Friday, July 1, 2011

Transformers 3: How 'bout changing into something decent?

Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon (2011) • View trailer for Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon
Two stars. Rating: PG-13, for prolonged action violence, mayhem and destruction, and for occasional profanity and fleeting sensuality
By Derrick Bang

Michael Bay doesn’t make movies; he assembles big-screen video games.

His characters don’t even have the depth of those found in 1960s Saturday morning cartoon shows. An average episode of Scooby-Doo generated more suspense and emotional impact.
After climbing a high-rise office building in order to get a better shot at a
complex beam-generator thingie, Sam (Shia LaBeouf) and his soldier buddies
find their plan derailed when a nasty, coiling Decepticon pushes over the
entire top half of the building. Boy, the good guys just can't catch a break!

His Transformers series makes the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise look like high art.

Bay, obviously operating under the assumption that more is more, clutters his action scenes with so much stuff that it’s impossible to focus on any single person or set of characters. Impossible to separate our heroes from half a dozen nameless hangers-on who have such wafer-thin character depth that they’d vanish, if turned sideways.

A typical Michael Bay good guy is introduced simply by striking a macho pose and growling something unintelligible. Rarely do we get names or even one-note distinguishing references (the fat one, the nasty one, etc.). We’re apparently supposed to be impressed simply because cinematographer Amir M. Mokri properly centers the guy in the frame. Then this gung-ho warrior joins other similarly anonymous combatants, and we wonder: Are we supposed to care about any of these guys?

Apparently not, since Ehren Kruger’s so-called script doesn’t bother with character depth, emotional resonance or sensible narrative structure. It’s just one big battle scene after another, most involving the destruction of as much real estate as possible. (Say farewell to the entire city of Chicago.) At close to three hours, it all becomes numbing: more endurance test than vicarious thrill ride.

I keep reminding myself that Kruger had us gnawing fingernails with his slick 1999 big-screen scripting debut, Arlington Road. Now, that was a nifty flick. Heck, I even liked his script for 2000’s Reindeer Games: not as good by a long shot, but still a slickly paced B-thriller.

But then Kruger sold his soul and got sucked into the increasingly tedious American remakes of Japan’s Ring horror entries, after which he was scooped up by Bay for the Transformers series. I guess we shouldn’t expect much from a big-screen franchise stitched together from a line of toys, but still; wouldn’t a little effort be warranted?

Thirteen people — 13! — are credited as producers on this mess, from Bay and Steven Spielberg (two of the four executive producers) to “3D producer” Michelle McGonagle. Golly, with all those producers, you’d sure think they’d ... well ... produce something.

So ... the plot, such as it is:

In fairness, I’ll give Kruger credit for a clever prologue, which brings us back to the early 1960s, as we discover that President Kennedy initiated our Apollo missions not just to reach the moon, but so that our astronauts could clandestinely investigate an “event” tracked to its crash-landing on the dark side of our orbiting neighbor. They discover Transformers tech — although they don’t know to call it that yet, since Earth’s friendship with the giant Autobots still is decades in the future — and bring some of it back for further top-top-secret study.

Alas, the Soviets have done the same thing, and that’ll have unfortunate consequences later on. I think. It’s actually hard to tell whether this Soviet activity is good, bad or indifferent, in terms of any relation to the eventual crisis in this scattershot story.

Flash-forward to the present day, where intrepid young hero Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), despite having saved the world twice — as he keeps reminding everybody — has been cut from the Autobot program and now is forced to find a “real” job. His already bruised ego is dented further by the fact that he’s a “kept man” of new girlfriend Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), a supermodel type whose good looks apparently keep her steadily employed in high-salary positions.

Huntington-Whiteley has been modeling since 2003 for high-tone clothing lines such as Ralph Lauren, Burberry, Abercrombie & Fitch ... you get the idea. This is her film debut, and she needs to keep the day job. Bay seems to have hired Huntington-Whiteley solely for her big pouty lips, smoldering gaze and sensuously liquid British accent; she can’t act a lick, although she’s certainly good at striking a pose.

Come to think of it, everybody in this flick does little beyond striking poses.

Sam tells his comic-relief parents (Kevin Dunn and Julie White, returning for more abuse) that Carly is “the one,” apparently overlooking the fact that Megan Fox’s Mikaela Banes was “the one” in the two previous entries in this series. And Carly seems genuinely fond of Sam as well, although Patrick Dempsey’s ultra-sophisticated tycoon, Dylan — Carly’s newest employer — looks like serious competition.

The most astonishing special effect in the first two films was the way that Fox somehow managed to avoid popping out of her low-cut tops, while running, jumping, falling, dodging and ducking amid all sorts of mayhem. Huntington-Whiteley has a similar trick: Despite the constant danger, abuse and ill treatment Carly endures — dangling from buildings, dodging giant killer robots while running through the war-zone streets of Chicago — she never, ever loses her heels. Nor stumbles in them. Not once.

Wow. Color me impressed.

But let’s get back to the business at hand. Romantic triangles notwithstanding, the real peril surfaces when the regal Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen), new guardian of our Earth, takes his similarly noble Autobot buddies to the moon, where they return with Sentinel Prime (voiced by Leonard Nimoy), their late planet Cybertron’s most important scientist/savior/all-around legendary figure. Sentinel Prime and his ship had been guarding some crucial Transformers tech when they crash-landed on our moon; now these cylindrical whatzits must be locked away and safeguarded, lest they fall into the hands of the vengeful Megatron (voiced by Hugo Weaving) and his way-evil Decepticons.

