Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Shia LaBeouf, Josh Duhamel, John Turturro, Tyrese Gibson, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Patrick Dempsey, Frances McDormand, Kevin Dunn, Julie White, John Malkovich, Alan Tudyk, Ken Jeong, Glenn Morshower, Buzz Aldrin, Peter Cullen, Hugo Weaving, Leonard Nimoy
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The moneymaking Transformers takes the audience into increasingly familiar territory, but is surprisingly not worse for it.
This time around, the plot involves a war on the Transformers homeworld where the Decepticons (they’re the unnuances evil ones) are about to destroy the great work the Autobots (they’re the shadeless benevolent ones). The leader of the Autobots, Sentinel Prime (voiced here by Leonard Nimoy), has devised a way to save their species and begins to ship his precious cargo away from Cybertron. But before they can escape, the Decepticons fatally wound the transportation craft and it drifts light years away to a distant moon orbitting the third planet of another solar system. If you couldn’t guess, it lands on the moon and through a effects-laden prologue, the NASA space team, in the guise of the first moon landing, seeks out the strange crashed object and retrieves a small number of power rods from the craft along with the carcass of Sentinel Prime.
In the present, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), the immature protagonist of the first two films is struggling to land a job despite being in the possession of a Presidential Medal of Honor, the origin of which cannot be discussed. He’s living with a beautiful woman (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) working as a personal assistant for a major, wealthy car collector (Patrick Dempsey). His latest job interview sets him up with a certifiably crazy corporate manager (John Malkovich) who doesn’t like anything to feel out of place, including a coffee mug that doesn’t match the colored decor of the floor it’s being used on. There he meets a crazed scientist (Ken Jeong) whose paranoid delusions lead him to inform Sam that there’s a massive operation underway by the Decepticons to break into a government facility and steal some powerful device. Although he’s powerless against the government, Sam informst he Transformers, which reveals the secret military cover up of Sentinel Prime and his stolen rods, and sets the film’s action under way.
It’s a needlessly complicated set up pitting our hero against the government in an effort to save the world. And while I’m certainly a fan of rich detail of plot, the developments are so carefully ironed out and structured that it removes a lot of the suspense that could have been created. We know where the film is going because the prior film moved similarly. When the Decepticons, exerting their power over the U.S. Government, insist the Autobots be jettisoned into space and that they will afterwards allow the planet to live in peace, the audience knows without question that the government will be betrayed.
Performances have never been a focus in these films and we don’t expect a shift in focus this time out. LaBeouf has become one of those actors whose every move is telegraphed in advance. He scowls, grimaces, moans and laughs in mechanical and forced ways. This is an actor whose career has been defined by these tepid films and while he may rest comfortably on his bed of millions, respect isn’t going to come until he proves he’s more than just a face to put on a stunt double. After Megan Fox blasted her creator (Michael Bay) for his Hitlerian methods on set, Bay had no qualms about replacing the brunette beauty with an equally interchangable blond model. Huntington-Whiteley may not have much of a career in Hollywood, though if she does I have seen no signs in this performance that she’ll have much of one. She’ll stand around and look pretty and emote like a wooden telephone poll.
Dempsey tries to play suave and debonair without much success and ends up just another fawning lacky and milquetoast turncoat. Malkovich gets to do his standard looney schtick while John Turturro and Frances McDormand limp their way through vast swaths of dialogue. Alan Tudyk who plays Turturro’s character’s lacky is the only one who adds any measure of fun to the film. It’s not a grand performance, but it’s entertaining and the film could certainly use more of that.
From a technical standpoint, Bay is an achiever. The visual effects are impressive and after learning his lesson from the complaints the first two films received, he slows down the action a bit to allow the audience to witness some miraculous vehicle-to-robot transformations and some otherwise-unwatchable action sequences. The blend of slow motion and frenetic pace of these action sequences makes the experience more visceral, understandable and exciting. The action cliche of quick-edited sequences where the audience becomes befuddled and confused about what exactly is going on is minimized significantly. That doesn’t stop several fight sequences from feeling a bit redundant and one late-film set where paratroopers glide into Chicago with arm-to-feet webbed suits lasts entirely too long. And in spite of myself, there are several moments in the film where I actually enjoy myself, far more than in the painful second film of the franchise. Yet, the original remains the best of this bunch.
Apart from the wizardly effects, the film still suffers from Bay’s inability to stay away from stereotypes. It’s been said many times and by many critics that his films are mysoginistic, racist and homophobic and there’s nothing here that erases those failures. Several snips of dialogue belittle homosexual attraction, Sam’s two miniature robot companions speak in racially-tinged accents and act like the stereotypes set out for them, and the women are little more than trophies or worry-warts who don’t have anything of importance to say or do. For all the progress the world has made on equal rights, Bay seems content with tearing down that progress and impressing on his legion of fans the most rudimentary concepts.
Bay doesn’t care what critics think. He only cares how much money is lining his pockets. That’s one of the main reasons he has never been concerned with how idiotic his films become. His claims that he could make an intimate drama that didn’t rely on visual effects to sell the story are simply that. If he actually cared what critics thought, he’d attempt to prove them wrong; however, he insists that the movies he makes are what the audiences want to see. And to an extent he’s right. His movies make sizable chunks of green at the box office, but as a number of other directors have proven in recent years, you don’t have to talk down to your audience to profit. Take for example Christopher Nolan. Although some of his films have some depth issues, there’s no question that his focus on smarter stories, more enobling themes and credible performances has paid off. The Dark Knigth and Inception alone prove that he understand the language of film and doesn’t need to compromise artistic or thematic integrity to make millions. Bay, on the other hand, has yet to show us that he knows much more about filmmaking than how to sell a spectacle with lots of explosions.
Let’s all remember that there aren’t a lot of easy comparisons in the history of film to a movie like Transformers: Dark of the Moon. In the 1950s and 1960s when event pictures had reached a fevered pitch, a blockbuster like Hercules (1958), which made most of its money within its first weeks, is the best analogy to the Michael Bay behemoths. Although it didn’t make record-breaking amounts of money, Hercules was hugely popular with audiences and disliked almost proprotionately by critics. There are some films of that period that were spectacular while still telling a great story without pandering to the audience’s basest instincts (Lawrence of Arabia, The Sound of Music and others). Aside from those who lived in that time period, how many modern audiences even remember Hercules except perhaps in some cult film circles? I would doubt very many. And, unless Bay makes a shift towards depth, his historical fate is similarly certain.
August 5, 2011