Monday November 21, 2011
Movie Review: Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)
Saying “Transformers 3” isn’t as bad as “Transformers 2” is like saying the cold that put you in bed for a week wasn’t as bad as the pneumonia that put you in bed for a month. You still wouldn’t want to wish either on a friend.
“Transformers” movies have dominated the box office for four years now. The first, in 2007, grossed $319 million domestic and $709 worldwide. The second grossed $402 million domestic and $836 worldwide. This one grossed $369 million domestic and $1.12 billion worldwide. It’s hard for me to type sadder numbers.
Let’s step back a moment. What are we talking about with these movies? What are they about?
They’re about mechanical creatures, some giant, some small, who can transform into any mechanical thing on Earth: semi-truck, flat-screen TV, whatever. The good ones (Autobots) want to protect Earth; the bad ones (Decepticons) want to take it over. A few people, led by everyman Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf), attempt to help the Autobots.
In each movie, Witwicky has an insanely hot girlfriend: Megan Fox in the first two movies, supermodel Rose Huntington-Whiteley in this one. It’s the unlikeliest of matches, particularly if like lightning it strikes twice, but then none of the movie is logical. The hot women are there to draw more of the teen-boy crowd, or more of the boy-man crowd, who like to look at giant robots battling and pretty women pouting. In this one, Carla (Huntington-Whiteley) first shows up, filmed from behind, wearing panties and a man’s dress shirt like in that 1980s Brut cologne commercial. (“Honey, I was just thinking about you.”) Director Michael Bay gets even less subtle in a scene where Witwicky meets Carla’s boss, Dylan Gould (Patrick Dempsey), a rich, handsome somethingorother, who will become the movie’s chief villain, in league with the Decepticons. Dylan is showing off one of his vintage automobiles to Witwicky and commenting upon its curves, which he calls sensual. In a typical scene, Dylan would look Carla up and down as he did this. That would be the asshole thing to do. Here Bay does it himself. While Dylan talks, Bay’s camera pans up Huntington-Whiteley’s body. Making Bay the asshole? Making the audience the asshole? I wish it were a comment on our loutishness but it’s just another example of our loutishness—or Bay’s. Why not an up-the-skirt shot while he’s at it? Or is he saving that for “Transformers 4”?
The giant robots are from a distant planet in a distant time, but on Earth, they’ve adopted well to not only 20th and 21st century technology (cars; flat-screen TVs) but 20th and 21st century pop culture. Some speak with British accents, some with Scottish brogues, some trash talk American-style. They know “Star Trek,” “We are Family” and “Missed it by that much.” The comic relief ones anyway. The main transformer, Optimus Prime, has a bland, stentorian voice, pronouncing the blandest of sentiments (“It is I, Optimus Prime!”) as if he were the hero of a 1950s television show, or, more to the point, a voice a kid might imagine when playing with his toys.
Because that’s what these things are: toys. Before he became a right-wing nutjob, Michael Medved wrote a book called “The Golden Turkey Awards,” in which he gave out awards, Golden Turkeys, to the worst of the worst in movie history—Worst actor, Richard Burton, for example—but my favorite Golden Turkey was for worst credit line. In an early, silent version of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” we got this credit line: “Additional dialogue by Sam Taylor.” To which Medved wondered: Additional dialogue? To Shakespeare?
I thought of this during one of “TF3”’s opening credits: “In association with Hasbro.” Hasbro. Creator of Mr. Potato Head and the Easy-Bake Oven. We’re playing with toys here. No, not even. We’re watching others, rich folks, play with toys. We’re paying money to watch rich folks create stories out of 30-year-old toys. We’ve spent nearly $3 billion on this, just in theaters, thus far.
So what’s the plot of this one? Apparently the Prime before Optimus, Sentinel Prime (voice: Leonard Nimoy), in the last days of the Autobot-Decepticon War, attempted to escape with a device that might’ve won the day for the Autobots. But he was shot down, drifted in space for a while, then crashlanded on our moon circa 1958. Just in time for the space race.
Actually, he was the reason for the space race. That’s why JFK, sneaky bastard, gave his “We choose to go to the moon in this decade” speech. We needed to beat the Russians there so Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (sneaky bastards) could explore that alien space ship and get what they could. So we did. So they did.
That’s our history-skewing backdrop. Eventually we get to Sam Witwicky, the everyman protagonist nobody cares about. He’s living in a beautiful well-lit apartment in D.C. with a supermodel girlfriend and a couple of small, comic-relief Autobots, but he’s got nothing but complaints. Three months out of college and he can’t find a job. Carla teases him about this. His comic-relief parents, when they show up, tease him about this. He doesn’t think it’s funny. “I saved the world twice and I can’t even get a job!” he says. He’s got a medal from Pres. Obama (handed to him dismissively), but no one is impressed. It’s all still top secret. Plus he can’t blame his inability to find work on the Great Recession since the “Transformers” movies are all about escapism and the Great Recession is exactly what we’re trying to escape. Might as well have Fred Astaire dance in hobo rags during the Great Depression. (“Easter Parade” was in ’48.)
