Let’s get my main criticism of Transformers: Dark Of The Moon out of the way before I get into the specifics of what works and what doesn’t: WHY DID TYRESE NOT GET TO SAY BRING THE RAIN? That phrase is like the “This shit just got real” of the Transformers franchise, and its absence is sorely felt. Yes, okay, he didn’t say it in the second one, but he did write it on an Army-issue napkin or something, and that counts for a lot.
At one point in this someone says something like “shorten the threat chain” or something similar while pointing at a screen with some rapidly oscillating graphics on it. I can’t quite remember the exact wording; I was too busy being distracted by the guy on my left engaged in some top-level phone-checking, and the three folks on my right who were loudly narrating the movie to each other. “Optimus is fighting now!” Yes, thank you, I had noticed.
Perhaps that’s the most noticeable thing about Transformers 3D: Moondance. It’s the first Michael Bay Experience that contains enough pauses and/or longueurs to allow the attentive viewer to be distracted by the real world. Which is not to say the man has made a reflective piece about the human condition. Rest assured, this is still a frenetic montage of sparks, flames, smoke and mirrors. Nevertheless, shooting in 3D has slowed him down enough that even the lengthy battle in Chicago feels like a collection of discreet setpieces instead of the incoherent and exhausting examples of overkill from his previous films.
These setpieces are still narrative-light – they are all basically “We need to get from point A to point Z to accomplish goal X” – but still, this feels like progress, as does the more cautious editing and cinematography. Bay really does seem to have taken the 3D process seriously; this feels less disorientating than some other 2D movies I’ve seen in IMAX (I had no idea what was going on in Eagle Eye or Star Trek; the latter only made sense to me once I saw it on TV).
And really, IMAX 3D is the way to go if you’re going to see this. Anything less is a waste of time. As I said to someone on Twitter this week (I think it was the lovely Max Renn, who has had to put up with my paranoid pleas not to unfollow me for going on about this movie so much this week. Hello Max Renn!), this is not a movie; it’s a cacophony delivery system. Seeing it on a smaller screen takes away much of its impact, and impact is all it’s aiming for. As a result everything else is merely present for the sake of being present, and as such I honestly feel that criticising it for failing to do the things that good movies do is almost missing the point of it.
Bay isn’t here to address issues or construct finely-honed character arcs, to deliver subtle wit, quiet moments of introspection, a pleasant flow of mood and tone. He’s here to make crude neanderthal-pleasing jokes, objectify the hot ladies, cram in as much cacophonous sound and flashing imagery as possible, and to DESTROY ALL THE THINGS. This is a well-established stylistic choice on his part. A lot of people hate him for that. I get it, and I understand, though I think it’s a waste of energy. Let’s move on.
Bay really does destroy all the things in this one. Thanks to the exceptional effects work, I honestly believed that Chicago had been almost entirely torn to the ground by the end of the shoot. It’s only because I’ve communicated with Chicagoinians since it finished that I know it’s still standing. The main attraction in Transformers 3D: Moon Unit Zappa is the long final act which sees the Decepticons taking control of Chicago and repelling a valiant attack by the Autobots and – in a gratifying expansion of their roles – the human soldiers who have spent the last couple of movies ineffectually bringing the rain. In this movie, they finally bring some thunder and lightning along as well. Some of the most exciting moments of the finale involve the NEST soldiers doing cool shit like jumping out of airplanes (in an astonishing stunt that actually happened and wasn’t an effect except for the bits when they fly through burning buildings because that would be beyond even Bay).
It’s a bravura sequence, which amused me by bringing to mind the far superior 13 Assassins, which also featured a slow build-up before a huge blowout finale. Of course, Takashi Miike’s samurai epic is a modern action masterpiece made with laser-like focus, unwavering control of pace, and a real emotional and visceral charge. Transformers 3: Dark Moon Rising has none of the above. It has speaker-shaking noise and that special kind of lighting that makes everyone glow orange like over-tanned supermodels shot during the magic hour. But that’s fine, in its own way. I wouldn’t recommend TF3 to anyone, to be honest; most folks seem to have made their mind up about it, which is their prerogative. I would recommend 13 Assassins, though. You haven’t seen it yet? Get on that shit.
To be honest, I expected to have more to say about it, but I think I may have exhausted my supply of opinion about Bay in these two posts. Transformers 3D: Moonlight Shadow is probably the best of the trilogy but that doesn’t mean to say it’s a triumph or anything. It’s just the best example yet of this kind of movie, but it is riddled with the same flaws that his movies always do, above and beyond the usual complaints that critics level at him.
