Transformers: Dark of the Moon | Film review
In Transformers 3, Michael Bay levels Chicago, but basic spatial coherence would have helped.
Last summer, as trucks deposited piles of rubble and scorched cars on Michigan Avenue and the sounds of gunfire rang out along Wacker Drive, it was hard not to wonder how Bay would make sense of the mayhem he’d brought to our city.
If you can sit through the first hour and three-quarters of Transformers: Dark of the Moon without nodding off, you still won’t have answers. Although the river has helped the director achieve cardinal orientation—a Bay first—the film mostly levels Chicago in an overproduced, blurry hash. It’s depressing to watch a movie two blocks from where it was shot and not be able to get one’s bearings.
By the time the action has (inexplicably) shifted to town, Dark of the Moon has more or less given up on narrative, and so the experience of watching it suggests a high-velocity version of Where’s Waldo. What am I looking at? The Trump Tower is initially labeled as a Decepticon stronghold, but then becomes the launching point for a heroic base-jump. The Crain Communications Building is transformed into a portal that will bring about the end of the world, and the tower formerly known as Sears is name-checked by its new moniker. As far as I can tell, the glass skyscraper everyone slides down does not exist. The Tribune gets a buzz cut, but the destruction of Marina City is seen only as background while new-model fembot Huntington-Whiteley stares in slo-mo at…I’m not sure what. I have in my notes that the Wrigley Building gets punched, but I’d need an extra shot or two to be sure.
If every man destroys the thing he loves, Bay’s love for Chicago is so pure we should harness it as a form of renewable energy. It’s difficult to think of another film in which a single city is subjected to 45 minutes of continuous pummeling. At the end, there is a speech about how the Autobots are sworn to protect humanity—excluding downtown, one presumes, which hasn’t been covered with so much ash since 1871.
It’s at this point that I should confess to being a wavering Bay apologist, having enjoyed the first Transformers and not hated the second, which I took as the ne plus ultra of a certain type of filmmaking: an action-movie parody that managed to be offensive in all dimensions (visually, narratively, sonically, politically) and was, prior to The Tree of Life, the most abstract film unleashed on mainstream theaters in our time. Why explain how the characters got from Paris to Cairo? Not since early experiments with montage had editing been so disjunctive or free.
Or, you know, maybe I was on crack. In every conventional sense, Dark of the Moon is a better film. There is a story one can sometimes follow, and I admit to feeling slightly stirred when Optimus Prime informed Sam Witwicky (LaBeouf) that from that point on, the fight would be humanity’s own. Everything is supersized. To paraphrase the Dude on Jackie Treehorn, Bay treats women like he treats cars, and cars are exalted in the Bay universe. In Dark of the Moon, he’s turned the Milwaukee Art Museum into a giant showroom.
But whatever pleasures one takes from looking at sleek technology, pretty colors and leggy blonds—Bay cuts straight from the title card to a pair of gams—digital technology has the effect of making everything look cheap. The 3-D glasses put the shades on his trademark sunsets.
With the filmmaker busy trying to fake citywide destruction using tight shots of debris and camera-copters, direction of the human scenes seems to have been farmed out to focus groups and robots. The script is credited to Ehren Kruger (The Ring), and the prologue, introducing a back story of how the space race was actually a cover-up for an investigation of the Transformers’ own moon landing, entertainingly defaces history with manufactured footage of JFK and Robert McNamara. Tasked with continuing this thread in the present day (Buzz Aldrin cameo!), McDormand as the “director of national intelligence” gets a pass.
Still, anyone who thought audiences wanted to watch Sam endure a wacky montage of job interviews is doing sloppy research. Ditto the homophobic, vaguely racist jokes involving his eventual nerd coworker (Jeong), whose hasty exit elicits snide commentary from company president Malkovich (an actor who has never radiated more contempt for his material). Sam’s parents visit at seemingly random intervals, and there is a dull, goofy subplot involving Sam’s jealousy over his girlfriend (Megan Fox replacement Huntington-Whiteley) and her flirtations with her boss (Dempsey).
The story is not so much linear as a series of micro-incidents to be visited and dropped at will. Having spent half the movie stonewalling Sam, McDormand’s government heavy inexplicably decides to start sharing secrets with him at a pivotal moment. Bay starts a raid in the Middle East, then forgets about it. (It’s a political film.) The plot involves the Decepticons’ plan to transport weapons of mass destruction to Earth. As it turns out, our intel is bad on that one. The official September 11 mantra is evoked with the exhortation “let’s roll,” a preemptive apology for toppling skyscrapers.
Equal opportunity in his destructive impulses, Bay also beheads the Lincoln Memorial and explains the true technology behind Chernobyl. When we finally land in Chicago, a Transformer immediately gives the order to secure the city—which is code for “move all people offscreen.” This lowers the dramatic stakes considerably, and was also, one presumes, a way of avoiding further continuity errors while the crew shot the area over several weeks. In this sense, Dark of the Moon is a monument to minimalism. It was hard to get a clear glimpse of the wreckage, but I’m pretty sure all the Mies van der Rohe is still standing.