Dir: Michael Bay
Transformers: Dark of the Moon is not the worst film of the year, but that's not to say that is either any good at all or very much better than the excrementally awful - and now universally shunned, even by its makers - Revenge of the Fallen. Dark of the Moon is still rampagingly idiotic, and yet incredibly difficult to follow; absolutely jam packed with action, and yet unendingly boring; peopled with some of the best actors working today, and yet showcasing some of the worst acting this side of porn and, let's not forget, it also remains jingoistic, misogynistic, leery, borderline racist and more car advert than film. The only thing I can say in its favour is that Sucker Punch was worse.
With films like Dark of the Moon, and filmmakers like Michael Bay, it really is difficult to know where to begin, everything is so terrible, what do you start with? Well, let's start with the disappointment. Unlike its immediate predecessor, this film at least has an interesting idea as a starting point (even if the holes in the logic are roughly the size of a small planet), positing the idea that the Apollo moon missions were embarked upon to investigate an event (an Autobot ship crashing, carrying Autobot leader Sentinel Prime) on the Moon. Unfortunately the film fails to do anything with this idea (other than give Buzz Aldrin a cameo that manages to be cringemakingly fawning and utterly embarrassing all at once) aside from use it as a jumping off point for yet another unnecessarily convoluted, overpopulated, and mind-bogglingly overlong (157 minutes, yes really!) mess of excruciating 'character based' comedy and grey pixels colliding with more grey pixels, but NOW IN 3D!!! OMG!!!
There is hope for this film for about fifteen minutes, but then we get off the moon and are introduced to Sam Witwicky's new girlfriend (played, though I used that term in the loosest sense possible, by Victoria's Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley). Well, I say we're introduced to her, to be more accurate we're introduced to her lovely heart shaped arse. This is where it begins, this is where Michael Bay's signature style and obsessions hole the movie below the water line and it starts to sink. It's also where the film's more objectionable themes begin to raise their ugly heads, starting with the inherent misogyny of the way Sam's new girlfriend; Carly, is portrayed. Shia LaBeouf apparently suggested, when it became clear that Megan Fox was to escape Dark of the Moon, that Sam's new girlfriend be a bookish type, Bay apparently laughed this off, and he's gone for a pneumatic airhead with lips that look like they were drawn by a comic book artist doing too much coke. Carly, like Fox's Mikkela before her, has no discernible personality - 'is British and tall' is probably what the casting notice said - and has been written with the brain capacity of a mildly retarded koala, and exists for no other reason than to be regularly imperilled, and lusted after by the film's human antagonist (Carly's boss, played by the ever slimy Patrick Dempsey). Making matters worse for Carly is Rosie Huntington-Whiteley's shocking acting debut. It would be no exaggeration to say that her performance makes Megan Fox's robotic turns in the first two films look like the work of a talented and subtle actress on the level of a young Sissy Spacek (my sincere apologies to her for mentioning her name in connection with this horseshit). I suspect that when this film comes to Blu Ray we will see a new internet meme born, revolving around fitting many and varied disturbing events to Bay's big hero shot of Huntington-Whiteley, in which she gazes at the devastation of downtown Chicago with an expression of utterly pure vacancy.
The awful performances present a major problem for the film (and the series as a whole); Bay clearly wants to indulge in big themes and ideas here, in operatic notes of drama in the relationships between Sam and the Autobots, and in high stakes, world destroying, action. The thing is that to make that work you need to have characters you can become interested in. Shia La Beouf does nothing to help matters in this respect, giving a sleepy performance that smacks of contractual obligation and exhibiting less chemistry and sexual tension Huntington-Whiteley than with Bumblebee.
If you want to see how Dark of the Moon should work, how it should draw plot, performance and emotion together, Terminator 2 is a great example; the fate of the world boiled down to, essentially, a four character chase movie, with a kid, a mother, and a surrogate father at its centre. Dark of the Moon boasts nothing so effective, or affecting. Writer Ehren Kruger gives us a shrill collection of characters who largely show up for ten minutes each to wail high pitched exposition at each other, indulge in some misplaced and desperately unfunny comedy, and then be completely forgotten about.
