Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Film review by: Witney Seibold
I have a curious relationship with film director Michael Bay. Back in 1996, I went to see his film “The Rock” in theaters, and, even though I was 17 years old at the time, and smack in the middle of the film’s intended demographic, I found myself hating the film to an irrational degree. It was the first action film where I began to see small logical errors, where I began to notice overblown overacting, where I began to notice ridiculous plotting and melodrama as actual detriments to my enjoyment of the film. I was so put off by “The Rock” that I began to be wary of any film with a car chase or a gunfight. I was put off of action films for a few years. The entire genre began to seem trite and uninvolving to me. It was about this time I began to ignore most action films entirely, and watch obscure European films and kooky extreme horror flicks almost exclusively.
After a painful (and socially awkward) period, I eventually came around to action films, luckily, and can enjoy them once again; my prejudices are few these days. But, despite the alienating experience I had at age 17, and my stubborn temporary swearing off of all things explodey, I have, without trying, seen most all of Michael Bay’s films. He’s like an abusive relationship I keep returning to. I know it’s going to hurt, and my levels of hope of things working out this time are nil, but I still keep getting dragged back. Thanks to a bargain I made with a friend, I have seen “The Island” in theaters (but I made him sit through “Eraserhead” and “The Apple” in exchange; he feels I got the good end of the deal). Thanks to an Oscar-night tradition, I have seen “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” (after the Oscar telecast, my wife and I hunker down in front of the film to have won the Razzie the previous night). To date, I have not seen “Armageddon,” supposed to be Bay’s opus magnus, but I sense a day will come when I relax enough, and my camp knob will be cranked to high enough levels, that I will voluntarily watch it of my own volition. And it will hurt me, juts like all the others.
This brings me to “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” Bay’s latest incomprehensible mess masquerading as an entertainment. This film, the third in the series of high-budget, 145-minute action spectaculars based on the series of 1980s Hasbro toys, is just as over-stuffed and as jarring and as thuddingly dull as its predecessors. The plot makes no sense at all, and the gigantic transforming robot critters still have no personality at all. Their dialogue consists of lines like “Autobots, retreat!” and “Activate the pillars!” which are all delivered by veteran voice actors like Peter Cullen, Frank Welker, John DiMaggio, and Jess Harnell who, despite their talent and years of wok in the business, can’t seem to bring any sort of dimension to the ridiculous dialogue. The result is a group of characters that have about as much personality as a ten-year-old Toyota Corolla, but don’t look as nice.
Yes, I still have that horrid problem with the design of the robots as I did with the previous “transformers” film, in that they all look like a swirling mass of unconnected gears and car parts. Watching two Transformers fighting is a miasma of banging, clanking fractals with no center or shape. It’s just a bunch of random moving parts. In a few scenes, at the very least, Bay managed to color-code some of the robots, but since none of them had any real function or personality, it didn’t much matter which one was which. All we needed to know is that the red one wanted to blow up Earth, and that the red-and-blue one (that was sometimes a truck) wanted to stop him/it. They seem scuffed up in robot form, but the scuffs disappear when they turn into cars or planes.
The human characters don’t fare much better. Bay has an uncanny ability to make his actors overact, and still, somehow, manage to display no emotion whatsoever. Lines are delivered either with a teeth-gnashing gravitas, or are screamed at the top of one’s lungs (Drive! Drive! Shoot ‘im! Shoot ‘im!). Shia LeBeouf is the lead characters, but his only personality trait this time is that he’s a bit embarrassed that he can’t get a job. He’s not really noble or good-spirited or anything. Indeed, he doesn’t seem to have much motivation beyond rescuing his perpetually-imperiled girlfriend Carly (British model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, who can read lines o.k., I guess). There are supporting roles from some curiously-cast Coen Bros. veterans as well. John Tuturro plays a conspiracy theorist of some kind, and seems to be having a lot more fun that I was. Frances McDormand showed up as a ball-busting CIA exec who gets to snap at people and gleefully threaten burly marines with guns. In what is the film’s most surreal performance, John Malkovich plays a man-tanned, compulsive office CEO who, in one seen, gets to giggle like a school girl, and roll around on his back, while a gigantic yellow robot tickles his tummy. For that one brief moment, we get a wacky reprieve from the stupidity of the world around us.
