Saturday, July 2, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon Review

Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Directed by Michael Bay
Released in 2011

There are movies that can change your outlook on a social issue, inspire you to pursue a career in an unexpected field, speak to you on a wavelength that no person ever has. Suddenly the field of speech therapy, or even the seedy favelas of Rio de Janiero, feels acquainted, familiar. They stick with you and remind you of the boundless potential cinema has in its past and future. Transformers: Dark of the Moon is not one of those films. And it does not try to be. That is the problem. Its highest ambitions are to serve the lowest denominator. Mindless, loud, turn-off-your-brain entertainment. How should one who analyzes the artistic merit of film approach one that purposely has none? The faults of such a film like this do not make as much of a dent in its box office performance (in fact, it is these faults that make it so commercially appealing). So my job here is utterly pointless. But, stubborn I am, I will break this movie down nonetheless. 

The third installment in this billion dollar plus franchise once again centers around Sam Witwicky, the fast-talking, short-tempered, incredibly lucky early twentysomething played by the talented but often misused Shia LaBeouf. Megan Fox is nowhere to be found, with only a few brief allusions to her cultural shockwave of a role voiced through Sam's robot sidekicks Wheelie and Brains, seemingly serving as Michael Bay's mouthpiece ("I didn't like her. She was mean.").  Rosie Huntington-Whiteley now occupies the role of impossibly beautiful love interest. Bay frames her at such exploitative angles that the Victoria's Secret model's lack of acting experience is irrelevant. So, in a sense, Fox's absence is barely felt.

In a form of revisionist history, the Transformers universe collides with our own in the third. The pre-title sequence devotes itself to fabricating a plot in which the 1969 moon landing was actually a cover-up to explore a crashed Autobot ship containing very precious cargo. Fake Kennedys and Nixons are used, along with clips of Walter Cronkite spliced in between for an attempt at verisimilitude. There is even a curious inconsistency in HD quality picture and 8mm filters that seem to be carelessly edited together to communicate the 60s style while simultaneously promoting the opposite. NASA finds their objective in the form of a crashed spaceship, and Optimus Prime later retrieves several teleporting pillars (if you are not following me by this point, you are not insane) and the former Autobot leader, Sentinel Prime, voiced by the sci-fi god himself, Leonard Nimoy.  Even poor Buzz Aldrin himself saunters in to espouse such lies about his famous mission. It is a ludicrous plot rife with holes, inconsistencies and unexplained tangents. It is simply perfect.

From the basic plot summary, the film branches in dozens of directions that make any essay analyzing it equally confusing (Mr. Bay may be a genius after all...). The rest of the cast is a good place to continue. Josh Duhamel returns as the Army solider Lennox; his character, over the course of three films, has never been more than the handsome, skilled soldier that always seems to be in the midst of the action. We are only acquainted with him because he has been on screen for so long, and we do not know why he fights, or what makes him tick. A halfhearted attempt to flesh out the other soldier, Air Force Chief Epps (Tyrese Gibson), at least is present yet still keeps the audience remarkably distant from a character they have seen for three films now. John Turturro returns as the outlandish Seymour Simmons. Bay handles his entrance well, throwing Bill O'Reilly in the mix and lampooning both actors in the process. His blocking and moves are cut quickly, building upon the psychotic Turturro seen in The Big Lebowski and the other Transformers films. Barely a third into the movie, however, a random event physically restricts his character and any humor or personality instantly dissipates.

New characters hit, miss or completely fail. Seymour's assistant succeeds as played by the diverse and always talented Alan Tudyk, from Firefly, 3:10 to Yuma, and, yes, Dodgeball as Steve the Pirate. His mysterious - and of course unexplained - past struggles with his soft German demeanor for comic moments. Ken Jeong randomly appears as a colleague of Sam who holds secrets. Jeong is hilarious, but milks (no pun intended) his bizarre role in the Hangover films to a point of self-mockery. I will not deny the undeniable laughs I got from his peculiar performance in the elevator scene, however. A disturbingly tan John Malkovich kicks and punches as Sam's gung-ho employer. His off-kilter style shines briefly before inexplicably dimming to darkness. In an unseen transfer of power, the once power-hungry boss morphs into nothing more than a court jester before the mighty Sam. It is a sad, pathetic scene that embodies the problems with this film so aptly.

Two new antagonists fall flat from their lack of dimensions. Frances McDormand - Best Actress winner from one of my favorite films Fargo - is relegated to a myopic, nagging National Intelligence Director. The slight arc in her character in no way atones for the relentless obstacles she throws in the way of any sensible progress (hey, I end up rooting for Sam, look at that). Her Bush-era security paranoia reveals political judgment on the part of Bay and a little too heavy-handedly, too. And the worst of the bunch stands tall and debonair as Patrick Dempsey's laughable villain Dylan Gould. The boss of Huntington-Whiteley's character, Carly, Dylan takes uncomfortable interest in his employee, leading Sam on anger tantrums. Of course, there is a bigger plot at hand and it is here that his character falls apart. Dylan never has control over the situation and Dempsey lacks any hold on his role as well.