It is hard to blame Rosie Huntington-Whiteley for her performance; after all in her day job she's a clothes hanger with lips, and it's not as if Michael Bay has a track record of drawing standout performances from inexperienced actors (or any actors for that matter), but when it comes to the supporting players... them it's worth getting upset about. Okay, so John Turturro's whored himself to this series to fund directorial work, I don't like it, but I'll live with it, but what's John Malkovich doing here? (a question applicable at both conceptual and performance levels by the way, he's abysmal as Sam's boss) and what, for the love of all things holy, is Frances McDormand doing playing the new government official in charge of the Autobots? It's cringemaking, watching her mug her way through scenes, all the while knowing how much more she's capable of. 'Knowing how much more they're capable of' can't be said for Patrick Dempsey or Ken Jeong, who thankfully remains clothed here, but is otherwise just as irksome and as catastrophically unamusing as ever, but that hardly makes up for their respectively wooden and screeching performances.
The use of historical events as plot points isn't an uninteresting idea, but it's poorly and sometimes - as with a reference to Chernobyl - outright insultingly employed, would that this were the only deeply uncomfortable thing in the screenplay. The misogyny is evident in both the writing of Carly's character and in Bay's direction (arse-centric) and, while it is seldom out and out racist in the way that Revenge of the Fallen was, the broad regional and national stereotypes doled out in place of character to the minor transformers is uncomfortable throughout, and occasionally offensive, and I continued to find the jingoistic and militaristic tone (now augmented by more graphic violence and quite a lot of swearing for a 12A, though it does - just - stop short of using the F word) depressing.
Over three films and - oh Jesus - SEVEN AND A HALF HOURS you would be forgiven for expecting the series' main characters to grow and change. Guess what? Optimus Prime remains nothing more than the impossibly noble leader, Sam's personal Autobot Bumblebee still exists as little more than a joke about his using radio samples to speak and Megatron (sidelined again) is still no more than a one dimensional evil bastard. There's nothing here; no motivation, no depth, not interest, just grey pixels slicing each other up.
And so we must come to what has been, relatively speaking, the acclaimed section of this film; the hour long destruction of Chicago. First of all, the borderline offensive imagery continues here, as Bay lingers on images of smoking skyscrapers, and even has flying machines crash into them, in what feels like a very crass exploitation of the imagery of 9/11, but almost more troubling is the sheer tedium of the whole exercise. It's an hour long, and it feels endless. There is little sense of structure to it, only a vague notion of destroying the film's deus ex machina (pillars this time) and while 3D means that Bay's cutting isn't quite as brutal this time out he still completely fumbles any sense of spatial relationships and parallel action. It often fails to feel like the various mini battles we are following are even remotely related to each other, and there is little sense of strategy or common purpose. Also leaving a nasty taste in the mouth in this sequence is the upping of the graphic nature of the violence. Now, when they are injured, the transformers leak fluid, which looks a great deal like blood, and one very nasty shot towards the end of the film shows one robot with his head blown open and his 'brain' on full display. I understand that it's fantasy, but the reality is that five year olds are going to be taken to this film, and its graphic violence will likely be very upsetting for them.
At a purely technical level I have to concede that the film is well rendered; the 3D is crisp and, thanks to the film taking place largely in daylight, not overly dark and the effects are flawlessly realised down to the last rivet on the tiniest (and incidentally most irksome) transformers. This is not to say that the film looks good, because it doesn't. The thing that was so appealing about the classic Transformers toys was their simplicity; the clean design and the easy way they changed from one form to another, Bay has never understood this. The CG models may be technical wonders, but their over busy appearance and dull colours make them a real pain to look at, and, more importantly, a challenge to tell apart. This is as prevalent as ever in the Chicago battle, with only the fight between Optimus and the film's chief villain even coming close to being something you can following an ongoing fight narrative in. The rest of the time the action remains a confusing mass of indistinguishable grey things punching each other. I had no idea, most of the time, which I was supposed to be rooting for, and even if I had, I didn't care.
Michael Bay is, on the evidence of everything he's made since the ridiculously entertaining The Rock, not a director, he's a technician. That's fine, he's a competent technician, he understands how to implement effects, what he lacks, and what he desperately needs to find, is the ability to tell a story. His films tend to play like they have been edited by an angry and over-caffinated Freddy Kruger and, despite basic stories a five year old could grasp (here 'robots punch each other') be crowded with too many characters, too much background, and drown in their own indulgence. The defence of Bay's films tends to be that they aren't meant to be anything more than entertainment. Okay, I'd argue, but let's accept that premise, there is one essential problem... I had more fun the last time I had root canal than I had watching Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Bay's aim is not the problem, his catastrophic lack of achievement is.
Ultimately, Dark of the Moon isn't quite as bad as it might have been, it's better than Revenge of the Fallen, and certainly it's better than Sucker Punch, but it remains an embarrassment to cinema, and hopefully will, in future, be as thoroughly reviled as its predecessor.