Transformers is a movie aimed squarely at the hearts of boys everywhere, though it might be more accurate to say that it's aimed at the boy who still lives inside a lot of men. For anyone who grew up with the Hasbro action figures that first appeared in 1984 (and yes, a number of those fans were girls), it's a kiddie dream come true to groove on the heavy-duty sci-fi transformations. In the movie, cars and trucks erupt and unfold, their mechanical guts spilling out, as if a trash compactor had suddenly exploded into bits and pieces, which then reassemble themselves, with miraculous speed and precision, into giant stalking robots.
At least one of these extraterrestrial machine men has a true touch of cool. His name is Optimus Prime, and he morphs out of a big rig, has a super-nifty '70s-outlaw red-flame-on-blue design, and speaks in a booming voice (by Peter Cullen, who originated the role in the Transformers cartoon series) that's like Darth Vader with a touch of Gene Simmons. The rest of the robots, who include Optimus' nice Autobot comrades as well as the grayish, looming, nasty Decepticons, are dazzling to look at but don't have much character. They're noisy, rather impersonal shape-shifting contraptions, and so is the movie, which is like a mash-up of War of the Worlds, RoboCop, The Terminator, Christine, Gremlins, Aliens, and Godzilla.
Transformers was directed by Michael Bay and executive-produced by Steven Spielberg, and if the credits had been reversed, you can just imagine what a tingly buildup of wonder Spielberg might have gone for. Bay, by contrast, slams right past mystery. He loses no time assaulting the audience with gizmo fever, as a boom box on Air Force One erupts into a scissor-limbed mini-robot, a U.S. desert platoon gets attacked in Qatar by a metal scorpion, and Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), a teenager who's all fumbly, driven hormones, gets his first car a rusty yellow 1976 Chevy Camaro, which will soon transform itself into the trusty Autobot named Bumblebee. The movie sets up a meet-cute union between Sam and a hottie named Mikaela (Megan Fox), but she's made such a jaded princess that their buddyship has little innocence (or appeal). Like the overcooked political-military ''intrigue,'' it's just a frame, an excuse for the war of the toys. LaBeouf has the hefty job of single-handedly injecting the action with personality, and he brings it off, though without offering much variation on his nervous, hipster-squirt charm.
So why is this epic battle transpiring on Earth? The backstory of Transformers the conflict between the Autobots and the Decepticons; the mystic cube that guides their destinies; the fact that Sam's great-great-grandfather was an Arctic explorer whose eyeglasses got imprinted with a crucial code is the most tiresome thing about it. I wasn't always clear on the robot rules: They lumber around and then they can fly. De-limbed by conventional weapons, they reconstitute themselves and appear to be indestructible until they get destroyed. Bay, at heart, isn't a fantasist; he's a literal-minded maestro of demolition. But then, that serves Transformers well during its climax, a spectacular clash of the heavy metal titans, and a primal reminder of why boys love their toys.