Things I Learned From Movie X
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
By Edwin Davies
January 9, 2012

Is Optimus Prime kneeling and begging? That doesn't seem very heroic.

Hello from Things I Learned From Movie X Towers! I trust that you all had a great Christmas and New Year and are busy preparing for the coming apocalypse. I know I did and am. As we hurtle towards the fateful day in December when everyone suddenly realises that we're getting all worked up just because the Mayans forgot to buy a new calendar, we need to fill our days with as much meaning and joy as possible, and what better way than writing and/or reading scathing dissections of terrible movies? Sure, you could spend time with your loved ones or try to live your dreams, but there's bile to be flung, and I'll be damned if I'm going to do it without an audience.

For the first column of the New Year, I decided to watch the staggeringly successful third movie in the Transformers franchise which, in true Transformers tradition, is a garish parade of nonsense with a subtitle that makes less sense after you've seen the film than it did beforehand. But just because Michael Bay's film is the sort of ghastly cultural artifact that future generations will look back on and say, "Wow, no wonder they were all wiped out by Mothra," doesn't mean that there is no value in it. Well, okay, it does, but tearing it to pieces is a lot more fun than surrendering to the crushing despair that its very existence engenders.

$140 million doesn't buy what it used to, it seems.

Easily the best part of the film is its pre-credits sequence - which, considering it's two and a half hours long, is a very, very bad sign - which reveals that the Space Race was actually started after an Autobot ship known as The Ark crash-landed on the Moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are sent up to investigate and discover a bunch of magic rods that do...something, conveniently missing the giant sleeping robot that is also contained there, the search for which drives the rest of the story. As someone who studied History for my degree, I'm kind of a sucker for alternate histories, and one that taps into the always fertile ground of conspiracy theories surrounding the Moon Landings is pretty much guaranteed to appeal to me, especially one that manages to get the real Buzz Aldrin to show up and pretend to talk to a robot about the secret history of space travel, though he sadly doesn't get a chance to talk about his fear of ruffled chips.

However, Dark of the Moon fumbles pretty much at the very beginning when, in a misguided attempt at verisimilitude, it includes a scene in which a CGI-enhanced JFK is informed of the strange object crashing into the Moon and gives the order to accelerate the Space Race. The Transformers films are many things, but "cheap" isn't one of them. It costs a lot of money to make them, as shitty as they are, and where it matters, i.e. the scenes of colossal destruction, the money is up on screen. Where it doesn't show up is in little moments like Kennedy, who looks like his face was created using the graphics engine from The Sims. I'm not saying that Transformers: Dark of the Moon is terrible just because one character looks bad, but it's the sort of distractingly terrible detail that lets you know almost subliminally that the people making the film don't really care about doing anything well, and that particular effect is so bad that the only scenario in which it is convincing is if they are depicting Kennedy post-Dallas.

What a cast! Shame they aren't in a better film.

I don't think there is any film in history that can boast a bigger disparity between how utterly, irredeemably awful it is and how absolutely packed its cast is with great, fun actors. My viewing of the film went something like this: "Hey, there's John Malkovich In A Funny Wig! Hey, there's Ken Jeong being sort of abrasive and weird! Hey, there's Oscar-winner Frances MacDormand, who clearly took the gig before her husband directed True Grit, thereby assuring that neither of them would ever have to take a stupid paycheck job like Intolerable Cruelty or Transformers: Piper At Gates again!" (In fact, taken out of context, you would assume that cast list would be for a Coen Brothers film, especially when you throw John Turturro into the mix.) Even the margins of the film are stacked with ringers, including a small role for comedian Andy Daly, who is probably best known for his work on Eastbound and Down and literally reduced me to tears of laughter once whilst I was listening to him play a suicidal German on an episode of Comedy Bang Bang. They even got Leonard Nimoy to come out of semi-retirment to voice the character of Sentinel Prime, the former leader of the Autobots. It seemed almost every other scene featured the introduction of someone who should, theoretically improve the film.

Yet they don't make the film any better, and you know there's a problem when you find yourself thinking, "Bill O'Reilly, even you're too good for this, and I'm pretty sure you were sent here by the Devil." This is largely because at the center of the film is Shia LaBeouf, the least charismatic leading actor in the history of cinema, though this time around his performance is livelier than usual, in that he spends most of it screaming out of anger and frustration, rather than simpering and running around. It's hard to tell if that change was in the script, or if he was slowly realizing what a mess he had made of his life and had a real-life breakdown on screen. Watching LaBeouf stumble and scream his way through the film is the cinematic equivalent of being seated next to the guy who talks to his own nail clippings on the bus.

