Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Bay, 2011)

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

When it was finally over, my eyeballs hurt.

Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration, albeit a slight one, but the movie did bludgeon me into submission more than it won me over. At 157 minutes, Transformers: Dark of the Moon is epic in its execution if not its intentions.

One of those movies that interlaces stock historical footage to sell the idea of a secret conspiracy history, Transformers: Dark of the Moon somehow works in the Apollo moon landing, Chernobyl, and the global war on terror into the metanarrative of the metallic beings (don’t call them machines) stranded on earth.

The biggest knock on the film (besides no Megan Fox) is that it takes too long to get going, with Shia LaBeouf moping around Washington, D. C. with a medal from the president but without a job. This has been an interesting year or so, as movies have begun to express the zeitgeist of a global recession, and Transformers actually does a better job at it tonally than some ostensibly more serious films allegedly addressing unemployment more overtly. (Yeah, I’m looking at you, Larry Crowne.) Once it gets going, though, it doesn’t let up. It used to be the last thirty minutes of an action movie was one long set piece. Like so many other things, Transformers takes the formula and triples it.

There are other complaints: John Turturro, John Malkovich, Kevin Dunn, and Julie White are all wasted in pointless comic relief roles. (Malkovich in particular seems to be hamming it up in a string of bad movies of late.) That said, Patrick Dempsey and Frances McDormand acquit themselves nicely, and nobody fist bumps a giant metallic humanoid quite as effortlessly and convincingly as LaBeouf.

If all that sounds like I hated this installment, well, not so fast.

The film is a spectacle on all levels. What makes Transformers: Dark of the Moon work is the totally convincing quality of the special effects. The amount of detail that goes into any one shot is mesmerizing. It’s hard to believe watching this film that less than twenty years ago state of the art special effects meant Luke Skywalker hanging in front of an obviously flat projection of a blue screen monster and poking a stick at its mouth. Much like James Cameron’s Aliens, Transformers, while frenetic, is followable. You can actually see what is happening.

Seeing is not necessarily believing. The amount of suspended disbelief is such that the film has no real emotion. Despite all the attempts to make Optimus Prime noble and jack up the stakes by letting the fate of the human race stand in the balance, the film never quite solves the problem that humans are essentially spectators and pawns in a clash between two super powers (allegorical pun intended). Yes, to be strictly accurate, humans do make meaningful contributions to the defeat of the Decipticons, but its hard to see how any of the hero’s actions refute the villain’s assertion that the only meaningful choice humans have is to try to predict which side will win and try to court its good graces.

And yet…

Well, okay, what does one expect when one goes to Transformers: Dark of the Moon? Whatever it is, the film gives us plenty of it for our buck. On the heels of sequels of the Hangover and Pirates of the Caribbean that seemed to tired (or lazy) to even try, it is actually refreshing to get a movie that tries to push its envelope, however conventional that envelope is.

Plus–and there’s just no other way to say this–the art design and battle scenes are stunningly beautiful. Not in their meaning, which is standard movie issue chaos and carnage, but in their aesthetic look. Shockwave, a metallic worm that burrows through streets and buildings made me wonder what Michael Bay would have done with Dune. A crowded highway chase that culminates in LaBeaouf being projected through the air only to have a car reconstructed beneath him is edited so seamlessly that you forget that 90% of it isn’t really happening. The ultimate battle in Chicago (of all places) makes a war zone look breathlessly cool.

Maybe I should fault the film for that. In the real world, war zones are ugly heaps of junk, not strategically leaning buildings and scattering debris that never actually hits anyone. But this isn’t real life. This is Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon. My advice: don’t sleep for a day before you go and drink about two liters of your favorite caffeinated beverage. Then see how long you can go without blinking.

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