July 3, 2011 § Leave a comment
Written by Ehren Kruger
Directed by Michael Bay
Starring Shia LaBeouf, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, John Turturro, Frances McDormand, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, Ken Jeong and John Malkovich
Before I start the review, I’d like to acknowledge the dearth of new posts since my review of The Tree of Life a few weeks ago. This is due to a number of reasons, chief among them being this blog is not my job, I make no income from it and as such when I find myself in a period during which I must economize the time I do have, the blog (and my movie-going habits) are casualties of these periods. Thusly, I’ve got a lot of movies to catch up on. Luckily, I found myself with nothing to do last Thursday and decided I was in the mood for a shameless popcorn flick, so I made the time to go see Transformers: Dark of the Moon.
The Transformers series is a pox on cinema as far as critics seem to be concerned, but judging by the box office totals of this franchise (averaging $360 million at the U.S. box office alone between the first two entries) speak for themselves in regards to the general popularity and appeal of the films. The Transformers brand was simply a toy line of cool little matchbox cars that could be converted into cool little robots so that little kids of the 1980’s had two style toys in one product. A cartoon movie followed, famously voiced by Orson Welles. Technology obviously did not permit for the live-action adaptation of the franchise until now and what we got was a Michael Bay movie. Michael Bay is rather notorious for lunkheaded scripts, overindulgent use of slow motion, special effects and gouda-level cheesy moments to go along with immense levels of violence and carnage.
Transformers was initially conceived as a cost-effective SFX extravaganza starring cheap character actors and unproven hot new hollywood talent. Shia and the other cast members were all paid scale (around $500,000 for leads and the prices dropped after that) If it busted, it was no big loss, but if it was huge, it was a sustainable franchise. Despite these goals, the films still ballooned a bit with $200 million budgets for the next two films (and LaBeouf pocketing a cool $20 million between the second and third franchise entries) The second film went a little haywire and even the film makers admitted it was a pile of shit, replete with racist minstrel-style robots and action sequences that were impossible to follow.
Dark of the Moon is their attempt to streamline things and enlarge the scale at the same time.
Given those attributes, Dark of the Moon is a success and thus far Bay’s magnum opus in terms of grandiosity, though it’s also his least compelling film as far as character development is concerned. The title is derived from some extraneous backstory on the Transformers connections to humanity that involved some flimsy historic footage of JFK interspersed with actors and a rather impressive Apollo 11 sequence that makes me think Bay has potential as a serious director if he bothered to lay off the movie-cocaine. A lot of his movies make up for their lack of depth with memorable characters and action that can be respected. What’s happened with Transformers is that he has brought cartoons to life. As other reviewers have pointed out, the human characters in this franchise are inconsequential and only exist to give the audience something to grab onto for some semblance of character development and relatability. Otherwise, this is simply about a bunch of massive robotic-intelligent life forms duking it out for our auditory and visual sensory pleasure. In a nutshell, there are Autobots and Decepeticons, rivals from a mechanical kind of planet who have been at war with each other for a long time. Their war has flung them across the universe and they’ve landed on planet Earth where they have adapted to life here by hiding in the form of regular old man-made cars in between transforming into their humanoid forms to beat the crap out of each other and shoot space bullets at one another using space machine guns speaking space-English and giving each other space-Americanized nicknames.
When they came to earth they befriended a small-town boy with the strangely geeky name Sam Witwicky, played by Shia LaBeouf. He finds himself consistently entangled with their robotic war of attrition as he transitions from high school to college to adulthood. In the first two films he is accompanied by his out of his league girlfriend played by Megan Fox, who sports an “I was molested” high-pitched girlish voice and questionable acting talents. She was cast by the unabashedly objectifying eye of director Michael Bay for her physical attributes. Mainly that she looked great in a slow-pan close up of her ass going to her hips and ending on a silhouetted profile shot of her breasts in a push up bra and a dirty undershirt. Megan Fox, even with her limited acting talent, was notoriously vocally critical of this objectifying by her director and behind the scenes she said some reportedly anti-semitic remarks. Exec Producer Steven Spielberg and Michael Bay decided she was dispensable and fired her after the first two Transformer films, replacing her with Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, a real-life British supermodel and real-life girlfriend of action star Jason Statham. Rosie plays the post-college Sam Witwicky’s current unbelievably hot girlfriend. She’s putting him up in an amazing loft apartment while he toils in post-college joblessness. Her main job is to stand there and look good while speaking very perfunctory dialogue to establish that she’s more than a highly-advanced sex doll, gifted to Sam by his robot friends. She’s perfectly adequate, given the goals of this franchise as being all around eye-candy. Shia LaBeouf isn’t given a whole lot more than her to do, aside from a couple of childishly comedic moments (including a photo-op with a super imposed President Obama) and running around. Luckily this time he doesn’t say “No, no, no, no, no, no, no!” as he had in the previous franchise installments. Here I can’t really recall his lines. He mostly stood around and complained about not having a job then ran from one part of the country to another (in record time no less!) to save his girlfriend or help the Autobots in freakishly capable ways that somehow our entire trained military could not. Turturro is also back as the conspiracy-theorist federal agent who is a human fact machine and veritable clown prince of the franchise. Josh Duhamel and Tyrse Gibson each show up briefly to….do nothing in particular. Frances McDormand has fun as a no-nonsense Director of Defense for the United States and Ken Jeong pops in very briefly as a strange man with a curious interest in Shia’s character. Basically it amounts to a cameo due to popular demand. Good for him. The only human actor who walks away dignity intact is a scene-stealing John Malkovich as Shia’s boss. A man with a atrange Euro-Boston accent who is very driven, orderly and to the point. It’s a cute and entertaining diversion from the otherwise wooden characters. Oh and they employ some famous but unrecognizable voices for the Transformers, including Hugo Weaving as Megatron (unrecognizable) and Spock AKA Leonard Nimoy as Autobot-Prime (or something like that)
There’s also a human villain in this one (I won’t say who, though it’s quickly obvious) to raise the personal stakes for Sam in order to give his character arc some sort of closure. His evil reasoning is very flimsy, but this franchise is not known for its logic. The final hour of the film is one long battle encompassing Chicago (why Chicago? Why not?) that actually makes the scale feel rather small given that these robots are supposed to take over our entire planet, but there’s only a couple dozen of them total. They seem to struggle to control one city and a band of maybe 20 humans and a couple of friendly robots take them on in the finale (guess who wins) so I can’t imagine how they intended to take over our entire planet.
Basically there’s nothing surprising here. It’s a very impressive visual feast with a forgettable script, forgettable characters and the kind of talent displayed that makes you wish everybody involved would move on more compelling material. Thankfully, Shia LaBeouf has taken every opportunity he can to confirm this is his last foray into the Transformers universe and thusly I assume that unless they offered him ungodly piles of cash, so it is too for its less-than-esteemed director Michael Bay.
The film defies logic and is a smorgasborg of a clusterfuck of hard-to-follow battle sequences between good robots and bad robots. There are some cool set pieces, including a building that our human heroes find themselves trapped in as its demolished from the ground up by robots who apparently despise efficiency and prefer to do their destroying in conveniently inept fashion. The CGI is virtually seamless with the live action and set pieces. On that account, Transformers is a marvel. Part of this is achieved through the constant quick cutting and highly angular cinematography employed by the film makers.