I really don’t know why I end up watching the Transformers movies. It’s not like I’m a fan of them or hold them in particularly high regard. In many ways their key fascination is their horrible ineptness. But at the same time, it’s hard to agree with those critics who see them as among the worst films of all time and the spawn of Satan.
The odd thing about these films is that they have an almost pathological split between the micro (individual scenes) and the macro (the film as a whole). On the former level, the film can be at times genuinely staggeringly good: each scene can look quite gorgeous, the explosions and destruction beautifully composed and with astounding special effects. Of course, rendering sheets of plate metal is always playing to CGI’s strengths, but even so the end result is genuinely spectacular, and the way that the computerised characters are incorporated into the world around them is immaculate – the best I’ve seen – and as a result there’s a genuine physicality to the action sequences that you simply don’t usually see anymore in this day and age of CGI. The film particularly dazzles on Blu-ray hi-def (I’d go so far that only the Pixar films are better suited to this medium) and the sound as well is also staggeringly well done.
But if each individual scene is a mini-work of art, how to explain the film as a whole? It’s as if these aforementioned scenes have been shredded into confetti and then glued back together by a blind man with an attitude problem. Scenes are slammed into the film with no regard for context, continuity, logic or coherence. Plots start, stop, get dropped, appear from no where; characters pop up, disappear, and then re-appear at totally inexplicable times and locations to serve up more dialogue, their motivations and general attitude turning on a dime with each appearance (one soldier is happy to be out of it, gung-ho to sign up for revenge, and then advocating retreat and surrender in successive scenes!) And the overall tone is all over the place, with some actors like Shia LaBoeuf, Patrick Dempsey and Josh Duhamel playing straight (and dull) serious roles while others like John Turturro, John Malkovich, Ken Joeng and Alan Tudyk going well over the top into high farce and parody, leaving the estimable Frances McDormand to make a spirited go of it trying to straddle both ends of the spectrum with her role as NSA Director Mearing.
Given the OCD attention to detail at scene-level, how to describe this sheer chaos and lack of interest at film-level? The seeming wanton disregard for the centuries-long traditions of proper, coherent storytelling? Despised though he generally is these days, Michael Bay is simply not as bad a director as the mess that he’s made here of the film’s overall structure suggests. That it makes no sense when you try and join scenes up just doesn’t seem to interest him here, and one has to assume that it’s deliberate in some way. I’m even wondering whether he has pretensions of making a whole new style of filmmaking, much as the way modernist painters shocked the staid art world with their violent overturning of accepted conventions in their day in the late 19th Century. Is Bay trying to say “it’s the impression of movement, the individual beauty of a scene versus the irrelevance of how these scenes join up that’s the future?” I’m tempted to call it ‘kinetic abstractionism,’ a movement in which the parts are everything and the whole is just some sort of surreal, impressionistic background haze not to be taken remotely seriously or even noticed. Who knows, perhaps Bay will in the future be hailed as the originator of a bold new style of filmmaking that released movies from the shackles of the old ways of doing things? It’s possible – but I hope that I’m long dead before that comes to pass, frankly.
Of course, my chief problem with the films in the Transformers series was that I was never a fan of the original cartoon and toy series. I was a little too old by the time they came on the scene, so I have no warm, fuzzy childhood memories to sweep me into this franchise. Instead, I still struggle to recognise which character is which (okay, I have Optimus Prime and Bumblebee down okay at this point, providing they stand still long enough to make out among the carnage) and find the whole overarching plot (whether it be the first film’s ‘All-Spark’, the second’s Matrix or this film’s Pillars) to be a pile of old tosh that even the script writers evidently have no belief and respect for and just want out of the way as soon as possible to let the mayhem resume. It means that even at its most explosive spectacular climax, the film perfectly fits into that envelope of “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” I admit it, I was bored long before the end despite the on-screen action.
There are at least some fun in-jokes: in one scene, Star Trek is playing on a TV screen in the background, and then new Transformer Sentinel Prime shows up and is voiced by the inimitable Leonard Nimoy, who later even gets to use the line “The needs of the many outweigh …” in very different circumstances to those in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The ever-reliable Glenn Morshower shows up in a minor role and this time gets recognition with the part being named “General Morshower”. And a couple of new Transformers show up with NASCAR stock car liveries (those of Jimmie Johnson and Juan Pablo Montoya for anyone who might be interested) which at least meant I could work out when they were on screen, even if they hadn’t also come equipped with characters worth paying attention to.
As a whole, it seemed to me to be little different – neither better nor worse – than the critically well-liked first film or the universally derided sequel that’s since been disowned even by its own star and director. It’s simply more of the same. I’d be quite happy if this were the last we saw of it, but judging from the box office return I very much doubt it.
Now on release to buy and to rent; the disc has no extras at all, so all things considered it’s better to rent this one even if you’re a huge fan of the franchise!