Sunday, July 24, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon


After the ill-advised detour into avant-garde abstraction that was Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Michael Bay has decided to return to what he knows: guns, cars, and the poetry of the female form in its more malnourished state. Cobbler, stick to thy last.

The early scenes in Transformers: Dark of the Moon even resemble something almost like entertainment. Bay begins his latest trip to the toy box with a zippy burlesque of the space race, suggesting that America travelled to the moon to explore a crashed Autobot ship containing a wizened robot called Sentinel Prime, as well as some sort of spacebridge that could bring about the end of the world (as per usual). It’s still fairly stupid, mind you, but there’s a certain charm to this children’s matinee version of conspiracy theory paranoia. If nothing else, it’s a welcome break from the more tedious garden-variety stupidity that otherwise characterizes these films. Still, a familiar sinking feeling sets in by the time Optimus Prime, our hero, is saluted by Buzz Aldrin, appearing here in a cameo that suggests the astronaut pension plan must be in a pretty lousy state these days. Yes, it’s time for another two-plus hour epic of explosions interrupted only by broad, failed swipes at comedy and sonorous military speeches from a kid’s toy. Brace yourselves.

The cast is sadly more or less the same as previous films, once again headed up by eternally shrieking man-child Shia LaBeouf as Sam Witwicky. He’s supported by the usual mix of generic second-rate action heroes (Josh Duhammel, Tyrese Gibson) and slumming character actors most likely looking for a bit of street-cred with their teenage offspring (Frances McDormand, Johns Turturro and Malkovich). The one exception is Megan Fox, who was kicked out of the party during one of Herr Bay’s purges and whose career now bears the tragic distinction of having peaked with the second Transformers movie.

However, model Rosie Huntington-Whitely, making her first acting performance here as Fox’s replacement, unfailingly performs the function of an archetypal Michael Bay heroine, which is to say she’s capable of running through a war zone in four-inch heels. To her credit (or perhaps to everyone else’s demerit), she’s no discernibly better or worse than any of the experienced actors that surround her. Presumably, she also did not sass Bay whenever he would film her butt, so I guess we should applaud her professionalism or whatever you want to call it.

So: objectified women? Check. Anthropomorphic objects? Check. Human beings? Um…better start digging, because if there are any, they’re probably buried under several tonnes of CGI rubble and the air is getting thin. One of the more surreal qualities of a Michael Bay film is the way he injects bursts of emotion—explosions of sentimentality as random and jarring as the more traditional pyrotechnics—into an environment completely hostile to all human feeling. Aside from the expected dull inspirational speeches (“You may lose faith in us, but never in yourselves.” Uh, what?), this also means you’ll be routinely baffled by why any of these people should care about each other.

One particularly confusing instance comes with the random reappearance of Epps (Gibson), a minor, undeveloped character from the previous film that apparently has some sort of deep bond with Sam. Did they even talk in the last movie? Was all the male bonding implied? Did I just miss it? Was it somewhere behind the explosions, where we couldn’t see it? I started to wonder if the two actors were maybe confusing off-camera camaraderie with the on-screen relationship between their characters. I’m sure there must have been plenty of bonding time during the last movie while they waited at the craft service table as Bay tried to explain to Megan Fox the correct way to arch her back. Otherwise, I can’t see why the pair should be acting like old friends.

It’s a small sin, I suppose. None of this makes much sense, although the movie is clearly more coherent than its predecessor, even with its disjointed editing and countless useless little scenes that come from—and quickly return to—nowhere. But the core of the film is still pure incomprehensible gibberish, a mass of sci-fi clich├ęs welded together with discarded auto parts. Apparently the Decepticons want to enslave the human race. I see several noteworthy flaws in the logic of the magical evil spacebots. Allow me to elucidate. First, they spend an inordinate amount of time vapourizing their coveted labour resource, which is never good business. Second, why would a race of giant, super-powerful robots with technology advanced far beyond ours need the primitive, puny, comparably weaker human race as slaves? Based purely on a size-ratio comparison alone, this is akin to humans enslaving mice. Now, I imagine with a bit of fortitude and ingenuity and maybe a few decades of work you could train a giant slave army of mice to, say, clean your toilet. Or you could simply do it yourself, which would take about one minute, or a little longer if you need to let it soak. What I’m saying is, just how lazy are these Decepticons? And exactly how credulous do we have to be to enjoy this nonsense?

But perhaps I’m being unfair. For all his notable failings here, Bay has actually shown marked improvement over Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Certainly, this movie is much less racist than its predecessor. The rather unfortunate robotic minstrel sideshow in the previous movie has given way to broader, more socially acceptable—if no less annoying—forms of comic relief. On the other hand, progress is a relative thing, considering this movie still refers to the Middle East as if it were a single country (you know, it’s the one filled with all the swarthy people who hate FREEDOM). And Bay seems to be working towards a clumsy form of narrative economy—perhaps intended to combat the bloated two and a half hour running time—by simply having minor characters say, “We’re dead,” thus sparing us the obligatory slow-motion tornado of junkyard scrap as they actually die.

What can I say? In something as regressive as this movie, you take your signs of progress where you can. Everything that happens feels like a salve for the wounded ego of an entitled post-adolescent male, here represented by Sam. Sure, he’s an unemployed, self-pitying schlub, but he deserves everything and more: the supermodel girlfriend with an inexplicably huge house, the best car, the respect and admiration of the entire world, you name it (see, Sam saved the world twice, and now he has to work an entry-level job right out of college, oh the humanity). When the Decepticons are about to execute Bumblebee, Sam’s Autobot buddy, the film displays what might be its one genuine flicker of emotion. How sad to think it comes when someone is faced with the prospect of losing his first car.

Are we seriously supposed to be moved by the petty insecurities of the privileged and the powerful? Look, I know everyone has their problems, and I don’t want to disparage the emotional suffering of anyone. But it’s hard to feel much empathy when it all comes couched in the crass objectification of women, tinged with homophobia—I didn’t even mention the mincing gay superspy—and filtered through a generally narrow-minded, hateful worldview (see previous paragraphs for the assembled evidence). Still, with a total of over $800 million in worldwide box office so far, Transformers: Dark of the Moon seems to be providing some kind of comfort for countless poor, suffering souls out there. Perhaps all they need is a kind voice to reassure them that they, like Sam, are indeed special and wonderful. And also, apparently, that Arabs are evil, homosexuals are gross, and women are fuck-holes. Sentinel Prime—thoughtful fellow, he—sums up the situation quite well: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” And then he blows up Chicago.

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