Wednesday 6 July 2011

Review: Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Year: 2011
Director: Michael Bay
Screenplay: Ehren Kruger
Starring: Shia LeBeouf, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, John Turturro, Patrick Dempsey

Synopsis is here:
"God, I really wish I could go loose on this one. He's like Napoleon and he wants to create this insane, infamous mad-man reputation. He wants to be like Hitler on his sets, and he is. So he's a nightmare to work for but when you get him away from set, and he's not in director mode, I kind of really enjoy his personality because he's so awkward, so hopelessly awkward. He has no social skills at all. And it's endearing to watch him. He's vulnerable and fragile in real life and then on set he's a tyrant. Shia and I almost die when we make a Transformers movie. He has you do some really insane things that insurance would never let you do". - The Infamous Megan Fox Quote for GQ.
It's incredible how much insight that quote can give on not only Fox (I believe she was out of line) but Michael  Bay and the Transformers franchise (most important word). It's been murmured before that action takes place over everything on a Michael Bay set and that includes of course acting and story. It's also interesting that Bay himself claimed that his 2009 juggernaut Transformers: Revenge of the fallen had missed the mark. I find that particularly revealing because two years ago it was the marketing  of that film that Bay had issues with. Now, on the event of the third instalment of the very VERY marketable series (good ol nostalgia and kids); it was of course the writers strike that caused such a weak film.

Excuses aside as Bay has roared back with the third and final (maybe) feature of this vapid and overlong saga of films. What's changed and what can we expect? The short answer is very little. If you've had a problem with these films before then there is NO change here. We have robots and they fight each other while human actors mug and feign the ability to portray real emotion for the material. The 3D cameras may have stopped some of the schizophrenic editing that Bay likes to employ but besides that what you see is once again what you get; empty, over-long spectacle. For the third time we have a transformers film which runs far too long on the dumb plot it is given. Those who think other wise will take to comments pages and bemoan that bloggers and writers are taking it too seriously and it's just about the carnage that develops. I call shenanigans.

Why? Because if such was the case you would throw out the plot wouldn't you? Not have anything there except the robots fighting right? What you'd get is a 50 minute film of just special effects banging against each other. If the only reason to watch is the films last stretch (a 40+ minute Robo smackdown) then why pay (in both earthly currency and soul dollars) for all that alleged plot, supposed acting and poor attempts of emotional engagement?

To be fair, the film starts out interestingly enough. Following suit from X-men: First Class, TF:DOTM starts off by mixing fiction with reality. Melding the space race (and an awful Buzz Aldrin cameo) with the Transformers mythos. The film series has struggled with this idea for three films, but the use of effects and the points of history used (1972 when the space race ended and Chernobyl) actually help try and give a certain amount of grounding to proceedings. As plot points within the whole film it's not much, but it almost gives us a foundation to stand on.

This rug however, is yanked away pretty quick as Bay wants to re-introduce us to what made many of the critics (and myself) dislike these flicks so much. We once again get dubious homophobia (See TF2 and Bad Boys 2, annoying stereotypes (didn't like the black/red-neck robots? check out our ridiculous British ones who are considered "assholes" in the movie), unbearably juvenile "comic" relief (also those parents are back) and a story that doesn't really add up even on basic aspects. If Transformers and everything about them run on energon, I get annoyed when at one point army men can check energon levels without hesitation, only to have that moment ignored later on. Such aspects can be small and nitpicky...but can also take you out of a movie.

As can annoying lead characters such as our dear friend Sam Witwicky who is one of the most grating lead characters of the year. In a film like this when it's all about the explosions LaBeouf's Sam has little to do. However when the spotlight is on this character we have two modes; in the beginning we get obnoxious arrogant ass mode in which Sam does his best to make sure that we as an audience dislike him intently. The second half of the film we get shouty Sam in which LaBeouf (who usually has a nice screen presence) yelps, mugs and generally pulls faces like Kermit the frog. Although at least Shia is an actor, because as much his performance isn't great here, he is Olivier in comparison to Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. Whiteley, picked for her bum and boobs, not only provides zero chemistry with her co-star but also has problem spouting much of the dialogue convincingly. This may have been less of an issue for someone who is an actress, but consider the fact that this is her first film, with a director notorious for focus on the pyrotechnics. That is no way for a model to be introduced to a major Hollywood film.

This aside at least the payday is good for a list of actors that looks like the Coen brothers phone book. Frances McDormand, John Malkovich and John Turturro turn up to pad the thinning material out. Patrick Dempsey must owe Kruger a bunch of favours for being in both this and Scream 3 while Alan Tudyk and Ken Jeong to be on the butt of the unfunny gay jokes. Jeong who plays Wang (hur hur geddit?) also gets a departure that is so insensitive for the sake of a few jokes I was slightly aghast.

This leaves us to the 40+ minute reason why many have shelled out cash for this two and a half hour movie. Bay excels here with set pieces the remind us that when it comes to action, he always delivers something worth watching (once). His visuals still suffer from his hyperactive camera movement, but they have however been colour graded up from garish to bright. The Robots gleam, shine and rust and fight in the way you'd expect an effect worth millions should to. I will admit that the moment when Shockwave began to crash through a skyscaper I was impressed to a point.

But this comes at an expense of once far too many, almost non-descript robot characters with no real personalties. Too many human characters who aren't very interesting/likeable who chat about nothing for a long time, needless crotch shots, lingering arse shots alongside unintentionally amusing lines and sequences due to a  bad script. We are constantly told to switch our brains off to films like this, but I keep asking myself at what point did it become the norm that we must be brain dead in order to enjoy a film? Why is it that the hallmarks of such a genre; may have been b-movies in disguise, but still maintained structure, characterisation as well as decent action? This film is 157 minutes long and yet we constantly get told to ignore two thirds of this because some things blow up for just over one third.

Transformers: Dark of the moon almost shows that Megan Fox may have been fired but she may also be right about Bay, a director with many films that seem to only exist in one note stereotypes, bland humour and chaos. We see close-ups of character's faces but they seem devoid of any emotional connection. Conversations feel clumsy and nobody resembles a human. Some ignore this based on a bizarre ideal that you should pay full price for nearly half a movie, especially if it's in 3D IMAX. I know many who are happy with the trade off. I say more power to them. This way of thinking has Dark of the Moon most probably becoming the 7th film to break the billion mark in worldwide grosses. Who needs friends when you've got fans.