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Transformers: Dark of the Moon

July 12, 2011

This post will likely contain spoilers.

I wrote here two years ago that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen amounted to a painful, violating cinema experience. I stand by that opinion to this day, but I still willingly went into the most recent offering fully prepared for the ensuing Bayhem and willing to entertain the assurances I’d seen in pre-release marketing interviews whereby the cast and crew stated that they had “learned from their mistakes”. However, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, although an improvement on the second film, still repeats some of its predecessors worst mistakes and ultimately fails to repeat the satisfyingly packaged fun of the first (still best) film in the franchise. From what I understand, the broad critical reception has ranged from lukewarm tolerance to hostile disgust but this doesn’t really matter anyway since the movie is making a fuckton of money. It marked only the second time I’d watched a film in 3-D (the first being Avatar) and I was therefore still amenable to the novelty. I should also add that I retain a glimmer of nostalgic appreciation for the Transformers and I am currently preparing to out myself as a full-on Michael Bay apologist in due time, assuming I haven’t already done so with various remarks supportive of the man and his output over the years. In other words, take this as a disclaimer that I am probably about to be far more generous to Transformers: DotM than it truly, objectively, deserves.

This time around we learn in the prologue that the NASA moon landings were a covert mission to study and examine an alien (Transformers) spacecraft that had crashed there. The craft, known as The Ark, had been carrying an important Autobot technology that could have turned the tide of the Transformers civil war in their favour and also the only Transformer that knew how to use it, Sentinel Prime, the Autobots’ leader before Optimus Prime and (conveniently or inconveniently) their greatest scientist/engineer. Back on contemporary Earth, Sam (Shia LaBeouf) is out of college and shacked up with an impossibly attractive girl who isn’t Megan Fox, but he can’t get a job and is frustrated at being overlooked for his role in saving the world twice from the evil Decepticons. He has several ludicrous encounters and exchanges with a preposterous bunch of characters and is eventually propelled toward the climactic battle. The Decepticons are up to their old tricks, yessir, and they’re up to their shiny balls in the Moon conspiracy and a nefarious plan involving a network of human collaborators. There’s another random MacGuffin plucked from the Transformers mythos (The Space Bridge) to drive the film down the highway of perpetually overblown, illogical cinematic madness and get us, the audience, to the mega-battle in downtown Chicago that you’ve all glimpsed in the trailers and, once there, the film kind of delivers on the big-robots-fighting front as best it can.

Shockwave - Riding giant robotic worms. Like a boss.

Again, I take the view that, in wilfully viewing a Transformers movie, you have already tacitly accepted an enormous amount of silliness and will struggle to find yourself in a legitimate position to criticize what you see as daft and stupid in the films thereafter. These films are essentially adaptations of a cartoon that was only ever made to promote a line of Hasbro toys. The toys came first – cars/planes/tanks that turn into robots – followed by a decently produced cartoon that was further expanded in Marvel comics and which culminated in a wonderfully executed, full-length animated movie in 1986. However popular the franchise became, and however adored it has remained by shameless fanwanks, it’s fundamentally very weak. Giant, mega-budget movies based on 30-year-old action figures are no better than giant, mega-budget movies based on Pirate-themed amusement park rides. You can’t complain about the stupid shit that doesn’t add up in the Transformers movies because there has always been stupid shit that doesn’t add up with the Transformers. How come only the baddies thought to make sure they transformed from robots into military vehicles like tanks, jet fighters and helicopter gunships whereas the good guys just change into fucking pick-up trucks and corvettes? I’m basically stuck on that objection and don’t care what blunders subsequently follow it. Gaping, cavernous plot holes, an almost contemptuous disregard for continuity, and the kind of creative decisions that give robots metal beards, ought to be overlooked here. Otherwise, what kind of film were you expecting? Assuming you’re familiar with the premise, which is absolutely nothing beyond a 30-year-old marketing gimmick to sell action figures to male children aged 6+, can you really complain that Transformers films turned out to be massively dumb?

