Shock, awe, and the life-sucking abyss: 8 notes on Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon

1) As the uber-blockbuster of the summer, Michael Bay's Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon has enough firepower, swooping camera movement, race car mise en scene, jingoistic shots of soldiers running into position, and flying robots crashing into buildings to make one's writing feel small. Transformers 3 is all about the spectacle of size and the obliteration of puny human concerns like movie criticism. When the movie finds time to mock Tweeters, bloggers, and authors of books, it keeps suggesting the question: what form of promotion can remotely compare to the military precision of this Steven Spielberg-produced onslaught? Even Fox TV gets both its product placement and its comeuppance as yet another opportunistic network.

2) Michael Bay is in the business of manufacturing pseudo-awe. His hack-workmanship has attained a level of sophistication that at least merits some rhetorical analysis. How does he attempt to persuade the viewer to bow down to his third vision of a Hasbro robot war?

3) The beginning of the movie resembles the start of Green Lantern with its grand views of outer space and a voiceover narration describing recent intergalactic strife. A losing war with the Decepticons has left the poor Autobots scrambling to hide something in outer space. Their ship crash lands on the dark side of the moon. Sensors on earth notice its mysterious dull thud, and this event jumpstarts a space war between the US and USSR in 1961.

Bay splices together black and white period footage of John F. Kennedy, Walter Cronkite, and grainy shots of the Apollo flight to create a sense of wonder over Armstrong's "one small step for man" onto the moon. Already, the viewer is obliged to nostalgically thrill in this historical moment just before Bay lets us in on a little secret. The Apollo mission had a hidden agenda to go explore the aforementioned massive Autobot spaceship. An astronaut discovers a slumbering Autobot and says in awe "My Lord, a giant face, Jesus. We are not alone" just before Bay cuts to another object of worship--Victoria's Secret model Rose Huntington-Whiteley (Carly) as she walks upstairs to wake Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) from his slumber.

4) After the film jumps to the present day, it has some fun at Witwicky's expense, which left me wondering how much Bay takes pleasure in humiliating LaBoeuf. His hen-pecking parents describe Sam as part of the "lost generation," the millenials, and even though he has earned a metal from the "POTUS" for saving the earth twice, Sam still has to suffer the indignity of applying for jobs in the New York City area. To the tune of Aerosmith's "Sweet Emotion," Sam bumbles his way through one unsuccessful interview after another until he meets John Malkovich as Bruce Bazos, the head of an intimidating high tech firm. Bruce glowers and says "Impress me," and when Sam does not adequately respond, he talks of the "life-sucking abyss" Sam faces if he doesn't get the right job immediately. It seems curious for a film of Transformers 3's budget to semi-ironically reflect the desperation in the contemporary job market. The movie pauses for a moment of Up in the Air-esque despair as if it needs that sense of hopelessness to further enhance all of the race cars, supermodels, and expensive, soon-to-be-blown up sets on display.

5) Once the Decepticons and the Autobots start to assert themselves, one notices the odd anthropomorphic attempts of the filmmakers to characterize them. The robots both bleed and shed sparks when hit, betraying CGI indecision. When they drool wickedly, I guess they drool oil. One Decepticon snickers,"Yes, my master" as he rubs his hands together like Igor. The major new Autobot just dug up from the dark side of the moon is a grumpy coot named Sentinel Prime. He has metal strands hanging down from his chin suggesting a grey beard and Leonard Nimoy's voice. Why would anyone want to build an aged robot?

6) Meanwhile, another Decepticon named Megatron appears in the African desert sporting a dusty Mad Max ambiance about him as he hobnobs with the elephants. Both in terms of characterization and dialogue, the robots remain crudely drawn, especially when you compare them to the technical proficiency of the action scenes. After all, how seriously can one take a figure with two truck doors hanging on his chest? At one point, Optimus Prime, the blue patriotic one, says "Today in the name of freedom, we take the battle to them!" to which Sentinel replies "You simply fail to understand that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." With their ponderous male voices thundering goofily, the alien robots keep betraying their Saturday morning cartoon origins.

7) After a grotesque attempt to emotionally capitalize on the Challenger Disaster of 1986, the movie's third act mostly consists of an extended apocalyptic robot fight in downtown Chicago that plays to Bay's strengths as a master of battlefield set piece scenes. In the meantime, what have we learned? In the hybrid child/adult world of the Transformers, we live in a particularly American dream of endless mechanized energy, where troublesome consequences like Peak Oil, pollution, and the costs of war do not exist. Technology takes on endless Protean forms even as it remains neatly divided between clear-cut versions of good and evil. Whatever the outcome of the Autobot/ Decepticon feud, we can feel assured of Prime Optimus' support of us tiny insignificant humans, if only because we buy the movie tickets.

