Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon - Michael Bay Goes Boom for 4th of July

It's almost become routine: another 4th of July, another Transformers movie. Whether this one is better than the last is hard to say. It's certainly sillier - which may be a refreshment. It's definitely bloodier, which makes it suspect for young kids. And whatever it is, it's definitely filled to the gils with stunts, destructive car-transforming robots, and the ever maturing Shia Lebeouf, who by now has the manic stuttering of his Wikwicky character down pat.

It's a few years later, Shia (I mean Sam) has had his co-star replaced by another hot-blond babe (this one English), and like all good young people he's struggling with his economic prospects and having been excluded from the Transformers team (still be led on rogue stunts by the intrepid Josh Duhamel). This time the plot is set in motion when those ever enterprising Decepticons break into Chernobyl and leave some compelling evidence for the Auto-bot team. Apparently an old, powerful prime (voiced by Leonard Nimoy) is stuck in suspended animation, frozen on the dark side of the moon, and the Decepticons just need Optimus to revive him so they can carry out their latest dastardly deed.

The rest of the plot hardly matters. What this movie really wants to do is revive old favorite characters (John Tuturo returns, kookier than ever), introduce some new ones (John Malkovich takes a humorous turn as Sam's wacked-out boss, then disappears pointlessly from the plot), tweak the culture - some references to the recession, high-finance, and terrorism, in case we forgot what decade this is - and have at it with those cars and robots.

In a film like this, I'm not sure it would help to try to develop the story any further anyway - Earth is once again in jeopardy and there are bad guys and all, just like the last time, and really, what else do you need to know? But I did find the slog through the last forty-five minutes of the film - where the city of Chicago is pounded mercilessly by an outer space robot attack - particularly insufferable. We all know that Bay is an insatiable borrower and these Transformer films assemble, really, like spare parts from other filmmaker's sci fi, but the Matrix-y air ships, Terminator urban wreckage, and War of the World vapor effects really aren't even trying to feel original. Bay's maxim seems to be quantity trumps quality as he stuffs the last act of the movie full of every stunt he can conceive of.

Individually, each of these is pretty cool: the para-trooping troops with their black wings flying about the Chicago skyline, or the toppling over building with the desperate characters trying to hang on to the sixtieth floor as they dangle over Chicago, each deliver a genuine thrill. But the effect of piling these on endlessly for so long is to numb you not only of the story but of the movie going experience. You're taken right out of the screen and start examining your nails or looking for an escape to the bathroom. It's as if he's imagined the movie right out of the theatrical experience and into the living room of a distracted family, or Best Buy showroom, where you don't really need to sit and follow anything at all, just catch a few minutes of the endlessly looping high def visual popcorn.

What's ultimately so wacky about this movie is that juxtaposition of high-low, high low. An almost surreal comic first two acts - where even Francis McDormand is directed to maniacal silliness - is followed by a third act of supreme bloody seriousness and self absorption. In between there is no modulation, just grunts, hupcaps, and metal. It almost strikes me as psychotic, and in a way, a perfect representation of the American character.

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