Yap vs. Yap — Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Two guys. Four hands. Bare knuckles. That’s right. It’s time for another round of Yap vs. Yap.
This time, the battle concerns the heavyweight blockbuster “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.”
In the red corner, we have Smokin’ Joe Shearer, who’s hoppin’ mad about Bay violating his dear, sweet childhood for a third time. In the blue corner, we have Quick Nick Rogers, who comes into this bout with a 6-3 record of liking Bay’s films … including this one. By coin-flip, Nick was allowed to throw the first punch and Joe the final blow.
NICK: America has now been cleared to resume physical activity after its latest concussion from Michael Bay. And no, it’s not a sign of long-term brain damage to say “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” — though indefensible in many ways — is the summer’s best blockbuster so far. (“Super 8,” “Kung Fu Panda 2″ and “Midnight in Paris” are the summer’s best overall, but none is a “blockbuster” — especially the last, unless you’re writing a dissertation on Gertrude Stein.)
Thus far, 2011’s purported summer blockbusters have fizzled, not sizzled. “Thor” continued Marvel’s long introductory slog toward next summer’s “The Avengers.” The fourth “Pirates” is the most depressingly awful movie to earn $1 billion worldwide. “The Hangover Part II,” though admirably darker than its forefather, was still just so-so. “X-Men: First Class” felt more like “Austin Powers 4″ than a worthwhile preboot. “Green Lantern” was cool … were it 1995.
So it was with no small amount of skepticism that I settled in for the third in a franchise that has consumed Bay’s time since his career seemed on the ropes after 2005’s middling “The Island.” (For what it’s worth, Bay has made nine movies, and I’ve liked six of them, so my knives have never been out for him.) In the original, I admired the marriage of Bayhem with executive producer Steven Spielberg’s wonderment — kind of like Ka-Blamblin Entertainment. The second film, though, collapsed into a catastrophic mess of shouted exposition, needless complications, robo-scrotums, John Turturro’s ass, racist robots and a Megan Fox performance so bad Bay put a helicopter onscreen during her big emotional moment to distract the audience.
There are parts of “Dark of the Moon’s” first hour that flirt with that same kind of disaster — a needlessly long prologue with a ridiculously rubber-faced CG version of JFK, an incoherently edited Decepticon ambush at Chernobyl, Sam Witwicky’s parents (who wore out their welcome in the second film). But I think Shia LaBeouf has, over three films as Sam, generated enough goodwill to garner sympathy as a millennial struggling to stake his claim on the job market when his worldly accomplishments must be kept secret. In its own subtle way, I think it also emphasizes the struggles in a romantic relationship between people on opposite extremes of their 20s and, green as she is, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley is an improvement over Fox.
But once that selling-point siege on Chicago starts — a jaw-dropping mix of stuntwork and special effects — that’s where “DotM” takes its place as the summer’s true (and likely only) action juggernaut. It’s endlessly thrilling — with the first live-action, fictional 3D worth paying for since “Avatar” and scenes in which it’s clear Bay has changed, and challenged, his approach, to match the technology’s capabilities. There are times when this feels like nothing you’ve quite seen before — at least at the scope and scale of all that money splayed out onscreen — and, for all its flaws, “Dark of the Moon” nails that giddy feeling.
JOE: Nick, you ignorant slut. The third “Transformers” movie, while not the worst of the three, is not enough of a marked improvement to say it’s the movie of the summer. (The second is just so purely, legendarily bad that it would be difficult to strip of the franchise-worst title.)
I actually enjoyed the first “Transformers” movie. Sure, it had most of the same flaws as the other two movies, but it at least adhered to the rules of an action movie: There are good guys and bad guys who fight each other. In “Transformers,” it’s the Autobots vs. the Decepticons, and the film ended with a fight between mortal enemies Optimus Prime and Megatron, the leaders of their respective camps.
In both the second and third films, Bay introduced an alternate antagonist; in the second it was the Fallen, ostensibly Megatron’s boss whose appearance, by the way, was never explained. He was just suddenly there. In this film, it’s Sentinel Prime, who is, for all intents and purposes, Optimus Prime’s boss (coincidentally or perhaps not), and he interjected himself into the proceedings at the end of the film. Hell, Megatron was sitting down, practically chillin’ with a margarita, for a good part of that epic one-hour finale of an action scene while everyone else is fighting.
Everything about Transformers is seeing the ultimate good guy take on the ultimate bad guy. Imagine if one of the “Lethal Weapon” movies ended with Joe Pesci taking on the villain or if “The Dark Knight” concluded with Alfred taking down the Joker, or “Star Wars” concluded with Luke Skywalker fighting Lando Calrissian. It wouldn’t work. I overlooked the considerable flaws of the first “Transformers” because at the end Bay staged a fight between those two. It was on the lame side, but to me it was a promise of more to come in the sequels we knew were coming soon. (I actually said leaving the theater that the fight was a little weak, but Megatron will be back to have the ultimate battle down the line.)
