[Review]Robots in disguise: Mindless sci-fi fun

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[Review]Robots in disguise: Mindless sci-fi fun


A high-speed robot-on-car chase is just one of what seem like zillions of action sequences crammed into “Transformers.”

I was an incurably lame child. I was forbidden ― and had no desire ― to read comic books or watch action cartoons. When the other kids would pretend to be Superman or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I would proudly announce that I was Piglet (from Winnie the Pooh, of course).
But even I, in my lameness, knew that jingle: “Transformers: They’re robots in disguise!” (One must recite it in a fake robot voice ― naturally.)
The original cartoon was based on a line of toys that changed from cars, planes and tanks into really, really cool robots, and that really says it all. But years later, when a friend of mine finally sat me down for a few episodes, I was stunned at how deadly serious the tone was. Here was an epic that pretended to the throne of “Star Wars” or “Gundam” ― but was unavoidably hobbled by those incredibly stupid names. I mean, really, who names themselves “the Decepticons?”
Two things were clear: This was a hilarious bit of ’80s camp, and Peter Cullen’s voice can make anything sound good. Cullen returns as Optimus Prime, leader of the good-guy robots called the Autobots, in the new movie directed, appropriately, by Michael Bay, a man for whom bothersome, complicated narrative only gets in the way of more awesome explosions.
In this incarnation, Optimus Prime and the Autobots come to Earth looking for the Allspark, a big black cube that makes planets, so that they can destroy it, thus keeping it out of the hands of the evil Megatron (voiced by a severely underused Hugo Weaving).
To find the cube, the Autobots must seek out the grandson of an Arctic explorer who had a chance encounter with Megatron decades earlier: Thus an awkward 16-year-old wannabe ladies’ man named Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) ends up with a Camaro that turns into a robot to impress the cool girl (Meghan Fox) who turns out to have a little more depth than is immediately apparent.
Sam discovers his car is alive in a very nicely done moment that provokes a genuine sense of mystery. The car can only communicate by switching the radio back and forth to make sentences, leading to a few quite funny musical gags.
Meanwhile, a helicopter at a U.S. Air Force base in Qatar transforms into a robot and wreaks havoc, and the Decepticons use the military computers to track down Sam. Of course, there’s a soldier with a family at home out to defeat this new threat to the Earth (Josh Duhamel), and he ends up at the climax somehow.
There are also a couple of hackers trying to track the Decepticons, the secretary of defense who somehow ends up in a museum at the Hoover Dam shooting through a doorway with a shotgun and a government official out to catch Sam and force the robots off our world, but even though that last one is played by John Tarturro, they’re entirely forgettable.
The idea that extraterrestrial robots might transform into exact copies of, say, a Peterbilt big rig or a Hummer is neatly taken care of by having the robots “scan” their targets first, then take on the new shapes (with a few additions, of course ― alien computers must be preprogrammed to realize that flame paint jobs are cool) as a sort of camoflage.
And don’t get me wrong, they do look really cool. The transformation sequences are quite marvelous, with gleaming metal surfaces flipping and spinning every which way, and they’re integrated absolutely seamlessly into the action.
Of course the characters are all completely 2-dimensional, though LaBeouf gets an A for effort, and there are plot holes galore. If, like me, you weren’t ensnared by this televised marketing gimmick as a child, you’re not going to get much out of it.
But if you were one of those kids humming that theme song on the playground and declaring that no, you were going to be Optimus Prime because Bill got to be Optimus last time and you weren’t going to be stuck as Ratchet again ― if you’re that kid, you’re already in line to see “Transformers.”
And why shouldn’t you be? For what it is ― a silly sci-fi summer action entertainment ― it’s fun enough. And giant robots are cool. Certainly cooler than Piglet.

Action / English
104 min.
Opens Thursday

By Ben Applegate Contributing Writer [ben@joongang.co.kr]
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