After the second film – which star Shia LaBeouf and director Michael Bay have publicly apologized for -there was hope that Transformers: Dark of the Moon would settle Michael Bay down, and give him a better story to tell. Working with 3-D, his hyper-editing style wouldn’t work in the format, and there would be no “afterthought” Imax scenes. There would also be no writer’s strike, so the script could be written in a more timely and coherent fashion. And though Michael Bay does action on a scale that is unmatached in the industry, it’s pretty much the same movie, except this time on Ritalin. Find out more below…

The Players:

The Plot:

On the planet Cybertron, there’s a great mechanical whatsit that can do awesome things, but it crash-landed on the moon. Astronauts found the crash in 1960′s, but couldn’t do anything about it. Cut to now and Sam Witwicky (LaBeouf) is having trouble finding a job, though his girlfriend Carly (Huntington-Whiteley) has an awesome job – but with an obviously evil boss (Demsey) – and an impossibly expensive flat. The Bad guys (the Decepticons) are up to no good, and trick the Autobots into waking up Sentinel Prime (voiced by Leonard Nimoy), who’s the only person who can power the great whatsit, which can be used for great good or evil or something. This leads to a virtually hour-long assault on Chicago.

The Michael Bay Paradox:

Everything that is good about this movie – other than the great action beats in the final act – is also everything that’s wrong with the film. The film starts – after its prologue – with Sam looking for a job. At the end of the film – in a movie with a coherent screenplay – the journey would be that Sam officially gets a job working with the Autobots as an ambassador or some such nonsense. Instead, the movie ends when the big fight is over and then adds some narration from Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen). I should note that because so much of what Prime says is stuff like “on our world there was a great war, a war that raged for decades. Autobots fought valiantly, and used all the strength they had, but there seemed to be no hope… until they found a thing. A thing that could change the course of our destiny. A thing… that was lost.” eventually my ears glazed over. Anyway, if this movie was about its human protagonist, him getting a job would be the hook to hang the movie on. And such invokes the paradox – these movies aren’t really about the humans, so is it smart to not care at the end of day? And how much should we care about humans in a story that features cars that turn into robots? Bay doesn’t actively view his narrative with contempt, but he seems to care less about it than he does what interests him: Cars, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley’s body, and destruction.

Michael Bay is one of the great action directors when he puts his mind to it, and when he has the tools the man can craft the hell out of a sequence. The parts where guys wearing wingsuits jump out of crashing helicopters and fly around downtown Chicago is insane, so is the sequence where the main characters are in a building that’s collapsing. These aren’t “wow, cool digital effects” moments, they are “What? That’s awesome!” moments. In another time, Michael Bay would be the go-to second unit director (it wasn’t until Spielberg changed the game that most action sequences were not left mostly to the second unit, though historically, it feels like The French Connection and The Wild Bunch started that trend). Bay would be a great 2nd unit guy also because he obviously has no feel for actors, and his sense of humor is based around loudness. Transformers 3 – like so much of the big summer movies we get these days – is filled with a number of great ingredients that are all half-cooked. And it’s not that Bay gets a bad performance out of someone like John Malkovich or Ken Jeong (painful in his five minute cameo), it’s that he doesn’t want performances so much as a collection of affectations.

Bay has directed nine films – with more than half costing over a hundred million dollars – so you have to wonder how intentional this is. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was attacked for being incoherent, racist and pretty much terrible, and if this is his apology, he still has almost all of the same problems, it’s just not as aggressive in the presentation. It seems that Bay works best when he has a strong producer behind him (Read: Jerry Bruckheimer), and it seems Steven Spielberg was more hands on with the first film than the sequels (though he supposedly gave Bay the opening sequence idea, something that he squanders). Again, Bay is either a savant, or this is intentional. But the whole film is filled with scenes like one that happens in the middle of the movie: Sam and his girlfriend head to see the Autobots, but the guards won’t let him in. Everyone starts yelling, and the guards destroy his car because he doesn’t have proper clearance. Then, after the yelling stops, Sam and his girlfriend are let in and told things that are supposedly the most top secret secrets in the history of tops and secrets. Sam and his girlfriend. What was the point of the yelling scene? If bad writing is including needless words, there’s easily a good thirty minutes to an hour that could be cut from the first ninety minutes, and you would never know they were gone. Perhaps this is Bay’s way of winking at the audience, or expressing his contempt for the material. But at this point, it’s fair to say this is the Michael Bay touch.

Oh, another example: in a good screenplay, the humans have one rocket which can supposedly take out the great whatsit, and climb the building to use it. But then they never use it while in the building and never use it, period. It’s like it got forgotten by the filmmakers. Why do they set up the rocket if they never use it as it is intended to be used? Basically it’s the excuse to get them into the collapsing building. The problem is that it’s a great sequence, but the connective tissue is made moot.

The Good:

  • The 3-D: This is probably the only film this year where seeing it in 3-D may make it a better experience, and Bay has fun with this stuff. And when the soldiers are flying around Chicago in their wingsuits it looks great.
  • The Final Action Set Piece: There are things in it that are so out of hand that it’s fair to say you’ve never seen anything like it before.

The Bad:

The Humans: Alan Tudykis the rare performer in this film that is actually winning, but even there he’s playing a gay-ish German guy. Franes McDormand – who enters the film delivering some of the most on the nose exposition in cinema history – and Johns Turturro and Malkovich get to run around and yell a lot. They are all excellent performers, but… this? Shia LaBeouf is either bored or obnoxious, and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley is so ogled by the camera that it turns the audience into leches. I wouldn’t say she’s good or bad in the film, so much as there to be looked at. That said, Megan Fox deserves more credit for making a character out of the same shtick.

Bay’s appropriation of National Tragedies: Michael Bay turned the bombing of Pearl Harbor into an action set piece, so his sensitivity to tragedy is virtually nil, but there’s a sequence that recalls the Challenger disaster that is simply tasteless. I was worried the same would be said of the collapsing building set piece, but that’s so well choreographed that it does evoke the same sort of contempt.

The Comedy: Bay’s sense of humor has long been that of a twelve year old boy who is uncomfortable with his sexuality and is proudly xenophobic. The bits with Ken Jeong are much shorter than the roommate/sidekick in the last film, but are just as painful to watch.

The Screenplay: There’s a number of great lines in the film MacGruber, but one of the best is when Ryan Phillipe says to the main character “I’ve learned a lot from you, mostly what not to do, but…” This screenplay should be taught as an example of how not to do things. There is no sense of build in the film, and there’s often a sense that the plot is just an excuse to get to the next scene – which often leads nowhere interesting. This – much like The Phantom Menace - is filled with so much “cart before the horse” business.

Overall:

I can’t recommend the good in this film (which is really, really good) over the bad, because this film is Hollywood throwing everything they’ve got at it, except at the things that normally make a movie good. Pace, characters, empathy, plot, etc. Though there are a number of schlocky films that deserve praise for exceptional stunts, and good sequences in the midst of bad performances and technical limitations, those films are not usually made with this sort of money. Alas, in a summer of misfires, and half and half’s, this is the one that really delivers the big budget spectacle that they got close to in films like Thor and The Green Lantern. One wishes there was a compelling story to go along with it.

Rating: 4.5/10

Transformers: Dark of the Moon is in theaters now.

Gallery:

Trailer:

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