By Jason Apuzzo. The Transformers series is basically a high-speed, whipsaw collision of three things: 1) the venerable, 1950’s-based alien invasion genre, with its subtext of American freedom-fighting in the face of overwhelming technological threats from abroad; 2) a Hasbro toy line; 3) the retro-80s/MTV sensibilities of director Michael Bay.
This unusual and unexpected combination of elements have proven extremely successful at the box office over the past four years, but like any successful franchise, the Transformers movies are also more than the sum of their parts. The movies are fun, epic in scale, earthy in their humor, cheekily conspiratorial in their politics, playfully fetishistic in their focus on cars and girls, and keenly attuned to the sensibilities of the moment – what’s cool and what isn’t – in the same way the Bond films were in their heyday.
But the films offer a bit more than that, actually. Like Michael Bay’s best work – Pearl Harbor comes to mind – the films are unbending in their affection for the things that make America special: our independent streak, our fighting spirit, our passion for technological innovation. The films also radiate middle class values: the value of hard work and sacrifice, of remaining loyal to friends, and the importance of family – even when your family drives you insane.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon doesn’t necessarily add anything new to this formula that wasn’t there in the first two films. The familiar elements are all there in the first half of Dark of the Moon, but what Bay adds in the film’s second half are action sequences so gigantic and complex in scale – and amplified by astonishingly detailed 3D imagery – that one can only really compare them to Avatar or to certain moments in the Star Wars prequel trilogy. And the sum of all this ultimately is quite arresting and entertaining … but sometimes a bit overwhelming.
So let me just blurt it out here and say that as much as I liked the film, it also felt a bit excessive. The first two Transformers movies I first saw on DVD, on a portable player, in a situation in which the action in my field of vision was tightly contained, and the audio channels compressed down to classic L-R stereo. Watching Dark of the Moon in 3D on a big screen in 7.1 sound – with the film’s rapid fire dialogue, multi-layered conspiracy plotlines, and mind-shattering action sequences – left me feeling liked I’d just spent 2 1/2+ hours behind a jet engine … while reading Stephen Ambrose. It was a lot to take in.
Michael Bay’s directing style might best be described as palimpsestic, like something out 17th century Baroque painting or drama: dense, tightly packed plotlines are unfolding as comic one-liners shoot at you rapid-fire, while imagery of complex machines hurtle through space in balletic, gravity-defying maneuvers … right as Rosie Huntington-Whiteley is turning a corner in an outfit that makes her look curvier than Jessica Rabbit.
And you have about .3 seconds to take all that in before the next shot.
Not a millimeter of the frame nor a single audio frequency is wasted in Dark of the Moon. Every moment is packed to the gills with detail – and frequently with references to other films. It’s a unique style that I’ve come to like from Bay – the style of a muralist, rather than a portraitist – and a style that assumes the audience is capable of absorbing an ocean of detail. But sometimes, as when you’re looking at a huge mural in a museum, it can be a bit overwhelming.
This isn’t a complaint or a criticism, so much as an observation: Michael Bay seems to be inaugurating a different kind of filmmaking in the Transformers series, a type of complex, information-rich filmmaking style that assumes his audience can go back endlessly on DVD/Blu-ray after seeing the film and actually figure out what the hell happened, and savor all the details (and there are plenty to savor; especially if you like Osprey helicopters, or Rosie Huntington-Whiteley’s legs). Because I liked Dark of the Moon, I recommend you do that – because on first viewing it’s quite a lot to take in.
Dark of the Moon begins with a great sequence that essentially re-writes the Cold War space race between America and the Soviet Union as a secret competition to discover what alien spacecraft had crash landed on the Moon, circa 1961. (It’s the second summer film this year to re-write the Cold War, following X-Men: First Class.) There are some wonderful recreations during this sequence of the Kennedy- and Nixon-era White Houses, of Cape Canaveral, and of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. Dark of the Moon, more than the other Transformers films, is really suffused with the romance of our space program and a pride in its achievements – to the point that Buzz Aldrin gets a major cameo, and we even get a Shuttle launch mid-way through the film. Bay obviously loves this stuff, and it’s not hard to understand why; it’s the natural extension of the car- and military-fetishism the series already indulges in. Forget Cameros or assault rifles; you don’t get any more macho hardware than a Saturn rocket, or the other massive technology NASA throws around.
As soon as this opening sequence is over … we basically get a Victoria’s Secret commercial, as we’re introduced to a half-dressed Rosie Huntington-Whiteley flouncing around as Carly – Shia LaBeouf/Sam Witwicky’s new live-in girlfriend. (More on Ms. H-W. below.) So how do they handle the whole Megan Fox thing? We learn that Megan/Mikaela dumped poor Sam sometime after the last film.
Hey, these things happen.
Worse, though, we learn that even after saving planet Earth twice, poor Sam can’t get a job in our new Obama economy. This part of the film features one of the best of-the-moment gags of the whole series, one that easily makes up for the Bush-twinkie scene from the first film. Basically, Obama dismissively gives Sam a medal and a slap on the shoulder for saving Earth, and ushers him out of the White House. It’s hilarious, and got a big laugh in the audience I was in. Sam is naively convinced that a medal from Obama will be his key to success, will open doors in the new economy! … only to discover that this trinket from our ‘popular’ President is completely worthless. No one will hire him.
This gag is repeated several times during the film – with Sam thinking his trinket from Obama will open doors, only to find that nobody cares. The gag perfectly distills how public attitudes have changed, re: The One. (And let me tell you something: now that Obama is a pseudo-punchline in a Michael Bay film, he’s toast.)