Transformers: Dark of the Moon benefits greatly from 3-D for the purely practical reason that it slows things down. Prior to the release of Avatar, when the technology was being discussed excitedly, I recall a TV interview with someone involved in developing the new 3-D cameras who mentioned that 3-D films would have to avoid being shot with lots of fast cuts and fleeting shots. The viewers eyes would need longer to continually focus and adjust to what they were seeing onscreen and if the action was too fast it would easily induce headaches and nausea. Michael Bay’s signature style of hyper-edited shots flickering along at break-neck speed has often been criticized for offering up almost incomprehensible action sequences and especially when coupled with the somewhat alien spectacle of 40-foot robots engaged in close-up fisticuffs. The 3-D here has placed welcome restraints on the Bayos by forcibly slowing the action throughout and allowing the viewer a better glimpse at precisely what is going on.

Bayhem ensues.

For far too long in this movie, however, what is going on is hugely and unrelentingly irritating. One of the greatest failings of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was that it was absolutely packed with an overabundance of comic relief characters delivering terrible comedy in a manic, seething fashion that just would not stop. Dark of the Moon bafflingly, unforgivably, repeats this crime. Most of the characters are not only these crazy, lunatic cartoons, they are also largely pointless. I’m happy to see John Malkovich getting paid but I defy anyone who sees this movie to then explain to me what the fuck he is supposed to be doing in it? Shia LaBeouf and John Turturro alone could have carried all the laughs an event movie like this needs but instead the viewer is force-fed at least a dozen badly-realized, extraneous clowns. These characters are woefully childish and tediously derivative and clichéd. Having them all talk fast, loud and so glaringly in-your-face does not disguise that, it just makes them all the more horrendously obnoxious. Although we are spared the reappearance of the awful misstep of the Skidz and Mudflap characters from Revenge of the Fallen, there is a Ferrari Transformer here that speaks with a caricature Italian accent and another one with an attempt at a Groundskeeper Willy Scottish accent. Please eat shit and die, whoever came up with those ideas.

Why this tone of over-saturated, misfiring comedy has been employed again is a mystery. What would have been interesting and, in fact, radical would have been if they’d played things more po-faced and serious this time around. There are fleeting moments of opportunity when it seemed possible to do so. The glimpses of Cybertron at war and the moon landing cover-up in the prologue are deftly handled and constitute perhaps the strongest moments in the film but they are soon revealed to be little more than a tease before the heartbreaking let-down of being shoved back into the gnashing nonsense of LaBeouf’s excitable Sam Witwicky and the array of stupid characters he interacts with. Similarly, the Decepticons are shown at their most brutal, ruthless and sinister this time around but are simultaneously reduced to being underdeveloped monsters. Much was made of the popular character Shockwave being a “main antagonist” in this movie but he turns up for a mere five minutes to shoot things before (SPOILER, fuck it) having his ass kicked by the Special Forces humans and finally being brutally dismembered by Optimus Prime. Apparently, Bay has stated that this third Transformers flick will be his last, and the events in the climactic battle strongly support that. Beneath the badass visuals, these films have inherent limitations that mean they can only really tread the same shallow ground over and over again (i.e. big robots fight) so, despite the ridiculous box-office returns, I can’t see this franchise getting a “reboot” anytime soon.

Sentinel Prime - Has always had a beard, hater.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon is not as blatantly, offensively awful as its predecessor, Revenge of the Fallen, but it is still only an improvement that is built on the same fundamental flaws. This was a franchise that had fun with its origin story in the first film and which appeared to be expertly guided by the reassuring presence of Steven Speilberg on that initial outing, but which suffers badly from going bigger and bolder with no real regard to how it does so. It looks great, as all Michael Bay movies do, with some dazzling effects shots and brilliantly glossy photography but, in so far as you consider yourself a moderately rational human being who is at least remotely intelligent; this movie is guaranteed to annoy the ever-loving shit out of you. I would recommend this movie only to aging fanwanks like myself who have a high tolerance for shiny turds but, as it has already become the most profitable release of 2011, it’s a little late for that.

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