Friday, 1 July 2011

Shia Agony: Transformers 3 review


Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Reprehensible; 0: Non- Functional.

Dir: Michael Bay
Stars: Shia LaBeouf, Rosie Huntington-Whitely, Patrick Dempseym, John Turturro.
Running Time: 155mins 

Transformers 3 manages to not just be a bad movie, but a bad movie with aftertaste. I dislike it considerably more now than when I left the cinema yesterday evening, when my brain was so numbed by the near-three hour onslaught that every latest blow was merely absorbed in the hope of survival. The more I think about it, the more I remember how much it took what was wrong with Transformers 2 and escalated those faults to a greater scale.

Yes, you read that correctly: I think this movie was worse than the egregrious Revenge of the Fallen, managing to even one-up it in the nonsensical subtitle stakes. One of the many reasons for my disliking 2 was that the original Transformers was pretty good: the humour was broad but mostly worked, Shia LaBeouf was under control and played a reasonably affable character, while the robot fights - though tough to distinguish between which combatant was which - made for impressive spectacle. Not a patch on even Bay's best, of course - which would be The Rock in my book, if you're asking - but a perfectly entertaining giant robo-smackdown extravaganza. Unfortunately, 3 is loathsome entirely on its own terms and saved only by Pirates of the Caribbean from being the lowest point of 2011's dismal summer of blockbusters.
It's common for these movies to be lazily defended as 'dumb fun', but even on that unambitious score, Dark of the Moon is at best a mixed bag. The most glaring problem is that almost the first two hours are wasted entirely on set-up, most of which makes very little sense and is heftily padded with material and characters that go nowhere and are nowhere near as funny as writer Ehren Kruger seems to think. 

I vaguely recall Michael Bay going on record as being a fan of the Coen Brothers' sense of humour, which would make a kind of sense here as he has recruited three of their most prominent collaborators in Frances McDormand, John Malkovich and the returning John Turturro for roles that I would imagine are supposed to be charmingly eccentric, but come across as nauseatingly irritating. Turturro is the worst - his schtick had its place in the original Transformers and was sort of appealing, but taken way too far in 2 and not only equally ridiculous here, but also asked to turn on a sixpence and suddenly deliver sullen-faced exposition. Malkovich is the best, because he finds a smidgen of fun in a role that still grates for being so painfully exaggerated and obviously pointless. McDormand doesn't necessarily shame herself, but coasts along in neutral as an uptight FBI Agent who doesn't add anything other than yet another character to the overstuffed mix.

I mentioned that in the original Transformers - or at least, Michael Bay's original - Shia LeBeouf played a character who was under control and passably likeable. No such luck here. Sam Witwicky has slowly mutated from an on-edge but brave teenager to a shrieking wreck of a human being, like Saved By The Bell's Screech with a superiority complex and several hits of speed short-circuiting his brain. In the first movie, he wanted to become a man: fair enough. Second movie, he wanted to live a normal life. Fine. This time around, his beef (pun) is that his supermodel girlfriend doesn't take him seriously because he can't find a job that he deems worthy of his talents. Well, boo-effing-hoo. Plenty of people, myself included, can empathise with the idea of paid work being hard to come by, but not so much when the character's sense of self-importance is what is getting in the way and when his whinging is directed at the lingerie model who is sitting on top of him. Not only that, but at the slightest mishap, he starts shrieking like a four-year old on history's worst sugar rush: a scene where he is denied access to a military base sends him into what can only be described as a beserk hissy fit which is embarrassing to watch not only for the character looking so pathetic (with his girlfriend sitting across from him, no less!), but for LeBeouf's willingness to so humiliate himself. 

