For the past year or so, geek tempers have flared high over the prospect of a Michael Bay-directed update of The Transformers, a mid-'80s Hasbro cartoon about sentient alien robots capable of disguising themselves as mundane Earth machines, from cars to planes to tape recorders to, um, robotic dinosaurs. Thanks to a line of reasonably neat toys and a better-than-average-for-the-time plotline pitting the noble Autobots against the evil Decepticons, The Transformers captured the imagination of a generation of kids, and the several spin-off series and animated movie continued to bring new fans into thrall. Since the first live-action film version was announced, the Internet has been abuzz with debate over exactly how the explosion-meister director of Pearl Harbor and The Island was going to screw up the franchise. Hardcore fans have bitched about the robot designs, the vehicle designs, the silly Maguffin-centric plot, and much more, but even they couldn't have anticipated exactly how Transformers ruins their memories: by turning the franchise into a terrible '80s comedy.
The film opens with Peter Cullen (reprising his '80s original role as Autobot leader Optimus Prime) delivering a cheesy voiceover about "the Allspark," a mysterious cube of unknown provenance that gives life to worlds. Cut to modern-day Qatar, where a giant robot destroys an American military base and hacks into its computers in search of data on the cube, in the kind of modern action scene fans were probably most hoping for. And then… cut to nearly an hour of John Hughes-style teen-romance goofery, as spastic twit Shia LaBoeuf flails his way through an attempted romance of Megan Fox, the hottest girl in high school. He pratfalls in front of her, he blithers to himself nervously, he gets all unnerved as his mom asks if he's been masturbating and suggests that if the word makes him uncomfortable, he could call it Special Happy Time instead. Astonishingly, what should be a propulsive action film stumbles along in this vein through much of the rest of its length, dragging out inane jokes and excruciating humiliation routines; even when the heroic Autobots finally appear, they're similarly dignity-free bumblers who spout passé catchphrases (having learned their English from Earth TV, natch), accidentally stomp a rose garden (Optimus Prime: "Oops, my bad."), and get pissed on by a Chihuahua. ("That's going to rust.")
Transformers features a fair bit of action, and from time to time, it stays serious long enough to get exciting. But the Transformers' cluttered visual designs and Bay's frantic cutting frequently make it hard to tell what's happening in a given battle until the victor shows up in the next scene. And the writers' habit of undermining nearly every significant moment with corny gags and comic robot flailing à la Short Circuit is practically inexplicable. At this point, no one should be expecting much from Michael Bay except fast pacing and decently choreographed explosions. With Transformers, he doesn't even make it that far.