A transforming toy story

'Transformers' bears the hallmarks of its executive producer, Steven Spielberg. The robotic story feels more human as a result.

I didn't grow up playing with Hasbro's Transformer action toys, and now that I've seen "Transformers," I'm not about to start. The movie itself is actually one great big action toy.

Transformer toy fanatics – who make Trekkies seem docile by comparison – have been all over the Web in the past year anticipating horrendous changes to their prized folklore. My guess is that they'll see this film and somehow survive.

The movie began as the brainchild of its executive producer, Steven Spielberg, who has said, "I've been one of the biggest fans of 'The Transformers.' I'm not talking about buying the toys for my kids. I'm talking about reading the comic books and buying the toys for myself."

Although Michael Bay directed the film, the entire enterprise has a Spielbergian veneer, especially its core story about average-guy 11th-grader Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), whose first car, a yellow Camaro, turns out to be a shape-shifting alien Autobot – a good robot. The contest between adolescent innocence and nefariousness of the adult world, as embodied here by the bad bot Decepticons who rain terror on Earth, is a Spielberg perennial.

But Bay is a much more ham-handed director than Spielberg and vast sections of the movie, especially toward the end, are all about hardware clanking against hardware.

The Decepticons and the Autobots, who ravaged their planet, Cybertron, in a civil war, are duking it out for possession of an all-powerful cube called Allspark, which crash-landed in the Arctic generations ago when Sam's great-grandfather came in contact with it. His eyeglasses, which the boy keeps as an heirloom, hold the key to locating Allspark.

All this fantasyland hoo-ha is balanced by scenes in which the Decepticons attack an American military base in Qatar and are mistaken for terrorists. Although clearly played for thrills, it's difficult to watch these scenes without thinking that the real world has crept into the playpen. And when Optimus Prime, the chief good Transformer, declares that "Freedom is the right of all sentient beings," we know we're in a Bush-era universe.

Oddly enough, except for one brief appearance, we never hear from the president at all. Instead, the weight of the world is shouldered by the Defense Secretary, played sympathetically by Jon Voight as a Southern-fried potentate. Did Bay and his screenwriters imagine that keeping the president under wraps would make us forget about Iraq? But the truth is that, as was also the case in the latest "Die Hard" flick, terrorism in the movies – even when it's rained down upon us by bots – inevitably conjures up real-world catastrophes.

What keeps "Transformers" watchable is LaBeouf and the computerized effects, which are often startling. When Sam's Camaro muscles up into the Bumblebee bot, it's like watching every boy's fantasy of his first pair of wheels. Suddenly your clunker turns into supercar.

LaBeouf doesn't overdo the wide-eyed wonder bit. He knows how to act his age without coming across as a doofus. As in "Disturbia," he carries an instant rapport that is immensely useful in a movie dominated by so much robotics.

I wish Bay had been more adventurous with the film's overall presentation. He draws on imagery from movies as disparate as "War Games" and the recent "King Kong" without ever quite coming up with his own look. (If ever there was a live-action movie that cried out for the style of Japanese anime, this is it.)

Although Bay isn't as soulless here as he's been in the past – "Armageddon" and "Pearl Harbor" might have been directed by a Decepticon – it's difficult to have a light touch when your fists are constantly clenched.

Bay has set the film up for a sequel, of course. Although I had a pretty good time at "Transformers," I don't relish the prospect of yet another summer movie franchise, especially one that is essentially a mammoth repository of product placements. Just about everything connected to this movie is a tie-in, except for the popcorn. And even then I'm not too sure. Grade: B

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action violence, brief sexual humor, and language.

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