Thursday, June 30, 2011

Transformers 3

Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon (2011)
Dir. don't make me do this
Starring Shia LaBeouf, John Turturro, Frances McDormand, various others, Leonard Nimoy, Peter Cullen, Alan Tudyk, and we're all just going to agree to forget John Malkovich was in this, OK?

Elephants --lets face it-- look cool. They're big, they got those huge tusks and the prehensile trunk, they sometimes get into a crazed sex frenzy and tear shit up. They're cute when they're little. They look impressive when they travel in herds, traversing gorgeous terrain. They're fairly rare if you don't live in areas where they naturally occur, and when given the opportunity to see one I'm usually fairly excited.

But, at the end of three two-and-a-half hour films, you just find yourself asking, “So, is this all there is? Just shots of elephants?”

Yes, I gave in to my darkest impulses, the most shameful and disheartening side of myself, and went and watched TRANSFORMERS 3. Don't worry, I paid for CARS 2 and snuck in (in what I hope will be a down payment towards Pixar making a film I want to see a little more than CARS 2) but still, I willingly opened my eyes and invited the devil inside. The human eye is composed of 33 distinct parts, and for most people is their primary sensory organ. It is so complex that some people argue that its stunning perfection proves the existence of the divine. And I put Michael Bay in mine.

Michael Bay believes an elephant and an explosion make a movie. I'm simply not convinced that he's correct. Eventually, I'm going to want the elephant to do something, or mean something, or feel something. I want the explosion to threaten something, or change something.

There's plenty of obvious things Michael Bay does poorly which don't really need exploration here. Obviously the script, the acting, the --shudder-- “humor”, anything having anything at all to do with human beings, the awkward politics, the awful soundtracks, the cheeseball mawkishness. I don't really believe in this idea that we need to settle for less in these big expensive movies, but by this time Bay has a pretty consistent track record and you can't really claim to be surprised. But he's supposed to make up for that by blowing shit up real good. I'd like to try and make the case that even here, in the dubious best of the series, he doesn't quite deliver the spectacle that you want. There are two basic reasons why, which I feel are so far under-examined, and a worthwhile way to ask the question of why some action movies succeed where these fail.

The first is the fact that while all elephants are cool to look at, your ability to watch them for an extended period greatly increases if they're doing different things. Surprisingly, the same is true for giant computer animated toys. You want your robots to fight, of course, but jeez, it's been three movies now and all they do is fight. And their fighting is not particularly interesting, except that its done by robots. It turns out that after you've seen giant metal dudes ponderously slugging each other for a few minutes, the novelty wears off a little. Here, in the service of 3-D, Bay finally pulls his camera back a little, dials down the ADD editing, and lets us actually see what's happening, which is at least an improvement on the last two. But it turns out that once you get to see it, its only moderately interesting and certainly not worth building a two-and-a-half hour film around. Elephants rutting is pretty cool, a nifty display of the raw power and dramatic focus in these huge beasts. But by the time you've gotten to the fifth or so scene of it, you're kinda hoping something a little memorable is gonna happen with it.

Yeeeahh, if we could just make everything shitty, that would be great.
That's the problem, as I see it. Technology has reached a point where any conceivable scenario can be realistically portrayed, and Michael Bay has the money to make it happen. He's limited only by his imagination. But it turns out that's a pretty severe limitation. There's hardly a single interesting concept, gimmick, or set piece in this entire trilogy, and so it ends up being about as memorable as any given punch in a rock-em-sock-em robots game (I'm sure I'm not the first person to make that comparison, but I actually played the game yesterday in preparation for this review so I feel I have a certain legitimacy in saying that). With nothing unique and thrilling to get us excited, the action all runs together into a gray, monotone mess of whirring gears.

Which brings me to my other problem: Structure. Bay has no sense of it. His films have no rhythm, no build. They don't go anywhere, they don't crescendo. Of course there's no storyline, but even the action scenes don't climax. The final fight isn't longer or more intense than any other fight, there's not particularly more at stake, and it seems like it could have fit equally well anywhere in the film. It's all turned up to 11, but it just means that none of it has much impact. All Bay knows how to do is shout, and after awhile it just doesn't have any impact anymore. It's kind of a slog, truth be told.

