Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon Slagging Good

Nerdview: A good review is hard to find. A good review--that is, a quality review, not a positive review--seems to be even more rare amongst professionals and dedicated reviewers. Fortunately, the nerdery is helmed by a literary nut. Each review, whether it is a game, movie, book, or television series, will have the four elements: bias, appreciation, personal enjoyment, and general enjoyment. Put in food terms, these are odor, beef, gravy, and cheese.

A few weeks ago, I saw the newest in Michael Bay's Transformers series of movies--Transformers: Dark of the Moon. As anyone familiar with the critical track record might guess, it didn't fare too well amongst professional critics. As anyone familiar with me or my blog can guess, I have quite a bit to say about it. There will be light spoilers in the following review.

Expectations 'Odor': I loved the first Transformers movie. It spanned a large geographic footprint, diverse characters, and a scale of combat that vividly defined the immensity of the transformers as separate from the fuzzier dimensions of the original cartoons. Josh Duhamel and Shia LaBeouf really sold their two snapshots of the human element, too. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen went a little wide of that mark. It had better action that cemented Optimus Prime as an interstellar bolt-kicker, but the plot was much more contrived and the human elements were painfully unforgettable--especially in the scenes where energetic Shia LaBeouf had to play off of the tired, uninspired Megan Fox.

Now, with the third installation out, there's a conflict within me. On the one hand, I didn't want more of the second one, even though it had some gem scenes and action sequences. On the other hand, the early trailers of Transformers: Dark of the Moon really emphasized a mysterious plot connection to the American Apollo space program. I loved the ads for the first movie which portrayed the Mars rover getting squashed by a Decpticon, and so this new ad style appealed to me as it looked like another way of integrating real space exploration with the heights of sci-fi fantasy. I started getting excited for a song. And then Megan Fox--who offered little to the first movie and nothing to the second other than a great intro shot--got panned from the film and replaced with a British unknown. That could only be an improvement, right? Finally, the concept of this movie encompassing an outright invasion sounded really solid. And so I went in genuinely looking forward to a Transformers flick that had the biggest scope yet, incorporated a mythological space race tie-in, and traded Megan Fox for a blonde Briton.

Appreciation 'Beef': As with the previous two installments, Transformers: Dark of the Moon is a big film. It was long, featuring both a lot of plot twists and extensive action set pieces, and it did more on a bigger scale than anything yet seen. And I'm inclined to say that, should there be a fourth in the franchise, I don't want the next movie to try to get any bigger--it'd be too much. But Dark of the Moon worked it out well. And the most powerful thing about it was how the symbolism of the story really meshes well with the actors. Yes, it had symbolism. It was fairly subtle (for a Michael Bay movie), potent, and well done. Every review I've seen of the movie fails to mention it, of course. And the new actors fit their roles perfectly, with a bit of fat-cutting from unnecessary elements in the second film helping to make this one immensely more enjoyable.

The primary element in these movies is so matter-of-factly excellent it is easy to forget about when reviewing the film: the special effects. From the first movie on, the giant robots were physical, chunky, and real, and that remains true with the latest installment. The VFX also grow into more interactions with the live action world. In the film's beginning, for instance, as the space race is summarized as part of a shadow war for access to alien tech we get to see JFK inserted into a couple of scenes with actors. It is fluid and really flirts with the uncanny valley--partly because there are few famous dead guys in America that are so readily recognized on television--but it comes off well and really impressed me in an off-sides manner. Later, when Chicago is obliterated by an army of invading Decepticons, I was leveled by the thorough believability of the destruction of a city I know fairly well.

"It was fairly subtle (for a Michael Bay movie), potent, and well done. Every review I've seen of the movie fails to mention it, of course."