Not only is LaBeouf a black hole into which all fun, life and hope is sucked, but he's teamed up with Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, a model who's so vacant you'd be forgiven for thinking that she had been replaced by a wipe-clean sex doll in some scenes. Then again, at least the sex doll would have been able to convey shock and surprise more convincingly. The film is so brazen about its attitude towards Huntington-Whiteley's character - that she is there just to look nice in not very much - that the first shot of the film after the prologue is a long tracking shot of her ass as she walks up some stairs in the hilariously over-sized apartment she shares with LaBeouf. On top of that, within minutes of that a small, annoying Transformer walks through her legs and stares up her skirt, after which we are informed he was apparently caught going through her underwear days before, then he talks about how much he didn't like Sam's old girlfriend (i.e. Megan Fox). It's nice of Michael Bay to include a surrogate for himself in the film. Real artistic and shit.

However, it would be remiss of me to forget to say at this point that Alan Tudyk is pretty fun as Dutch, an ex-CIA operative and espionage genius who occasionally has psychotic breaks. If anyone ever made a spin-off just about the wacky adventures that Dutch gets up to whenever the giant robots aren't around I would be there opening day.

You know, for a film that's about giant robots fighting...

Now, I have been pretty negative about Transformers: Dark of the Moon up until this point, and defenders of the film usually take umbrage at this, because nothing threatens their sense of self-worth more than someone trashing a movie they like about fictional metal men. The typical response to any criticism of Bay's Transformers series is that they're just films about robots fighting each other, and that they aren't meant to be taken seriously.

Whilst I agree that a film about robots fighting each other shouldn't be taken seriously, I don't think that argument applies to the Transformers films because, for films about giant robots fighting, there are hardly any scenes in which giant robots fight. Dark of the Moon is two and a half fucking hours long, of which maybe 20 to 30 minutes consists of robots fighting each other, which makes for two long hours in which almost nothing of interest happens.

Hell, the first hour of the film only has one big space battle, which barely counts as an action scene because a) it is set in the past so doesn't have any real stakes to it and b) lasts all of two minutes, and one scene in which the Autobots are shown attacking a checkpoint in the Middle East as part of an escort mission, because their new role involves preventing conflicts on Earth by...attacking things. Y'know, just like how firemen prevent attempts at arson by burning buildings down first. The rest of the hour alternates between scenes of Sam struggling to get a job, getting jealous about how friendly his girlfriend is with her sleazy boss (Patrick Dempsey) and assorted Transformers talking to each other about The Ark. Oh, there's also terrible comedy, a load of scenes in which people talk at length about the film's superfluous and uninteresting mythology, and a distressing number of gay panic jokes for a film made in 2011. When a Transformers film consists more of them talking to each other than it does them punching each other in the face, things have gone terribly awry, unless that version has been directed by Ingmar Bergman.

Not only are there not enough fighting robots in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the scenes of them fighting are so rushed and inexpertly handled that they can't help but disappoint, even in comparison to the barren stretches of the film in which dull, unlikeable characters talk about things no one cares about. Much of the last half hour of the film consists of the Autobots and the Decepticons duking it out through the streets of Chicago, which gets such a thorough thrashing in the process that it makes you wonder if it touched Michael Bay inappropriately when he was a child. Each time they come within spitting distance of each other, a hurried fight happens which, rather than building tension and suspense through the use of time and space, ends in roughly 10 to 15 seconds. Even the final fight between Optimus and Megatron gets short shrift, consisting as it does of Optimus driving an axe into his enemy's head literally five seconds after they start fighting. Transformers: Dark of the Moon is like a spectacularly bad date that consists mostly of a long, awkward dinner and ends with premature ejaculation.

So, there you have it. The reason that Dark of the Moon is terrible, and why pretty much the whole Transformers trilogy is godawful, is not that they are crass, boorish pieces of trash with no wit, invention or charm to them (though they are); it's not that they are sexist, morally empty and borderline racist (though they are); it's because they are long, boring films about robots engaged in a millennia long Civil War that feature hardly any scenes in which the robots actually fight each other, and those that do occur are so haphazardly handled that they might as well not happen at all.

Well done, Michael Bay: you made the spectacle of giant robots hitting each other boring, and it only took you seven hours and over $400 million dollars to do it. Now, please continue to only make Transformers films, because you've already fucked that up and I dread to think what other subjects you could ruin if you turned your hands to them.