Vogon poetry is of course the third worst in the universe. The second worst is that of the Azgoths of Kria. During a recitation by their poet master Grunthos the Flatulent of his poem “Ode to a small lump of green putty I found in my armpit one midsummer morning” four of his audience died of internal haemorrhaging, and the president of the Mid-Galactic Arts Nobbling Council survived only by gnawing one of his own legs off. Grunthos is reported to have been “disappointed” by the poem’s reception, and was about to embark on a reading of his twelve book epic My Favorite Bathtime Gurgles when his own major intestine, in a desperate attempt to save life and civilisation, leapt straight up through his throat and throttled his brain.— Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Michael Bay’s major intestine not being so obliging, we now have a complete Transformers trilogy. I survived the screening of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, although it is possible other critics succumbed to internal hemorrhaging, and I may have seen Jeffrey Lyons a few aisles away gnawing at his leg in a bid to escape.
I kid, of course. I’m not saying Bay’s Transformers films are as bad as Grunthos the Flatulent’s second-worst poetry, although they may be the cinematic equivalent of Vogon poetry. Yes, third worst sounds about right.
Comparing Transformers 3 to Vogon poetry actually does help put things in perspective. Like its subtitle, “Dark of the Moon,” which is recognizably English and yet obviously wrong, the movie offers just enough vestiges of grammatical intelligibility to be identifiable as a bloated, steroid-inflamed simulacrum of a mindless summer blockbuster action movie. I almost think it would be better, or at least it would hurt less, if it were a bit more incomprehensible, although I’m told that its predecessor, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, actually was, and it didn’t help. Stephanie Zacharek, who just about admits to the critical equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome (or, more precisely, Fay Wray Syndrome) in her tolerant review of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, says that she downloaded the original Transformers in a Russian-dubbed version and enjoyed it. Yes, I’m sure Russian would help.
The thing is, like a Vogon poet, Bay isn’t so much inadvertently doing a thing badly as meticulously doing a bad thing, so the ordinary rules don’t apply. Dark of the Moon is as critic-proof as the British artist Tracey Emin’s presentation of her unmade bed as a work of art: It really is supposed to be exactly what it is, and there isn’t a darn thing you can say about it. Offering critical observations about the acting, writing or plotting of Dark of the Moon would be like farting at a cocktail party, not so much in that it is unpleasant as that it is irrelevant. Perhaps it would be better to compare Bay to a drug dealer. For people who say they go to movies to not think, Dark of the Moon is crack cocaine.
The Transformers movies exist to (a) showcase epic, cataclysmic smackdowns between giant robots from outer space; (b) ogle hot women, such as Megan Fox and now Victoria’s Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, in various states of minimal attire; (c) amuse children much too young for (a) or (b) with antic robot bantering and slapstick; (d) put Shia LaBeouf in the midst of the action to give kids and geeks a relatable point of entry; and (e) sell lots and lots of toys and video games. It cannot be said that the movies fail on any front.
For narrative convenience, the robots are divided into two factions: the good Autobots, who have names like Optimus Prime, Bumblebee and Ironhide, and the evil Decepticons, who have names like Megatron, Shockwave and Starscream. The Autobots and Decepticons look, talk and act pretty much exactly like $200 million versions of Saturday morning cartoon characters. In addition to LaBeouf and Huntington-Whiteley, humans beings running around include Patrick Dempsey, Frances McDormand and John Malkovich.
The movies raise the specter of the uncanny valley theory, a theory posited by Japanese robotics professor Masahiro Mori, who contended that the more human a robot appears and acts, the more positively humans will react to it — up to a point, beyond which the resemblance becomes strong enough to become creepy. Obviously I’m not saying that the Transformers fall in the uncanny valley. Ha ha! No, the problem is the humans. Not that you can’t can tell that the actors, even Huntington-Whiteley, are biological humans. It’s their actions and dialogue that are weirdly human-like. Oops, sorry, was that me?
I can’t criticize Dark of the Moon. But I can object to it.