So despite the millions of dollars which clearly ended up on screen, there just isn't much here. It's the equivalent of watching stock footage of car crashes. You can watch a little and find it exciting and visually arresting, but by the time you've watched it a dozen context-free times, the rewards considerably diminish.

I mean, there are a few nice things to be said about it. The script somewhat resembles some kind of basic narrative this time, if you don't stop and think about it for even a second. It's a little more serious and there seems like a little more at stake, which helps rope you into the fights a little more than before. There's a few genuinely nifty sequences – the bit where a human gets tossed out of a transforming car into the air, only to be caught by the robot again and reincorporated into the car (all done in 3-D digital slow motion) is a pretty cool shot which I don't think I've seen anywhere else. There's a kind of tunneling worm robot or vehicle or something which seems to be associated with this one cyclops transformer, I don't know, maybe not, but its pretty cool to watch. The bit with it tunneling into an ever-slanting office building with some humans inside is probably the one sequence in the film which comes close to original, although needless to say it has nothing to do with anything. The wingsuit sequence is also a great idea, someone should put that in a real movie someday. The destruction of Chicago is admittedly pretty epic, the production work on the effects and sets is top notch and it has a nice apocalyptic feel. The cinematography is sometimes quite pretty in that sleazy, car-commercial Michael Bay kind of way.

Some of the cast ends up limping away with dignity intact. Frances McDormand of all people, despite being saddled with some painfully embarrassing dialogue, sells it like a champ and mostly manages to avoid humiliating herself. John Turturro somehow manages to make his Jar Jar Binks character feel a little more fun this time around, I hope he can begin looking people in the eye again after this. He gets some welcome help from Alan Tudyk as his sidekick, who against all odds creates the only endearing character in the entire series. Leonard Nimoy manages to add enough gravitas to his poorly written role that he at least seems like a suitable opponent for Peter Cullen's voice. And poor Buzz Aldrin manages to escape with the majority of his and our national dignity intact, despite being patronizingly told by a giant cartoon toy that it's an honor to meet him.

Less successful are Hugo Weaving (again given nothing at all to do as the film's apparent villain) Tyrese and that generic white guy as unnecessary soldiers, some other white guy as a villain, the eye candy girlfriend, and Bill O'Reilly.

Disastrous, unfortunately, goes to John Malkovich this time around, who apparently didn't learn from John Turturro the first one that acting as if what you're doing is funny does not, in fact, make it funny. Even more embarrassing is Ken Jeong, of whom the less is said the better. LaBeouf is this time around inexplicably saddled with a truly unpleasant character; an unholy cocktail of entitlement, insecurity, and sad sack whining which he tries fruitlessly to make tolerable.

Also apparently James Remar plays the voice of a character named Sideswipe (jeez, did he spend all that Dexter money already?), Frank Welker plays two (?) characters named Shockwave and Soundwave (I think Shockwave was the cyclops, because people kept pointing to him and saying his name as if it meant something, but its odd because I don't remember him talking at all) and John DiMaggio reprises his role as Bender (nah, that would have actually been funny and hence has no place in this film. He plays a character named Leadfoot.)

I dunno, man. The thing isn't as stunningly bad as its predecessors, but in a way that just makes it bad in a more mundane, boring way. The fundamental flaws in the last two were kind of obscured by the aggressive, insane and borderline surreal layers of flaws which actually made them (the second, especially) sort of memorable. This one's closer to a real movie, but it's still so far away from a good movie that it's almost a step back. The one thing that made them interesting was how unapologetically awful they were, and this one is professional enough to reveal how completely empty is is of anything interesting. If you truly believe simply seeing giant robots punch each other on screen is enough to sustain your interest for nearly three hours, the film does deliver that. Me, I think I'm gonna break out my PLANET EARTH DVDs. Now those guys know how to make me care about an elephant.


  1. Spot on with the action and elephants. Still, you tout the age old "there's no story" line. Does 90 minutes of plot exposition not suggest the opposite? Why are they trying so hard to make this matter when we're all more likely to accept is as pure spectacle?

    Not sure paying for Cars 2 is any better, the most shameless money grab beneath even Dreamworks. Lasseter even explained the appeal of Cars in terms of the marketing product demographic penetration. I know that means kids are playing with it, but good God, at least pretend it's a passion project.

