Monday, July 4, 2011

Transform and Roll Out

Okay, the border animations from excellent Michael Bay films was a little harder to pull off than anticipated.

The biggest culprit is not my lack of technical know-how, but more the simple fact that there is in fact no such thing as an "excellent" Michael Bay film. Ever since his feature debut in the 1995 action comedy Bad Boys, one word can sum up the totality of Bay's directorial career: Loud. His films have never been critically acclaimed; his actors have never been greatly praised; the strength of the dialogue and the depth of plot has never been his forte. He doesn't care one bit, however. When Michael Bay makes a movie, he's out to do one thing and one thing only: get people into the theaters. To that end, he packs his films with explosions, babes, more explosions, and just about anything he can to entice the under-25 male crowd, which have fueled dozens of blockbuster films over the past decade, many of which were Bay's work. Criticize his filmography all you like, but he can work less hard than your perennial award nominee and has earned more paydays than Tom Hooper will likely make in his whole career. It's not a talent thing, but a hindbrain thing. Bay knows how to tap into his natural audience and, though he may tread a few missteps (I'm looking at you, The Island), just runs with it. That brings us to Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Bay's latest and final foray into the world of the toy line that has been entrancing young boys since the 1980's.

Just another day at the offices of Platinum Dunes
Despite saving the world twice and getting a fancy medal from President Obama, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) feels unappreciated, exacerbated by his current joblessness after graduating college, being dumped by his old girlfriend and his financial dependence on his current love interest Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley). While he's trying to find his place in the world, the Autobots under the command of Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) are hard at work with their human allies, running black ops missions against the menaces of the world and biding time until the evil Decepticons inevitably reveal themselves to once again attempt world domination. This time their dastardly plan includes powerful Cybertron technology, a former NASA moon landing, and the return of former Autobot leader Sentinel Prime (Leonard Nimoy).

Okay, Tea Party: time to take back America!
I wish I could say that there was anything here that didn't feel like a typical Michael Bay production, but there's really very little separating Dark of the Moon from anything else with his name slapped on it. Story, character development and societal implications are kicked to the curb (if they were there to begin with) in deference to action, sexy imagery and silly throwaway humor, all staples of Bay's work. The plot is thin and practically hanging from threads, with more emphasis brought to the fanboy attractions, such as Cullen voicing the role that made him a household name, even if most people don't really know what he looks like. Sure, there's the dangling participle that is Sam's journey to discover his relevance, but that's hardly an innovative or even interesting plot device. Sure, there's looking for your favorite Autobot or Decepticon, but most of those characters play infinitely tiny roles or are barely recognizable anyway. The Autobots come in varying colors, from Bumblebee's bright yellow to Dino's fiery red, while the Decepticons all look alike with limited shades of grey. Shockwave, Soundwave, Megatron and Starcream would all be nigh indecipherable but for minute differences, and if the minor villains are actually based on real Transformers characters, I'd be very surprised. There are a few standouts, most notably the voice acting of Cullen, Nimoy and Hugo Weaving, but many of the voice actors are wasted on minimally-featured robots that are only known to die-hard fans of the series.

"Yeah, we're not really that important."
At least the animated characters are far more interesting than most of their human counterparts. Shia Leboeuf shows his usual talent for both dramatic acting and humor, but he doesn't do anything special to prove that he's a legitimate star in the making. This has been the argument against LaBoeuf all along, of course, as he's had more success appearing in other people's work than in anything that he helped build. Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson return to the parts they inhabited in the previous films but don't have nearly as much to do outside of the usual generic action schtick. As for the supporting characters, it's something of a tossup. For every Patrick Dempsey or Frances McDormand who play typical one-note characters, there's returning John Turturro as Seymour Simmons, a former government agent turned conspiracy author, John Malkovich as an obsessive-compulsive terror that is Sam's first boss, and the always-wonderful Alan Tudyk as Simmons' assistant with a shady past. These parts, along with a couple of pint-sized Autobots, provide much of the entertainment value inherent to the film. The real surprise is Huntington-Whiteley, a career model with no acting experience before being cast in this film. The Victoria's Secret model does a great job, surpassing all rightful expectations, and while she doesn't necessarily have the makings of a stellar acting career, she should have a decent stint in the industry playing pretty people in small roles.

This is what might happen if you cut off that mack truck
I did have some issues with the last act of the film, which sees the Decepticons turn the great city of Chicago into an American war-torn Sarajevo. During some scenes, several instances occur where the villains gun down innocent fleeing civilians, who explode into shreds of bone and cloth. This darker turn comes after a first half that featured a few deaths, but nothing so heinous that it was out of place. This was a problem I had with the final act of Green Lantern, as well; sure, you might assume it exists, but in a PG-13 film I don't expect civvies to get offed so flagrantly. I'd give Bay credit if I thought he at all realized that he was creating social commentary on the horrors inflicted on civilians in wartime; then again, he's Michael Bay, and I can't quite bring myself to believe that he did any of it on purpose. Also, while Bay has stated that this will be his last Transformers movie, I was surprised that the story so definitively ended, with very little opportunity now to continue under different directors. Still, I enjoyed Transformers: Dark of the Moon. It has its problems; sure, it can be described as a "spectacle" with little going for it besides visuals; sure, its no Hanna or Thor or even Fast Five. I had a good time in the theater regardless, and it was at least better than many of the crappy action sequels that have been released so far in 2011. You might need an advanced degree in Transformers History to fully appreciate what you're seeing, but overall Dark of the Moon is a fun night at the movies that was released for fanboys but can at least be enjoyed on some level by just about anyone.

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