‘Transformers’ is a fanboy’s wet dream
For fanboys who like feature films to be expanded video games, Transformers may be the best franchise of all. It grew out of a toy line by the same name. The forerunner was Nelson Shin’s 1986 Japanese anime-style film, Transformers: The Movie. The first human-plus-mechanical critters iteration came in 2007, followed by one in 2009, badly reviewed, but a commercial success. Now in 2011 comes the third in the Michael Bay-Spielberg-produced-Shia LaBoeuf series. For the third time Shia LaBeouf is Sam Witwicky, originally a teenager, now an uemployed college graduate, still involved in a war between the heroic Autobots and the evil Decepticons, two factions of alien robots who can disguise themselves by transforming into everyday machinery. The Decepticons aim to take over the earth by turning machines into their own army, and Autobots fight that effort, helped by Sam Witwicky and whoever joins up with him, including John Turturro again and this time Frances McDormand as a stuffy CIA operative.
Transformers is a franchise in the true sense of the word: a line of multiple products related by a common theme and appealing to a certain market. In its 26-year history, the franchise has expanded to encompass comic books, animation, video games and films. There is a TV series, a Marvel Comics series (Marvel dominates the summer blockbuster world). There have been various toy lines, each with its own TV shows and movies growing out of the shows. It’s a unified fantasy world, unified but multifarious.
In most of the comic book blockbuster movies, the Supermans and Spider Mans and Iron Mans and Captain Marvels and Green Lanterns, all make heavy use of computer-generated imagery (CGI), as do apocalyptic celluloid visions like Roland Emmemrich’s Day After Tomorrow and 2012 and Michael Bay’s own Armageddon. None of these movies would exist without CGI. And none of them has much serous merit as a film. Why is this?
Probably because CGI, while making movies more and more glorious (if artificial) visually, continually dumbs them down by making the drama it supposedly embellishes increasingly irrelevant. CGI is not a part of a movie’s dialogue or plot but at best a riff on them — even though the best CGI blockbusters still are the ones that are well-written and well-acted. You wouldn’t want to call what Shia LaBoeuf does in the Transformers movies “acting.” You’d more likely want to call it yelling and talking fast, with a bit of crying; and as he’s recently boasted, he “owns” this series. Michael Bay doesn’t seem to care much about writing or acting (he also brought us Pearl Harbor). What Bay cares about — he has his own company to produce them — is special effects, and lots of them.
What the heck is going on in Transformers: Dark of the Moon? Silly question, for the fans. They know. They can give you every tiny detail of the action. Wikipedia’s entry begins: “In 1961, a Cybertronian spacecraft crash lands on the far side of the moon. Known as the Ark, it was the last ship to escape a Cybertron devastated by war. Piloted by Sentinel Prime, it carried ‘the Pillars,’ technology that could save the Cybertronians once and for all. On Earth, the crash of the Ark is detected by NASA, and President John F. Kennedy authorizes the mission to put a man on the moon as a cover. In 1969, Apollo 11 lands on the surface of the Moon to investigate the Ark. . .In the present day, the Autobots have forged a military alliance with the United States. . . ” and so on for 940 words. From the point of view of the non-fan, the movie makes little sense. But if you look closely it makes too much sense. It’s absolutely ridiculous, but somebody has worked out every detail. Note that the fanboy’s wet dream may not appear so if you listen to him after a viewing, because his job with any iteration of a franchise is to demonstrate his expertise by finding fault with the details.
The Sixties seem to have become fertile ground for blockbuster fantasies lately. X-Men: First Class makes liberal use of JFK footage in its coopting of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The runup to Dark of the Moon’s main action draws heavily on simulations and on TV clips of JFK, Nixon, and Walter Cronkite it its sci-fi rewriting of the Apollo 11 moon landing by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
Meanwhile Sam Witwicky is having trouble finding a job after college and is jealous of the close relations between the close relationship of his English babe gf Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) and her boss (Patrick Dempsey). Sam goes to work for John Malkovich, a well-dressed nutcase with a pearly gray wig, an object milked for a quick laugh. Dark of the Moon has plenty of humor starting out, though like so many blockbusters of its kind it ends with general mayhem, this time a solemn, protracted battle sequence involving the destruction of downtown Chicago, with Autobots and Decepticons raging while Sam and his pals rush around inside and on top of skyscrapers, one of which bends over lin the middle and hangs there, defying gravity. That’s funny, but by then the movie has become too hyperkinetic to have time to joke around any more. And, at two hours and a half, too long for all but the fans. But then they are many.
It’s hard to overestimate the gorgeousness of the cyber images in Dark of the Moon. Very often they are a glorious chaos, pleasing to the eye of anyone brought up with abstract expressionism, as the robotic creatures, whose changing back and forth from and to automobiles or other ordinary machinery is the least of their prodigies, smash into each other or into buildings or are caught in mid-transformation so that the images become marvels of colorful abstract fragmentation. And it’s all very sharp, partly because every image, a night overview of the Chicago urban cityscape, for instance, has undergone heavy computer manipulation of a kind that is skillful and bright. Are these images the plot? Do they augment the plot, or detract from it? But after all, what plot? These gigantic gadgets are arguably more soulless and hard to distinguish from each other than they were in Bay’s first two versions. All you know for sure is that they’re endlessly warring robotic monsters, with a few humans (not much use here of crowd scenes) running around trying ineffectually to influence things. Sam Witwicky has gotten a medal from President Obama (bringing things up to date). He’s foolishly brave. But does he accomplish anything? I lost track. Attempting to make sense out of the “story” here will numb your brain because however detailed it is, it’s not dramatized coherently. I wasn’t a fan of the low budget South African alien flick District 9, but compared to this, District 9 is Shakespeare. Armond White, who acutely links the swirling CGI battle sequences here with Italian futurist painting) has convincingly argued that there has been nothing as good or as richly humanistic about robots and souls since Spielberg’s 2001 A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and has underlined the sad fact that all the movies Spielberg has produced but not directed “stink.” You can’t talk about Dark of the Moon in the same breath with A.I.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon opened in the US and the UK Wednesday, June 29, 2011.
DIRECTOR: MICHAEL BAY
WRITER: ETHAN KRUGER
STARS: SHIA LABOEUF, FRANCES MCDROMAND, JOHN TURTURRO, TYRESE GIBSON, PATRICK DEMPSEY, JOHN MALKOVICH, JOSH DUHAMEL, ROSIE HUNTINGTON-WHITELEY
RUNTIME:157 MINS APPROX