Surprisingly, the final third of the movie is the most stern thing he has yet done. The cheap laughs that populate the other 66% of the film dry up in order to facilitate a grinding gear change into solemnity. There are approximately four trillion shots of people rising up into the frame with a sad look on their face, debris and ash blowing in the air, Jablonsky-Strings emoting all over the place like a crying orchestra. Even for someone like myself who tries hard to take these movies seriously, this was kinda hard-going. Oh how I yearned for Bumblebee to piss all over Jon Turturro one more time.
There were other things to like, though. Without Mudflap and Skids shucking and jiving in the background, the concerned liberal can relax a little. I’ve seen some take offence at the characters played by Ken Jeong (a weird and manic scientist) and Alan Tudyk (a sexually “ambiguous” facilitator associated with Turturro), but I didn’t really see anything that bad about them. Jeong is playing the stock Jeong character, and Tudyk’s sexuality isn’t really the joke. The comedic point of him seems to be his shame at being a tough guy hacker genius; a curious joke, but one pulled off with such charm and aplomb by the great man that it’s hard to hate him.
It’s also great to see Frances McDormand here too, as one of the very few female characters in the franchise that actually gets to do anything other than point their sculpted behinds at the camera. John Malkovich is in high energy mode, and I’m sure his presence in such a wacky role will be considered a black mark on his filmography, but he made me laugh, so job done. Who knows what these beloved thespians thought when they signed up for this, but they give their all, like the professionals they are. In a way I wish Bay could go back in time and hire Laurence Olivier to be in one of his movies. Olivier would have jumped at the chance; people forget some of the shit he turned up in. It can be argued that Bay’s habit of employing Oscar-nominated actors to appear in his lowbrow epics is a cynical move, but he has money and he wants talented and recognisable performers in his films. Why wouldn’t he?
Perhaps the biggest casting surprises are Patrick Dempsey and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. Dempsey is an actor I have only ever had the most passionate dislike for; repeated viewings of Enchanted have left me almost paralysed with rage at his floppy, lustrous hair and oleaginous demeanour. These are put to great use here; the franchise badly needed a human villain (Turturro was too silly to be a bad guy in the first movie), and he manages to pull off the final act misgivings, fears and inevitable mustache-twirling resolve very well. He should stick to villains in future.
Huntington-Whiteley is not exactly a revelation, but she’s likeable, funny, and – from what I could tell by the lingering shots of her body – slightly attractive. Her character is obviously meant to be Megan Fox’s Mikaela; some of the choices she makes at the very end are obviously meant for someone who has had dealings with these robots before. Nevertheless, Huntington-Whiteley’s good-natured charm is a world away from Fox’s sullen and unconvincing efforts. It’s a nice change, and a shrewd casting move by Bay.
(I note that this week that “lovable” scamp Shia LeBeouf hinted that he managed to have conjugal relations with his former co-star Fox, saying that their close proximity and high-emotion onscreen relationship meant that there was some bleed-through into the real world. If we’re to take this bold claim at face value, there is also the assumption that because he has the same onscreen relationship with Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, that means he probably got it on with her too. I wonder what her real-life boyfriend, Jason Statham, would think about that. I trust that Mr. Statham will be having words with Mr. TheBeef in due course. Words that are delivered through the medium of his High-Kicking Action Feet.)
Other than that, what is there to say? The robots are better written than before. When some of them die there is finally a sense that something other than a swirling congregation of pixels has met his maker. I particularly liked Megatron’s new look; wearing a hood of tattered cloth and held together with chains after the events of the second movie. Optimus Prime and Sentinel Prime have a mildly diverting back-and-forth throughout. In terms of the Transformers franchise, this is as close as we’re going to get to an actual relationship between two people, though inevitably it ends up being about explosions and rain-bringing. There’s also a line delivered by Leonard Nimoy (as Sentinel Prime) that will likely make Star Trek fans vow to hunt down and kill Bay and screenwriter Ehren Kruger. I suggest they avoid Comic-Con for the next twenty years.
Basically, what I’m trying to say is that I didn’t think it was a very good film but I did think it was quite a good fairground ride, and as I quite enjoy fairground rides and don’t feel cheated when they don’t have a complex and resonant narrative, this feels like a win to me. Perhaps it helps that I watched Green Lantern earlier this week; a truly execrable movie that failed at doing just about everything that Transformers 3 failed at doing but didn’t have any of the fun stuff to make up for it. So yeah, “Transformers 3: better than Green Lantern just by being more confident, which is all you can hope for, I guess.” And that, my friends, is the poster quote.