair of glasses that are key to finding both the Allspark and the Decepticons' leader Megatron (voice of Hugo Weaving). And the Decepticons have demonstrated they're willing to destroy entire military bases to obtain that information.
Never mind that the glasses ultimately seem to be a huge red herring in the quest for the Allspark, since it's just one example of a ridiculously over-stuffed story. In addition to Sam's improbable hook-up with hottie classmate Mikaela (Megan Fox), the script includes Sam's anal-retentive parents; a team of soldiers who survived the first Decepticon attack, including one who just wants to get home and meet his baby daughter for the first time; a super-secret government agency led by John Turturro; and an Australian communications expert (Rachael Taylor) who appears to be preparing for an eyeliner-wearing contest with Capt. Jack Sparrow.
It's busy, it's silly and none of it matters when the big metal critters are dominating the screen. The Transformers truly are kick-ass movie creations, an amazing combination of organic fluidity and mechanized bulk.
Unfortunately, director Michael Bay's technique could best be described as "frantic," since the English language doesn't have a word for what "frantic" is when increased by a factor of 20. Bay has no time for clear filmmaking choreography, though he'll find time for his trademark 360-degree camera maneuver or a rib-nudging reference to his own Armageddon.
Then again, rib-nudging on the level of a George Foreman body blow is really what a movie like Transformers is all about. It's all less than it could have been, and no more or less than exactly what meets the eye: a big party for anyone who was ready to applaud the moment a truck turned into a robot, just like it did in his bedroom 20 years ago.