Monday, July 18, 2011

TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON - Wake Up and Smell the Mediocrity!


- The third TRANSFORMERS movie is yet another piece of braindead, lowest-common-denominator garbage from the team that brought you the first two movies in the franchise. And yet, here we are, and the movie is a HUGE performer at the box-office, an unstoppable juggernaut of Summer 2011. And part of me, well, I get it. The TRANSFORMERS films promise spectacle, mayhem, and action on an epic scale - giant robot vs. robot battles, mass destruction, cosmic warfare the likes of which few other movie series can deliver. But that's what kills me about these movies. The promise of epic robotic action is near-irresistible to anyone still in touch with their inner twelve-year-old. And yet, as simple a task as these movies have before them, they repeatedly fail to deliver anything resembling a cohesive, entertaining action-adventure. They are dumb-as-#$%&, with plotlines that seriously make those of the 80's cartoons feel like Shakespeare in comparison. The action is incomprehensible - awesome in ten-second bursts, but failing to add up to anything of substance, even in the most basic sense. The characters - I could care less about. Rarely has there been a more useless, unlikable action-hero than Shia LeBeouf's Sam Witwicky. I think the first film got a pass if only because the spectacle of it was so great. The second film upped the pyrotechnics but somehow made the story and characters even more gag-worthy than the first movie. The third movie is probably somewhere between the first and third on the craptasticometer, but at this point, the spectacle and he novelty has 90% worn off. We've seen Avatar, District 9, Inception, Dark Knight, Thor, X:Men First Class, Tron Legacy, and many other big action blockbusters that have some intelligence, some imagination, some artistic merit at their core. These movies and countless others make Transformers: Dark of the Moon look like $#&% in comparison. Oh, let me count the ways ...

The Action Editing Is Once Again Awful. Like I said, the action is cool-as-hell in ten second bursts. Cool - paratroopers! Cool - Optimus Prime! Wait - what the hell just happened?! There's no flow, no storytelling to the action. And that's sad in a movie produced (why, Steven, why?) by Steven Spielberg, who is the master of great action set-pieces in movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park. In those movies, every action scene masterfully tells a story. In TF3, there's once again the feeling of - okay, what the hell is happening? I will say, there is a pretty good scene of Shia and co. trying to escape a collapsing building. This scene might be one of the best in any of the Transformers flicks for sheer scale and bombasity. But here's the thing - director Michael Bay can never just focus on ONE thing. Every action set piece involves two or more likely three different sequences intercut. So every action scene feels like it takes FOREVER to advance, because we see the action unfold for a few seconds, then CUT to somewhere / someone else, then to a third person or place, then BACK. It's MTV-style editing on crack, but it completely zaps even the most ambitious action sequences of all forward momentum and immersiveness. And yes, there are the usual random scenes of jets taking off, military guys in bunkers, etc. that are now in EVERY Michael Bay movie.

The Cool Robot Stuff Is Overshadowed By Other Crap. Why do we like Transformers? It's because of the giant robots! Seriously, the single best thing about this movie is Peter Cullen's Optimus Prime voice - as always, it freaking rules. But Optimus Prime is never given time to be a real character. Neither is Megatron or, in this movie, new character Sentinel Prime, given any time to really make an impact. Why? Because this series insists on constantly cutting away from the robots to give us Shia's sitcom-within-the-movie. And this isn't GOOD sitcom. It's bad. Very bad. Okay, the CW-ish stuff here isn't quite as nauseating as in Part II, but man, it's close. Not only do we have to deal again with Sam's super-annoying parents, but we have to endure his epic-fail "romance" with supermodel Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. There is no chemistry between these two, and you'll spend most of the movie wondering what pact Sam Witwicky made with the devil that he goes from Megan Fox to this girl. And look, I get that she's there to be eye-candy, but the character is TOTALLY useless. A non-character. But even though she is a black hole of suck, the movie still wants to give her big moments with Sam that come off as totally unearned. I mean, how hard is it in a movie like this to create a decent female character who is spunky and likable and has some personality? Whiteley's inclusion just makes Sam seem like even more of an unlikable douche. She's hot, sure, but is this really the girl that Sam will go to the ends of the earth for? Okay, on a certain level it makes sense, but on another level, you really wouldn't mind seeing either Sam or his girlfriend caught in some Decepticon crossfire.

The Movie Has No Idea Who It's For. And you know, this does kind of annoy me. I mean, this is a Transformers movie. It should be appropriate for kids. And yet it has gross-out humor courtesy of an annoying-as-hell and totally useless Ken Jeong. It has characters calling each other "gaylord" as if that's supposed to be funny. It has Whitely shot like she's in a Maxim shoot. And it has Sam's mom hand him a book on relationships called "She Comes First." And it's supposed to be cute and funny. This is also a movie that has a yellow car named Bumblebee that transforms into a robot. WTF. I get that the movie is trying to appeal to teens and twenty-somethings first and kids second, but the whole thing leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Again, if Spielberg wasn't attached as a producer I'd say he'd be rolling in his grave at the sort of stuff that passes for "humor" in these movies. This is the guy that made E.T. - and though this two is the story of a boy and hsi weird alien friends, this is no E.T. - that's for sure.

Terrible Characters and Worse Characterization. I've talked about how unlikable Shia is. How much of a blackhole Whiteley is. But even the characters in the film that had a decent shot of being cool pretty much suck. Those who saw the last movie know the pain of watching the great John Turturro stumble through awful dialogue as he tries to maintain some shred of dignity. Now, he is joined by the similarly great Frances McDormand, playing a hard-assed military officer. Add the Coen Bros. to the list of those rolling in their graves after seeing this movie, and particularly the bare-bones, non-character played by McDormand. And by the way, I was talking above about how the movie dilutes the main story with al sorts of useless crap. Well, there is a WHOLE subplot - one that goes nowhere, mind you - with John Malkovich as Sam's new, slightly-crazy (it's Malkovich, what do you expect), OCD boss.There is a war of robots going on, but according to Michael Bay we must spend half an hour learning how Malkovich has an eccentric management style in his office. The list of actors (and in turn, their characters) who are totally useless in this movie is nearly endless. Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, Alan Tudyk, Patrick Dempsey, Andy Daly, the guy who played Aaron by-god Pierce on 24 - all wasted, all useless. Oy. And ... worst of all ... even the robot characters are pretty blah. Isn't Megatron supposed to be the huge, Big Bad of this series? This movie mostly leaves him off to the side, but then suddenly puts him into play towards the end of the film. Problem is ... I honestly have no idea what his deal is. Is he just super-evil? A conquerer? I know, he's just an evil robot leader, but give me SOMETHING. Give any of these characters an arc, a story, a personality. Peter Cullen's awesome Optimus voice can only do so much. Hugo Weaving is Megatron LEONARD NIMOY is Sentinel Prime. Do either have a single memorable line of dialogue, a single snappy one-liner? Nope, nada. At one point, a good-guy robot kicks some ass and then, randomly, says "class dismissed!" WHAT? That is emblematic of the level that this movie operates on. Class dismissed - no setup, no context, not a punchline to a joke, nothing. That's the snappiest thing the script could come up with. Kill me now.

Here is what is good about Transformers: Dark of the Moon ...

a.) Peter Cullen's voice as Optimus Prime.

b.) Leonard Nimoy!

c.) The 3D is actually really well done - it makes a HUGE difference that the movie was shot in 3D, and there is a great, immersive sense of depth to the visuals that is legitimately cool.

d.) There is a cameo from Buzz Aldrin that is pretty badass.

e.) The opening five-to-ten minutes of the film, that focuses on the backstory of Sentinel Prime, is admittedly pretty damn sweet.

f.) That sequence where Shia and a bunch of soldiers are trapped in a collapsing skyscraper is pretty epic.

g.) and ... that's about it.

- It's funny, because as I was typing this, I overheard someone talking about how they enjoyed this movie and that people "expected too much" of it. I disagree. Whatever the genre of movie, there are ways to do that genre well, and ways to screw it up. A great action movie doesn't need the kind of story that a great period drama needs to work, but it needs the *right* story to serve the story and drive the action. And the action, well, it needs to be well-shot, well-edited, and it needs to get the audence invested in its outcome. Even as someone who has a degree of nostalgia for the old Transformers cartoons and action figures, I watched this movie and barely cared about any of its characters, wasn't invested in the story, and only became immersed in the action for about ten seconds at a time. Maybe the world has gotten so ADD that this has now become acceptable. Maybe people are so happy to, literally, shut off their brains, that they are content to be eased into a near-comatose stupor by a constant barrage of audio-visual attack. Maybe being stimulated is all that matters - as long as things are happening, and happening fast, then that, for many, is fine, is fun, is entertainment. But I'm sorry, I demand some sort of aesthetic merit. Earlier this year, I argues that Sucker Punch was an unfairly dismissed movie. It was less about story and more about image, but its action and imagery was artful, imaginative, and evocative. Transformers is just static, just noise. It's Idiocracy come true. And look - I enjoy moments of the movie. I love big action in general. I love giant robots. I love the basic concepts and the imagination that brought this concept to life way back in a magical time known as the 80's. But that spark of imagination has been left to die on the altar of lowest-common-denominator, where movies aren't stories, aren't art, but simply an opiate-of-the-masses. Sit back, watch, shut down. Don't ponder this story, just inject it like a drug and get your geek-fix. I'm sorry, but there has to be a better way. Let's stop making excuses for crap. I know, I know, it's only Transformers. But this isn't an Ed Wood B-movie, this is a mass-market product, this is what kids love, this is the gold-standard in blockbuster movie making -- and in my opinion, a movie that makes this much money shouldn't be this mediocre. Some won't care, but I demand better from my pop-culture.

My Grade: D+

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