I have to admit, I really expected this movie to suck. Let's examine the ingredients:
- A fairly crappy 1980s kids cartoon based on a toy line loosely cribbed from a Japanese toy line.
- Michael Bay
- Robots (from space) that turn into cars.
- Late model Jon Voight
- Michael Bay
But something went terribly, terribly wrong. This movie is actually pretty good.
Yes, it's a silly concept, but it's handled more intelligently than I would have expected. I have read other reviews scorning the plot, but it is really in no way inferior to your average summer popcorn flick. It's certainly a vast improvement over Bay's previous sci fi effort, Armageddon (really not a high hurdle there, but still).
Parts of the movie, particularly bits involving military operations, even manage to seem realistic to my admittedly uneducated eye. It doesn't hurt that Bay's cast in this movie is really making an effort. It's like a lot of them don't know they're in a movie that's supposed to be a lame excuse for a huge special effects budget, and their dedication goes a long way toward making the film hit a much higher mark than I would have expected.
Shia LaBeouf plays the lead, here, as "Sam," a kid whose family history holds the key to the Macguffin. The only movie I'd seen him in before was Constantine, but it took an IMDB visit for me to remember that character, so I wasn't expecting much. He manages a good mix of heroism and vulnerability and is funny when the script calls for it, which gives me hope for Indy IV, in which he'll presumably be playing Henry Jones III.
Sam's parents, played by Kevin Dunn and Julie White, are funny as hell. Jon Voight, who has been pretty disappointing since sometime in the disco era, turns in a very watchable performance as a Defense Secretary that could have been a parody of Donald Rumsfeld but, thankfully, isn't.
Megan Fox plays Mikaela, Sam's love interest. She's a bit of a stock character: beautiful girl, unattainable by the hero but for the fact that the winds of fate throw them together, and, of course, good with cars because her father was a mechanic. Fox does what she can with a pretty one-note role, but I had trouble getting past the fact that the girl either gets way too much sun or needs a different makeup artist. Don't get me wrong, she's pretty. She just kind of looks like a Bratz doll.
John Turturro plays easily the weirdest character in the film: an agent from a Shadowy Government Agency who is about half cocky FBI agent and half Ron Burgundy from Anchorman. Turturro's character is amusing, but he seems to have missed the memo that the cast was trying not to add silliness to an already silly concept.
Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson play two members of a special forces unit who have very little to do other than shout and shoot at Decepticons and wear a lot of "I've been in a reallly smoky battle" makeup.
Speaking of Decepticons, they're about the only real disappointment in the movie. While the Autobots, with the exception of Optimus Prime (the big-rig and leader of the pack) and Bumblebee (the mostly-mute yellow Camaro), are given relatively small amounts of non-battle screen time, the Decepticons get virtually none. It's fun to hear Optimus Prime voiced by Peter Cullen, who provided the original voice in the 80s cartoon. For Megatron, however, the producers inexplicably substitute a totally unrecognizeable (and totally wasted) Hugo Weaving, rather than use Frank Welker. I understand that this was because Bay felt Welker's voice had aged too much, but getting Hugo Weaving and then distorting his voice beyond any possibility of recognition seems pretty stupid.
Sadly, for those of us who grew up in the 80's, Chris Latta, who provided the memorably grating voices of Starscream in the cartoon series (as well as Cobra Commander in the G.I. Joe series), passed away in 1994. He's replaced in the film by veteran voice actor Charles Adler, but since he only gets about two lines of dialogue, all you really notice is that it isn't the voice you remember.
Rounding out the "Decepticons not appearing in this film" lineup is Soundwave, replaced here by the very aptly-named Frenzy (who was originally an itty-bitty cassette tape transformer). Soundwave will apparently be featured in the already-announced sequel, though, so rest easy, campers. Frenzy is apparently the speed freak of the Decepticons clan and, though he is relatively tiny and has only throwing star-type weapons, racks up the second-highest human target body count in the film (at least on-screen).
At any rate, despite a "gee, I wonder if there will be a sequel" ending, and some very, very cheesy bookending narration, this movie works about as well as anything based on Transformers possibly could. Certainly, it's the best Michael Bay film I've seen, and I'd have to say I enjoyed it more than any of the other blockbusters I've seen this summer (Pirates 3, Spidey 3).