Shia LaBeouf as Sam Witwicky
Megan Fox as Mikaela Banes
Jon Voight as Defense Secretary John Keller
John Turturro as Agent Simmons
Peter Cullen as Optimus Prime (voice)
Hugo Weaving as Megatron (voice)
Tyrese Gibson as Sergeant Epps
Josh Duhamel as Sergeant Lennox
Rachael Taylor as Maggie Madsen
Anthony Anderson as Glen Whitman

Directed by Michael Bay

It would seem obvious that a movie called “Transformers” would, in some way, be about Transformers.

What it’s actually about is the coming of age of young Sam Witwicky, your prototypical (by which I mean incredibly trite) suburban teenager, played with earnest smartassness by Shia LaBeouf, somewhere in the middle on the geek/jock clichéd high school character scale. He desperately wants local beauty Mikaela (Megan Fox) to notice him and has come to the usual movie conclusion that a cool car is the way for that to happen. Luckily for him Mikaela’s an incredible gear head, and if it sounds like the characters are uninspired types pulled right out of the hack movie writer’s handbook that’s because they are, right down to Mikaela’s rich, arrogant, football player boyfriend. Even luckier for Sam, he really does end up with the coolest car on Earth, the kind that transforms into a giant alien robot.

To a lesser degree, “Transformers” is also about how the U.S. military deals with alien invasion, beginning with the decimation of a military base in Qatar in one of the film’s generally well-executed action sequences. The film follows, alternately a beautiful – naturally – hacker (Rachael Taylor) working for the Secretary of Defense (John Voight) and a group of Special Forces who survived the attack on Qatar, all of who’s sole purpose is to spew the copious exposition that accounts for about ninety percent of the dialogue in the film.

The first half is fairly uninspired techno-thriller recycling a lot of elements from other films and teasing the idea of giant robots, then quickly switches gears when the Transformers finally make an appearance in their own movie at about the halfway mark. They’ve come to Earth searching for the Allspark, the film’s magical McGuffin which can both save the Transformers from extinction and help them conquer the universe depending on who finds it first, the good Autobots or the evil Decepticons. Once the Transformers do show up, though, they look fantastic, easily the best executed computer generated characters committed to film so far. They are completely believable, right up to the moment they open their mouths to talk, when they revert to bad cartoon characters. One of them break dances during their unbearably ham-handed introduction scene, another mimics Clint Eastwood. It’s supposed to be campily funny, as if the idea of giant transforming alien robots was so ludicrous they have to behave that way, except that the idea of giant transforming alien robots is so ludicrous the only way it can work is if the people involved take it completely seriously. Instead they kind of straddle the fence of camp, but all they succeed at is making sure you never care about the Transformers as characters, and for all intents and purposes, they’re not characters. They’re each given a name and an occupation, and that’s the most characterization they ever get – for the most part they’re played as giant engines of destruction, and nothing else. It’s curious why they even bothered giving the Transformers the veneer of characterization, considering how little they do with it. They’ve gone to a great deal of effort to make them look life like, but none at all in making them seem alive. The Transformers are an after thought in their own film, and the humans are only slightly more than that.

And that’s the real problem; the filmmakers have absolutely no idea what to do with the Transformers. Half of the time they’re played as figures of vague menace – they don’t really talk or do much until the last thirty minutes or so – and the rest of the time they’re played for not particularly funny laughs. The small Decepticon infiltrator disguised as a CD player mugs for the camera and jabbers incessantly in a manner that seems like it’s supposed to be funny but is really just annoying. A dog pees on one of the Autobots and he threatens to blow it up. Giant, supposedly heavy, robots creep around suburban neighborhoods while the people who live there never notice, always happening to look just in the wrong direction. It’s supposed to be plain dumb fun, but it’s just dumb. A good story could be told from a human point of view about how they deal with suddenly finding alien robots among them, but director Michael Bay (“Pearl Harbor”) and his cohorts aren’t interested in that, either. They’re only really interested in the giant robots fighting each other and destroying downtown Los Angeles.

Once they do – finally – start fighting, the film is suitably impressive although several times major robot battles, which are supposed to be the major selling point of the film, happen off camera or in the background. The Megatron/Optimus Prime battle in particular occurs partially off-screen while Bay is busy with Sam or the soldiers. Considering how much is traded off to give us that moment, it seems like a bit of a gip. All of Bay’s usual visual ticks are in full play – whenever a character is surprised the camera spins around him several times, exploding things fly closely overhead, and emotional moments are cued by extreme close-ups and great swells in the soundtrack – though for the first time I was actually glad of his constant use of slow motion as it is generally the only time you can take in the entirety of the set pieces. Otherwise there’s just too much going to make out, and a tendency to shoot low with handheld cameras doesn’t help any.

Some people might suggest that a story about giant robots destroying things doesn’t really have to deliver on anything besides the giant robots destroying things and expecting any more than that is an exercise in futility, but that’s just a lack of imagination. No effects laden blockbuster is so entertaining that it wouldn’t be measurably more so with a good story. By the same token, no story must be bad unless the storytellers suffer from a lack of desire or a lack of ability, and a little bit of both are involved here. Despite the impressive pyrotechnics on display, there’s such an obvious lack of interest in anything but the set pieces it’s almost insulting. “Transformers” is essentially ninety minutes of treading water until the giant robots start fighting, with the obvious hope that nostalgia value and the expectation of the Transformers will keep anyone from noticing until the movie’s over.

“Transformers” delivers on its promise of stunning visuals and well-crafted action sequences, but it’s not remotely worth the slog it takes to get there and once the novelty of the robots wears off it’s hopelessly insipid, and I imagine on repeat viewings it will get more and more difficult to watch.

But it’s still better than “Pearl Harbor.”