Rosie Huntington-Whitely may serve entirely as eye candy - especially in a particularly lascivious introduction - but is at least never asked to descend to that level of self-abasement. Her line readings are mostly terrible, and there's a weirdly hilarious shot where the camera circles her as she looks blankly up at nothing, but in looks and performance she's a step or two up from Megan Fox. About one in every ten lines comes out at a workable standard and she sells the character's sense of humour reasonably well. The friend I saw the movie with seemed to think she was just about the worst thing to ever happen to acting, though, so perhaps I was too busy thinking about her talent for walking up stairs in skimpy pants to notice. But as far as I'm concerned, either way works.

Unfortunately, her looks are about the only thing redeeming a human cast that is overpacked and underwhelming, but which you're also stuck with for the first two acts: apart from a brief robot fight at Chernobyl, action is sidelined until the climax. I can understand wanting there to be some build-up to what is an enormous set-piece, but not for almost two hours and especially not with characters this numerous and uninteresting, and a plot delivered so incomprehensibly. I spent much of the movie just trying to work out what was going on, with crashed spaceships, a comatose super-transformer and something called pillar technology (?), humans trying to use Cybertron technology throughout history and countless other ideas thrown in to justify a finale that doesn't amount to anything more than a large scale alien invasion. The story is not helped by Bay being seemingly as bored with it as I was and randomly chopping bits out - including, it would appear, the end to certain scenes - and thereby only adding to the confusion.

Because of the disorienting nature of everything that has gone before, the invasion itself - aka the movie that was promised by the trailer - comes across as a bizarrely hollow and unexciting affair. It's technologically quite impressive and a skydiving scene makes decent use of 3D - which otherwise seems barely used, in that a lot of the film is watchable without the glasses, and what is there only comes across as artificially as usual, albeit somewhat tidier than most of its non-Avatar peers - but never really very exciting. The soundtrack, which should be helping in this regard, only ends up distracting by stealing its cues from numerous other, better action movies (Terminator, Inception etc) to the extent that its primary function turns into a game of spot-the-knockoff.

Despite Chicago taking a hammering, there's little sense of peril because the streets and buildings are almost completely empty and the number of Decepticons never comes across as particularly large. Both human troops and Autobots seem able to navigate the streets quite peacefully a lot of the time, and the ships hovering overhead don't seem to do much in terms of ground-level disruption. Although we're told that the invasion is worldwide, Chicago is the only place we spend any real time - barring a single shot of Tokyo - robbing the claim of any weight. And maybe all Chicago looks the same (I've never been), but it even seems that the Decepticons have only bothered to invade a certain district. Despite the large scale of the destruction, Doctor Who's invasions feel more widespread, and there's even a key plot point stolen from Russell T. Davies' serial 'The End of Time'.

If you're just going in to look at stuff being destroyed, it will perhaps just about pass muster. But then again, there are so many better choices out there for big action that with a first half devoid of it and second half ultimately not all that exciting, the recommendation remains minimal. Bay's frenetic editing is slowed down by the 3D, which makes it easier to see what is happening in each shot but still shows no sign of a developing sense of geography: working out who is positioned where remains a fiendish proposition. The kindest thing I can offer is that for the absolute lowest possible expectations, it might give you half of an OK-ish movie. Well, one third. It's still insufferably overlong, populated with a huge number of dislikeable and useless people, and with visually impressive yet somehow completely unexciting action. 'Dumb fun' is as much an art as any other kind of cinema, though is increasingly being used as an excuse for movies whose sole ambition is to bludgeon its audience into submission with CGI. I didn't hate Transformers 3 in the way I did Pirates 4, but it does beg the question of how low audiences' tolerance is prepared to go before asking questions. At least of what the hell the title is supposed to mean. [ 3 ]



Anonymous said...

I'm sorry man, but that key plot point was not "stolen" from RTD's Doctor Who story. It comes from the original Transformers cartoon.

Xander Markham said...

Thanks for the correction! I'm only peripherally aware of the Transformers cartoon, so when Cybertron appeared in the sky, my mind went straight to the moment in 'The End of Time' when it's the same thing but with Gallifrey.