I can see how, in the right frame of mind, someone might find Transformers trashily enjoyable. I had expected that I might. In fact, despite my lukewarm anticipation for the movie, upon consideration, I realized that I was probably the ideal audience for it. I grew up with the toys and have fond memories of them, but I am by no means a purist and I don't really care if they tweak the mythology in adaptation. And I'm always ready to forgive a stupid action movie, as long as it's awesome.
The fact that I ended up seeing the movie with a Transformers purist might have dampened my forgiveness somewhat, but the fact remains that ultimately, the movie failed to really excite me much. Granted, the Tranformer effects are pretty amazing. The robots are intricate and their integration into the reality of the movie is seamless. You get taken out of the movie by bad writing and poor editing, sure, but you never get taken out of the movie by unconvincing effects. it really looks like these robots are clanking around in the environments we're looking at, and it's surprisingly easy to let yourself forget that they are effects.
Aside from that, though, the action is choreographed and shot so indifferently that it's hard to get involved in any of it. There are few moments that engage you on a level that can genuinely be called excitement. There are no stand up and cheer action moments where, either through your attachment to the characters and story, or through some especially clever staging or shooting or stunt work, you sit up and smile and say, holy shit, that was fucking badass.
Two moments come close: One is when Optimus fights Bonecrusher on the freeway, and a sword comes out of his arm and Optimus decapitates Bonecrusher, and Bonecrusher's head crashes to the ground. Hooray! Optimus finally did something heroic. But it's a little weak because the fight wasn't that long and we couldn't really tell what was happening in it. Heck, the transition from getting tackled on a flat section of freeway, cutting straight to them tumbling through a cloverleaf interchange was jarring enough, never mind the rest of the fight.
The other near-awesome moment comes as the movie segues from a Bumblebee-as-Herbie movie into a Transformers movie. Bumblebee comes to Shia's rescue as he's being chased by Barricade. Bumblebee fights off Barricade, turns into a Camaro, and Shia and the hot girl jump in. Bumblebee takes off. Barricade runs after them, jumps, turns into a fucking Mustang in mid-air, and fuck yeah, it's on. Barricade vs. Bumblebee, Mustang vs. Camaro, this movie is finally moving and it's time for an awesome car chase. Only it isn't. There isn't an awesome car chase. Cut to night (Even though, wasn't it still basically morning when Shia left his house getting chased by Bumblebee? Did they chase all day, and we didn't get to see it?) and Bumblebee is sneaking around as Barricade continues looking for them. And then the kids get out of the car and the robots have it out off screen. What the hell? I guess I can understand holding back on the robot fight, since we'll have tons of that later, although it is kind of a cheat. But to leave us hanging on a car chase and a robot fight, just when the movie finally had my blood pumping? Not cool.
I didn't mind the movie's slow start or the Shia LeBeouf teen story. I thought it could have been kind of fun. But I did think Shia's character was kind of an asshole--crassly auctioning off his family heirlooms to buy a car. Then again, his dad put him in a stupid position. If you want to teach the kid to earn money for his own car, give him more than a couple days to do it or you're just setting him up to either hock priceless heirlooms or get mixed up in a bank heist.
The Shia/Bumblebee scenes were very Herbie, which I enjoyed, but the radio gags were stupid. What would Bumblebee do if there wasn't always some station playing exactly the songs he had in mind? And the scene leading into the scene mentioned above, in which Shia tells Hot Girl, "Not now, I'm being chased by my car," was kind of funny.
Oh! The fact that all the Transformers can scan for whatever they're going to turn into by themselves was dumb. So Bumblebee can scan anything and instantly he can turn into that? He can just alter the shape of all his parts at will, just morph into whatever? Then why even be a Transformer? He's basically the T-1000. Why bother with all those complicated moving parts? If you can magically change shape, why bother mechanically changing shape?
Speaking of this, smooth job with the GM product integration. When Jazz literally scans a GM showroom for a shiny new Pontiac Solstice on a revolving pedestal with the name of the car printed on it? Very subtle.
Apparently when Hollywood movies make a hot girl smart, they no longer have to bother with the phony smart accoutrements, like glasses or hair in a bun or frumpy clothes, they now just hand us a supermodel, put her next to schlumpy guys and say "She's smart!" Kind of like the hot girl scientist at the Center for Poorly-Safeguarded Sand Experiments over in Spider-Man 3.
Bay tries to show us that he's in on the joke, that the movie is self-aware about its ridiculousness. Unfortunately this just results in a bunch of ham-fisted comedic moments that provoke eye-rolls more than laughs. Now, I love dumb action that's in on the joke--but I prefer it when a movie is confident enough in its audience that it's not constantly elbowing me in the ribs. Stop being so jokey all the time and let me enjoy the ridiculousness for what it is. The farcical scene in which Shia tries to conceal the robots in his backyard is a reasonably funny idea (though it unfortunately forces the Autobots to be buffoonish before they've built up any credibility), but it's at least twice as long as it needs to be, considering that it's repetitive and narratively pointless. When, in Transformers' most egregious gag, Bumblebee pees on John Turturro, it's just embarrassing.
But ultimately the movie fails because the action sequences are too uninvolving to matter and too uninspired to impress. In fact, throughout the action, it's not clear whether Bay is even trying to involve us in the story. How else to explain that when Jazz in rent in two by Megatron, we don't recognize that it's Jazz, nor is it even established that Jazz was fighting Megatron. Not that we would have felt anything for him, since his entire role thus far has been two lines of embarrassing ebonics cliches played for cheap laughs, but Bay doesn't even try. Would it be that hard to have a close-up? To at least attempt to imbue the movie's only noble death with any feeling whatsoever? As it is, you blink and you missed it, despite the fact that it's perhaps the only event of any real narrative import in the entire chaotic and nonsensical action sequence that makes up the third act. Certainly it's more important than sending vulnerable Shia to climb a random building to deliver the MacGuffin Cube to an easily destroyed military helicopter for... what purpose exactly? The third act has not a single goal that makes any sense. And the fights are mostly unwinnable--it's a lot of robots and humans shooting at each other to no effect whatsoever. One reason the earlier Optimus/Bonecrusher fight stands out is that it contained discrete events and ended with a decisive victory. Would that more of the fights contained such fundamental building blocks of a satisfying narrative.