Transformers: Dark Of The Moon (Michael Bay 2011) – it’s not *that* bad
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
(Michael Bay, US, 2011)
An exciting new blueprint for an exceptional action movie, unfortunately lost beneath the rubble of Michael Bay’s old designs.
The title is a misnomer. Aside from the customary drop in light intensity you get from modern 3D, there is nothing dark about this movie. With Michael Bay, what you see is what you get, so it’s important that everything is upfront and in the open. So the broad comedy, the racial stereotyping, and the full-on action familiar from previous Transformers movies are all presented with the giddy delight of a kid pulling down his trousers and wiggling his bum in your face. Even the gung-ho Team America rhetoric is too blatant to pass as subtext.
For some critics, this is tantamount to sacrilege and Transformers: Dark Of The Moon has become the season’s whipping boy, drawing predictable levels of outrage and hostility – and an equally dispiriting backlash from fanboys eager to protect their beloved franchise. The truth, as it invariably is, lies somewhere in between, and is somewhat more mundane. This third Transformers movie bears all the questionable lapses of judgement inherent in Michael Bay’s cinema, but also a surprising amount that is good. Not only is it a quantum improvement over Revenge of the Fallen, it’s nearly a very good summer blockbuster.
I say nearly, because the thing that is stopping the film from being good is its timid reluctance to toss out the formula that has raked in mega-bucks at the box office. It made sense first time around to provide a human face to the robo-carnage, but having revealed the limitation of those parameters during the sequel, we were promised a rethink this time around. What’s immediately apparent here, however, is that Bay has maintained the variety show dysfunction of earlier Transformers films. One minute, we’re getting sucked into an intriguing slice of altered reality as the Apollo 11 crew discover an Autobot ship on the moon in 1969; the next we’re watching Shia LaBeouf’s fumbled attempts to win a job for an (even more than usual) overindulged John Malkovich.
For the first half of a long running time, we may as well be watching two different films. Not since the mid-1930s Marx Brothers films where Irving Thalberg sandwiched dull-as-fuck romantic interludes amidst the slapstick, has there been such a mismatch between the stuff the audience has paid to see, and the stuff the producers think we’ve paid to see. For all Bay’s efforts to make the comedy passable (not least the presence of Frances McDormand and returning John Tuturro alongside Malkovich, a casting policy seemingly borne from watching old Coen Brothers films) everything we see until LaBeouf is reunited with his Autobot friends is completely redundant. Why not have him working for the Transformers to begin with? Because that wouldn’t tick the focus group-approved boxes of Sam Witwicky being embarrassed by his parents, comedy ’Bots cracking bad jokes, and Bay’s camera getting the chance to leer at the love interest.
“Rosie Huntingdon-Whiteley has all the passion and charisma of a model selling shampoo, and she’s sewn into such figure-hugging costumes she struggles to run, too…”
The latter is the film’s biggest misstep (notwithstanding the crass decision to make every ethnic or foreign character a figure of fun) because Bay has cast for looks rather than talent. To which the uncharitable would answer simply, ‘Megan Fox,’ but at least she’s have delivered her big scene – a verbal slapdown of Megatron – with some attitude. New recruit Rosie Huntingdon-Whiteley has all the passion and charisma of a model selling shampoo, and she’s sewn into such figure-hugging costumes she struggles to run, too.
Strip away all of these elements and the basic plot – about the discovery of ancient Autobot leader Sentinel Prime and the battle for the yet-another-all-powerful-weapon which he carries – is lucid genre storytelling. But put them back in, and the sourness infects the good stuff. Where the likes of Watchmen and X-Men: First Class were able to refer to real-life horrors like Vietnam and the Holocaust without losing integrity, Bay’s appropriation of the imagery of Chernobyl, the Challenger space shuttle crash and 9/11 look tasteless and insensitive. When skyscrapers are collapsing, the last thing we need to see is the blatant product placement of a close-up of a bottle of Bushmills Whiskey. Nor do the Autobots need to kick ass against vaguely-defined Middle East nuclear sites – a scene that has no narrative function whatsoever – when there’s more than enough quality action elsewhere.
It’s a shame, because the brutal truth for Bay haters is that the director has made an exceptional action film – and, against the odds, it is 3D that has enabled this. A director prone to use ten rapidly-cut shots where one will do, has been forced to slow down his editing style to enable our eyes to maintain focus, and there’s a balletic (if brittle) beauty to the robot smackdowns. The final hour, not least the afore-mentioned peril in a skyscraper, is easy to follow, startling in impact, and vertiginous in scope, setting the standard for blockbuster action in the post-Avatar world. If only Bay could lose the bad habits he’s picked up on his comedy roadshow, then we’d really be getting somewhere.