Earlier this year, we postulated that Michael Bay's entire career has been about punishing the audience for their awful taste -- namely, their taste for his work. He's tried racism, homophobia, assaultive cinematography and editing techniques, objectifying every women in a 1,000 yard radius, graphic violence and complete incoherence. The problem was his lack of subtlety (c'mon, it's Michael Bay). But he's found that weakness and corrected it, and with Transformers 3, out today, he assaults us where we feel it most -- our souls. This time, his weapon is basic and universal, as he corrupts storytelling itself. And like every other time, we brought it upon ourselves.
Transformers 3 is the best-looking Bay movie since The Rock. He's spoken eloquently about the limitations of shooting in 3D and what it would mean for his style (less handheld footage, less fog and smoke, longer cuts, better footage of girl's asses), and it's given him a full on Super-8-sized-shot of nostalgia-heroin right in the eyeball. The only thing missing is green flares (they had those in the first Transformers) and improvised dialogue with the charm, skill and insanity of Nic Cage (you would think Malkovich would fulfill that, but no).
The movie is remarkably coherent for late-period Bay, keeping the style, almost-realism and military-worship without full-on propaganda of his early period while adding all the new-Bay touches, like non-digetic Linkin Park power ballads or hiring Oscar-caliber actors and bringing them down to his level instead of allowing them to elevate the material (like Sean Connery, Ed Harris, Bruce Willis, Will Smith, David Morse or the aforementioned Nicolas Cage).
Yes, Transformers: The Dark of the Moon looks amazing, and there was as many as ten moments, each lasting between one and two minutes, where I was impressed with the badassery on display. That means that for 10-20 minutes, I enjoyed myself. The movie lasts 154 minutes.
Leaving the midnight showing at 3 a.m. (I am very dedicated to Baycademics), two men in tribal-design-MMA-shirts behind me maintained that it was "three straight hours of eye candy, especially when that blond girl walked and stuff," and I have to agree. The action is exciting and coherent spectacle, even if each set-piece doesn't actually connect to the other. The women are Bay-beautiful and we get ample male-gaze time, as well as another female lead whose ass is introduced before she is (in 3D!). There is only one moment of overt homophobia. There is very little racism, minus everything Ken Jeong says or does. The average film-goer will leave this movie thinking it was, at the very least, okay. But their soul will be bruised, and they won't know why.
It's because good storytelling is hardwired into all of us, and it took Bay this long to realize that and understand that his greatest strength in the mission of doling out punishment is the power of misdirection that comes alongside his directorial style. Give them coherence, this time, he thought. Give them coherence and a less-sexually-threatening-and-powerful-female lead, give them more comic relief but keep it separate from the action, give them plot mechanics that almost make sense, and they won't notice what I do to their insides.
As the nature of storytelling is hardwired into the collective human consciousness, so is the ability to identify with our hero, especially when great lengths are taken (three movies!) to develop our hero as an everyman who tends to get rolled up into events beyond his control. The catharsis of this journey is generally when that hero takes the steps to accept responsibility and impose his will over others, as opposed to constantly being acted upon by outside sources. Sam Witwicky, the protagonist of the Transformers movies, manages to do that in Transformers prime, when he sacrifices himself to protect the All-Spark for however long it would take for Megatron to go downstairs to street level and collect it from his splattered body. Bay has finally learned the sadistic pleasure one can derive by depriving us of that catharsis.
Sam Witwicky is the most unlikeable, incompetent, ineffective, useless "hero" in blockbuster movie history. Shia isn't so great either. He's a whiny douchebag with no redeeming traits, no skills, no desire to learn any effective skills, no charm and absolutely no desire to change his station in life -- which is solely to react to the outside forces acting upon him. He usually reacts by screaming for help in the form of either a) "OPTIMUS!!!" or b) "BUMBLEBEE!!!" In this, the third Transformers film, he finally manages to rally some troops and kill a Deceptacon. His jaunt into robot murder, however, ends up being played for laughs, as he's saved, again, by sexy soldier Josh Duhamel, and his troop recruitment and inspiration serves only to be sure there are adequate people present to save him. Although for exactly one tracking shot he does some parkour. Where he learned this, and why he never employs it before or again, I do not know. It may have something to do with him turning into a tall stuntman with Twilight hair for the length of time the parkour is employed. He also turns into a scary rubber skinned CG robot creature (or digital stuntman) twice. It frightened me a great deal.
In the interest of saving our humanity, the audience will turn to another character and accept them as "hero" even if they're not the protagonist. Bay has predicted this, and his most powerful counterattack is casting a Victoria's Secret model in the place once occupied by Megan Fox. You can hate Fox if you want, but that would make you dumb (See Jennifer's Body. Especially the Director's Cut. If you don't like it, maybe you're not dumb, but if you still don't like Fox, you are dumb), and there is no disputing the fact that her Transformers character, named Megan-Fox-in-cutoff-jeans, is among the more capable in the films, due in large part to her car-thief upbringing. If Megan Fox's character, Megan-Fox-in-cutoff-jeans, had been in this movie, half the plot wouldn't have happened. Fuck a Victoria's Secret Damsel in Distress.
Which leaves us with Optimus fucking Prime, he of the painted-on flames and deep Peter Cullen gravitas, leader of the Autobots, and bad motherfucker. He's so good at double-tappin' the fuck outta Deceptacons and tearing them apart that to have him operating at top form throughout the action climax would render it much shorter than Bay wants it to be. So at the beginning of the battle, he falls into some cranes at a construction site and gets tangled up. Spoiler. It takes approximately 30 minutes of onscreen time for the "wrecker" autobots to cut him loose. Then he gets his arm cut off and is about to die, including stammering, "Please . . ." when Megatron saves him. Not unlike in The Dark Knight, when Batman is saved by the Joker from a grisly death at the hands of Two-Face. Wait. That didn't happen. Because that would be fucking terrible. Spoiler.
John Turturro ends up in a wheelchair. Josh Duhamel and Tyrese give a lot of orders, but don't really do much themselves. Victoria's Secret cries and then uses gossip to save the day. Witwicky doesn't do a goddamn thing but be embarassed by his parents. Bumblebee surrenders when surrounded and sadly stands for a Vietnamese death camp style execution. The only person I respect in this movie is Mike Shinoda, because, like Bay, he rallies his friends to make shit and then tricks the world into buying, but unlike Bay, his stuff isn't filled with hate, and kinda fun to listen to when you're dirtbiking.
Bay presents a world with no heroes, but he does it in a way where everything works out in the end. The bad guys mostly die of their own incompetence, and they do it with big-ass explosions. Our brains and our American-Red-Blood-Cells feel satiated.
But our souls know. And we just spent three hours buying the idea that there's no one left to fight the good fight, that the best strategy is to hope for the enemy to turn on one another and make a whole series of idiotic mistakes.
And we did it in sold out 3D digital midnight screenings across the country.
Fuck you, Michael Bay.
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But fuck us, we brought it on ourselves.