Since the dawn of the blockbuster era 30 years ago, cynical observers of Hollywood have suggested that certain movies are made only to sell toys. Transformers, however, marks a new evolution of this ancillary-driven approach: a movie that has been made only because of toys that have already been sold.

What had been sort of evident since the project was announced became abundantly clear at the preview screening I attended. This wasn’t just another big-budget summer spectacle; it was a full-on Gen-X nostalgia trip, the kind where a cheer went up when the opening credits announced 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 All Spark. 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 sent to protect him. It seems Sam has in his possession a pair of eyeglasses that are key to finding both the All Spark and the Decepticons leader Megatron—and the Decepticons have already demonstrated they’re willing to destroy entire military bases to obtain it.

Never mind that the glasses ultimately seem to be a huge red herring, since it’s just one example of a ridiculously overstuffed story. 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, not just as tools for the battle sequences, but in the way their intricate foldings and unfoldings genuinely result in characters that look like they could be turned into helicopters or Hummers. When we actually get to see them in action, they’re an amazing combination of organic fluidity and mechanized bulk.

Unfortunately, this is a film directed by Michael Bay, so don’t count on getting nearly enough sense of what that action is. Bay’s technique could best be described as “frantic,” since the English language doesn’t have a word for “frantic” increased by a factor of 20. And despite the well-known “More than meets the eye tagline,” Bay’s creation is less than it could have been, and no more or less than exactly what meets the eye: a big party for anyone ready to applaud the moment a truck turns into a robot, just like it did in their bedroom 20 years ago.
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