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Non-Review Review: Transformers 3 – Dark of the Moon

Here’s the thing: I don’t really expect a lot from Transformers: Dark of the Moon. It’s a movie about two rival factions of robots who engage in civil war on Earth. It’s not the stuff of epic tragedy or cinematic masterpieces. It’s designed to offer knock-down brawls, superb CGI, stunning action and a handful of fist-pumping moments. I’m cool with that. I don’t expect any more than that, and – to a certain extent – the movie meets my basic needs. However, despite a superb supporting cast and some superb special effects, the movie feels a little too self-important and po-faced to ever really engage. The final forty minutes are something to behold, but there’s just too much mundane plotting and pompous pseudo-philosophical rambling in the first two hours to really justify it.

Jump in my car...

As a person going to see Transformers, I expect to see robots fighting. And Bay is very, very good at offering that to me in eye-popping 3D. The last forty minutes are soemthing to behold, hoenstly and truly. However, I don’t expect to see robots having long rambling conversations and monologues on the virtues of freedom, liberty and loyalty. The movie is peppered with scene-after-scene of undoubtedly skilled thespians voicing CGI robots who have long and seemingly meaningful and/or ominous conversations that are clearly meant to give the movie some sense of depth and scope. The problem is that these scenes are clumsily-written, and the magic of the CGI can’t make the hackneyed and clichéd dialogue any less cheesy for coming from the mouth of a robotic killing machine.

I have to admit, though, that the movie’s politics and brazen second-grader patriotism give me pause. This sort of junior high political theory – where Optimus Prime vows to effectively commit genocide “for freedom” (“it ends tonight”) and the Transformers “keep sneaking out at night” to do things like dismantle Iran’s nuclear programme – would be almost endearing if it wasn’t so downright terrifying. The movie even ends on a monologue about how important it is to keep the world safe even when your closest allies let you down, as if you didn’t get the gung-ho subtext of the film. The problem isn’t however, that Bay is treating the robots as stand-ins for American foreign policy, despite what detractors might claim. That would actually spark an interesting political debate. Instead, the movie makes it clear that its robot protagonists are cleaning up the world unilaterally.

Road rage...

It’s a subtle distinction, and one which robs the movie of any topical subtext. American foreign policy is a hot-potato issue, and there’s no doubting on which side of the fence this film comes down, but the problem is that the Autobots don’t necessarily look like the heroes Bay seems to treat them like. The argument for foreign engagement by American forces is a doctrine of spreading democracy to the world. It’s a potent point, and one that is the heart of the debate. However, Bay’s Transformers don’t police the world serving a democracy – the movie makes it clear, for fear of triggering an actual debate – that they work without state sanction. In other words, these alien robots act on their own authority, imposing their will and their idea of law-and-order on the world, without any hint of human involvement and cooperation.

“You taught me that freedom was everyone’s right!” Optimus Prime shouts at his mentor at one point, but the problem is that Optimus’ Autobots don’t act like they believe any of those ideals. As they capture an enemy patrol outside a fallen city, Optimus has his team literally tear their prisoners limb from limb. The irony is rich when the captured Autobots claim to be “prisoners of war” to avoid execution by their opponents. Later on Optimus himself executes a defeated enemy combatant with a shotgun blast to the head, despite the fact the bad guy can barely crawl. Being entirely honest, it’s hard to know why exactly the Autobots are the good guys and the Decepticons are the bad guys, since they adopt the same sort of ruthless combat strategy and are just as blood-thirsty and self-righteous.

It's a bit of a mess...

The difference, Bay seems to suggest, is that the Autobots have sided with America. There’s a stunningly surreal sequence early in the film where Optimus is throwing a tantrum over the fact that his human allies have lied to him, and seems distinctly ticked off. However, promising to explain, Buzz Aldrin arrives. “It’s an honour to meet you,” Buzz remarks to the machine. Optimus is immediately awe-struck at the true American hero standing before him. “The honour,” he clarifies, “is mine.” Later on, amid the rubble, Bay is sure to include a tattered American flag fluttering in the background as Optimus gives his mission statement.

