Thursday, July 7, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Spoiler alert-o-meter: Oh please.

I did not buy the Hasbro action figures. I did not watch the cartoon. I did not see the first two Transformers movies. But it’s summer, right? What better popcorn movie than one about giant action figure robot aliens duking it out in the middle of Chicago? Yes, moments of this movie gloriously tap into my adolescent love of Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, et al smashing through Tokyo. All those Japanese Toho productions had an inherent cheese factor of men dressed like monsters stomping around a brightly lit papier-mâché set knocking over pressboard buildings and stomping model trains.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the third in the series (T3), doesn’t need cardboard and plaster. Director Michael Bay has 200 million plus in our money (money we paid to see the first two movies) and he’s going to spackle the 3-D of our dreams with robot metal that shreds everything in sight.

The visuals are as overblown as the movie’s silly, stuffed-to-the-gills storyline, which makes no sense from scene to scene and, considering it’s based on a set of action figures (says so right in the credits) seems a staggering achievement. It takes about an hour, maybe longer (it’s a long movie) to get to the point where one robot says something like, “These humans have no idea what’s coming to them. Kill them all!” He might as well have said, “Cry havoc and let fly the robots of war.”

Michael Bay never met a shot he couldn’t move, a scene he couldn’t chop into bits, a musical score he couldn’t hit repeat on and let revolve all the way through his movies, cheesy metal and/or pop ballads that hammer you with his message (“Dude, war is, like, totally bad.”), a lovely young model/actress he couldn’t humiliate, history he couldn’t scramble (here, the first moon landing, see also Pearl Harbor), dialogue he couldn’t streamline into boilerplate for an international audience, and heretofore decent actors (John Malcovich, Ken Jeong, John Tuturro, Francis McDormand, Leonard Nimoy's voice) he couldn’t reduce to hammy bit parts.

The story goes a little something like this: Autobots, nice robots from another planet (in essence, aliens) came to Earth seeking, um, a respite? Decepticons, bad robots (obviously—I mean, who named these guys? So much for the element of surprise. “Look, it’s a Decepticon, I wonder if he comes in peace?”) who are warring with the Autobots and have come to Earth to, um, kill some of us and use the rest as slaves to run their maquiladoras. What are the Decepticons’ major industries? Who knows?

The plot hinges on America’s initial moon landing being motivated by a mission to check out what turns out to be an Autobot craft crashed onto the moon’s surface. Astronauts (poor Buzz Aldren, dusted off for a cameo—nice face lift by the way) bring back some metal cylinders that turn out to be important to the 'bots decades later.

Then there’s little Shia LaBeouf, back after the first two Transformer flicks, as Sam Witwicky who apparently is buddies with one of the Autobots who is, during its downtime, a cool yellow sports car. Sam has a hot girlfriend, Carly, who pays the rent on the huge, old apartment they share in D.C. Carly is played by supermodel Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, who is British. The accent goes a long way to mitigating her acting, which actually isn’t bad. Megan Fox was famously not brought back for T3, apparently after she publicly called Michael Bay a Nazi, drawing the ire of T3 producer Steven Spielberg. Anyway, one pretty face replaced with another. This is Michael Bay’s world; we only pay money to see it.

Did I mention what Transformers are? They are robots who are generally about five to ten stories tall and they scan an object of transportation—car, bus, semi truck, garbage truck—and literally transform into the object. These transformations are fast but not immediate, and they usually happen during times of strife—during a chase, say.

These are wonderful moments of flailing, scraping, crunching metal. A great scene involves a high speed chase, Decepticons against Autobots, all sports cars that transform at various moments into fighting robots. Also, call it “Transformertime” when these shots go into slow motion to give a heightened sense of time, action, and sound, and then things speed back up.

