Once upon a time, within the memory of those still living, if a film was successful, it inspired toys and games without number. Now, apparently, it is the other way around.
“Transformers,” the new movie by director Michael Bay, is based not on a novel or play or screenwriter’s inspiration but on a line of Hasbro toys that have been hot tickets for young boys for more than 20 years and were the basis of several animated TV series and an animated feature. If you’re one of the people whose reverence for those toys is next door to a religion, you already know that. If you aren’t, there isn’t enormous reason to care.
Paradoxically, the problem with “Transformers” is not with those much-beloved playthings, walking Erector Sets whose defining characteristic is the ability to change from robots to cars and other machines and then back again — hence the name “Autobots” for some of them.
Advancement in computer-generated technology — the “Transformers” press material says that the film would not have been possible as recently as three years ago — means that watching these enormous NBEs (Non Biological Extraterrestrials) both come to life and metamorphose is everything fans could hope for. If this film were a lot shorter — it clocks in at an inflated two hours, 23 minutes — and kept its focus on the toys, it would be hard to argue with.
Fearing, however, that even enormous wonder toys can’t just tromp around on the screen forever, screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have concocted a narrative to go with the robots. The problem is not only that there is way too much of it but also that it isn’t very good.
Some of the back story is a given. Transformers, as any small boy can tell you, come with built-in conflicts in morality. The Autobots — Bumblebee, Jazz, Ratchet, Ironhide and maximum leader Optimus Prime — are the good guys, while the Decepticons, led by bad-as-he-wants-to-be Megatron, want to acquire power first, ask questions never.
Working with John Rogers, with whom they share a story credit, screenwriters Orci & Kurtzman have come up with an acceptable sci-fi frame. Having fought each other for eons on their home planet, the Autobots and Decepticons transfer their battle to planet Earth, where an enormous object called the Cube, or AllSpark, the source of all Transformer life, has improbably ended up.
It’s at this point that flesh-and-blood folk enter the story and make us wish they hadn’t. Screenwriters Orci and Kurtzman have done quite well with director J.J. Abrams (“Mission: Impossible III” and TV’s “Alias” and, one hopes, with the upcoming “Star Trek” vehicle), but their work with other filmmakers, for instance “The Legend of Zorro,” has not been impressive.
Unfortunately, though he has a way with CGI toys and action set pieces, director Bay does not have a noticeable gift for making human beings come to life. “Transformers’ ” multiple earthling story lines are tedious and oddly lifeless, doing little besides marking time until those big toys fill the screen.
Encountered first are a bunch of U.S. military stationed in Qatar, led by Capt. Lennox (Josh Duhamel) and Tech Sgt. Epps (Tyrese Gibson), who make first contact with a particularly ornery bunch of Decepticons. Back in Washington trying to figure out what it means is attractive computer analyst Maggie Madsen (Rachel Taylor) and a somber secretary of Defense played by the reliable Jon Voight.
In fact, for reasons having to do with that all-important Cube, the aliens are looking for improbably named high schooler Sam Witwicky, who spends his time lusting after his first car (he ends up with a Camaro with a mind of its own) and the hottest girl in his 11th-grade class.
That would be Mikaela Banes, whom Sam romances with an iconic line (“There’s more to you than meets the eye”) from the 1980s “Transformers” cartoon theme song. Much of “Transformers’ ” human time is spent with these teens, who, as the key audience demographic, are fated to save the world.
As played by Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox, Sam and Mikaela look as much like 11th-graders as I do, but the film has bigger problems, like keeping everyone interested while the toys are off the screen. Any film whose most resonant line of dialogue is uttered by the robot who says “It’s you and me, Megatron” has no business being two hours, 23 minutes long. No matter how good the toys are.
“Transformers.” MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action violence, brief sexual humor, and language. Running time: 2 hours, 23 minutes. In general release.