The movie critic tropes in service of hating Michael Bay films are as self-perpetuating as his movies. I have tried to approach each Transformers film with a ritual shedding of my film critic skin. After all, where else am I going to see a spectacle of this magnitude, in service of pure action picture id and technological worshipfulness? I really have, each time, tried to localize my thoughts and feelings into another part of my brain and see if my reptilian side can just tap into whatever collective unconscious instinct of ours has boosted the box office receipts for these films into the stratosphere. There I was this go-around, doing a smart-thoughts squelching mind-keigel, when what happened? The summer of 2011 fanboy-movie interjection into the events of the early 1960's pulled me right back out of my parietal lobe.
The movie begins in 1961, and traces its events with the run-up to the moon-landing, positing that we discovered signs of extra-terrestrial life on the moon and that the sole purpose of the mission was to discover what was there before the Russians did. Cut to the landing, and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin discover a wrecked Autobot spacecraft. This is all recreated with stock footage and digitally altered historical scenes. It's a ten or fifteen minute opener, requiring more patience from the audience than I ever expected Michael Bay to ask of us.
The mild goodwill that this engenders is spent rapidly as the film returns us to what has to be the worst collection of human characters in a sci-fi/fantasy picture I've ever encountered. The Witwicky family, spazzes all, Megan Fox's replacement model, who serves only to distract the heteros in the audience from their own impatience with the presence of dialogue, and John Turturro's purely awful ex-CIA agent, all are basically useless for the two hours or so we spend with them. The cartoon movie from 1986 didn't rely so heavily on its human characters. Its Autobots and Decepticons were themselves imbued with human characteristics of bravery, self-sacrifice, heroism, a sense of humor, sympathy, or outright ruthless evilness, and the human characters were relegated to the sidelines. I prefer that approach to imbuing no characters, human or machine, with any appealing or believable characteristics whatsoever.
Still my real complaint with these films has been less to do with the appalling tone or values on display, or the casual racism and homophobia (more on that in a moment), but more with the fact that I grew up with the Transformers, and here they just don't feel right. There's too many gears and crap flying around their bodies when they transform, too much detail on each of them, to the point where they often seem formless and indistinct, whether in close-up or longshot. Put them in a remotely cybertronian environment, especially in the case of Decepticons, and the effect is practically camouflage. I wish I could say the editing restraints of 3-D (perhaps the only restraint Michael Bay has encountered to his filmmaking in some fifteen years) make the transformers' scenes more comprehensible, but I don't really think they do.
This is the first film in this series to contain a dramatic plot of some kind, and it deals with Sam Witwicky's emergence into manhood and independence after terrible emasculation. At the start, he has the hottest girlfriend imaginable, but he can't find a job and is forced into a mailroom at some vaguely fascist corporation. It is at this job that an Asian scientist and conspiracy theorist corners him and all but homosexually rapes him in a bathroom stall to get him to admit to being in league with the autobots. I don't know how to adequately describe this scene. It's the most homophobic trash I've seen in a movie aimed at children in, perhaps my entire life. It's like Takeshi Miike done very poorly. After being gay-raped in a bathroom stall and his girlfriend dominated by Patrick Dempsey's evil Decepticon lieutenant character, he flails through the next hour or so until, after the apocalypse starts in Chicago, a marine (Josh Duhamel) hands him a gun. He is now a man. Arc achieved.
A central plot point involves an Autobot act of subterfuge that fools the Decepticons into thinking they've left Earth. They then take over Chicago and start murdering thousands of people, incinerating them like it's Spielberg's War of the Worlds. This is a film aimed at little kids, right? What are they (or we) to make of the Autobots allowing so many humans to lose their lives, just to convince us humans how much we need them? That's not the Optimus I grew up with. He then repeatedly says, arriving just a few moments after several innocent bystanders are annihilated, with regard to Decepticons, "We will kill them all". A far cry from the selfless heroism of "One shall stand, one shall fall".
The twice repeated mockery of Barack Obama, the flick's absolute militarism, its desperate attempt to tack on feelings of victory even after the Lincoln Memorial is destroyed and Chicago is left in ruins, is all just base pandering to a whole section of this country that can't accept that we've lost two wars and are in serious disrepair, as a nation. That we beat the Decepticons is really cold comfort, right?
The set-pieces are fearsome, large, and kind of amazing, particularly an extended sequence of a building falling over while our human protagonists are inside it (which goes on for nearly half an hour). The last hour and a half is so extensive indeed in its action sequences that we are ourselves cowed by its might, and perhaps many of us led to believe this is what an "awesome" movie looks like. In reality it's a cold, empty film, committed to distracting us from our own directionless present.
And with all that dudgeon I seemed to have felt and expressed, it's still just a movie, somehow marginally better than the second one. Someone asked me why John Malkovich and Frances McDormand would accept work in garbage like this (to say nothing of Alan Tudyk!). The reason should be obvious. Add up the total gross of the last five Coen Brothers or Spike Jonze films, and a Miss Pettigrew film, your total won't come close to one of these. I say bless them, all of them, may they each have been paid many riches.