Not so much “more than meets the eye.” It’s pretty much exactly what it looks like.
It’s a special effects extravaganza, bearing in mind that most of the effects are CGI. It’s also a rollicking good time once you get past the expositional monologue about the “allspark” (I don’t even know how to spell it!) that explains why Earth is both being invaded and being defended by living machines able to take the form of non-living machines that they can examine. It’s also a slice of American life comedy during the first half, as we watch young Sam Witwicky (played with nonstop mouth by Shia LeBoeuf) handle the crises of male pubescence--dealing with girls who won’t pay you the time of day, facing down the members of the cool clique, and dealing with a father who tries to be cool with his son rather than parental. Sam is lucky though, in that said father has also promised him a car for good grades, which leads to the last of Sam’s troubles…accidentally buying a Transformer come to Earth to save us from the evil Megatron.
The Transformers is mostly sophomoric hijinks until the human race discovers just how much danger it really is in. For its first half, the movie teases with ironic humor, as the audience somewhat knows what is about to be revealed, while the characters have no idea. Sam’s newly bought dilapidated Camaro tries to hook him up with teenaged hottie Mikaela by playing carefully selected songs and breaking down in the middle of nowhere with Mikaela as a passenger. The Camaro takes offense when Sam calls it a pile of junk and throws him out, only to return in its brand new form…the well paid for product placement for the 2007 or 2008 Camaro.
But interspersed with these antics is the more serious attack on an American base in Qatar by one of the evil Transformers, called Decepticons. Flying in to the base disguised an American combat helicopter, once it lands it goes on the attack, decimating the forces on the base as it also attempts to download military intelligence from the base’s servers. The servers are shut down before the Decepticon can get the information it needs, but it still ends up killing everyone on the base except for a single squad who begin a hike across the Qatari desert to alert the American authorities. Meanwhile, without any information on the attack, the Department of Defense can only believe that they have been attacked by a new form of weaponry by a terrestrial army and begin building up American forces in preparation of a retaliatory attack.
Switching back and forth between the two stories is an effective way to build the tension in the movie, especially when the irony is moved to the characters, as Sam and Mikaela are introduced to the good Transformers, the Autobots, and now know more about the coming invasion that the government. And the introduction to the Autobots is glorious, especially when Optimus Prime speaks as a character (rather than a narrator) for the first time. It’s an unfortunate side-effect of the movie industry that more product placement takes place in the forms that the Autobots choose (especially the Pontiac Solstice), but it passes relatively quickly and painlessly. When the Autobots travel en masse to Sam’s home in order to pick up an important artifact (which ultimately is a macguffin—it’s value has been seriously limited by events since its creation), the humor of vehicles that magically appear in the backyard and begin walking about and hiding as Sam’s parents look out the windows is a high point of the movie. Never have the Transformers looked less heroic and yet added so much to their charm.
Misunderstanding with the government follows, since they have no idea that there are two groups of aliens and one of them is concerned for human welfare. John Turturro plays an over-the-top director of a super-secret task force that deals with the repercussions of the Decepticons’ first visit to Earth in a role designed to highlight the stereotypical short-sightedness of government officials. Pity poor Jon Voight who ultimately ends up stuck in a chamber with a Decepticaon on the warpath and the beyond-zany acting of Turturro and Anthony Anderson. Fortunately, this too passes quickly.
At last the movie explodes into what everyone thought it would be, a knock-out, drag-down battle royale between the Decepticons and Autobots with humans striving valiantly to defend themselves against forces they can barely comprehend. I have to add here that one of the signatures of movies directed by Michael Bay comes most heavily into play here—no matter how cheesy the movie, whomever he has writing his scores is brilliant at building up the emotions and swelling to overtures of heroic magnificence at exactly the right moments. Megatron is satisfactorily evil and Optimus is glowingly heroic as they fight for the future of two races, and it’s important that the puny human forces help to seal the victory for the Autobots.
There are just three things I would pick at for the movie. The first I have mentioned--the ubiquitous product placement (just how much did Mountain Dew pay for the rights to this anyway?). Mostly it goes by quickly, but there is so much of it that it does distract a little bit…which I suppose is its purpose. Second, sometimes when the Transformers speak, because they are made to sound a little mechanical, it can be difficult to understand what they are saying. And finally, when the Transformers fight hand-to-hand, it is often impossible to see any details beyond mechanized mayhem. I don’t expect that the movie would have fight scenes choreographed by kung fu masters, but it would just be nice to actually see what the robots are doing to each other in some sort of detail. But these are minor quibbles and really do not take away too much from the adrenalin that drives the movie.
So Michael Bay does what he does so well. He has created a monumental special effects epic that could be taken as simply campy but which also offers entertainment on many levels. There is laughter and explosions and, of course, the open ending that implies there could be a sequel if they wanted. Most simply, Transformers really is a load of fun, and the nearly perfect summer movie.