Friday, July 1, 2011

Review: Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Here's a story about the Transformers movies before we talk about Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

Imagine you ate at a McDonald's in 2007 and it gave you a terrible case of food poisoning. You held off for two years, but then decided against your better judgment to give it another shot in 2009. Food poisoning again. Now, here it is 2011, and your third trip to McDonald's doesn't result in food poisoning. Would you start telling everyone they should eat at McDonald's, just because this time you're not shitting yourself?

Michael Bay movies are McDonald's: incredibly popular, but not very good -- and usually ending in you covered in three kinds of sick. And though I'm not actually suggesting that everyone run out and see his latest, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, I will say that it's markedly better than either of the past two Transformers movies, and probably the best movie Bay has made in years. Fuck me, I actually found myself enjoying large parts of it.

Earlier this week, I wrote a "Take Two" column on the original Transformers, in which I outlined the reasons I didn't like it in 2007 and why I still hated it upon revisiting the movie in 2011. I hate the humor. I hate the fact that for a movie about giant robots fighting (which has always been the defense as to why I should lower my expectations, because fuck everyone), there's not a whole lot of giant robots fighting. I hate that there are no stakes in the movie at all. We should be amazed at the fact that not one but two races of giant robots have come to Earth, and we should cower in fear as they use our planet as a battlefield on which to engage in their lifelong war with one another. Instead, they mostly hide in the front yard of a suburban house and then slap each other around for the last 20 minutes. None of it means anything.

I won't go so far as to say that Dark of the Moon addresses all of these problems, but Bay (and screenwriter Ehren Kruger, he of Reindeer Games) do seem to at least attempt to fix some of what's been so awful about the previous two Transformers movies (because even though the accepted wisdom is that Revenge of the Fallen is horrible, the first movie gets a pass for some reason; it's the worst, and it shouldn't). It's a lot of the stuff you've already heard: the use of 3D has forced him to slow down his editing and hold shots for longer. The action makes more geographic sense, so that you at least know where you are in relation to what's on screen -- most of the time, anyway. We understand what all of the characters, both human and robot, are after, even if the way they go about getting it makes zero fucking sense much of the time. Most importantly, though, it's the first movie in a series in which the Earth is supposed to be at stake where it feels like the Earth might be at stake.

Of course, that trademark Michael Bay "humor" is still very much present, and it's as sexist and racist and horribly unfunny as ever. There's no robot balls and no one gets peed on, but there's enough homophobia and other stupid shit to sink several moments that otherwise might kind of work. It's one of Bay's biggest problems -- not only does he have no idea what's funny, but he doesn't even know where to put the bad jokes. The first hour of the movie is filled with this kind of stuff. That's fine. It's horrible, but it's not stepping on anything except my enjoyment. As the action ramps up and (in the words of Detective Marcus Burnett) shit gets real, Bay still can't stop with the awful jokes. Forget the actual content; the timing and placement is completely wrong. When the entire city of Chicago has been decimated and everyone has been killed (including me, I assume) and a ragtag band of survivors is on a suicide mission to rescue a Victoria's Secret model and stop evil robots from teleporting their home planet of Cybertron right on top of the Trump Tower, leave that tender moment alone. For starters, that's entertaining enough. I don't need a laugh on top of it. Second, the "laugh" (it's not funny) steps on any tension that's been built up. Sometimes, that's ok; Speed was pretty good about relieving tension with a joke. Bay won't even let us get tense. He's too busy making us not laugh.

There are so many more problems with Transformers: Dark of the Moon than just that. At two and a half hours, it's about 45 minutes too long. None of the characters are remotely interesting or likable or sympathetic -- least of all Shia Lebeouf's Sam Witwicky, who remains a shouty, obnoxious, shouting douchebag for the third movie in a row. I had hoped we might see the character grow up a little this time around, but no such luck. The movie still can't really think of much reason to have him around, either, though I guess "rescue his girlfriend" (played by a blonde girl in underpants who is not Megan Fox) is more purpose than he's been given in the past two films. Heavy hitters like John Malkovich, Frances McDormand and John Turturro are all brought in to collect a paycheck and afford the movie an air of respectability, but they're just as guilty of shameless mugging as Labeouf. I'm more willing to tolerate from them, but that doesn't excuse it.

We don't go to Transformers movies to be impressed with character and performances, though. We should, because the fact that we don't is yet another example of how we've collectively agreed to let the bar be lowered on what we consider entertaining, but that doesn't change the fact that we're all only in it for the spectacle. On that front, Dark of the Moon delivers more than the past two movies combined. The final hour of the movie, essentially an extended fight-and-rescue sequence in Chicago (why Chicago is never explained, but I don't care because I can see my house from here), has some incredible moments. It's not just the special effects and giant robots, either. Bay and Kruger have actually sat down and devised some set pieces designed to show us things we haven't seen in a movie before, like a an entire sequence inside a building that's falling over (because the statute of limitations has run out on avoiding explicit 9/11 imagery in our Summer blockbusters) or an aerial sequence in which a team of soldiers jump out of a plane and fly through the city in wingsuits. It's incredibly cool stuff, made even more cool by the use of IMAX and 3D -- really the only way to see the movie. I take issue with the writers who are saying this is the "best use of 3D" to date, because it still isn't better than Avatar, but it is one of the few movies for which it's worth paying the upcharge. It's the biggest, loudest, dumbest summer blockbuster you can imagine, and for the first time I sort of mean that as a compliment. You owe it to yourself to see it in all its gimmicky formats.

There is so much that's bad about Transformers: Dark of the Moon that I refuse to think about it any longer. It's not going to help the movie, and it's certainly not going to help me. But it's the first movie in the series that didn't make me hate my life ( - Patrick Bromley, F This Movie!), and I guess that should count for something. That's as far as we've sunk in talking about these films. I don't ever need to see it again, and I won't be telling any thinking people who really love movies that they should, either. But it exists, and I did see it, and there you are.

Walking out of the screening I attended, I overheard a girl in her 20s complaining to her boyfriend that "the first hour was too slow." I get that much of the action is saved for the back half of the movie, but if we're living in an age where a Transformers movie -- and this Transformers movie, no less, which actually is entertaining a lot of the time -- is no longer enough to keep the average moviegoer entertained, I can't tell you how fucked we are as a people. I don't think this girl was complaining because of the lack of characterization or the broad non-humor or the bad dialogue, either. I think she found any moment in which enormous, expensive CGI robots weren't beating the shit out of each other boring. That doesn't bode well for the future of mainstream movies. Except, of course, for Real Steel.

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