Driving Your Brain Off a Cliff: Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Usually, deciding beforehand whether one likes or dislikes a thing is wrong. It’s impossible to form a judgment on, say, a movie before actually seeing that movie. Usually. There exists one exception, and that is Michael Bay. It is absolutely possible to determine whether or not you will like a Michael Bay movie before you see it. It is also extremely simple: say “Michael Bay” to someone. They will invariably say “Eww” or “Awesome!” People given to the former reaction should not go see his movies. His latest, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the third installment in the delirious, deliriously successful franchise, is no exception to this rule. Michael Bay movies are what they are, and whatever one’s opinion of their quality, they are immediately identifiable as their director’s work.

The critical reaction to Transformers: Dark of the Moon has been considerably friendlier than Bay has been accustomed. I understand why, as my own feeling, walking home after seeing it, was like 1984 protagonist Winston Smith at the end of the book when he has that wave of love for Big Brother wash over him. Much like Big Brother, Michael Bay isn’t going anywhere.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon is projected to make enough money that you could stack it and reach Cybertron. And that’s just the first weekend. Every picture he makes is somewhere within thousandths of a percentage point from a consistent mean of stupidity, and by this point he’d made enough of them that at some point or other he’s literally blown up about 90% of the matter in the observable universe. Hyperbole is inadequate to describe his excesses. And now he’s discovered 3D.

3D is so stupid and pointless that it makes perfect sense that Michael Bay would gravitate toward it, and in retrospect, after seeing Transformers: Dark of the Moon, it makes just as perfect sense that he would have so natural a feel for how to make 3D work that he almost (terrifyingly) justifies the existence of 3D, with one movie. It’s the best 3D of this current wave, yes, even beating out the Modigliani Smurfs LARPing Dances With Wolves in Avatar. It’s not like the camerawork or editing or even the visual effects are all that extraordinary; they’re the standard Michael Bay fare, but the way he shoots naturally lends itself to having giant things leap off the screen at the audience.

Weirdly, because it’s exactly the same as a normal Michael Bay movie, the 3D camerawork seems almost understated, because there’s none of the usual “wooooooo, look at the threeeeeeeeeeeeeeee-deeeeeeeeee” foolishness. It actually makes his visual compositions a little more legible; being able to see what’s going on in a Michael Bay action scene is a novel experience, even if what you’re seeing confirms your prior thesis that what’s going on is giant robots beating the crap out of each other.

On a certain level, Michael Bay should be given credit for not having any pretense whatsoever about the plots and characters of his movies being anything but context for the climactic action sequence. Even the earlier action sequences are little more than coming attractions. Transformers: Dark of the Moon does get a couple minor style points for having a storyline that proposes that the entire American space program was a cover-up to beat the Soviets to the moon to recover some Autobot artifacts, though the blitheness with which the Chernobyl disaster is dragged into the story and presented as a failed experiment with Transformer technology leaves a mildly bad taste.

The human actors have some entertaining business. Frances McDormand is fun as the director of Central Intelligence or the Secretary of Defense (I’m not sure the movie makes up its mind which she is, or both), and John Turturro reprises his ridiculous government insider character from the first two movies with a few crowd-pleasing, lowbrow gags, though John Malkovich disappointingly disappears after providing some very entertaining Malkovichian eccentricity early on. Community‘s Ken Jeong has a brief role where he acts very strange before departing the picture less ambiguously than Malkovich. Shia LeBeouf, the acting equivalent to Michael Bay, is who he is as he always is. Really, the best comment on the role acting plays in the Transformers movies is that a fairly major character in the first two movies (Megan Fox’s Mikaela) is replaced with a new girlfriend character, her absence explained with a line or two of dialogue, and there is no difference whatsoever. Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, English accent and lighter hair aside, is every bit the Action Movie Girlfriend, just as Fox was, given little else to do than look good, which she does, I guess, but my personal taste in eye candy leans more toward Frances McDormand’s glasses, suits, and bureaucratic malevolence. For what that’s worth, which is not very much.

Despite being quite aware that it wasn’t very good, I was enjoying myself until about forty-five minutes or so into the final action sequence. While intricately constructed—and, of course, being the entire point of the movie—it was nonetheless absurdly overlong, featured some Wile E. Coyote-level physical resilience on Shia LeBeouf’s part. There are about four points where some Decepticon or other throws LeBeouf about forty feet through the air, crunching him off some wall or car, only to have our protagonist dust himself off and go running bellowing after his girlfriend. After a while I became acutely aware of how uncomfortable my seat was, and actively rooting for it to be over.

But, again, until that point, I was enjoying myself. This should not be confused with my thinking Transformers: Dark of the Moon is a good movie. It’s absolutely, categorically not. Calling it a movie is giving it too much benefit of the doubt. Michael Bay is engaged in a parallel medium, using all the equipment other people use to make movies, but creating something that bears only cursory resemblance to actual cinema. It’s a mechanism for stealing the brain’s car keys, forcibly duct-taping the pleasure center’s accelerator pedal to the floor, and sending the whole nervous system flying toward a cliff. While on fire. It’s very possible to enjoy oneself in such a state, but it’s equally possible to feel assaulted. However one reacts to the Michael Bay experience, it’s indisputable that his movies are sensory experiences, and exclusively so.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon lacks the feverish insanity of incomprehensible terribleness as its immediate predecessor, Revenge of the Fallen. It’s more similar to the first movie in tone, structure, and so forth, but really, they’re all Michael Bay movies. The differences are as superficial as the characters. But all the above should carry the caveat that I saw this movie voluntarily. Additionally, I was looking forward to it. And last, it fulfilled my expectations. Because Michael Bay movies are unwavering in their commitment to being Michael Bay movies. There is nothing quite like them. They may not be good, but they certainly are singularly the product of their creator. This is why I’m not worried about Michael Bay driving cinema off a cliff. He’s the only guy who knows how to drive this particular tank. He also knows how to blow stuff up with the howitzer. And even if this means I’ll never get to be a for-real grown-up movie critic like the cool kids, I can’t lie: I like watching stuff blow up. And that does not make me Winston Smith. Not yet, anyway.


Danny Bowes is a playwright, filmmaker and blogger. He is also a contributor to nytheatre.com and Premiere.com.

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