I resent the way Dark of the Moon carelessly besmirches and defaces important landmarks in our cultural history.
I resent that Buzz Aldrin appears in this movie, not only in Forrest Gump-style historical revisionism, in a sequence from the Apollo 11 landing, but in a present-day cameo in which he appears opposite Optimus Prime. Aldrin is an American icon. No, he is a giant. To put him in the shadow of a colossal Hasbro toy, solemnly telling the toy how important it is, saps a towering chapter of the American saga of the respect it deserves. No one watching Aldrin in In the Shadow of the Moon should have thoughts of Optimus Prime flitting about his mind. I’m suddenly grateful for Neil Armstrong’s famous reclusiveness.
I resent the scene in the Lincoln Memorial in which the Great Emancipator’s head is shattered a second time by a single shot, this time from a gun barrel attached to a giant evil robot who proceeds to demolish the rest of the statue and seat himself in Lincoln’s chair. I can’t decide which possibility is more depressing: that no one involved in the production realized that the head shot recapitulated the president’s murder at the Ford Theater, or that they did realize it, and shot the scene anywayIt’s true that Superman II has a shot at Mount Rushmore in which the Kryptonian supervillains use their heat vision to remake the faces of Washington, Jefferson and Roosevelt in their own images, while the visage of Lincoln crumbles in ruins. In the context of all four presidents, with only faces represented and no gun to Lincoln’s head, that feels completely different. There, too, the supervillains’ rampage — all while an oblivious Superman, champion of the American Way, is off with Lois Lane, having given up his powers to be with her — gives the Rushmore shot a real sense of existential menace. Needless to say, nothing in Dark of the Moon would ever bring a word like “existential” to mind..
I even resent that Leonard Nimoy, voicing an Autobot named Sentinel Prime (and who I learn from Wikipedia once voiced a Decepticon all the way back in 1986 for an animated adaptation), shamelessly and pointlessly riffs on an iconic line from that most beloved of Star Trek films, The Wrath of Khan. That makes me mad at Nimoy in a way I couldn’t be mad at Aldrin. Nimoy should know better, and anyway, he isn’t a giant. He just played one, which is close enough.
I object to the smackdowns, ogling and slapstick barreling on and on for a punishing 155 minutes. I realize that after Revenge of the Fallen there may have been nowhere to go by way of ratcheting up the noise and chaos except by making it longer, but at some point merely extending an experience, whatever the attraction of the experience may be, doesn’t add to it. It just makes you later getting home.
It goes without saying that Huntington-Whiteley is presented solely as an object of male gratification, a prize to be contested and won. Ken Jeong plays a bizarrely xenophobic caricature who vanishes after ten minutes with no trace but a bad taste in one’s mouth.
At some level, I’m bothered by the sheer scale of wanton destruction, regardless how much of it is real or simulated. Either way, millions of dollars were spent and hundreds of people labored for thousands of man-hours to destroy the city of Chicago, not for drama or catharsis, but solely to give the Autobots’ and Decepticons’ smackdowns visceral punch.
I can’t help noticing that Chicago’s Trump Tower, which figures prominently in the plot and is a prime target for property damage, miraculously survives the film with only superficial damage. This is at least the second conspicuous product-placement appearance for Trump in a Hollywood movie in as many months, the previous one being Mr. Popper’s Penguins. Could these possibly have been orchestrated when Trump was batting around a run for the White House? Are more Trump movie appearances in the pipeline?
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Why is the phrase “dark of the moon” wrong to you? It is a perfectly (well, all right, maybe imperfectly) proper English phrase with a history dating back to at least the 16th century (as per the OED).
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- Am I the only one who was bothered by the fact that the appearance of the Autobot world into such close proximity of the Earth, did nothing like mess with the tides or have any gravitational effect at all?
- Maybe I should have been more offended by improbability of Shia LaBeouf hooking up with a supermodel.
- I would have been upset at Transformers for wasting 2.5 hours of my life, but then I saw The Tree of Life, and yearned for the gratuitous explosions, banal dialogue, and ridiculous plot.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.