Review: Transformers: Dark of the Moon

07/05/2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon is better than Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, but in the same way that marrying your cousin is a little better than marrying your direct sibling. Either way the same essential violation is taking place, although some of the specifics could be a little less unsightly. Michael Bay’s tribute to metal scratching against metal remains a monument to the world’s dystopian cinematic climate, the flesh and blood soul of story slowly extinguished for refusing to bow down to this generation’s increasingly short attention span. Like the Old Republic in Star Wars, the formula for mass entertainment laid down by Lucas and Spielberg remains only as a formality, to comfort those accustomed to it only until Emperor Bay can find a way to dissolve it permanently. There are characters and they do things and supposedly they want things, and there’s a plot and villains and our heroes fight to overcome them, but ripped from that frame is the “why”. Why should we care? We never care because of the characters or story. The audience is meant to care because of the staccato bursts of titillation that come along the way.

Maybe hyper-kinetic stimulation is all the Transformers audience desires, like a kid at a theme park who judges his favorite ride by the number of upside down loops it contains regardless of the fact that other rides might be taller, faster, smoother, and better designed. It might be terrifyingly rickety and dangle its riders upside down until change falls out of their pockets and its harnesses might press mercilessly down on the groinal region (I swear almost all theme park harnesses were designed by women); there might not be a single endorphin released during the entire endeavor but by golly it’s got the most loops and loops are stimulating because they are loops. And explosions are stimulating because they are explosions, and supermodels because they’re supermodels, and giant frigging robots because they’re giant frigging robots. Under such criteria, movies like Spider-Man, Minority Report, or The Lord of the Rings, which provide such stimulation but aren’t built around it, are acceptable but not ideal. How you enjoy a film is as important as what in the film exists to be enjoyed.

But what I’ve described so far could refer to any one of the three crazy-popular Transformers films, though the first was more pedestrian than record-setting abominable. The second movie set a new low for narrative storytelling, with a script that not even Bay himself could defend (he abandoned that movie and still defends Pearl Harbor. That’s how bad it is). With the third film, Bay has claimed to fix what was wrong last time (i.e. now there’s even more action, the plot is a lot simpler, and the female lead is even more attractive). The visual effects are more impressive this time around, losing some of the cartoonish incoherence from last time (there’s still plenty of incoherence, but it’s less cartoonish). I’ve come to admit that there might be some creativity in the way Mr. Bay constructs his shots and edits them together. In spite of the fact that I wasn’t attached to any of the characters or events for a good two thirds of the proceedings, I found myself drawn in by the odd beauty and effectiveness of the action sequences. (I counted many periods of time where the average shot was longer than three seconds. Astounding!)

But while some of the series’ appeal has been refined, the same problems that make Bay movies reprehensible are as relevant as ever. Tone deaf pacing avoids quiet moments at all times for fear that the audience will lose interest. The movie also refuses to think beyond guns, soldiers, mechanical parts, and munitions for its fantasy, and the somber tone, devoid of all irony, makes sure that everything feels like an uncomfortable (and boring) nightmare. Of course, it makes sense there’s no irony. Bay thinks irony might confuse his audience, because he thinks his audience is comprised of idiots. The script could have been written in a weekend, its elements so broad that there’s not even a way to double check whether they make sense or not. When the soldiers decide to use special flying suits to drop into Chicago, they claim that it’s the only way to accomplish their objective. But is it really? Does what happen next support that claim? They don’t even wind up accomplishing the objective, and if they had, was that really the only way to do it? Or were there a million different ways they could have broken into the city besides that one? In most action movies, that sort of thing is defensible once or twice (especially if it produces a really awesome action sequence) but when the entire plot is built with those sorts of generalities (or worse, horribly impossible coincidences), then the movie just becomes frustrating.

