The ongoing war between the Autobots and the Decepticons has spanned several toy lines, comic books, animated series, and now, with the release of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, three feature films from director Michael Bay. The man who made a splash directing the video for Meat Loaf's "I'd do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)" seems to have done the unthinkable over the course of his cinematic career, learning the wrong lesson from the songs of Jim Steinman.
The "everything louder than everything else" philosophy is a great way to produce entertainments — but only if you keep your senses of perspective and fun. Say what you will about Bay's body of work, but perspective and fun are readily absent. I can't help but hope that some Hollywood doctor will prescribe a healthy dose of both, stat — though the systematic destruction of Chicago in the film's final, seemingly hourlong action sequence clearly provided joy for Bay, if no one else.
As hero Sam Witwicky, Shia LaBoeuf has been coasting through these films on charm, somehow remaining untainted by the festering emptiness around him. But the strain is starting to show. He runs and ducks and dodges all sorts of things, escaping from explosions and leaping to and fro, but when screenwriter Ehren Kruger (the guy who derailed Scream 3, among other crimes) makes the Back To The Future Part II mistake of assigning Sam previously unrevealed hotheaded characteristics as a way of motivating some future plot, it just sucks the life out of him. He's quick with a quip and gives it his all, but the neck veins tell the story every time. Fortunately, the notoriously loose-lipped star will likely dish the dirt in interviews in a few months, so we've got that to look forward to.
Things have evolved a little bit for women this time around. It's no longer a mandate that every woman except Sam's mother have breast implants, and one of the senior government officials dealing with the friendly Autobots is played by Frances McDormand. Unfortunately, she's played as an androgynous tight-ass who follows the book even when common-sense-bearing men are trying to help. Megan Fox is sorely missed; newcomer Rosie Huntington-Whitely has some manufactured spark to her, but she's continually objectified by everyone else in the film, and by the camera too. The only time she gets to break out of standard damsel-in-distress mode is when she uses her feminine wiles to pull a Lady Macbeth, convincing a wounded Decepticon to attack the film's Big Bad.
Periodically, the film will trot out an interesting celebrity cameo, whether for comic relief (Alan Tudyk, who has the film's only funny line and deserves a much better movie), shameful pandering to stereotypes (Ken Jeong, Hollywood's go-to man of no shame), historical credibility (Buzz Aldrin, who stops the film dead and should be utterly ashamed for dignifying the madness with the legitimacy his presence conveys), laying out some storyline in shorthand (Bill O'Reilly), or getting the wheels in motion (John Malkovich, bemused and contemptuous). But it feels like we're an hour in before anything really starts happening, and then it's an endless cycle of chase/fight/betrayal for quite a while.
When Leonard Nimoy shows up, it strikes an intriguing chord; the man spans so many fandoms (including the original animated Transformers film from 1986) and is the ultimate ambassador of science fiction. But it's no surprise, given these films' distrust of scientific innovation and any form of sociopolitical compromise, that he's the sinister betrayer behind the evil space bridge. I'm happy to see Nimoy working, but when the script calls upon him to pervert one of his finest moments in Star Trek history for the purpose of a cheap "Oh, snap!" moment, I call bullshit.
Michael Bay has learned a few things going into this latest installment. If nothing else, the studio mandate that he use 3D has reined in his hyperactive edits, and there are quite a few shots that have a remarkable kinetic power to them. The prologue, which mixes historical footage with new material and lays out an alternate history of space exploration, almost feels like the work of an artist rather than a technician. Also, the horrifying pair of "Amos 'n' Android" shuck-and-jive robot caricatures are mercifully absent (though a twosome of smaller autobots make certain that their propensity for exaggerated accents and annoyance lives on). Best of all, the second film's contempt for learning and education (all that library destruction and pyramid annihilation) is nowhere to be found. And fans of Laserbeak, the evil casette tape/condor from the old-school Transformers, will be pleased to see the beast making an appearance here as a vicious assassin responsible for a significant portion of the film's human casualties.
But for someone with several hundred million dollars worth of state-of-the-art robot to play with, Bay seems curiously focused on pulling off their faces, disarticulating them, blowing them up in countless different ways, making them bleed (yes, they're machines, but they bleed) and playing Red Dawn with them.
It's odd. This film series has giant alien robots who turn into things, but no sense of wonder whatsoever. It's shiny outside, but dead inside.
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