It’s a shame, because the Americana of the script actually seems like it might be fun for the first twenty-odd minutes, as the movie crafts an exposition-heavy alternative history of the space race, drawing in Apollo 11 and Presidents Kennedy and Nixon as the Americans rush to recover an artifact from the dark side of the moon. “It’s Code: Pink,” one character explains, “as in Floyd.” I actually regret the fact that the movie didn’t have a bit more fun with this idea (perhaps even filming the whole movie as a period piece), instead treating it as awkward exposition that leads into a fairly bland plot. The space race is one of those giant moments of awesome in American history, and Bay makes it work in that context, perhaps moreso than his clumsy attempts to shoehorn political commentary into the script. On the other hand, tying Transformers to the Chernobyl disaster is something that I feel a little more uncomfortable about.

Shia's feeling a bit of rage against the machine...

Here’s the thing, though: Bay is actually a really good action director. I don’t think he’s a strong film director, but his action sequences tend to be solid. The last forty minutes of the film are one extended action sequence, which works remarkably well. Drawing back from the rather bloated nature of Transformers 2, the movie makes sure that its audience is keenly aware of where each of the cast is and what they are doing at a given moment. Even if Bay can’t make it clear through dialogue, he is skilled enough to put it up on the screen. That sequence actually manages to make great use of 3D. It’s cheesy and hokey and completely extravagant, but that’s what 3D is meant to be.

Bay doesn’t have the vision that Cameron brought to Avatar, nor is his world as deep and perfectly-suited to 3D as Tron: Legacy, but it works really well in the context of these grand action sequences. Of course, the cast are fighting over a giant macguffin that doesn’t seem to work coherently (it seems to have some difficulties with on/off, for instance), but the plot issues aren’t the point. There’s sky-diving and gunfighting and running and jumping and diving. For that final sequence, the movie is as visceral as it should be. The problem is that the two-hour lead-in just feels really padded.

There are some truly wonderful pieces of action included, and – in a touch I really appreciated – Bay actually manages to pull the trigger on a rather wonderful Checkov’s Gun established near the very start of film. Doing that so fluidly without dialogue in the middle of a huge sequence like that is an accomplishment that deserves recognition, and it’s only one of many things that the final sequence does really well. It might be fashionable to argue that Bay isn’t a storyteller, but it’s more than a bit unfair. Bay has the skills, but isn’t very good at telling stories that require dialogue or characterisation – which is why it’s a shame that the action during the first two hours is so sporadic (with only a superb highway chase standing out).

Is the movie on auto (bot) pilot?

Because, the truth is, there are any number of easier ways to reach that huge final sequence, which don’t involve the same level of incredibly stupid and dense plotting. As I said above, I’m here to watch robots do action, not to listen to them talk endlessly. Similarly, I’m not here to watch the movie be padded out with some of the most boring human drama I have ever seen in a blockbuster like this. It’s strange, but my disbelief is not at all dented by giant talking robots, but is shattered by the fact that Sam’s parents keep bugging him about getting a job. He saved the world. Twice. Let him take a year off. Similarly, at one point, his girlfriend gets upset with him for missing a social occasion. This is after she’s seen the Transformers and knows what’s at stake, so – again – it really seems stupid that she expects him to drop the fate of the world for her social calendar.

That said, it’s not all bad. I do quite like, for example, the decision to give Sam a decidely human foil this time around, despite all the robotic carnage. Sure, it’s not especially well-written, and the two actors don’t really play off each other especially well, but it’s a nice idea and one of the few plot elements that really works. Sam often seemed to wander around like a confused puppy we had to follow through the action, and the movie works by giving him his own opponent to face. The movie does feature a densely-layered twisty narrative concerning the alien robots, but the problem is that none of the characters, apart from Bumblebee and Optimus Prime, have enough personality for the audience to really invest in them. Indeed, several “big” moments fall flat because we don’t really care for those characters involved, because we don’t know anything about them. I can’t name any of the many dead Autobots but the end of the film.

Keep on truckin'...

