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Michael Bay's Transformers is a comic-book movie that is made entertaining by its satirical edge. This edge is very thin at times, and completely invisible at others, but it never flickers out entirely. Its sense of humor finally comes to the forefront during the credits, in which the hero's parents, Ron (Kevin Dunn) and Judy Witwicky (Julie White), declare their faith in the government's ability to protect us. "There are no secrets," says Judy. Julie White pulls just the right funny face as she delivers this line.

Of course, there's also the entertainment provided by CGI. Semi-trailer rigs open up into gigantic alien hunks (or vice versa). Hasbro, manufacturer of Transformer toys, is listed as one of the production companies responsible for the movie, and there must be a certain fascination in seeing the Transformers transform themselves without the help of boys' fingers. It's to be noted at the outside that the Transformers are not necessarily hostile to human life. Some of them are - the Decepticons. But the Autobots are not. The Decepticons and the Autobots are locked in a struggle to find something called the Cube, and either exploit or destroy it, respectively. They only know that the Cube is somewhere on earth - and that its location is encoded in the lens of a pair of spectacles owned by a famous Arctic explorer. Currently, the glasses are in the possession of the explorer's descendant, our hero, Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf). 

Sam is the kind of decent but unimpressive high-school student that used to be played by Tom Hanks. Mr LeBeouf is pleasant-looking enough, but he's far from striking, and in fact he's gifted at expressing the emotions of the overlooked. This makes him very likable, especially under the circumstances. Sam's plate is already full before the Transformers show up in his life (initially as his Camaro): he's trying to get a girlfriend while discharging domestic responsibilities. Sam can stand up for himself, but it's an effort, and he seems already worn out by life. The movie has the sense not to linger on his romance, if that's what it is, with Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox). Ms Fox is the tall, silent type who combines extraordinary bone structure with an advanced working knowledge of the internal combustion engine. She has had a hard life, too, or so we're told; given Ms Fox's face, this is hard to believe. A far more amusing performance is turned in by Rachael Taylor, who plays Maggie Madsen, a computer hacker who is called in to help out the government when the Decepticons bring down modern communications as we know it. Maggie is the only one on the team who understands that the system has been attacked by some hitherto unimaginable (ie extraterrestrial) force. Ms Taylor gets to roll her eyes and chew out the Secretary of Defense (Jon Voigt), but there is something abscessed about her role. Given the number of writers stirring this broth, it may well have been tacked on for marketing purposes.

Somewhat more involved in the principal action are Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson, as an Army captain and a tech sergeant, respectively. Unfortunately, in their zeal to present these characters as nobly unstinting military heroes, the writers have drained the roles of all cleverness. These guys are extremely can-do, but the only thing that makes them smile is the prospect of reunion with their families. Their foil, dramatically speaking, is John Tuturro, as Agent Simmons of Section Seven. (Don't ask about Section Seven!) Mr Tuturro does not seem to be having fun in this part - and that's exactly what makes his somewhat nitwitty, slightly sadistic character funny. Simmons is not in on the joke.

The finale of Transformers is a chaotic mess. That's pretty much the effect that was striven for, I should think. It's an orgy of destruction in which no one appears to get hurt, despite exploding buses and falling masonry. The older part of Downtown Los Angeles is basically trashed, and in a way that makes trashing the older part of Downtown Los Angeles look like a good idea. (It really is miraculous that not one single streetlight globe so much as fractures in all the mayhem.) This is a Boy's Own Apocalypse: Boom! Take That! Pow! Making sense is not the point.

Guess who wins. The last word, as I mentioned, goes to Judy Witwicky, and I must say that Transformers made me salivate for a film with a great big role for Julie White. She and Mr Dunn have a ball with the film's over-the-top version of the old "Son, open up; we know you're in there" scene. And I must put in a good word for the team responsible for the nasty little Decepticon spybot, which squibbles and scurries like a crab on steroids, while combining the nuisance value of a mosquito with the malignity of Snidely Whiplash. R2D2, move over. (July 2007)

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