Here’s the thing Michael Bay can’t understand on a fundamental level: The Transformers are characters. They’re not high-tech cars for him to bang together like a 6-year-old with his Matchbox cars on Christmas morning. Aside from Optimus Prime, other than outward appearance and each one having a different accent, there is virtually nothing to distinguish one from another. Instead, Bay focuses too much on the human characters, mostly because he doesn’t have the imagination or the skill as a filmmaker to imbue real life into pieces of metal or, at the very least, because he’d rather have camera-sex with the hot women in his movie.
Yes, the movie’s first hour or so was hideous. For the rest of this discussion, though, I’m going to do my best to ignore that part of it, where Shia LeBeouf spent most of his time screaming at everyone for no good reason whatsoever while Ken Jeong tried to hump his leg, Patrick Demspey tried to hump his girl, and the only robots in the picture were Wheelie (who spent the second movie humping Megan Fox’s leg) and Wheelie’s where-the-hell-did-this-thing-come-from sidekick, who took Skids’ and Mudflap’s places as the idiotbot. But I expected that going in and was willing to overlook it if the last battle was as awesome as I wanted to it to be.
NICK: I’m not saying it’s the movie of the summer. I’m saying it’s the blockbuster of the summer — meaning the best movie intended first and foremost as a pure-action thrill machine. Honestly, the only remaining “blockbusters” are “Captain America,” “Cowboys & Aliens” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” One looks terrible (“Apes”), one’s a toss-up (“America”) and “Aliens” looks pretty good. So maybe I will eat these words.
Back to the movie at hand. You complain about Sentinel Prime as yet another interloper between the iconic battle of Optimus Prime and Megatron. What I liked about the twist to Sentinel’s story is how it upends the Autobots’ game plan going forward. What’s overlooked about “DotM” is that, for all the fury of its final hour, it at least considers the chess-game strategies of war before unleashing its cannons. There’s strategizing by Sam and the Autobots, and when those strategies go out the window, they’re forced to improvise, guerrilla-style. In crafting what essentially becomes a war film, screenwriter Ehren Kruger at least squeezed in a few minutes of tactical planning.
In your review, you said Michael Bay raped your childhood. Look, I loved the Transformers as a kid, too, and staged epic backyard battles with them just like any other boy. But I’m not so wedded to Optimus and Megatron as archetypes of good and evil that, as a grown man, I was disappointed at the brevity of their final battle. Was it shorter than I expected? Yes, but it didn’t leave me feeling robbed by any stretch. Honestly, what I’ve enjoyed most about the best parts of the “Transformers” films and the live-action “G.I. Joe” film were the notions of seeing someone else make these backyard battles writ large with big-time budgets.
I think your childhood affection for the property is clouding your adult assessment of how easily these films could lose people by focusing more exclusively on the robots. Aside from Optimus and Bumblebee, there’s no need to personify more than one or two (which, arguably, “DotM” does in Sentinel and Megatron). Look at something like “The Golden Compass,” which strained to characterize CGI-warrior bears and looked like the world’s most violent Coca-Cola ad for doing so.
I’m obviously not suggesting CGI characters can’t be as fully realized as flesh-and-blood counterparts. Benjamin Button and Gollum immediately come to mind. But if you were to put nearly exclusive focus on 10 or 12 robots for two hours, you’ll lose Johnny Moviegoer. And while I couldn’t tell you Josh Duhamel or Tyrese Gibson’s characters’ names if you put a gun to my head, they’re not the identifiable characters here, either. It’s pretty much just Sam Witwicky, how he receives respective mentoring and friendship from Optimus and Bumblebee, and, in “DotM,” makes an active decision to pursue heroism rather than fall into it via circumstance.
JOE: OK, I can’t argue with anything you say there, but damnit, that’s what I’ve wanted, all I’ve wanted, from the very beginning. And who else is he making that movie for but people like me, like us, who watched it as kids? I don’t need 20 different Transformers fully fleshed, but, say, three on each side with some sort of personality. What we got was three slivers of personality. Optimus is heroic; he’s the robotic John Wayne as I’ve said over and over. Megatron’s egotistical tyranny is his sole character trait. And Starscream is a slimy, backstabbing suckup. That’s it.
Bumblebee has none. He just talks in radio voice. (By the way, that was fixed in the first movie, broken again with no explanation in the second, and back to radio voice with sentences in this). Same with Ironhide, who has been utterly wasted in the entire series.
