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As Bad As It Gets – A Review Of Transformers: Dark Of The Moon

Editor’s NoteA follow-up article appears here. Feel free to check it out once your done with this.

With this, the third part of his Transformers Trilogy, director Michael Bay has surpassed himself. That is to say that he has reached a new low. Clunky, tactless and downright unethical, Transformers; Dark Of The Moon might just be the worst film so far made during the lifetime of Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second.

First things first. Transformers; Dark Of The Moon takes place a couple of years follwing the events of its predecessor, The Revenge Of The Fallen. Evil defeated (as per the end of that film), Sam Witwicky finds himself struggling to get by in the regular world, his friends the Autobots having abandoned him for adventures new. Eventually evil once again comes knocking (as per the plot of the previous film), and Witwicky finds himself in a position of interest to witness the next wave of death and destruction from the Decepticons.

For the sake of preventing this from descending in to little more than a one sided rant lets start with the positives. The initial premise is actually genuinely engaging, and in another film would possibly slide nicely in to the pantheon of classic conspiracy cinema greats. The presentation of the “secret” history at the heart of said premise is nice too, with the double prologue detailing the fall of Cybertron and the rise of the American space race effectively conveyed. The 3D is genuinely fantastic too, with the effect even surpassing James Cameron’s Avatar for this viewer. Unfortunately both of these positives falter under the mammoth running time of the film (more on that later though). There’s a solid menagerie of character actors filling in with the supporting roles, with John Malkovich particularly entertaining, with the actor clearly enjoying himself, hamming it up as the narcasistic boss of Witwicky. With Frances MacDormand and series veteran John Turturro also turning in performances, Bay has assembled a cast somewhat resembling that of a Coen feature, but I’m afraid that’s about where the similarities between Transformers; Dark Of The Moon and quality American filmmaking end.

The biggest problem with Transformers: Dark Of The Moon is that its essentially the same film as the two that preceded it, and, in-spite of claiming otherwise, Michael Bay appears to have learnt nothing from the criticism that both of those films, especially the second one, received. While the plot is pretty much a beat-for-beat-on-a-bigger-scale redux of The Revenge Of The Fallen, some of that film’s other issues, notably its portrayal of race and its questionable sense of humour also transfer over. In spite of Bay’s claims otherwise, the “dorky humour” of The Revenge Of The Fallen returns, with the directors assertion that we’d seen the back of Witwicky’s dreaded parents, perhaps the ultimate comedy vacuum of the 21st Century cinema, not ringing true (if anything they actually seem to feature in this film more than prominently than the previous one).

The most damaging issues come with the films representation of politics and race. The character of “Wang”, an Asian-American office lackey turned conspiracy nut is arguably as offensive a stereotype as anything in the derided predecessor. That the character himself is thoroughly unlikeable adds an extra dimension to the level of hate on display, pushing the response to almost meta-levels of hatred. Call me a square, but gay jokes and hemorrhoid gags have no place in the mainstream entertainment of 2011.

And it doesn’t end there. While we will take a look at the films political undertones in a moment, lets not forget some of the other highlights of the film. A robot with a Scottish accent threatens to “bottle” someone, and is seemingly constantly drunk, Megatron visits the UN, and Optimus Prime acts as little more than an exposition-bot, in turn managing to patronise and bore in equal measure. Then there’s Alan Tudyk’s Dutch, a character whose sole reason for being on screen is to be on the receiving end of speculatory remarks about his sexuality. Elsewhere, the worst Russian stereotypes this side of Rocky IV complete the picture. Bay is notorious for his inability to realistically portray anyone who isn’t a white American male, but he’s reached new lows here.

There was potential in the Sam storyline, with the protagonist questioning his place in the world following his saving of the world in the previous two installments of the series. Instead of being merely depressing, Sam’s admission that he “wants to matter” had the possibility to genuinely strike a chord with the series’ aging audience, yet instead it is pushed aside for annoying small robot sidekicks that make dick jokes and ride around on pet dogs. The whole film is riddled with that terrible cheesy humour that killed the tone of the other films, and here it is, striking for a third time. It’s a shame.

As a visual experience its already been mentioned that Dark Of The Moon is largely successful. The 3D is great, as are the effects, which aren’t as visually noisy as the earlier films. Speaking of noise, it would be a surprise if composer Steve Jablonsky comes out of this without a lawsuit from Hans Zimmer and his Inception score (an excellent comparison of the two scores can be found HERE). Alas said score is more aurally friendly than the pair of U2 songs that punctuate the films audio track.

While the scenes of mass distraction are indeed visually impressive, Bay escalates the scale of the previous films without an understanding of how scale actually works. This is not scale in the of the Lord Of The Rings sense, in which Peter Jackson used a huge backdrop to tell a major story, but is more akin to videogame sequel mentality, echoing the ‘increasing difficulty’ structure of that medium in an attempt to push things forward. Quite simply, it doesn’t work. It becomes repetitive and dull, and lacking in emotional attachment. The old adage concerning watching someone else playing a video game has never felt more apt, with the resulting film being a bloated, overlong mess with no sense of danger.

The films ultimate “message” is one of dangerous Right-wing rhetoric. It essentially boils down to “we can’t leave because the baddies will come and get you”, weirdly echoing the dubious US foreign policy of the Bush-era. The America at the heart of Bay’s film are the stereotypical America World Police that protects us all from certain doom. It’s tactless, classless and unethical. And wholly boring. Military porn of the highest order, and apologist supreme for the war on terror, Dark Of The Moon will no doubt have “patriots” cheering in the aisles, while the more discerning of us look on in embarrassment.

Which leads me to my final, most damning point. At one point in the film, Bay evokes the image of the “falling man”, one of the key visual images of the events of 9/11, as a gang of US Army ‘grunts’ skydive across a semi-post-apocalyptic skyline. Crass doesn’t even begin to cover it, with the sequence unforgivable insensitive and a new low for Bay. It’s exploitative nonsense of the highest order, and not at all hyperbolic to suggest that it reaches a level of vile thus far unequalled in the 21st century mainstream cinema.

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