So Sam’s having trouble getting a job, which is making him unbelievably neurotic due to the fact that his girlfriend works for slick millionaire playboy Dylan Gould, as played to the hilt by Patrick Dempsey (“McDreamy” from Grey’s Anatomy). Gould is impossibly rich and put together, has an exotic car collection, and has already started calling Sam’s girlfriend cute little nicknames (like “The Duchess”) – so Sam is panicking that a second all-star hottie is about to slip through his grasp. Plus, his parents show up in town and start driving him nuts. Don’t parents always show up when you’re having girl trouble?
This, for me, was easily the best part of the film – it’s always the best part of the Transformers films – when we’re focused on the main characters, and especially Sam with his big heart and volatile temper. If I have a complaint with Dark of the Moon, it’s that I wish Bay would’ve trusted these moments more – and spent less time with the robots. Shia LaBeouf has his nebbish-tough guy persona down pat at this point (he reminds me of Dane Clark, from back in the 1940s), and is able to breathe endless life into these moments so that you’re really pulled into his character and problems. The problems of the robots, by contrast, are never as interesting and always seem the same, film after film – and you sort of wonder if they’ll ever just leave the poor kid alone so he can finally do something with his life. How many times does Sam need to save the world or Optimus’ ass before he can get his life on track?
Meanwhile, the Autobots are off disarming the Iranian nuclear program (hooray!), and Josh Duhamel and his NEST commandos are off on a mysterious mission in the Ukraine … where we learn that the Chernobyl accident (more Cold War history) was actually instigated by mishandled Autobot technology – who knew? – and that people associated with the Russian and American space programs are now being assassinated by the Decepticons. The reasons for this are so complicated that it would require Francis Fukuyama to explain. (Basically it involves traitorous humans conspiring with the Deceptions over several decades. The UN is referenced here in passing.)
Suffice it to say that we are now in the Second Act of the film, a portion dominated by Frances McDormand as a tough-as-nails/Hillary-style bureaucrat in pantsuits (boring), John Malkovich as Sam’s quirky boss (seen it before) … and the great John Turturro as Agent Seymour Simmons, who again nearly steals a Transformers film. (Why doesn’t Turturro get cast in more films?) We learn that crazy Agent Simmons – arguably my favorite Transformers character – has transitioned into being a best-selling author of alien conspiracy books, and we even see him hawking one such book during an interview on The O’Reilly Factor! It’s great stuff. Kudos to Bill O’Reilly for making this a funny, archly self-deprecatory scene … although one has the uncomfortable feeling that hawking alien conspiracy books isn’t all that different from what sometimes happens on Fox News.
Anyway, Act Three of the film is given up almost exclusively to what is one of the most breathtaking action sequences you’ll ever see – as the alien Decepticons invade downtown Chicago (a refreshing change from the usual alien invasions of L.A. and New York) – as Bay goes into overdrive with toppling buildings, base jumpers, and epic robot carnage, all in exquisite 3D. This is where the Michael Bay style of filmmaking is either going to grab you – or leave you somewhere in the rubble, enervated. I felt a little of both. The action at the end of the film is extraordinary, seamlessly blending 3D live action with cutting-edge CGI and miniatures – all in sequences choreographed perfectly, as if in chess moves by Bobby Fisher. Of particular note is the sequence involving the base jumpers, who take off over the skies of Chicago as burning helicopters fall around them … and fly through the city’s cavernous downtown … only to arrive at a toppling skyscraper, about to be targeted by the new Decepticon baddie, Shockwave. At one point our heroes are actually sliding down the side of the building … and I won’t tell you how they get out of the situation, except that I’ve not seen action this dynamic since Avatar.
So has Bay ‘topped’ Avatar here, in terms of the breadth and variety of action on display in the climax of the film? Yes, he may have – but possibly at too high a price. I could’ve used less action, and more time with the characters – because I had the sense that this was probably the finale of the series, and I wanted to see Sam and his parents one more time, and get a sense of what his life would be like ahead with his new girlfriend …
… and on that point, a few thoughts about Ms. Huntington-Whiteley, who makes her film debut here. I thought she was surprisingly good, especially given the pressure she was under in replacing her famous predecessor. She comes across as feisty and decisive, and is fully Megan Fox’s equal in the looks department. But let’s face it: she plays ‘the girlfriend,’ and I suspect that’s what she’ll be playing for the foreseeable future until she proves she’s got the chops to do more. But so far, so good.
As for the rest of the cast, they’re all good – especially Tyrese Gibson. Leonard Nimoy voices Sentinel Prime, lending the character a gravelly voice and gravitas, and look for the inside-baseball Star Trek references in the film.
So what’s the bottom line? I liked Dark of the Moon, without necessarily loving it. I can believe it will look better on a second viewing, probably on a smaller screen. Otherwise, the modern gold standard for the alien invasion genre is still probably Independence Day, but the Transformers series as a whole is richer and more interesting to me. I like the themes and values of Bay’s films, how human and vulnerable his characters are – when they have room to breathe – and the level of action, sexiness and relevance in these films currently exceeds that of the once-great Bond franchise (which Michael Bay should immediately be given). With that said, I don’t think Dark of the Moon is the best film of the series as some people are saying – because the magic of the first film was unique, especially in introducing the characters and their world. But Dark of the Moon rounds the series out nicely, and I’ll buy the DVD/Blu-ray the day it comes out … possibly so I can figure out what the hell happened in Act 2. I know something important was being said about the end of the space race, while the Victoria’s Secret supermodel was sashaying around in 3D in a miniskirt – and a robot bird was morphing into a photocopier – but I can’t remember exactly what it was.
Posted on June 29th, 2011 at 8:59pm.