Alex: I dipped a toe into the mainstream yesterday, a rare and unsettling experience for me. Aaron has been a much more faithful chronicler of culture both popular and obscure. I prefer never to leave the arthouse.
But yesterday I popped a klonapin and went to see Transformers: Dark of the Moon. It takes a social critic savvier than myself to talk about this movie in any useful way. I mean, to, like, review it as a film … it kind of seems like the joke would be on me. This thing made $200 million in five days, and that will always be the last word. What does it matter what I think? Its dick is bigger than mine and it always will be.
Still, dear readers, I know how to use the equipment, whereas TF3 is a monumentally inept and self-involved and uncaring cinematic boner. You’ll forgive my phallo-centric approach, but, well, Michael Bay started it. The movie is a 2-hour-and-47-minute jerk-off session, replete with (accidental) phallic allusions and characterized by a “fast forward through the plot” sensibility.
The thing is, though, Michael Bay wants to satisfy. He wants to be Steven Spielberg. His movies make an effort to follow the Lucas/Spielberg model. That is, they attempt to modulate action setpieces with humor (often in the form of racial-stereotype sidekicks), romance (without real sexiness), slight political commentary (not too threatening), and some dark human relationship at the center of it all (some father-son strife, usually).
But Bay really doesn’t have the stones for it. (Forgive me, I’ve moved down a few inches. I promise to get off the male genitalia soon.)
(Heh heh … I said “get off.”)
Whenever the movie tries to be funny it becomes excruciating. (What was all that about Shia’s mom asking him if he had a big dick? There, you see what I mean, readers? The movie started it!) The jokes, such as they are, die every time, and one reason is the sound mixing; a punchline — again, a generous term there — is often muttered or drowned out by all the other crap going on. It gets a reluctant titter from the audience because we recognize that it’s a laugh moment. We’re laughing at what the comic timing should be but isn’t. This is Bad Directing 101.
And yet Michael Bay isn’t a thug. He’s not the lover who gets off right away and then falls asleep. He’s the lover who gets off right away and then spoons with the woman and goes, “Baby, you’re so hot. Don’t ever leave me. I need you so bad. Promise you’ll never leave me? I need you so bad, baby.” And she stays because this is its own form of abuse, its own kind of co-dependency. “He’s really so sweet at heart,” she’ll say to her friends when they suggest he’s not the right guy for her. (In case my analogy is breaking down … the woman = American moviegoing public.)
Bay hates humanity, and you’d almost respect him more if he didn’t engage with humanity at all. The climactic scene of TF3 reminded me of a Godzilla movie. Two giant monsters going at one another and tearing up a major city in the process. If the movie were only that, then okay. It would just be junk food, and everyone loves a bag of Blazin’ Jalapeno Doritos now and then.
But TF3 makes a flaccid attempt to layer in some meaning about fighting against tyranny and staying loyal to a cause. Taking the fight to those who would deprive us of our liberty. It all ends up being accidentally Republican, Earth and humanity inescapable metaphors for America and Americans. It wants to rouse us, but it doesn’t know what it wants to rouse us to.
There was one sequence I enjoyed; it involved our heroes trying to escape an office tower that’s been bent in the middle and is slowly beginning to break in half. There was actual suspense there. And another accidental brush with irony; earlier in the movie, Shia complains about having to get a job — his screeds amount to: “I saved the world. Twice. I was important! I just wanna feel important again.” — and starting out in the mailroom makes him feel unimportant. With the office-tower sequence, the movie might be saying something about our culture of office-work, the tyranny we live with every day, sans Decepticons.
But, no. No, no, no, no, no. That’s not really there. And so Shia’s character is really just a whiny prick with a sense of entitlement and a certainty that he’s meant for bigger and better things, but without offering any skill or talent of his own. He’s Scott Pilgrim without a sense of humor.
Shia LaBeouf is perfectly suited to this role because his appeal is that he has no appeal. If it’s true that the era of the movie star is behind us, Shia is the perfect emblem of our Hollywood era. He is Everyboy. As Sam Witwicky, the nerd-boy-hero of the TF franchise, he’s restless and horny and embarrassed by his parents and, deep down, terrified he’s going to end up like them. A cynical fast-talker who is acutely aware of humanity’s depravity and has to suffer the naivete of all the idiots who’d rather not see the world for what it is. He’s only gonna bother to work in the mailroom if the boss guarantees he’ll be promoted in six months.
Again, the movie almost stumbles into meaning in a montage of job-interview scenes, during which Shia blusters through what he thinks his potential employers want to hear. He keeps trying to describe his own qualities and failing — the joke being that he has no qualities. It would be funny, if only the movie were in on its own joke.
But of course we know that Shia is special, because he “saved the world” in two previous installments. Even though his special-ness is that he corrals more talented people/robots to help him do stuff he can’t do on his own. He’s a cipher, a contemporary Frodo Baggins. Specialness is bestowed upon him. It doesn’t actually have anything to do with his soul. Ironically, he’s more robotic than the robots, who are working through an almost-legitimate debate about whether to re-create their own planet. Is it true? Are the Autobots, the putative good guys, trying to destroy their home world, while the Decepticons are trying to preserve it? This could make for some nice moral ambiguity, if only the movie gave a fuck. Again, any trace of irony is totally accidental.
