Corrections appended: July 10, 2007
"There's a mysterious bond between man and machine," Bernie Mac intones in the year's big Independence Day movie, Transformers. He would say that; he plays a used car dealer in the film. But Michael Bay believes it fervently, desperately, profligately, profitably. The films he's directed, like The Rock and Armageddon and Pearl Harbor, celebrate the fusing of man always the male of the species and machine: cars, planes and the movie camera.
Bay cherishes this notion so dearly because his movies are mechanical toys: elaborate gizmos with some parts that are movable, though not emotionally moving, and many others that are, to me at least, instantly retractable. I begin to suspect that Bay is a machine, a secret cyborg, on a mission from the planet Mediocritron to develop the perfect program for a film that can be made, and consumed, with no human interaction a film that will destroy the lingering genre of small, messy, unpredictable "people cinema" as we know it.
If my hunch is right, then Transformers which by any other standard is pretty awful stands as Bay's most personal project; for this is a battle not of man versus man, or man versus machine, but machine versus machine. As fans of the original '80s TV cartoon series, and its 1986 spinoff animated feature, can tell you at great length, transformers are robots from Cybertron, a planet where (I don't know, I was watching PBS at the time) something bad happened. Two opposing sides formed under their respective generals: noble Optimus Prime leading the Autobots, evil Megatron in charge of the cunning Decepticons. (BTW, if you were known as a Decepticon, wouldn't it be kind of hard for you to... deceive anybody?)
You'd have to be about 30, and a guy, to approach Transformers with the canonical fascination and skepticism I heard at a public screening last night. "Good thing Peter Cullen did Optimus Prime's voice again." "They needed more of Ratchet." "Why doesn't Bumblebee speak till the end?" There's no one so demanding as a guy measuring a new movie against a trash treasure he fell in love with when he was eight. I was there as an innocent, ignorant outsider, and I wouldn't want you to take a movie critic's word, but to me the mythology seemed both overcomplicated and undercompelling.
As I dimly understand it, a sacred Cube of some sort accidentally got lost on Earth. That brought the Cybertron bots here, disguised as cars and trucks, to fight to the death on our turf. For them it's an away game, like when two baseball teams open the season in Japan. Actually, it's more like a World Cup semifinal, since by the third hour of this endless movie our city streets and buildings have been leveled, laid waste and generally pooped upon by visiting cyber-hooligans. Oddly, few of our humans are shown getting killed, though thousands of them were in the way.
They get in the way of the movie, too, with what Bay, and writers Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman, would call "plot." Teenage Sam (the suddenly-everywhere Le Beouf) unknowingly has a key to the Cube. That makes him a target for the rotten bots, which puts him under the protection of the good bots, especially Bumblebee, masquerading as a beat-up Camaro yellow, with black stripes. The good bots become oversize, unruly pets for Sam and his sort-of girl friend (the very huggable Megan Fox). Meanwhile, in Qatar, the bad bots are attacking U.S. troops, led by the generically adorable Josh Duhamel, before coming to the U.S. to menace Sam. In Washington, non-Rumsfeldian Secretary of Defense Jon Voight monitors the efforts of computer geeks to figure out what's going so very wrong.