'Transformers 3' Blows Up Real Good
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Are critics unfair to director Michael Bay and his "Transformers" movies? For reasons that are frankly obscure to me, this question has been put forward by some pop culture mavens, and taken seriously by some others. As if Bay and company are entitled to something more than the zillions of dollars these film make, and the ubiquity of their characters as pop culture icons, profit-taking merchandise pieces, and convenience-store special-drink tie-ins. As if they are entitled as well to critical respect, which will, after all, arrive eventually, from the post-graduate academic realm that will someday devote reams of text to the Thousand Plateaus of the Anti-Epistemological Perplex of Optimus Prime, or some such.
Still, as the latest and supposedly last of the "Transformers" cinematic megaliths, "Dark of the Moon," opens, in massive 3-D and big, big screen, the question will grow louder: What's with all the hate? Save for a few contrarians/would-be panderers, critics tend to hate the "Transformers" movies with a passion that surpasses both reason and the snobbery that most normal folks assume critics delight in. Well, the hate could have something to do with the fact that ostensibly grown adults of a certain age resent being compelled to grapple with films in which the heroes are a race of intergalactic robots that disguise themselves as human-designed cars and trucks. And the fact that these heroes originated as toys, and that the films themselves can be said to function as promotional marketing for said toys, gives certain more crass-commercialism-conscious critics uneasy pause, to say the least.
Let's say, as a thought experiment, though, that a critic can get over these hurdles. Even having gotten over those hurdles, the fact remains that the ostensible "mythology" of the Transformers is one of the most dumbass conceits ever committed in the name of sci-fi fantasy. Some, having decided that they can absolutely roll with that, will argue that watching these CGI-ed creatures do their dizzying morphing from cars into robots and back again while performing feats of derring-do, such as snatching their human "friends" and enablers from the jaws of death, entirely justifies the idiocy of the conceit. I dunno. Call me old-school, but I love a good old-fashioned breakneck movie car chase enough that I generally don't need it spiced up by all manner of physics-stretching cybernetic kineticism. I'm funny that way.
But screw it all anyway: The "Transformers" movies exist, and this one really is the best of the three, at least where it counts. That is, its final hour-and-change contains something like a half-dozen incredibly spectacular, and surprisingly enough, relatively coherent, action/suspense/blowing-stuff-up scenes, and all of said scenes get the job done and more. I mean, this has got everything: road chases/races, aerial dogfights, people jumping out of buildings, people jumping out of helicopters and flying because they're paragliding, people sliding down the glass surface of a collapsing skyscraper -- all that and more. A Decepticon creature that looks like a cross between those huge worms from "Dune" and a really angry plumber's snake is just one of the film's more memorable mechanical-creature effects. And so on.
I seem to recall an eccentric film writer of a certain age proclaiming of a certain eccentric film, "It blinds! It deafens! There can be no higher praise." Those first two sentences can absolutely be applied to "Dark of the Moon"; that last one, your call. One thing is for sure: There's an incredible, and incredibly virtuosic amount of intricate production and effects design and execution, not to mention stunt work, on display here; and the old cliché about every dollar of the budget being visible onscreen really holds here, too. And I have to admit that during the times that I wasn't feeling whatever intelligence the movie was pummeling out of me being actively insulted, I did kind of enjoy the spectacle.
The real problems of the film are, of course, all too evident during the non-action sequences, in which Bay and screenwriter Ehren Kruger combine to come up with some of the most vulgar, prolix and crass views of work, love and familial relationships, and every other aspect of life possible. And then there's the way it shoehorns JFK, Nixon, Walter Cronkite and other innocent victims into the aforementioned stupid Transformers mythology. The spectacle of certain expert performers abasing themselves is not, admittedly, as dispiriting as it might have been; newcomer John Malkovich appears to be paying homage to the character he portrayed in the little-seen "Knockaround Guys," which might amuse the few who've seen "Knockaround Guys." And Frances McDormand, playing a stiff State Department apparatchik, probably not only collected a hefty paycheck but won a few juicy bets pertaining to how long she could keep a straight face while wading through the scenario's bull you-know-what.
On the other hand, there's star Shia LaBeouf's screeching, Patrick Dempsey's phoned-in smirking, and Bay's rather icky dirty old man-ism, which is all the more irritating given that the director isn't yet 50. He gives us our first glimpse of female lead Rosie Huntington-Whiteley (forever to be known henceforth as Not Megan Fox) from behind, in her underwear, going up a flight of stairs, and the light source (ostensibly the morning sun through a window) is positioned so as to illuminate every ... It's a bit much. And I haven't even mentioned Leonard Nimoy's voice work, and the soul-killing "Star Trek" joke it engenders. Not that it matters. There's really no point in giving this a bad review, so I tried to look on the bright side for our sake here. "We all work for the Decepticons now," one character intones about two-thirds of the way through the picture. Dude doesn't know the half of it.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.