In the middle of an average Hollywood product, these little moments of strange transformations are like flashes of anarchy, of suspense and surprise—there really is no sense of reason to these hulking masses of metal. Often these guys roam around (they look like rock ‘em sock ‘em robots, so they can mostly walk, although you also get your blurry spheres that roll along like Tasmanian devils and ones that look like dogs caught in a mad scientist lab) their various parts spinning, whirring, and in some cases, slicing. Stuff that makes my inner twelve-year-old go Yeah Baby!

So, where were we? Patrick Dempsey plays Carly’s evil boss (nothing but good vs. evil in this movie), who, it turns out, is one of many humans who are helping the Decepticons take over the world and hoping that they won’t get killed or be used as slaves in Earth’s new future. He takes Carly to his evil lair on the top floor of Trump Hotel and Tower, Chicago, close to where the Decepticons are firing up their evil cylinders of death to transport a planetful of Decepticons to Earth, not to mention their entire planet (really!).

The movie is stuffed, as I say, so characters come and go. Some have been in the previous movies. John Turturro plays Simmons, a smarmy expert who is helping Frances McDormand’s military boss figure out the Decepticon’s next move.

John Malcovich has fun as a goofy corporate boss who hires Sam for a minute and a half. Josh Duhamel  plays it straight as a stalwart Captain Lennox who leads his men into battle through downtown Chicago after the Decepticons have attacked and destroyed half the city. Tyrese Gibson plays Sergeant Epps, another sidekick role (he’s so good at it), and helps Sam navigate a downtown patrolled by Decepticons of every stripe, hovering mother ships, and flying robots. These scenes after the takeover are very reminiscent of Battle: Los Angeles from earlier this year, where alien spacecraft hovered on the skyline, trailing tendrils and releasing deadly patrols.

Sam miraculously always knows where to go and what to do before everybody else, including the Army. He leads a band of Tyrese Gibson’s tough mercenaries into a building which, it turns out, starts collapsing underneath them. It’s a neat special effect as the floor keeps moving from under them and they slip and slide through the inside (and outside!) of the building like a dozen Harold Lloyds on steroids. Or a Looney Tunes short. The building, meanwhile, gets gutted and sliced by the most impressive Decepticon (they all have names, but I can’t remember them all) that looks like a cross between a moving drill bit and a deadly sandworm.

Yes, buildings collapse, metal swings through each shot like wielded ice. The screen is saturated with images. 3-D doesn’t add much to the movie. It’s mostly about bringing the foreground out from the background. (I paid $15 for this?). Also, when you put those glasses on you are looking at a dimmer, darker version of what’s projected. That gives the movie a murky look, where all scenes look like they were shot at dusk. Also, and I can’t ever remember watching a big budget Hollywood special effects spectacle and thinking this, the sound design truly seems like an afterthought. To me, this is a misstep and hurts the impact of the movie.

What’s sound design got to do with it?

Sound design “most commonly involves the manipulation of previously composed or recorded audio, such as music and sound effects.” The sound design for T3 seemed lacking. Too often the sound effects accompanying a particular action was sparse, stripped down. It was as if the sound designer chose to concentrate on one type or layer of sound, forgoing the entire possible sound experience. It was distracting when an explosion, car crash, or some ‘bot destruction didn’t yield expected sound results. The action could have been fuller, more potent, if they had taken more time putting together the soundtrack. The transformers all talk, and sometimes when they transform and fight, they utter clichéd aphorisms. Maybe the sound designer didn’t want to drown out the sparkling transformer dialogue of writer Ehren Kruger.

It could also be a logistics problem for the post production team. Sound is the very last piece of the movie puzzle to be worked on. Before you lock the sound, the picture must be finished. For these huge special effects movies I have a feeling that the sound editors don't have much time with the final picture. And so you get a rushed, incomplete movie as a result. But I’m probably the only sound design geek in the audience to notice or care.

See Transformers: Dark of the Moon if you must. I recommend you skip the 3-D version and head right to 2-D. Your wallet (if not Michael Bay) will commend you.



Theater location: Lowell Showcase, Thursday, June 30th, 6:40 pm. Price: 15.00! Viewed solo. Snack: Twizzlers, almonds.