And I’m glad you brought up “G.I. Joe.” I’d have loved to have seen Michael Bay’s take on the Joes rather than Stephen Sommers’ dicey vision. Bay’s would have been out-and-out lunacy and he probably would have had twice as many characters and vehicles. That’s what the last hour of this film was to me — a virtual G.I. Joe movie with giant anonymous robots subbed in for some of the characters. But Bay focuses as much on the humans fighting as the robots. Toomuch, I’d say, but again, I would have overlooked it to get the simple proper resolution. I am OK with the soldiers beating down the Decepticons; I am not, however, good with Shia taking one down virtually solo, especially not the one he took down.
I was actually impressed with the robot-on-robot battles for the most part; I loved Prime in the second movie whenever he was fighting, and had that final battle been all Megatron/Optimus, I would have been peeing my pants with the giddy urine of a fanboy in the throes of geek passion. And I liked Sentinel Prime as a character and was even fine with the movie’s big twist (save one bit; revisit my comments on Ironhide). Plus, as you said, the tactical stuff was great and it was a fun chess game, except that Bay took one of his kings off the board. Unfortunately, that one moment was a dealbreaker. Why are we even having a Transformers movie if we’re not going to let them do their thing?
Other things that are more minor: Why did all of the Decepticons in this movie suddenly have a drooling problem? All of them were slobbering like friggin’ Marmaduke. And lastly, when I first saw the little critters scurrying around Megatron’s head, I thought they were some kind of repair bots fixing his damage from the previous movie. Only he kept picking them off and squashing them and his face never fixed, so I assumed they were just some kind of robotic lice or something.
NICK: I’d say he’s primarily making it for people who love spectacle — stupid or otherwise — and remember the characters with a more casual nostalgia (as well as those people’s kids). A movie that fell prey to the fanboy folly is “Watchmen” — a good movie, mind you, but one that still feels slavishly restricted to hitting all the beats of its source material. Had the initial “Transformers” — or even the sequel — adhered so closely to canon, I doubt it would have been a hit. Hell, when I first heard Michael Bay was doing a “Transformers” movie, I laughed and thought that might be the movie to finish him off.
As to the robots receiving half-characterizations, well, I don’t know if I want to see Bay depict a robot being sad beyond the moment Bumblebee thinks he’s met his maker in “DotM.” I have a feeling that if there was robotic drool to start with, Bay’s next level of showing sadness would be oil tears. In regard to Bumblebee’s radio voice being broken and mysteriously fixed, I’ll take your word for it. Sadly, the two things I remember most about “Revenge of the Fallen” are the aforementioned Turturro ass and robo-scrotum. I, too, presumed they were supposedly repair ‘bots that Megatron swatted away in some sort of denial/anger, but honestly, I didn’t give too much thought to it.
Like you, I found it silly that Shia became some sort of swift-sprinting super-soldier in the final moments of the movie — vaulting cars like some sort of metrosexual, urban Duke boy. But as to him taking down one singlehandedly, well, I attribute that to the motivation of active heroism behind all his scrambling around.
Another plus about “DotM” is that it has that feeling of finality — titanic action too tough to top with a similar scenario and a natural stopping point for the characters it’s featured since 2007. Yes, there’s already talk of another trilogy (with a different director and Jason Statham as a potential star), but “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” is a perfect argument for the creative quagmire awaiting a dragged-out franchise these days. For people who liked 66 percent of this trilogy (like me), it’s time to let it go and move on to something else. For people like you who feel childhood memories have now thrice been violated, there’s no more need to rack up the therapy bill.
I think it’s a good stopping point (at least for me) to say this: I hope I’m not sitting near you at the movie that makes you piss your pants with giddiness. Good talk, though.
JOE: To close out our conversation, let me say that I agree that the finality of this is a good thing. If they want to reboot this down the line, they can, although that is already getting tired as a device. The curse of doing something innovative, as JJ Abrams did for “Star Trek,” is that there will be a hundred or more lousy reuses of that very same device. “Transformers” is ripe for that poor treatment.
I also would agree that seeing these robots emote isn’t necessarily a good thing; I’d just like to see a modicum of personality or variance in the Transformers. With the exception of the three or four Decepticons we’d met already, in the final battle there were dozens of anonymous robots, none even distinguishable from the others.
I unfortunately remember most all of “Fallen,” from the embarrassment of having my son with me watching the robo-scrot to even some of the horrific innuendo he couldn’t get — like the “lick my popsicle” line on the Autobot ice cream truck, pot brownies, robot-on-human sexual violence (two separate incidents). Some of that was toned down in “Moon,” but Bay let me down in one final way with this series — not by the dozen or so ridiculous things he put in, but by one or two very simple things that he ridiculously left out.