For 12 years, Michael Bay has been a juggernaut who rakes in more summer cash than sunscreen. Yet it was only six films ago that he was shooting softcore Playboy specials and documentaries on Wilson Phillips. While the suits may have forgotten his shameful past, audiences who have endured the chaos he throws onscreen are continually reminded that the man still hasn’t learned how to operate a camera beyond putting it in a hamster ball and kicking it across a soundstage. And as far as guiding actors to do things like walking and speaking, all Bay can do is cross his fingers and hope they can figure out for themselves these things called human emotions (he’s heard of them, dimly). He’s gotten lucky: Will Smith, Bruce Willis and Sean Connery could keep Jaws V afloat. But while an alien robot can do many things—fly, stomp, crash, and punch—one thing that a chunk of metal can’t do is carry a flick on star power, even if it’s harnessed to the dreams of every boy under 35.
Shia LaBeouf takes up that boy wonder wrench with his signature gangly charm—he’s the one actor who actually looks and acts like a real kid. As Sam Witwicky, he’s the heir to a Transformers mystery that drew the Decepticons’ attention when he put his great-great grandfather’s possessions up for sale on eBay. This would have been a whole lot simpler for Megatron if his lackeys had just placed a bid on the eyeglasses so crucial to their civilization, but instead, they decide to storm America in a series of jangling fight scenes that feel like getting a toolbox shaken in your face. Granted, the Autobot special effects are pretty gorgeous: Optimus Prime has Frank Sinatra’s eyes, Falkor the Luck Dragon’s voice, and runs down the street like Pamela Anderson in a swimsuit. But as “Michael Bay” is synonymous in Suckese with “overkill,” during the battles, you can’t see the Bots for the shrapnel. Thank god the Transformers speak primarily in proper nouns—if they hadn’t shouted “Optimus! Megatron!” every time they struck a blow, I’d have no idea what was happening.
There’s about five minutes, however, when Bay almost seems to pull it off, as the lights dim, the ominous Terminator 2-style music kicks in, and the name HASBRO smacks itself across the screen in a font so tough, it wants to steal your lunch money. The first man-versus-machine battle is a boombastic rout, as Decepticon Blackout—disguised as a military helicopter—crushes a US Army base in Qatar, leaving only a handful of photogenic survivors, helmed by Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson, to flee for help across the desert. From there, things get silly fast. Bernie Mac pops up as a car salesman. Optimus Prime gets peed on by Jazz the chihuahua. Bumblebee pees gasoline on an FBI agent. Anthony Anderson eats a plate of donuts, and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman treat us to masturbation jokes and puns about “seamen” and “sextants.”
When Steven Spielberg first offered Bay the chance to direct Transformers, he turned it down, sneering at sullying his fine credentials with a “stupid, silly toy movie”—albeit one he’s gotten death threats for bungling. Despite his touting his monstrosity as a dark sci-fi, it’s clear that part of him refuses to ever take it seriously. He’s so desperate for laughs, he mucks up an attack scene with an extended gag about Indian call centers. (“How much do you get bugged by these outsourcing calls, you know!?” he joked in an interview.) Which wouldn’t be a problem if the film ran with being pleasurably popcorn, but instead, it’s a slippery, tension-free mess. We’re supposed to gasp in horror at the Decepticons’ plan to kill all the “fleshings,” but how can we when everyone else in the movie is just pissed that the Autobots trampled on their lawn?
Transformers really is way more than meets the eye. It’s not just one huge misfiring blockbuster, it’s seven different genres from war flick to teen comedy bashing their heads against each other. It operates in a deaf and dumb world where NSA agents are blonde Aussi babes with nose rings, top hackers play Dance Dance Revolution (that’s so 2001), sunset happens an hour after lunch, the drive from the Hoover Dam to downtown LA takes 20 minutes, and nobody notices the thundering robots milling about in their backyard—what are they, 50-foot ninjas? Says Bay: “I’ve gotten a lot of flak from fans on the net, like, ‘Michael Bay, you wrecked my childhood.’” Keep yours safe by putting your ticket money towards a keg, and invite your friends to bring over their action figures.