Transformers: Dark of the Moon continues the tradition of having the highly kinetic, almost purely action plot of the alien robots interlaced with a more mundane and personal plot involving the squishy Sam Witwicky. In the first movie, the human sub-plot was a basic coming-of-age story with a theme of bravery in the face of personal sacrifice. The second movie was about the parents needing to let go so their son could bloom as initiated by the terrible thread of Sam going to college and culminating in him being accepted by the council of silhouettes to stab the Shiny of Resurrection into Optimus Prime's chest. Dark of the Moon, however, is about young people who've accomplished and sacrificed more than their years would indicate going into the working world and finding their achievements dumped on. Sam starts the film looking for a job, and repeatedly complains that he's saved the world and been honored by the president but still can't get a career started several months after college. In one interview, the elegant beauty of the theme comes to the front when Sam heatedly explains to a potential boss: "I've saved your life and done a bunch of other things you'll never even know about, and now all I want is a job." LaBeouf sells the anguish marvelously, and in so doing it becomes clear that Sam is a representative for returning veterans. Like Sam, a lot of veterans returning to civilian life today and in the past have found themselves having to beg for employment after doing jobs that were more fulfilling and helped people in greater ways. It makes it all the more poignant when Sam is given a menial job and understandably complains, "I just want to matter." I had a lot of different expectations for this movie, but when I caught that theme and recognized the sense and honor woven into it I was more impressed than at any other moment in the movie. This, coupled with the emasculatingly realistic romance makes Sam feel like a more vibrant hero struggling against genuine personal trials in addition to the forty-foot humanoid trash compactors.

The actors employed in this film are perfectly suited to their roles, which is expected of those who've been in the previous movies, but the newcomers are also facile additions to the eccentric actioner's world. The prominent four names added to the Transformers cast are Patrick Dempsey, John Malkovich, Alan Tudyk, and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. Huntington-Whiteley plays Carly Spencer, and though her understated and partly antagonistic role will likely not be appreciated by some, she does a good job of being innocently cruel to boyfriend Sam without making you feel that they don't belong together--something that you couldn't really say for Megan Fox's Mikaela in the first two movies. Unlike Mikaela in the climax of Revenge of the Fallen, Carly actually has something to contribute in the climax other than just doing the Baywatch slo-mo run. Patrick Dempsey play Dylan--Carly's boss and romantic competitor to Sam--and steps out of his rom-com shoes into a role that dynamically devolves as the plot progresses. Dylan starts out as a gregarious snob--not too big a stretch from many of his romantic roles--then moves into a petty, rich d-bag before graduating to Prince of Darkness as the final act begins. Dempsey pulls it off quite well, making it easy to hate him throughout the film but especially at the end when his loyalty to the villains proceeds unflinching in the face of mass slaughter. John Malkovich is Bruce Brazos, Sam's eccentric nightmare of a boss who all but disappears halfway through the film for no apparent reason other than there are too many squishy humans to keep track of. And Wash--er, Alan Tudyk--plays Dutch, fabulous lisping butler and bodyguard to John Turturro's Simmons. Dutch's character starts out awkwardly in the film, joining in only in the later part of the film, but he quickly steals his scenes and when he gets his moment to shine he too disappears from the plot. At least he doesn't get kacked in the middle of a punchline (3:10 to Yuma and Serenity).

Personal Enjoyment 'Gravy': I loved Transformers: Dark of the Moon. It had the right amount of awe and let the humans continue to be active allies to the Autobots who still get to land most of the critical blows to the bad guys. With one notable exception, I had no moments of wondering why they included this or that character in the movie, and almost no moments or characters got on my nerves. The suspension of physical laws is still a rampant part of the setting, but if I wasn't braced for that when the first movie had Scorponok burrowing through the sand like a frakking land shark I sure wouldn't have come this far. The series still maintains that a certain amount of the plot and conflict requires some time be devoted to a love story, obnoxious family moments, and battling government bureaucrats.

The combat between humans and Transformers has really been stepped up to a new level, and I love. One of my favorite moments in Revenge of the Fallen is when the big combination Decepticreep got face-shot by a naval rail gun. The Autobot on Decepticon action is, of course, the point of these movies, but I love the uphill struggle Captain Lennox and the other human soldiers face when they have to combat the giant robots on their own. Dark of the Moon delivers in spades in this field. The human weapons and tactics have continued to refine themselves over the years between this movie and the second, with the first act of the movie emphasizing that Nest has become a critically capable defense group--especially in regards to deploying Transformer scanners around important buildings across the country. That sense of progress on a tactical and logistical scale gratifies the part of me that always double-checked the population counter during Battlestar Galactica's credits.

In Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, there were a lot of annoying characters and moments. The parents were in that field for me, though they were important to the cliche theme of the son going off to college prompting parental separation anxiety (and stupidity). Leo, Skids, and Mudflap were all shrilly annoying and not that enjoyable in most of their scenes. Skids and Mudflap in particular were so overly obnoxious representations of 'cabron culture' that I wasn't sure if it was meant to pander to or parody that demographic. Transformers: Dark of the Moon, however, reduces all of those elements. Leo is missing entirely with no one really stepping into the role of annoying tag-along human. Skids and Mudflap have vanished from the story, though there is a pair of mush-mouthed Autobots called Wreckers that aren't allowed off the base because they're a-holes. The Wreckers are funnier and much less prominent than Skids or Mudflap, though, so they really aren't a detriment to the film. The parents are an unnecessary five-to-ten minute distraction in the movie. They were great fun in the first film, and an annoying but thematically essential in the second, but with Sam grown up and struggling to find his place in the wide world they really offer nothing to the movie and are an unfunny after-thought. The most annoying character was this guy named Wang who embodied almost all of the obnoxious sexual humor of the entire movie. He didn't last long, but he was so over-the-top and annoying that I felt my body tensing up the longer he was on the screen.

"...if I wasn't braced for that when the first movie had Scorponok burrowing through the sand like a frakking land shark I sure wouldn't have come this far."

The new characters, however, were great fun. I was worried that Dutch was going to be more annoying, but in the end he was endearing--and the brief moment where he got to kick some butt and scare Russian mafiosos was too much fun for a VFX movie. When John Malkovich showed up as Bruce Brazos, I groaned: Malkovich? He always plays the same weird guy lately. I hope he doesn't last long. And while Bruce was weird, I ended up liking him anyway and really wanted him to feature in the third act as a rich good guy to stand opposite Dylan. Carly, despite being played off by most as a piece of eye-candy to replace the stale Mikaela, was genuinely important to the film. She pretty much saves the day, in fact, but not in an over-the-top melodramatic fashion. Besides that, though, her character's relationship with Sam is much more real and mature than the equivalents in the previous films. That's not to say the relationship is nicer, though. Early on she ribs him about not having a job, and it's pretty clear that she doesn't appreciate his past heroics in a real sense at first. It's mean in a friendly kind of way, and helps to reinforce the desperation to be important that drives Sam's development throughout the movie. It makes the climactic "I love you" moment all the more special that Sam's been petty in the past and that Carly's been insensitive to his history and struggles.

But there were some profoundly deep thrills I got from the film. A small example came early in the film where Buzz Aldrin, as himself, greeted Optimus Prime as 'a fellow space-explorer' and intoned "It's an honor to meet you." Optimus replied, "The honor is all mine." Big Blue isn't being facetious to the primitive human; to the sensitive and charismatic Big Bot, being brave enough to step out into the void and accomplish a dangerous mission no other human has done before is an awe-inspiring achievement. You can hear it in Peter Cullen's voice, and I found it to add a tender beauty to that simple exchange.

"...[Carly's] relationship with Sam is much more real and mature than the equivalents in the previous films. That's not to say the relationship is nicer, though."

Watching Chicago die was another wonderfully affecting element for me. I do not like Chicago. I've grown up in the suburbs north of the city, visiting Chicago on a regular basis, and as I've gotten older I've become increasingly ashamed of it. It is the embodiment of the corruption, vanity, racism, and mass selfishness of which I want to see America purged. But watching the Decepticon fleets descend on the city, destroying buildings and killing people by the thousand, recognizing intersections and buildings from field trips and family outings, it struck me how great a loss was being depicted. The corruption, pettiness, and crass vanity of the city paled in comparison to the realization that this was just twenty miles from where I sat, a city reduced to rubble. Much the effect for which I'm sure Michael Bay was aiming, I felt the impact of each missile in a definitively personal way that made the climax a gut-punching catharsis.

General Enjoyment 'Cheese': If you enjoyed the second movie at all, there should be nothing holding you back from seeing Dark of the Moon. It's got the same flaws as the other films, but does some damage control on the annoying elements of the second film to make this one much more bearable. The pointless and crass slapstick is sharply reduced compared to the Revenge of the Fallen, and the script--while still rough in places--does contribute to some cinematic tension when it gets out of its own way. This one actually has quite a bit more to say about virtue, sacrifice, and doing what's right no matter who or how many benefit from atrocity. If you can purge yourself of the popular bile most critics try to encourage against Michael Bay's movies, leave your mind open to the new depth of theme, and you should be pleasantly surprised if not outright amazed.

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