The latest Transformers film is almost precisely the hollow exercise many were expecting. But will it save 3D?
How do you really ‘review’ a film like Transformers: Dark of the Moon?
After all, this is a tent pole release that gives a huge middle fingered salute to the critics who loathe them and revels in the mindless thrills it serves up to audiences eager to part with their cash.
For two and half hours, we get the same template: alien robots transform before beating each other up, military people debate what to do (before deciding to blow up stuff anyway) and a young man (Shia Le Beouf) is caught up in all the action with his girlfriend (the fact that he has a new one here really makes no difference).
At times, the story didn’t entirely seem to make sense but involves the evil alien robots (Decepticons) tricking the decent ones (Autobots), after an important discovery which the US government has kept secret since 1969.
So in essence, this is just an empty retread of the basic elements of the series and whilst not quite as bad as the previous film, still provides precious little in the manner of genuine excitement or emotion.
But there is another side to the third Transformers movie which makes it an interesting case study, as it contains many elements (expensive visual effects, 3D) that typify the modern Hollywood release in 2011.
As we speak, an army of regular critics are desperately trying to pen anguished words on why a film like this even exists, why Michael Bay is Satan and that they got a headache from all the noisy action.
But we all kind of knew that going into this didn’t we?
It’s not like he hired Bela Tarr to do a page one rewrite of the script because of the negative reactions to the last film.
However, this release may have interesting implications for mainstream cinema going, coming after two blockbusters this summer (Pirates 4 and Green Lantern) were judged to have disappointing returns on 3D tickets.
Bay and Paramount have spent a lot of time and money trying to make this not only a big summer blockbuster, but one that gives an extra lift to the 3D format, which some see as vital to Hollywood’s long term future.
So instead of writing a ‘regular review’, here are 10 points that struck me after watching it.
BAY PUMPED TO THE MAX
This film almost plays like an extended tribute reel to the director.
At times it feels like that self-deprecating commercial he did for Verizon:
All of the signature Bay touches are here: swooping helicopter shots, an ‘inspirational’ musical score, fast cars, women filmed like models (he’s even cast one in a lead role), bright colours, men walking towards the camera in slow motion and – of course – slick, hyperactive editing.
And let’s not forget the choppers at sunset:
THE 3D DOESN’T REALLY WORK
Whatever side of the 3D camp you are on (and I’ve been very disappointed with the mainstream releases over the last 18 months) there is no doubt some are looking for this to inject new life back in to the format.
Previously a sceptic, Bay has admitted producer Steven Spielberg and James Cameron persuaded him to use the special 3D cameras invented for Avatar.
Bay and Cameron even recently had a lengthy sit-down together at a preview screening in order to build excitement for the film (which judging by the early geek reaction largely worked).
Paramount has gone to great lengths to combat the traditional (and accurate) complaint that 3D films are just too dim.
This resulted in the studio coming up with enhanced prints and Bay has even penned a letter to cinemas urging them to set the brightness levels correctly.
After watching this at one of the best cinemas in London (Odeon Leicester Square), it still looked too dark.
An inherent flaw with 3D films (as technology currently stands) is that they lose up to 80 per cent (!) of their brightness.
Here some sequences have shots which utilise depth well, but Bay’s natural tendency for quick cuts and frenetic action isn’t really suited to the format.
Bay also admitted that he shot faces with 35mm as he wasn’t happy with the conversion process, which sounded like a lot of time and money was spent on it.
But was all this effort worth it? When I looked at the spectacular action scenes, part of me just wanted to see them with proper levels of brightness and colour.
The bottom line is that when I go to the cinema I want that extra visual pop, because that’s part of what makes the medium so special and visually superior to home entertainment.
As it stands, 3D is hindering and not helping cinemas.
GOOFY COMEDY CHARACTERS
The silly comedy characters are now just annoying: in the first film Sam Witwicky’s parents were an acceptable supporting act, whilst in the second film they had become a serious nuisance.
Here their screen time is mercifully brief but weird, comedy supporting characters appear seemingly at random.