For a second after the film I tried to see if it matched up with what I remembered from the previous entries, but quickly I realized this train of though led nowhere good. For instance, when Sam and two Autobots talk about Megan Fox’s old character (I’m not even going to put in the IMDB work to remember her name, as nobody put in the script work to give that name a character), they talk about how mean she was to Sam. Now, in all of her moments in the last film, was she ever mean? She wasn’t a lot of things, but I distinctly remember her being not mean. Was that just a reference to Megan Fox and her argument with Michael Bay? Did anyone care that such an explanation made no sense with the last two films, or that previous series have found better ways to ignore such problems by just pretending the old flame had disappeared? I guess not. Also, the movie claims that the Deceptacon’s plot this time around has really been their plan the whole time. Since the original film! Does that match up with the last two movies? Did they really plan on losing both of those last times to set up for this final, ultimate victory? Does that make any sense at all? Does anyone care? Does anyone care this series is based on a child’s toy line that has nothing tonally in common with this? Is anyone even paying attention? Did I mention this movie is two and a half hours long?

Dark of the Moon doesn’t really even attempt to match up with itself. There’s a scene where Buzz Aldrin makes a cameo. I don’t remember why. Probably because it’s awesome to have a guy who was on the freaking moon make a cameo. But Optimus Prime says how honored he is to meet Buzz Aldrin. Why? Why is an extraterrestrial being who can go into outer space at will honored to meet Buzz Aldrin? I mean, sure it’s still cool he went to the moon, but Optimus has met Presidents and soldiers and lots and lots of impressive people. Could it be that that’s just what you say when you have a ridiculous cameo (I can just see Ricky Gervais in Extra’s exclaiming, “Buzz Aldrin! What are you doing in a secret military Transformers bunker? That’s mental!”). Also, how the heck was Megatron ever the leader of an army that was actually winning a war? All it takes to get him to undo his entire genius plan is one of his enemies walking up to him in an alley during a battle and suggesting that maybe, just maybe one of his allies is going to backstab him (a la the thing people do in a screenplay when they don’t care about quality and just want to get things over with). “Megatron! What are you doing stopping your ally just before he’s going to kill Optimus Prime? You’re the leader of a great army! That’s mental!”

And character… don’t get me started on character. Part of me wants to say there is none at all, but that would steal my opportunity to call attention to the insane hybrid Bay has created here. On display are some of the great character actors of their generation, obviously recruited by Bay to prove that for enough money everyone will come down to his level. John Turturro returns to collect his third paycheck, alongside Frances MacDormand, John Malkovich, Alan Tudyk (yes, they got Wash), and Ken Jeong. Only MacDormand, playing the cliched humorless administrative agent, is anywhere near something recognizable. Everyone else is full of quirk and oddity and bounces off the wall with a tremendous energy, but no pattern emerges to explain to us what is going on inside these people’s heads. Malkovich especially shows that nobody ever gave him a real character description, and he never bothered to ask for one. Jeong’s character should be playing paranoid or terrified maybe, but everything he does is so extreme that even when the twist regarding his character was unveiled, I still had to logically deduce he wasn’t one of the aliens from Men in Black (now that might be a worthwhile crossover) still getting used to living within his skin. Also back for the third time, Tyrese Gibson and Josh Duhamel continue to remind me of that feeling I get when I see Luke Walton on the court for the LA Lakers (i.e. What exactly is it that you do?)

As for the Transformers themselves, they are either stoic beyond the point of character or they are undeniably high as a kite. Seriously, the number of stoners in this movie is ridiculous. Or maybe that’s just characters who are only funny if you’re a stoner… Anyway, back on course here. Optimus Prime, probably the most interesting character in the film, has a couple of scenes that legitimately work. But aside from him, none of the other robots (including the ones played by humans) are even remotely interesting, and worse, a good number of them hit the dreaded Jar Jar level for ingratiating overbearingness.  When more than three characters in your film reach that level, or when John Turturro’s agent from the last two films is a welcome relief, you know you’re in a bad place.

But all that aside, the most offensive addition to this tradition is Shia LeBeaouguff’s Sam, primarily because he is the protagonist and we have to see the story through his eyes. Sam spends most of his time either acting psychotically jealous about his new girlfriend, (played by Rosie Huntington-Whitley, who was cast solely because she’s more attractive than Megan Fox), or yelling. He does a LOT of yelling, usually the same words over and over again while he hits things. Like, I’m pretty sure he’s doing that very thing for 70% of his screen time. You ever heard the term “hang out movie” where you spend so much time with a character that you begin to feel like you’re their friend? You will become friends with Shia LeBeef yelling and hitting things if you see Transformers: Dark of the Moon. It’s been a few years since the last “adventure” and he has begun to feel like he doesn’t matter anymore. This is explained by him acting in ways that wouldn’t tell us that at all (unless yelling repetitively and hitting things communicates that), and then he says he feels that way out loud. Anyway, Sam begins solving a mystery that US Military intelligence and the super-intelligent transformers couldn’t figure out, and then he feels alright and that problem is solved. This happens about an hour in, and then there’s some stuff about him having to betray the Transformers and win back the woman he loves. Neither of those two developments are foreshadowed, and the more I think about it, the less the second one even makes any sense.