8) To conclude, I will attempt to summarize all of the techniques that Bay uses to claim our attention and lend his CGI creations significance, even though there's nothing there. He does it by:

a) setting up a worshipful attitude towards their appearance. Bay likes to includes lots of shots of people (especially mission control workers) standing in awe of something like a rocket launch. Their gasp guides the viewer to do the same.

b) giving power to characters who have access to the CGI images. Sam Witwicky (LaBoeuf) has access to Bumblebee and that gives him an edge on most everyone else in the movie. John Malkovich's character Bruce begins the movie as a hotshot CEO, but later he degrades himself just to catch a glimpse of Bumblebee.

c) taking legitimate movie stars and jeopardizing their careers by holding them in thrall to the spectacle. Both Malkovich and Frances McDormand risk their integrity by bowing down to Bay's CGI shrine. John Turturro has enjoyed the shrine now for all three films.

d) making the CGI creations very large, thus dwarfing the humans, and thereby risking making people completely irrelevant (the chief creative problem of the movie). Bay and writer Ehren Kruger go through much trouble to keep people related to the final big Autobot/Decepticon battle scene, where humans tend to have the status of ants scurrying out of the way. One Decepticon condescendingly talks of Witwicky's "insect little feet" running away from him.

e) building up interplanetary struggles between these CGI figures, as Green Lantern and other movies do.

f) making the robots able to shift shape at will, thereby blending together the audience's interest in race cars, semis, weaponry, robots, etc.

g) improving the CGI effects until it gets increasingly difficult for the audience to tell the difference between what is real and what isn't. The brown diarrhea-like Parallax in Green Lantern looks cartoonish and obvious by comparison.

h) having the CGI effects create a rather glib semi-destroyed Chicago (lone shell-shocked businessman stands and looks confused, singed children run for shelter, skyscrapers lean on each other, PG-13 corpses lie in a bus, sad music plays as semi-defeated soldiers weep, etc.) to cater to our apocalyptic fears.

i) strategically using product placement. While other directors may be concerned about the appearance of selling out, Bay revels in ostentatious display, since it heightens the Transformers brand by association. Rosie Huntington-Whiteley is already a walking advertisement for Victoria's Secret lingerie. Carly's boss Dylan (Patrick Dempsey) gives Carly a Mercedes SLS-AMG. As jealous Witwicky looks up the ad for the car on his computer, he learns that the car is worth about $200,000, so he suggests that they sell it and use the money to buy a new house. In the process, Bay has managed to link his CGI robots to a top-of-the-line luxury vehicle with doors that open up like those of the Delorean DMC-12 of the Back to the Future series.

j) pandering to straight male adolescent ideology, hence Bay's career-long tendency to dabble in homophobic, racist, ageist portrayals of minor characters and sexist portrayals of women. As Christopher Orr points out:

"In keeping with this view of women’s proper role—Sartre, with whom Bay has more in common than one might imagine, would have called it the etre-pour-autrui—the director also supplies us with a pretty Latina who is ushered briefly onscreen to be berated for her “hoochie” outfit, and a hard-nosed National Intelligence Director (Frances McDormand) whose authority is gradually usurped by a renegade male agent (John Turturro) to the point where she ends up, literally, across his lap. A few circa-1980s gay gags are thrown in for good measure, notably a lisping German named “Dutch” (played by the far-too-good-to-accept-such-material Alan Tudyk). But credit where it is due: Bay has at least abandoned the outright minstrelsy of streetwise Autobots Mudflap and Skid. (There are two poodle-sized imbecile-bots thrown in for comic effect, but they are, so to speak, race-neutral.)"

I believe that Orr missed an Irish stereotype robot and another fat one of uncertain ethnicity that works as mechanics for the Xanthium Autobot ship.

Ultimately, the more the CGI creatures don't exist, the more work one must do to make them super-important. Then everyone will go see the holy spectacle of the elaborate nothing.

How else does Bay make his CGI significant?

Related links:

---the sound design of Dark of the Moon

---"Review of Transformers 3: Machines Are Subjects, Women Are Objects, and Female Leadership Is a Joke" by Caroline Heldman


JeanRZEJ said…
Four of the seven people in my opening night screening of Le quattro volte walked out. You stayed through all of Transformers 3? What is the world coming to?
Thanks, JeanRZEJ,

I'll look into Le quattro volte (not knowing much about it), but even a big dumb blockbuster can be interesting if you can figure out how it works. I find it fun to try to figure out how Bay makes CGI imagery significant, since it is, technically, the one part of the frame where there's really nothing there.
Richard Bellamy said…
FilmDr - This is a great analysis. (I changed the link for the deluxe edition.)