Here’s a suggestion: Sam might want to temper his job-interview personality. Basically he brings his saving-the-world intensity to the job interview. He puffs up, talks big, offers nothing. It might help, too, if he could remember the name of the job interviewer. But who can blame him, right? It’s a Japanese name and those Japanese names sure are weird and funny.
Mostly, though, Sam just wants to matter again.
Hey, why doesn’t he join the military? Doesn’t he see himself a soldier? Isn’t the film’s most memorable line something Charlotte Mearing (Francis McDormand), Director of National Intelligence, tells him to get rid of him? Doesn’t she say, “You are not a soldier. You are a messenger. You've always been a messenger”? So why not show her, damnit, and become a soldier for real?
Because it would upset the balance of the movie. Everyone is a type here. Mearing’s a bureaucrat (and wrong), the soldiers are soldiers (and move heroically in slow motion), and Witwicky is the intense everyman with the hot, hot girlfriend who gets mixed up in this shit. He can’t go beyond the bounds of his narrow character any more than Optimus Prime can sing like the Pointer Sisters.
Meanwhile, an investigation at Chernobyl turns up a slithery Decepticon named Shockwave (voice: Frank Welker), which leads to the uncovering of the NASA cover-up, and the Chernobyl cover-up (also caused by Transformers), and a demand from Optimus Prime to retrieve both Sentinel Prime and the advanced Autobot technology from the moon.
Except this is all a plot by an injured Megatron (voice: Hugo Weaving), hanging out at the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro, to regain power. From this we get betrayals human (Dylan Gould) and Autobot (Sentinel Prime). Sentinel Prime then addresses the U.N., demanding that all remaining Autobots (but not Decepticons) leave Earth. Within 24 hours, Congress, cowardly as ever, succumbs to these demands and the Autobots are forced to leave. Their ship is then shot down by the Decepticons, leaving a trail of smoke reminiscent of the Challenger disaster. At which point, the Decepticons take over the world, or at least Chicago, and set up the advanced Autobot technology in order to transport their dead planet, Cybertron, into our solar system. But against all odds, Sam Witwicky and a rag-tag team of mercenaries go in, along with Special Forces, along with, eventually, the Autobots—who were never killed, who faked the launch—and eventually the good guys, who stand for freedom, beat the bad guys, who stand for tyranny, and Sam and Carla run to each other and kiss. It’s up to Optimus Prime to deliver the movie’s last thrilling lines:
In any war, there are calms between the storms. There will be days when we lose faith, days when our allies turn against us. But the day will never come that we forsake this planet and its people.
It’s toys. Sam is the boy playing with his Transformers and G.I. Joes and army men. The buildings are Legos. Carla is his sister’s Barbie. The bureaucrats are whatever: Troll dolls. And Sam makes them all fight and makes the buildings topple. He provides sound effects. Pkschuh! He provides the dialogue. Which explains a lot.
Except it’s not so innocent. There’s a sheen of adult (right-wing?) paranoia and loutishness on top of this childplay.
Question: Who do we trust in these movies? What groups or institutions?
Parents? They’re daft and comic relief.
Government? Bureaucrats are always wrong.
The U.N.? It allows villains to speak there.
Congress? It’s weak, betrays friends, and capitulates on a dime.
Presidents? JFK was a liar and Obama was dismissive.
The Apollo program? It began as a lie and it ended as a lie. Buzz Aldrin even shows up to lie to us some more. Saddest guest appearance ever.
No, it’s just one group we can trust: Soldiers. That’s it. Army men. They’re the only ones. You can even trust them with your hot, model girlfriend and they won’t look at her twice. They’re that trustworthy.
This is a worldview so infantile and paranoid it borders on the psychotic.
“Star Wars” was infantile (good vs. evil, etc.) but it was also expansive. It opened up a universe to Luke Skywalker and us. You found friends everywhere. And the force was with you.
“Transformers” is infantile but shuttered. Everyone you meet is a jerk, an ass, an idiot or in league with your enemies. You trust army men and Optimus Prime and that’s it. Because no one is with you.
And somehow this thing has grossed $3 billion worldwide.
“We were once a peaceful race of intelligent mechanical beings,” Optimus Prime tells us at the beginning of “Transformers 3.” “But then came the war.”
We were once a race of semi-intelligent human beings, I thought at the end of “Transformers 3.” But then ... But then ...