JFK must have led a much richer life than we originally thought. In “X-Men: First Class,” the president had to conspire with superpowered psychics and mutants during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In this film, he started the space race merely to retrieve a crashed alien space vessel on the moon. Indeed, we see younger versions of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin creeping through a vast Transformers spaceship. Later, we see the real-life Aldrin addressing Optimus Prime (Cullen) in person. This is either a grand fulfillment of a generation’s childhood fantasies, or an incredibly crass disrespect to the achievements of real-life astronauts. Take your pick.
The story: Sam Witwicky (LeBeouf) is living in Washington DC with his hot British girlfriend, and dreams of getting an big-time job. He received a medal from Obama, but that doesn’t help him. He feels emasculated and weak. His girlfriend’s boss (Patrick Dempsey) is much more handsome and rich than he is. Sam’s parents (Kevin Dunn and Julie White) are in town to embarrass him. Simmons (Tuturro) is still around, and now has a bafflingly broad gay German butler (Alan Tudyk), who minces as well as he fights. The character is so pleasantly out-of-place and so weirdly appealing, that I wish I could have seen a film entirely about him.
Meanwhile the Autobots, the race of intelligent transforming robots, have heard final word that, ever since 1972, their old leader Sentinel (Leonard Nimoy) has been deactivated on the moon. They retrieve him from the moon, resurrect him, and bring him up to speed on their war with the Decepticons, which is largely over. The bad guys, led by Megatron (Hugo Weaving) are living in the Australian outback, and scheming an evil scheme to teleport a dormant army of Decepticons to Earth, and then to teleport their home planet into Earth’s orbit. They’ll also need human slaves, although it’s never really explained why a race of robots would need tiny, fragile human slaves for anything.
If the army is on the moon, and the Transformers can get to and from the moon so easily (they do seem to shuttle about with ease), why do they need to steal a teleporter to get the bad guys to Earth? Can they not transform into spaceships?
The action scene are ugly, graceless, drab, noisy, dull. After a mere 20 minutes of everything being played at a horribly loud pitch, the audience will be beaten down, pressed into their seats by the oppressive noise. The images will lose cohesion, and the finale will play like a random series of digital images that have no connection to reality. The robots grind and pound and shoot and burrow and slice and dismember, and don’t seem to have any sort of weight, heft, imagination, or reality. They also don’t seem to communicate very well: when the bad-guy robots have located the brave humans, only one or two robots at a time try to kill them, despite the fact that they have hundreds in the area, including a robot that can crush buildings like a snake. Luckily, our heroes survive through the magic of plot convenience.
I will say this: A part of my pop-culture nerdiness winced when I heard Nimoy repeating his famous line from “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” in Transformer form. “Transformers” doesn’t have the clout, adult behavior, cogency or reality of a “Star Trek” movie.
Bay also seems to have a bad habit of glorifying the military to a fetishistic degree. No five minutes can pass without a group of heavily-armed marines running past the screen, their biceps, pectorals, and quadriceps glistening in the orange, orange sun. Men scream, shoot, ‘splo stuff up, shouting hoo-rah. Tanks, planes, trucks, jeeps are all given the supple and loving close-ups usually reserved for human genitals in a porno film. This film, almost as much as Zack Snyder‘s “Sucker Punch,” seems to be using explosions and violence as a direct substitution for any sort of real human sexuality. It makes me dread the potential bedroom antics Bay must get himself into. Or perhaps he’s content to polish a car, running his hands over its warm, unyielding chassis, quietly sighing in sexual ecstasy.
When I wrote my review of “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” I was veritably beset by a hyperactive cadre of internet defenders, who accused me of slamming a film out of hipness, and giving into the wolfpack mentality. They proceeded to explain that the film was mindless popcorn entertainment, and that I was bringing undue analysis to something that was meant to be dumb. I take exception to the hipness and wolfpack accusations, and I make no apology for my opinions. However dumb they were intended to be, they are not entertaining. They are noisy and stultifying, and completely lacking is style or grace or wit. I don’t understand the vitriol that the defenders have. “Transformers” needs no defense. What it needs is for people to stay away, and perhaps seek out better, more interesting action films, that offer edification, thrills, emotions, and style.