  2. Honestly, I must say that I really dug this one and thought it was the best of the trilogy. I thought about doing a blog post on it a la that rambling one I did for part 2 a few years ago, but as you note, part 3 is much less of a fascinating train wreck and there's really not much to say about it.

    I enjoyed what I considered to be a high quality spectacle, and I laughed a lot at the (knowingly?) absurd stuff about the moon landing, Buzz Aldrin playing himself, etc.

    Still, it didn't fulfill my dream of a film made entirely of mind blowing, plot free, near-abstract spectacle with minimal narrative. This is mostly due to the action. I've defending Bay's action chops in the past, but it was painfully clear to me this time that there's little sense of spatial relations in his action scenes. I feel like he can craft awesome, elaborate, beautiful looking individual shots, but has little sense of how to plan and edit them so they piece together in meaningful way. This leads to a lot of eye-popping visuals and (to me) gratifying money shots, but rarely anything like a sustained sense of momentum (with a few exceptions, like the falling building, which I thought was pretty awesome).

    Still, this to me is what a $200 million action movie should look like: gaudy, baroque and large scale. I can't defend spending that much money on a movie in moral terms, the most I can ask for is that you can see every dollar up there on the screen. (Something that I feel doesn't come across in something like IRON MAN).

    I hold out hope that one day a studio will finance ALIENS VS TERMINATORS, which I envision as a $300 million epic with no identifiable characters and a seriously streamlined plot that's essentially just 2 hours of the craziest special effects of all time.

  3. Fred --
    I don't exactly mean to imply there's no story, just that its a poorly constructed story badly told. There's a lot of plot points, but no actual narrative. It spends almost an hour being about Sam's job and then that thread completely vanishes, never to return. By the end of it most of the major characters from the first half are completely incidental. The film ends with him promising to never leave his girlfriend, I think I remember that conflict being introduced for about 10 minutes when she inexplicably storms out one time around the hour and a half mark.

    So I guess my point is, there's endless exposition and dialogue, but that doesn't exactly make it a story. I hope my review didn't give the impression that its not deadly boring (if not actively infuriating) every time there aren't robots on the screen, because of course it is -- maybe I felt like that was such a given I didn't properly emphasize it.

    I Did feel a little hesitant about CARS 2, but my theory is that I'd like the studio to have the finacial independence to follow their passion next time. I guess after years of stunning works of ballsy genius, I don't begrudge them one cash grab to shore things up a little. I wish there had been some classier choices, but if it's between Pixar and Michael Bay it's pretty much a no-brainer.

    Dan -- I'm definitely with you that the 200 mil ended up on the screen, I'm just not sure that money like that buys my interest. There's a few lukewarm moments of eye candy which I describe above, but a lot of that money went into incredibly detailed realistic giant robots sort of standing around. Bay's imagination is so limited and his sense of escalation is so nonexistent that although your rational mind can see how elaborate the effects are, they're just not all that exciting to watch.

    And that's completely ignoring the weak-ass story. I actually agree with you that a great (or at least, a really fun) action film doesn't need a great story, it just needs mind-blowing spectacle. I mean, STONE COLD, right? I love the shit out of DIE HARD 2 and will fiercely defend it as an awesome movie but would never ever describe it as anything other than a muddled rehash of DIE HARD (1). But it delivers the crazy function setpieces the way only a mad Fin could. Harlin is genuinely crazy risk-taker. Michael Bay is just loud. There's a ton of spectacle in TRANS 3 but a almost negligable amount of it is in any way mind-blowing (that's why I think the elephants metaphor works). It's undeniably big and expensive but its very seldom exciting.

    I should note, I'm not saying this as a matter or snobbery or professional pride. I can't say I honestly went into this thing thinking I would like it, but if it had worked for me I would have admitted it. I always sort of want Bay's films to win me over; whatever you may say about them there's not a lot of people making this kind of film right now, and I'm always up for a great one of these. Fuck, I think INDEPENDENCE DAY is a pretty great one. It's dumb as as stoned hamster, but it has some stunning setpieces, colorful and ingratiating characters, and a perfect ever-building rhythm to it. There's a few sour notes, but as stupid as Emmerich is he knows how to stage an action sequence to make it seem exciting and impressive. Bay just doesn't seem to know how to do that, and its the only thing he's selling. He spent more money, but even though you can see the cash in almost every shot it just has less impact.