Oh, and the robots. I have neglected to mention the namesake of the series much as of yet, and that could be a wonderful thing. Do humans take the main role this time around, leaving the mechanical fighters to perhaps fill the role of metaphor of technology on today's society or an even more insightful theme? No, I simply do not have much to say about them. Optimus Prime once again waves the American flag as the pinnacle of our patriotic values. Bumblebee sits on the sidelines for the most part; the first film actually portrayed the bond between Sam and his robot protector well, but the last two films have muddled such connection. Sentinel Prime makes for an interesting new character with a distinct set of values, ones put to the test. Megatron, this time around, holds little importance and erratically shows up to show his influence that is never proven (and even disputed at one point). The special effects powerhouse Shockwave rips through matter with devastating ease, such as collapsing a skyscraper that houses Sam and the soldiers in one of the more outlandish, yet equally impressive, scenes of destruction I have seen. His chaos carries no motive or purpose, and in an interview with USA Today, Bay claimed Shockwave is a main antagonist. No indications in the film prove that, despite the gratuitous special effects.

The main actor in Transformers: Dark of the Moon is not Shia LaBeouf or Peter Cullen but that man himself, Michael Bay. With a nearly $200 million budget, I must say it is impressive Bay maintains such creative control on his work. It is not surprising, however, since his MO coincides with the proletariat's desires more than, say, Darren Aronofsky.  James Cameron, Tony Scott and Paul Greengrass all approach the action scene differently but successful in their own individual way. A sense of space (or lack thereof in the last one's case) establishes itself naturally along with subtle indicators of who to root for, and if that matches or breaks from who is winning at the present moment. This artistry is missing in Bay's scenes. The stellar visual effects and audio design (which still may be the franchise's strongest suit) exist with no motive behind their form or implementation. A key moment about an hour, fifteen minutes in, involving both significant death and betrayal, feels off. It takes a few seconds to realize what happens on the screen, and the blame for the audience cognition rests on the director's shoulders alone. A closer shot, not so detached and pointlessly broad, could have communicated such a significant character choice much more effectively.

Bay does not resolve who is the ultimate protagonist, leaving the field hazy and unclear. We follow Sam the most, yet hear narration throughout from Optimus. The humans at one point are utterly hopeless, yet, in a nice touch, conquer an enemy alone, steel versus blood. But just after, Optimus slays a main antagonist by himself, Sam nowhere to be found in the crucial final moments.  The mystery may be unraveling? Unfortunately no, since the victorious soldiers stroll in slow motion with no real gratification given to the Autobots. It makes the ultimate theme unclear, a rather notable flaw in any film.

There are fewer scenes than the last film that contain such unintentional hilarity, but those that are here are winners. Try not to laugh during Dempsey's last scene (and the inexplicable plot hole it presents) along with Huntington-Whiteley's entrance (following such a serious story montage). And the slow motion (used so liberally in this movie) meditation of Huntington-Whiteley in the midst of entropy may be the best shot in the series.

Hate Bay we all, or at least I, might, I can see he is trying a little harder. There are some choices here and there that are admirable. A POV shot through a gas mask immerses you rather well. A quick cut to black and back - a blink, if you will - is a wise editing choice that saves time as the edit itself implies the quick duration of time that passed between the two scenes. And his comic timing and capture may lack much creativity but always works. He incorporates some imagery that does not always succeed. The easy task of Star Trek allusions are there, if a little pointlessly. The much more difficult trial of the Challenger explosion is not handled as well. The image is thrown in, but the emotional weight that stays with such a rough event is not conveyed to the audience. It is a requirement to not just incorporate an image but to explore the meaning within.

After all this, I realize everyone who will see this film will do so unquestionably and the wiser ones will simply stay away. All of the above is quite redundant in the end, isn't it? But what had to be done was done. And, if I may partake a secret:  I did enjoy Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Most of it at least. The last hour fell apart but the first hour was entertaining in its many stupid ways. It was in this first hour that characters were introduced or perhaps fleshed-out so slightly; it was then in the last hour and a half (yes, this is a whopping 157 minutes long) that this did not continue. But it does not induce headaches or bitter anger as the second installment did in its never-ending, maddening stupidity. And that, slyly and sincerely, is a compliment. Perhaps the existence of such films like these leeches on the collective intelligence of our country. But its brilliance in creating the perfect anti-film, in all its logic-defying, product placement-heavy, jingoist glory, makes any artistic statements Bay attempts seem like blatant and unforgivable accidents. And his potential is there!! I will continue to shake my head and wag my finger all the way down here, where I am but a harmless mite easily whisked away. But he does not notice me anyway, for he is too busy playing with his gold-plated toys.

Final Verdict:
2 Stars Out of 5

1 comment:

ABfool10 said...

I thought it was well done. The only thing that got to me was the ending. Like you say, you expect some moral to be told but it just ends. This movie was never meant to be made for an academy award so to analyze it as such is the wrong way to analyze it.

Also, about the bumblebee sam relationship: You say it is not properly developed but I think it is. The whole point is that they "don't see eachother anymore" and Sam misses that. He longs to be together again with bumblebee but it is not really possible anymore. The lack of words between them when they parted showed that they had really grown distant from one another.