This arid, passionless storytelling is defended under the diplomatic immunity of “popcorn entertainment,” even though the meager pleasures offered by Transformers: Dark of the Moon are less than those contained in the bucket of popcorn. Sans a story worth being told, the robots crashing into each other are just a non-interactive substitute for video games. Sans romantic interest, the female lead is just a child-friendly substitute for porn. I always feel dirty after seeing these movies. The original summer popcorn films, Jaws, Star Wars, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, appealed to nobler, universal, deeply mythical sensibilities. Sure, there was violence and idealized human forms on display, subtly enticing the audience, but those elements are never the point in anything but cheap, exploitative trash. “Popcorn entertainment” used to (and to many still does) mean something different. In his day Alfred Hitchcock was regarded a populist (he only ever spoke of his films in terms of how much they entertained audiences) but to be the Master of Suspense, he had to engage the audience with mystery, both exterior and interior to the human soul. There’s a clear idea or two behind each of his films, and they’re all very painstakingly developed. Those movies, popcorn entertainment though they were, were valuable forms of communication that fed the imagination and expanded the mind beyond the limits of reality, which is kind of the whole point of story in the first place.

Bay’s insular, claustrophobic cinema regurgitates stereotypes, tactlessly beats the mind into submissiveness with overwhelming visual and sound, and allows audiences to sit comfortably within their own limits, never asking anyone (and in fact depending upon them never expecting) to go beyond. In fact, it encourages everyone to regress to their most basic form, tugging at carnal pleasure centers to disguise the true banality of what is being absorbed. I don’t want to hate on the people who see these movies. I really don’t. I don’t want to be a party pooper either. I don’t want everyone to view movies as art and go see Tree of Life this weekend. But there are objectively better, more immersive ways to view and be entertained by movies, and like all dangerous addictive substances, the Transformers movies and their like slowly dull the senses until they cannot appreciate what works better.

Greater thrills exist than Bay’s hyperactive brain stew and greater flights of fancy than a camera moving in a pleasing direction past an attractively curved Victoria’s Secret model. But such value requires a setup; an investment on behalf of its audience, and the more acclimated viewers become to movies that demand nothing, the less capable they will be of appreciating true adventure. Again, I don’t consider myself beyond this sentiment. There are days when all I want is to sit down in front of the television and give up on thinking for a few hours. But even the most basic escape has degrees of quality, and in a more immersive theater experience where the lights are dimmed and the theater goes quiet and everyone’s attention is sucked into the big screen, society deserves better than Transformers. This is a movie that assumes that it’s audience is going to be texting and talking and surfing the internet (and also probably a little high or drunk). It assumes that we all spend hours on Facebook in our free time, having no desire to see the world or experience things beyond ourselves; that we are all animals who crave animal desires above human experiences. That’s so depressing. Why would I want to escape to that idea, true or not?

In fairness, I should address a few moments that surprised me. I began to notice that an actual theme (you know, something that might actually draw me into the story and make me care about what happens next) was developing through the film. It might have even connected to Sam’s desire to feel important. Many characters address the need for self-sacrifice in order to be truly meaningful. Characters who wallowed in self-pity the entire film end up having to sacrifice their lives (a connection they state out loud using dialog as the act takes place). Many soldiers die in the line of duty, and we see an unusual amount of evil from the Deceptacons (including CGI blood, because this series had apparently not yet committed every possible visual sin), accounting for the the heroes’ need to give their lives to stop such evil. In a two and a half hour-long movie, there were just enough moments like this for me to notice them. One moment, when all hope seems like it has finally been lost, I actually maybe cared a little bit. I really wanted to know what happened next. And then things got stupid again. Can’t let anything feel too real. Then the audience might get uncomfortable.

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