On the other hand, there is a sense that the script is aware of how incredibly silly taking all this seriously would be. I love the none-too-subtle foreshadowing that a re-run of Star Trek‘s superb Amok Time brings. “Is this the one where Spock loses it?” the robots ask, as Leonard Nimoy prepares to pop up in the movie (and even gets to utter his immortal line, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”). John Malkovich has fun in a small role as Sam’s new boss, and I adored Ken Jeong’s appearance as “Deep Wang.” Both actors don’t get nearly enough screentime. John Torturro is also great in his returning role, and I quite liked his “man servant” Dutch, as played by Alan Tudyk. Any man stylish enough to wear a cravat outside his neck brace is an awesome addition to any cast. Still, there’s the sense that Bay is playing a lot of it far too seriously for its own good. For one thing, there’s the way that screen repeatedly fades to black to underscore how serious things are. Once is effective, but the movie does it to death.

It’s interesting that the climax of the movie had my thinking a great deal about The Dark Knight. Both movies make use of Chicago, and feature similar pulsing action soundtracks from Hans Zimmer. There are other similarities, including sequences where our heroes seem to slide down the glass surface of a building, the way that a rescue at Trump Tower forms the climax of the movie and the fact that Optimus has his trailer flipped while travelling down mainstreet. I know Chicago sells itself as a cheap filming location, so it’s likely not too intentional, but I couldn’t help but think of Michael Bay laying siege to Christopher Nolan’s Gotham, as an aside.

Robot rumble!

It’s also interesting to note, as a fun aside, the sheer volume of guns in this film. I mean, surely giant transforming robots are enough, right? However, like the last film, Bay seems to think that giant cannons improve everything, so he straps them on. Optimus Prime is a giant gun-totting badass, who just happens to be a robot. There’s another sequence where the giant robots even do that “throwing a partner a gun, and they catch it and shoot” thing that most action movie leads do. I do wonder, though, if Bay sees the robots as an excuse to get away with things he couldn’t with human characters. So, for example, “oil” seems to spurt freely from dismembered robots, and Optimus yanks what would be an opponent’s skull and spine out at another point. It seems fairly brutal for a film aimed at family audiences. There’s also a slightly disturbing scene where the female lead, Rose Huntington-Whiteley, is threatened by the Decepticons with tenticles. It’s a sequence which doesn’t need to exist, given she’s already trapped inside one of them and has distinctly unpleasant undertones.

That said, Bay is a great action director. And the action sequences deliver. However, the problem is that the rest of the film simply doesn’t work as a movie. It’s too clunky and heavy-handed, and contains quite a few worrying plot points. There will be those who claim that the movie receives unfair critical attention for a movie about robots knocking the stuffing out of one another, but I don’t think it is consistent enough to succeed on even those grounds alone. I don’t necessarily mind trying to make a mindless action movie deeper or more philosophical, but I don’t need it, either. I would be happy with a smart movie or a dumb fun one. However, if you are going to try to offer more something with more substance, don’t pad out the space between the action scenes with boring plotting and bad drama. The movie could be an hour shorter, and lose nothing. In fact, it would probably be much better.

6 Responses

  1. Spot on. The whole trilogy would have benefited from some serious trimming. It seems Michael Bay is a man who is never told no – and why would anyone do so with the amount of cash he rakes in with each subsequent picture. I feel terrible about seeing his movies on opening night (and yet always do so).

    • In fact, I imagine if you trimmed down all three, you could put together one heck of an action film. It’s probably be more coherent too.

  2. This is a heck of a review. The action in transformers dark of the moon, while great, wasnt quite enough to save the movie overall. I actually thought revenge of the fallen was better storywise, which aint saying much lol.

    • Thanks Chris! I tried not to be too harsh. I think those last forty minutes are amazing as an action sequence, but the build up is too much.

  3. if usa can to assault iran , assault yet . usa can’t assault iran…
    35 years ago all world against iran but can’t get 1mm of iran.
    35 years ago we have not power .
    do you know why iran victorious?
    becaus ALLAH will this.
    but now have powerfull.

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