CIA dark-ops director Mearing (Frances McDormand) takes charge of this operation. She also looks down her nose at Sam’s persistent efforts to help, even after he’s pretty darn sure the Decepticons are up to something bad.

McDormand and Huntington-Whiteley are the only two female characters of note in this bloated epic, by the way: the former an arrogant pain in the ass, the latter no more than a cute piece of ... ahem. That’s typical of a Michael Bay flick, where men do all the heavy lifting because they’re most admired by the target audience of young male couch potatoes.

Chicks are either eye candy or obstructions to be overcome by their superior-in-all-respects male comrades. Donchaknow.

Anyway, Megatron and his minions obviously get their steel-clawed hands on this bad tech, and — thanks to a few traitorous surprises along the way — mankind appears in imminent danger of being enslaved by these vastly more superior killer robot types. Can nobody save us?

Can nobody save us?

Oh, pipe down. Overwhelming odds notwithstanding — despite the blatant fact, as presented, that the far more numerous Decepticons would have no trouble destroying Optimus Prime and his small handful of Autobot followers — Sam once again will help save the day. Because the script says he’s supposed to.

That’s also the only reason to accept the fact that he and our other fragile human stars somehow survive their truly ludicrous skirmishes with these bad ’bots. Rarely have two-legged meat bags demonstrated such resilience, somehow enduring all sorts of carnage with no more than a few artfully placed bruises and scratches. Heck, even Superman would’ve been hard-pressed to keep his hair so successfully coifed, yet Sam and Carly have no trouble remaining stylish while miraculously escaping broken bones, impact concussions and neck-breaking whiplash. You gotta admire their stamina.

Fairness dictates that I acknowledge the impressive efforts of this film’s huge action and special-effects departments; they definitely put a lot of money on the screen. Some of the action sequences are sensational, as when Sam, Carly and a squad of soldiers attempt to survive being churned within an office building that has been squeezed in half and then tipped sideways by a coiling, snake-like, octopoid-y Decepticon with a wicked set of teeth. (An evil giant robot that can morph like that seems utterly unbeatable to me, but hey; what do I know?)

But the power of the few superior action scenes is diminished by the endless lesser battles, hair’s-breadth escapes and rampaging setbacks; everything becomes a blur. Oh, look: The Autobots have gained the advantage. Whoops, now the Decepticons are back in control. Wait, no; Optimus Prime has pulled a technological rabbit out of his metal-plated hat. Ah, but the Decepticons have their own counter-measure. Et-cetera, et-cetera, et-cetera.

And don’t even get me started on the whacked science in this flick. Bad enough that fleshy, fragile human beings refuse to obey the laws of physics and collision; any veteran of driver training films knows what happens when rapidly moving people stop suddenly and/or get flung into glass, metal or brickwork.

But that’s nothing compared to the third-act howler, when an entire planet gets sucked to within spitting distance of Earth ... and yet somehow the sudden presence of this massive celestial body has no impact on our gravity, our weather, our ocean tides or anything else. Almost like this near-space intruder is no more than a figment of our imagination.

If only the entire film could be a similar figment...

I also could gripe about Bay and Kruger’s attempts at cinema cred by (for example) inflicting John Turturro’s conspiracy-theorist with injuries that put him into a motorized wheelchair, thus looking for all the world like Peter Sellers’ title character in Dr. Strangelove; or the way Nimoy perverts one of Mr. Spock’s most iconic statements. Bay and Kruger may believe such wink-wink-nudge-nudge references are cool; I find them insulting.

Not to mention unwise: It’s never smart to reference vastly superior films that call attention to your own inadequacies.

I could similarly wonder why high-profile supporting actors such as John Malkovich are poorly treated — and embarrassed — or why Ken Jeong’s Jerry Wang, a corporate drone, seems present solely to channel his similarly lunatic character from both Hangover entries.

Mostly, though, I’m dismayed and flat-out offended by Bay’s insulting blend of tone. On the one hand, we’re supposed to be amused by the Three Stooges-style behavior of Sam’s parents, or the aforementioned Jeong, or the Mutt ’n’ Jeff hijinks and sassy remarks of reformed Decepticon mini-’bots Wheelie and Brains. On the other hand, thousands of people get killed in this story, many of them individually and quite horribly — some blasted into bits by Decepticon ray guns, with occasional skulls clattering onto the pavement — and yet we’re still supposed to regard this as a light-hearted action romp.

Somebody gets crushed, maimed, fried or disintegrated, and then Bay cuts to Wheelie and Brains, dissing each other again, and we’re apparently supposed to laugh. Really?

Not this pilgrim; count me out.

Speaking strictly in soulless financial terms, it’s hard to argue with Bay’s signature brand of big-screen mayhem, since Monday evening’s sold-to-the-rafters preview audience frequently erupted with cheers as Optimus Prime or Bumblebee (Sam’s favorite Autobot) unleashed a jumbo can of whup-ass on one or more Decepticons. Obviously, lots of folks love this stuff and aren’t the slightest bit troubled by Bay’s numb-nuts style of movie-making.

To paraphrase H.L. Mencken, nobody ever went broke under-estimating the taste of the American public. (He said intelligence.) Too bad Hollywood seems content to remind us of this, ever more frequently these days.

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