This is very well said: "As the uber-blockbuster of the summer, Michael Bay's Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon has enough firepower, swooping camera movement, race car mise en scene, jingoistic shots of soldiers running into position, and flying robots crashing into buildings to make one's writing feel small. Transformers 3 is all about the spectacle of size and the obliteration of puny human concerns like movie criticism."

Indeed, how does Bay claim our attention? First, I'll ask another question. What draws us (by that I mean you and I because it seems that we go to big blockbusters like this one and Thor that other bloggers eschew) to a movie like this?

I went with my daughter, who loves Shia LaBoeuf, but I know I would have gone anyway. I saw the preview and the big Shockwave thing looked cool. Also, it's good CGI. It looks like "it's there," whereas other CGI does not look like it's "there." So Bay drew me to see the "holy spectacle of the elaborate nothing." And I go and enjoy the spectacle even if the movie sucks in many ways - you point out all the stereotypes and I point out in my review how the film uses H-W. Also, I go because I like to be in the know.

Like me, I think you also go because you like to be in the know, and you want to see the spectacle, but I think you are also drawn by what a film has to say about our society as presented by a filmmaker's point of view. Your interest in that comes off in this review.

Can't wait for Cowboys vs. Aliens and Rise of the Planet of the Apes: more spectacle and more windows into the society we have become.
Thanks, Hokahey,

I'm happy to have found an angle that makes the movie more than a big dumb monster (although I sometimes wonder if watching too many blockbusters does permanent damage to one's brain). Perhaps the critics who have anything nice to say about Trans 3 have gone insane and don't know it? Considerations of hype and marketing replace those of aesthetics, but a well-made ad can have its sociological value.

I'm still too annoyed with James Franco's trashing of the Oscars to look forward to the new Planet of the Apes. Hurray for the end of Potter! How much more can a franchise further elaborate on the basically silly image of two figures pointing wands at each other? The real black hole--the end of meaning in cinema--will likely be The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn--Part 1.
Richard Bellamy said…
I can enjoy the blockbusters for what they are: a dose of noise, big CGI, and schmaltz that can provide some enjoyment. And I usually go to the ones that at least incorporate elements I enjoy: aliens, natural disasters, monsters. Then I go searching for something more satisfying. I'll see most anything, but I drew the line and didn't see Green Lantern.

I shall rejoice when the Harry Potter thing is over. One Harry Potter movie was enough for me. My recent seniors, who were young when it all started, are totally pumped! Guess it's their Star Wars.

I love the original Apes movie, and the sequels as a curiosity, so I will definitely see the new one. As for Cowboys vs. Aliens - it combines two of my favorite genres.

As for Twilight, it IS the end of all meaning in cinema.

As an antidote to Transformers, you should see The Tree of Life if you haven't already seen it - or see it again.
After driving for 9 hours on the way back from Illinois, I incidentally found an art Regal theater showing The Tree of Life in Knoxville, Tenn., but then when I went to see it, I was an hour off due to the time change. Now back in SC, there's not a showing of Tree anywhere, so I must wait until later in the month.
Anonymous said…
Yes, this is a good critique. Thank you for posting it. I liked aspects of this movie but found myself disappointed as well.

I've been a fan of the Transformers ever since I was an adolescent, white male in the mid-80's. Since I was also a Star Trek fan, I wasn't sure if I should cringe or geek-out when Leonard Nimoy's venerable robot character (Sentinel Prime) utters to Optimus Prime the famous Stark Trek II Wrath of Khan line about "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few".

The hardcore fans of Transformers will probably recognized that a major plot point of Transformers 3 Dark of the Moon was also featured in the 3-part animated episode "The Ultimate Doom" in which Cybertron is brought into Earth's orbit.

For me, the movie provided the gratuitous visual stimuli I admit I want from a Transformers movie, but the seemingly erratic writing resulted in a awkward plot that didn't flow in a natural or meaningful way.

Anonymous said…
Keep complaining "Critics". Seems most blockbusters you all cry about make tons of money.That's all that matters to the Studios. Transformers 3 is not supposed to help you cure a disease or enlighten you. It's a summer kick ass movie. $400 million worldwide in 1 week says so.
Thanks for your thoughts, AJ,

I didn't know about the source of the Optimus Prime line. The Cybertron being brought in earth's orbit reminded me of the climax of The Fifth Element.

I agree too that the movie didn't flow well. Characters seem thrown in, scenes are fitful, uneven in tone. It's hard to tell at times when and if Bay is trying to be funny.

I still wonder, though, about the exact ethnicity of the two Xanthium mechanic robots.

Thanks, Anonymous,

Your point about how these films are not trying to cure a disease or enlighten anyone occurred to me too, but they don't have to be so ideologically backward either to still be fun to watch. I'm interested in how and why Trans 3 makes money, since profit defines it more than in any other way. I also wonder about the cynicism of Mr. Spielberg as a producer.