Finally, I have to lodge a complaint as someone who is new to the Transformers movie franchise but who was, in pre-adolescence, an owner of actual Transformers toys. One of the pleasures of those toys was the ingenuity of their design. The way the wheels of a Jeep became the feet of the robot, or the cab of the truck became the chest plate. They weren’t cool just because they transformed, they were cool because of how they transformed.
Their cinematic counterparts, however, are cars that go through an impossible-to-track series of motions to become giant, complicated robots, with whirring gears all over the place. All TF3 cares about is the fact of the robots’ transformations, not the character of them. The movie does have a little fun with the paranoiac idea that any piece of electronic equipment could be a Decepticon in disguise — microwaves, laptops, photo copiers all turn out to be robots — but once you’re aware that that can happen, you’re no longer surprised when it does.
You know, I was really looking forward to writing this post, to skewering this turkey. It was going to be HILARIOUS. But somehow there’s nothing satisfying in pointing out how bad Transformers is. It’s like, well, duh. I’m the one who dropped $17 on it. Joke’s on me. As Belize says to Louis in Angels in America, “It’s no fun picking on you, Louis…. It’s like throwing darts at a glob of jello, there’s no satisfying hits, just quivering, the darts just blop in and vanish.”
Aaron: Oh, Alex, why did you pay $17 to see this garbage? I only plaid $12. (We’ll keep this between us and hope the authorities don’t revoke your Jewish discount card.)
Uh, what the hell is there left to say (that’s a long post, brother – but you’re right on point with it). I agree with you about everything, but I think you give too much credit to that one scene with the building falling over (I saw that same trick in “Adventures in Babysitting” 20 years ago). I had no idea what was going on throughout most of the film. It felt like an origami nightmare where the story folds over on itself so many times, but you just have a sheet of paper at the end (that metaphor didn’t work, did it?). I think there was something about a battle in Chicago, but I’m not sure why. This is the perfect example of why you shouldn’t say something with four words that you can say with 4,000. There is no reason this couldn’t have been 90 minutes long. (OK- I got it! It’s like trying to have an intimate moment in an orgy… was that better?)
I totally agree with your gripe about how the robots don’t “transform” in any logical or clever way, and would add to that the silly gripe about how on earth robots from across the universe know what a Chevy Camaro looks like. I guess the whole thing falls apart when you get into such questions. I still don’t know why there are no female or Latin transformers.
There are major parts of this movie that make no sense – for which no attempt is made at explaining. Sam gets a job working for Malkovich (in the mailroom), but then Malkatraz is sidelined and Sam stops going to work; Sam’s Victoria’s Secret girlfriend is English, but works in the White House (huh?) and then gets a job for Patrick Dempsey and then there are some stepin fetchit black men and Josh Duhamel who are going to fight gigantic robots who have lasers and are gigantic… with machine guns (what?).
I guess this movie did exactly what it was supposed to do: it got people to theaters to buy popcorn and sodas. My favorite thing is when people say that it’s “less racist” than the first two … which is like saying a woman who is due in December is “less pregnant” than a woman due in August. This is a disgusting movie because it makes you upset at it’s horribly bigoted dialogue (against everyone of all cultures other than white people… and there are no Asian people or robots in this because they make rival cars to GM) and then you don’t realized you’ve been pumped full of corporate marketing shit and mind-numbing non-storytelling for nearly three hours (it’s actually 2hours and 37minutes, Alex). Fuck this fucking movie.
Alex: Well said. And how the hell did you pay $5 less than I did? Did you see it in some outer borough? Is everything cheaper out there?
You are forgetting the movie’s one Asian character, the goofy guy who recognizes Shia and tries to alert him to the coming Decepticon invasion by cornering him in a bathroom stall and pulling out his, uh, manifesto. This was a bit that was both racist and homophobic. I swear, Asians are the new minstrels.
The misogyny and racism are so apparent that it’s tempting to just roll one’s eyes and laugh it off. But you’re right to be outraged, Aaron. Fuck this fucking movie indeed. At the 2012 Iras we’ll surely be giving it Dramamine points.
Okay, so can we go back to reviewing Ken Loach movies now?
Aaron: Absolutely, let’s talk about Chadian movies where they actually have offensive, depraved sex, rather than just hinting at it in a misogynistic way.
I do want to say that you are absolutely correct to say that Bay wishes he was Spielberg, but only the lowest of his oeuvre (well, I’m not really a big fan of his, but I might be missing my soul, so I shouldn’t speak). I thought of this when the Autobots are supposed to have left Earth on a NASA Shuttle (a defunct program, btw, Mike), but then return triumphantly. When Sam asks them how they are there, one of them (one of the, uh, ‘urban’ ones, ahem) says something about how they were in some other fuel tank that returned to Earth or something. It was a clear homage to the opening of Jurrasic Park 2 (excuse me, The Lost World) when Sir Richard Attenborough says, “Thank goodness for island number two!”. Deus ex machina… er… machina ex machina, I guess.
Alex: I love the suggestion that Bay is so incompetent that when he borrows from Spielberg, he borrows what’s bad about Spielberg. I actually never saw The Lost World, though I have to confess a love for Jurassic Park.
The closest Bay has ever come to Spielberg-ian anything is in the invasion sequence in Pearl Harbor, much of which is genuinely terrifying. Somehow the fact that he was treating historical material made Bay feel he had to be important, which led him to a rare lapse into good taste.
Oh, one more thing! Congrats to my friend and fellow UC San Diego alum Katie Sigismund, who’s in TF3 for about a second and a half. Luckily I wasn’t blinking at that moment and so I saw her closeup. Yay!