TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON

Cineworld Glasgow, 08.07.11

One of my favourite entries in one of the best film study books available is David Thomson’s entry for Michael Bay in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film (5th edition), which he finishes with:

So, in the event that Mr Bay is ever looking for help, I’ll spell it out here-he makes noisy garbage; it is his calling, his being and soul. There is no cure. We may respect his suffering, but we know this: ours is greater. And he has millions [of dollars] as medicine.
                                                                                                  -p.67 (Little, Brown; UK edition)

As a teenage film student the films of Michael Bay were a guilty pleasure in the late ’90’s.  The likes of Bad Boys (1995) and The Rock (1996), even Armageddon (1998) were loud, sexy, stylish, fun, dumb entertainment, and provided an escape from the heavy-going, intellectual, art cinema I had to study.  They featured accomplished serious actors and indie favourites alongside big stars – Sean Connery, Nic Cage, Ed Harris, Bruce Willis, Will Smith and Liv Tyler to name a few.  You knew they were stupid, vapid and empty – but they were pure entertainment that allowed you to switch off your brain and enjoy.  They even had some funny dialogue mixed in with all the loud bangs and orange-tinted slo-mo.

Then came the disaster that was Pearl Harbour (2001).  There was a lot wrong with this film, and little right. Casting, plot and dialogue were awful and the spectacular action sequence couldn’t save it. The main error was Bay attaching his particular brand of mindless mayhem to historical fact.  the seriousness of the real life war were completely at odds with his over-sentimental romance and slo-mo heroics.  It was rightly panned by critics.  A lame sequel, Bad Boys II  (2003) and the smaller scale (by Bay standards) The Island (2005) passed the time without much impact until 2007, and the first Transformers film. 

Based on the Hasbro toys, the first film was typical Bay at his biggest and brashest.  Action-packed, loud, nonsense, with the right mix of knowing humour and thumping action. It also had the novelty factor of the sight of the Transformer characters impressively rendered on the large screen. As a child growing up watching the original cartoons and playing with the toys, like his earlier films, this was a guilty pleasure for many adolescent and adult males. By that time I had grown up, become a cynical adult, but could still find a soft spot for this bit of nonsense.  Unfortunately, Michael Bay had refused to develop, mature, or just grow up in the intervening years, and all the good work of the first film was completely undermined by the disastrous sequel Revenge of the Fallen (2009).  Even more than Pearl Harbour, this film was an unmitigated travesty, ruining many people’s fond childhood memories. The low point of Megan Fox having her leg humped by a randy CGI robot in a supposedly funny moment is unforgivable, and stands as the nadir of Bay’s brand of filming women and an example of not knowing the difference between smart comedy and appalling slapstick.

With some trepidation then, comes the third installment – Dark of the Moon. Those hoping Bay would have listened to the criticism of Revenge and learned his lesson will be sadly disappointed, because this film is a complete mess.  Too long by about an hour, it falls into the majority of the same pitfalls that Revenge suffered from – and makes no attempt to apologise for it.  Megan Fox wisely jumped ship for this film, to be replaced by Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, although she adds none of her own personality, and fulfils just a carbon-copy of the Fox role.  Witness the opening shot of the film, where her scantily clad derrière is shown in close up walking up the stairs – she is nothing more than window dressing for the hormonal teenage boys Bay is targeting, and is degraded throughout the film as pretty, sexy and helpless.  Bay’s attitude towards women hasn’t matured in any way in 15 years of films, and this epitomises all aspects of his film style.

The rest of the cast fair little better.  Shia LaBeouf continues his downward spiral, becoming more and more annoying with every film he appears in. Here, you really hope the machines will just kill his character Sam Witwicky to save us having to listen to his whining, screaming and smarmy smart alec dialogue any longer. Josh Duhamel returns and looks suitably heroic without doing much. Again, Bay manages to attract some fine character actors, presumably happy to take a big pay check at the expense of any artistic integrity.  John Turturro at least has fun with his slapstick role, although he was tiring in the first film, let alone across three. What possessed Frances McDormand and especially John Malkovich, who disappears a third of the way through the film after a pointless cameo, to get involved, is beyond me. A special mention for Ken Jeoung as Jerry Wang – surely the worst and most irritating piece of acting, and writing, to be seen in a long time in any big budget Hollywood film.  Buzz Aldrin deserves a moment of criticism for agreeing to appear in a cameo role as well.

The machines and the effects are the real stars of course, but Bay makes the same crucial errors as in the first sequel in his handling of them. He focuses on the leader of the good Autobots, Optimus Prime, and his former teacher, turned traitor, Sentinal Prime, along with Sam’s friend Bumblebee, at the expense of every other character.  The rest of the Autobots barely get a look in, even in the battle scenes they’re in the background or posted missing – it becomes impossible to tell which ones have survived and which are killed, and no one mourns the loss of any.  The evil Decepticons fair even worse.  Leader and prime, Megatron, is reduced to an afterthought.  Bay is obsessed with Shockwave, who gets most of the evil action, but without any attempt to provide any character – just destruction and mayhem. Starscream is the only other recognisable Decepticon to appear.  The rest of the Decepticons are a faceless army.  Aside from that, Bay again chooses to include Autobots for purely comic relief, and it’s as woeful as it was in the previous film.  Wheelie and Brains pop up every so often to provide relief from the endless action, but with such awful dialogue it beggars belief that it made it passed the first version of the script.  Just not funny in any way.  All the impressive special effects that goes into creating the machines is in the end wasted.  Another special effect that deserves comment is the appalling attempt to recreate John F. Kennedy in the White House in the film’s opening.  It stands out as so badly done that it is laughably noticeable, and completely unnecessary.

The plot, of course given the initial premise, is nonsense, but that doesn’t excuse the bloated running time, the lack of tension, and the lack of logic within the created world.  The final battle in Chicago (no reason is ever given as to why exactly Chicago is chosen – probably the city was willing to close its streets to allow filming) is just an ongoing mess of carnage that seems like it will never end.  There are so many explosions, collapsing buildings, fighting humans and machines that one becomes completely lost after a while.  Even the script seems to lose focus as to what anyone is trying to achieve in all this mayhem, so it’s no wonder, as a viewer it was difficult to tell what on Earth was going on most of the time.  At the end of the two and a half hours of too loud, non-stop action (it is evenly paced, just evenly paced at overly hectic mayhem from start to finish) I had a slight headache, so goodness knows how anyone watching in 3D is able to cope with it all.  Broad brushstrokes are used for the human relations, and even humour that worked to some degree in the first film – Sam’s parents, Turturro’s oddball agent – falls flat or is downright annoying here.

Only my fond memories of the Transformers as a child, and the fact that it is marginally better than Revenge of the Fallen, stop me from giving this film zero out of five.  It’s time Michael Bay grew up and tried to do something different with his films – but I suspect he has no intention of doing anything of the kind, because his millions keep rolling in.

Film Rating: 1 out of 5.

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