Dir: Michael Bay. US. 2007. 142mins.
Director Michael Bay delivers another stylishly shot, escapist movie gumball with Transformers, an orgiastic action extravaganza based on Hasbro's line of convertible kids' action toys. Some likeable characters and early, intriguingly seeded plot strands of clandestine overlap are sacrificed at the altar of expediency and clash, and in its third act the movie suffers a tonal blowout, and becomes a furious assault on the senses.

Powered by superlative special effects from Industrial Light & Magic, though, Transformers splays its budget and production value across the screen during almost every scene, and the high hoo-rah factor should turn out young males in droves.

Bay's last film, The Island, bombed domestically in 2005, but was positioned later in the summer, with audiences perhaps suffering sci-fi action fatigue after having fed at the respective genre troughs of War of the Worlds and Fantastic Four. With hearty name-brand appeal, loads of eye-popping action and the surging young star power of Shia LaBeouf, Transformers should experience no such fiasco, the only X-factor being the competitive staying power of Bruce Willis' Live Free Or Die Hard - the fourth installment of a previously R-rated franchise that has been recast as PG-13, and is due out June 27, a week before Transformers.

Owing largely to his visual flamboyance, all but one of Bay's films has made more overseas than in the United States, and with the easy translation of its high-octane action, there's no reason to think Transformers won't be a major international summer player. It opens Taormina on June 21.

For centuries, two races of robotic aliens - the good-guy Autobots and nihilistic Decepticons - have waged a war against one another. Having destroyed their home planet, the remaining survivors - able to take the shape of various cars, trucks and aircraft - have spread out across the universe. Heading to Earth, the Decepticons set upon a military detachment, led by Captain Lennox (Duhamel), in the Qatari desert. Their attempts to hack the military intelligence mainframe - first through this action, and later through a spider-bot that gets on board Air Force One - relate to a powerful cube that both sides seek.

Unbeknownst to him, teenager Sam Witwicky (LaBeouf), the great-grandson of an Arctic explorer, holds an important clue to the cube, called the 'Allspark.' An amiable outsider consumed with getting his first car, Sam nurses a crush on Mikaela (Fox), a classmate hopelessly out of his league.

Both soon find themselves caught up in a tug-of-war, pursued by the Decepticons but protected by the Autobot Bumblebee, who is Sam's new Camaro. With the fate of the world hanging in the balance, Sam, Mikaela and Lennox's stories all eventually converge, along with that of the Secretary of Defense (Voight), in a massive battle royale in downtown Los Angeles.

Transformers ' story is certainly no more preposterous than the basic concept mandates. Trading especially on Sam's home life, screenwriting partners Orci and Kurtzman (The Island, Mission: Impossible III) locate a few smart points of entry for early pockets of humour, though a sequence in which the Autobots impatiently hide outside Sam's house while he searches his room for a key piece of evidence drags on for far too long.

In fact, after a lengthy first act spent setting up all the military intrigue, it's somehow less than thrilling when Autobot leader Optimus Prime and the other Transformers show up and actually start talking. The wonderment of the conceit is punctured, and a few of the robot exchanges come across as hammy.

That said, Bay makes certain that the audience isn't left wanting for action, erring on the side of distended, explosive set pieces, as he did most recently in both Bad Boys II and The Island. Trading in the sort of emphatic, canted close-ups and adrenalised style that have been his hallmark throughout his career, Bay, working with cinematographer Mitchell Amundsen (Transporter 2), delivers quick-cut action made up of individually effective, sometimes even iconic shots.

The problem, for those sensitive to matters of rationality is that Bay, for all his arguable skill as a conjurer of sugar-rush catharsis, frequently creates escape through reverse shots rather than any sort of sensible internal story logic. There is little sense of spatial coherence, and even less artful massaging of tension.

At several points during Transformers, a character will duck under an object that moments ago was out of reach in the frame, outrun a robot whose stride is 20 times greater, or pop up on a motorcycle apropos of nothing. The action, then, becomes the cinematic equivalent of a false show-and-tell exercise - bravura demonstration lacking any rooted truth, emotional weight or involvement.

Transformers ' tech credits are solid and its effects work is top-notch, seamlessly integrating actors with their digital robot counterparts. But while there's a state-of-the-art precision and surprising fluidity to the battles - including a pulse-quickening freeway chase that ends with a wicked metallic beheading - the tangle of robot bodies, though anthropomorphic, is an inherently unfamiliar image. After a while, the novel becomes dully repetitive - differently coloured heaps of metal in boxers' clinch, and flinging themselves into one another.

As hard as it is to make an impression in a behemoth of a movie like this, LaBeouf again, as in this spring's solid hit Disturbia, injects Transformers with a bit of his own chatterbox personality: a normal kid bristling with the restless discomfort of youth who finds himself caught up in an unbelievable situation.

Fox, on the other hand, merely photographs nicely, and Duhamel and Gibson are relegated to thankless and underdeveloped roles.

Meanwhile, occupying the outlandish supporting character usually reserved for Steve Buscemi in Bay's films, John Turturro gives a zonked, entertaining if not entirely tonally appropriate performance as an agent of a shadowy government bureau.

Production companies/backers
DreamWorks Pictures
Paramount Pictures

US distribution
DreamWorks Pictures

International distribution
Paramount Pictures International

Ian Bryce
Tom DeSanto
Lorenzo di Bonaventura
Don Murphy

Executive producers
Michael Bay
Brian Goldner
Steven Spielberg
Mark Vahradian

Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman, from a story by John Rogers and Orci & Kurtzman

Mitchell Amundsen

Production design
Jeff Mann
Nigel Phelps

Paul Rubell
Glen Scantlebury
Tom Muldoon

Steve Jablonsky

Main cast
Shia LaBeouf
Megan Fox
Josh Duhamel
Rachael Taylor
Tyrese Gibson
Jon Voight
Anthony Anderson
John Turturro
Michael O'Neill
Kevin Dunn
Julie White
Bernie Mac

Peter Cullan
Hugo Weaving
Keith David