John Malkovich crops up as a boss with a weird voice who has an unexplained fetish for yellow, whilst Ken Jeong is a strange, hyperactive office worker and there are some dumb ‘pet’ robots thrown in for good measure.
I guess the point is to provide comic relief but it just ends up as distracting.
THE FINAL SECTION
The final battle sequence is epic but drags in the context of the overall film.
Lasting over over an hour, it contains some impressive scenes (such as live action skydiving stunts) but the curious side effect is that you become numb to it the longer it goes on.
That said, a lot of paying audiences are going to eat up he sky diving scenes and the bit where a building is being squeezed.
A-GRADE VISUAL EFFECTS
Lazier critics might just assume the visual effects on these films will be good given their budgets.
But treated separately, the work ILM and Digital Domain have done in bringing these robots to life has been stunning.
The level of detail in some of the set pieces (especially a collapsing building, complete with reflective glass) is extremely impressive, whilst the integration with the lighting gives it an extra kick.
Although the first film was robbed of the visual effects Oscar in 2007 (to The Golden Compass!), it is now the clear frontrunner for this category.
It seemed that this film was done with the co-operation of NASA (you’ll see why if you watch the first teaser trailer) and it even features a surprising cameo from a certain astronaut.
Only the most deranged viewer would believe in the fictional events depicted here, but could this film help stoke the popular mistruths about the Apollo missions that Capricorn One (1978) helped usher in during the 1970s?
WEIRD WORLD WAR II METAPHOR?
A significant plot development (which is firmly in spoiler territory) appears to be some kind of weird metaphor for World War II and how certain nations collaborated with an occupying invader.
This plot line also features the obligatory scene where the villain explains everything. Maybe Bay was getting nostalgic for when he shot Pearl Harbor?
These films also have a fetish for the military running right through them, so maybe it stems from that.
Watch out too for a bizarre reference to Iran’s nuclear weapons programme, which I certainly never expected from a Michael Bay movie, although his DP Amir Mokri is Iranian, so possibly its some kind of in-joke.
THE GENERATIONAL DIVIDE
This franchise exposes an interesting divide between the discerning critics who almost universally loathe them and the younger, paying audiences that lap them up.
Although even some fans of the first film didn’t like the second, it still grossed an enormous amount (over $800m worldwide), which suggests that despite their obvious shortcomings they provide the kind of action spectacle mainstream global audiences enjoy watching during the summer.
At the screening I attended, sections of the crowd were visibly excited and even cheered at one scene.
Despite the lack of interesting characters and story, their financial success seems to be because they mix elements of computer games (all shoot ‘em up and fighting robots) with a fairground ride (bright colours, quick movement).
Plus, we shouldn’t forget that an influential group of geeks grew up with the TV show and toys during the 1980s.
Employing Dolby’s new 7.1 surround system Bay’s sound team have really surpassed themselves here. This Soundworks video explains how the many sounds were achieved:
The range of sounds is fantastic and although they sometimes go overboard with the levels, it gives some sequences a real lift. As with the visual effects, this is a likely contender in the sound categories come the awards season.
INFLUENCE OF NOLAN?
This might sound odd, but for stretches of the film I got the feeling that Bay is a big fan of the Christopher Nolan Batman films.
Not only does the climactic battle take place in the same Chicago locations as The Dark Knight (especially Wacker Drive) but there are little music and sound beats that seem to echo that film.
Shia LeBeouf has revealed that Bay wanted to play him some ‘Batman orchestral’ music (presumably Hans Zimmer and James Newton’s score) before a key sequence.
One wonders if the director secretly craves to make an action movie that is embraced by both audiences and critics in the way the Batman films or Inception were.
Of course there are major differences (in quality as much as anything else) but in the last hour Nolan popped into my head more than once.
So where does this all leave us?
Pretty much where we began, as critical opinion and commercial success will follow the usual Bay formula.
Whether it can save the current trend for 3D is the really interesting question.
> Find out more about the Transformers movies at Wikipedia
> Reviews of Transformers: Dark of the Moon at Metacritic
> Hilarious GQ profile of Michael Bay featuring input from people he’s worked with down the years
> Variety on the 3D release of the film