The screenplay for Transformers, a live-action rendition of the animated series, would seem to have the easiest job in the world. In theory, the screenplay does that job: It introduces us to the driving premise of the narrative, then to the characters who will populate the story line, then to the villains of the piece, and finally to the conflict that will inform an action-filled climax and a sequel-promising denouement. Screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman stumble, however, from the opening scene onward by filling in the tinier details with a lot of expository mumbo-jumbo, some truly dimwitted supporting players, and such impatience to reach the end that what could have been ninety minutes is dragged on and on to 144.

The Autobots have been in a longstanding war with the Decepticons that has taken them to planet Earth. Both groups belong to an alien species of artificially intelligent machine, and both can disguise themselves as human vehicles on a whim. They landed on Earth 10,000 years ago and were discovered by a world-famous explorer named Archibald Witwicky, whose current ancestor Sam (Shia LaBeouf, quite good in a performance that shifts between funny and sincere with ease) is trying to sell his belongings for a car. One of those keepsakes is a pair of glasses that, unbeknownst to Sam, is engraved with information crucial to both the Autobots and the Deceptions. They track him using his eBay account, and the aliens are tracked by agents from Sector Seven, led by Simmons (John Turturro), who were directed to investigate after an attack on a USAF base in Qatar.

This would seem a pretty simple story, yet the screenwriters also offer some awkward, often clumsy comedy as a counterpoint to the earnestness of the main plot. Sam is fostering a crush on the hot, popular girl at his high school, Mikaela (Megan Fox), who eventually joins him on his adventure by accident, but the relationship is a non-starter, due to the lack of chemistry between the two. Sam's parents (Kevin Dunn and Julie White) are comic relief of the remarkably unfunny kind. Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson play two survivors of the base attack, but we learn very little about either before they are shunted into the endless climax. A subplot involving the military's attempt to trace a hack is led by Keller (Jon Voight), the Secretary of Defense, and a pair of newbie hackers (played by Rachael Taylor and Anthony Anderson) whose powers of deduction improbably outwit all of the National Security Agency at exactly the right times every time.

The aliens could be a minor saving grace, and indeed there is some solid voice work from Peter Cullen as the Autobot leader Optimus Prime and Hugo Weaving as his Decepticon opposite Megatron. The others are on less solid ground, such as one that unmistakably fits a black stereotype through its use of language and accent. The visual effects used to bring the alien robots to life are detailed and realistic, but the action sequences, as executed by director Michael Bay, make no sense of them, offering only random commotion and a lot of explosions without much in the way of tension or awe. Transformers has a simple job, and through a lot of indecision and wheel-spinning, it fails even to fulfill that job. The result is an effects-driven mess that is too pedestrian to be fun.

Film Information

Shia LaBeouf (Sam Witwicky), Megan Fox (Mikaela Banes), Josh Duhamel (William Lennox), Tyrese Gibson (Epps), Rachel Taylor (Maggie Madsen), Anthony Anderson (Glen Whitmann), Jon Voight (John Keller), John Turturro (Simmons). Featuring the voices of Peter Cullen (Optimus Prime) and Hugo Weaving (Megatron).

Directed by Michael Bay and written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman.

Rated PG-13 (intense sci-fi action violence, brief sexual humor, language).

144 minutes.

Released on July 3, 2007.

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