Coming Attractions:

Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Effective and disturbing, this new origins POTA cuts right into our collective primal fears. At least, one of them: apes becoming sentient and taking over. And not in a cuddly way from the look of this mesmerizing trailer. In a way that has them attacking a highway of cars and expertly throwing axes. With James Franco, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, and Brian Cox.

Cowboys & Aliens. The more I watch this trailer, the more likely I am not to see it. It just doesn't look like much fun. Harrison Ford hasn't looked like he's enjoyed himself making a movie since the early '80s. And Daniel Craig sucks any humor or lightness out of all he surveys. But hey, maybe I'm wrong and it's great. As a father said to his son in the row behind me after this trailer ended: "They've run out of stuff to make movies about." Amen brother.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. Wow, this doesn't look like kid's stuff. It looks intense. It looks like they took all the money made from the previous movies and dumped it into this final installment. And it's in 3-D.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Tom Cruise still looks good running fast. This installment actually looks like it could kickstart this franchise, in a good way. This time Cruise has surrounded himself with a good cast, including Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Josh Holloway, and Tom Wilkinson.

Real Steel. Oh man, this looks bad. Hugh Jackman plays a father (?) who disappoints some kid (his son?) and makes it up to him by training his dilapidated robot to fight in the ring. Yes, robots. Fighting in the ring. I really thought this was a movie based on Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots. But I guess they couldn't get the rights. The acting looks poor, the film grainy and grimy.

Captain America: The First Avenger. This seems to strike the right balance of action and humor and awe. Which is what comic books are all about. And something last month's Green Lantern lacked. Chris Evans plays the titular Captain. He starts out as a short, 90 pound weakling transformed into Cap America through an experiment. Nice hook. Then he goes and fights Nazis during WWII. Co-starring Hugo Weaving, Stanley Tucci, Tommy Lee Jones, and Derek Luke.


Liz's Mom said...

Great ! I enjoyed every word of this, especially your description of the over-the-top scenes in the movie.

I appreciate how the true critic in you writes about the sound.

Great trailer previews too.

Dell Smith said...

The sound just kept nagging at me throughout the movie.

Thanks for reading!

Cynthia Sherrick said...

You have written a perceptive, insightful review of a movie that sounds (no sound pun intended) simply terrible. I kept thinking of the wasted $200 mil.

Aliens and Cowboys looks almost interesting from the 30 second trailer I saw on TV.... Almost. :)

Dell Smith said...

I see 'em so you don't have to. Transformers would only appeal to you if you were a 13-year-old boy. At least Aliens and Cowboys has adult protagonists. At least for the cowboy part.

bcromwell said...

Your review is spot on. Two and a half hours? Really? When describing the movie to my co-workers, I basically said, "Michael Bay is the equivalent to a 10-year old playing on the floor with his army men and blowing stuff up (in his head, of course) with loud sounds effects and forced throwing of cars with his tiny little hand. Bay gets to do it "for real," cuz he has $200 million dollars and I don't."

Not that there aren't 5,000 other things that don't make sense in these movies, but has anyone ever questioned the fact that these alien robots are from another planet and landed back in the 1970s, yet they are in the form of 2000's-era vehicles? How does that work?

And how is it they can be in mangling accidents and multiple explosions, and then somehow miraculously change back to untarnished, sparkly-clean vehicles? Ugh! As my friend once said, "Do not try to apply logic where it doesn't belong."

Thank you for making me laugh along with your review...and for forcing me to relive the 2 1/2 hours that I'm still trying to figure out how to get back.

Dell Smith said...

Trying to make sense if it will only lead to frustration, anger, and eventually, denial. I wish I could get you your two + hours back. All I can say is, next time don't be lured by the many shiny, 3-D objects.

Isaac said...

nice review, very long, but quite thorough. I thought the sound was off too. I could definitely see the influence of Inception on the music and sound in several scenes.

Check out my review if you're interested: