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The New Titans: Notes on Michael Bay's "Transformers: Dark of the Moon"

The new CGI opus from the disreputable Bay conjures unreal visions of robots ruling the earth.
Daniel Kasman
So these are the myths of our times: battling giant robots.  They say something like it themselves, in Michael Bay’s third Transformers film, Dark of the Moon: that they used to be gods, and now they’re at the whims of mere humans.  That is a blatant deception; we created the transformers as toys, the playthings of children, and it is humans who have raised these plastic bodies up and up, re-scaling them, re-framing them, re-building them, and finally re-filming them until they have reached the gargantuan earthly stature of titans. Themselves and the films—the films as directed by Michael Bay being among the largest, most expensive, most expansive and most grandiose the art of cinema has yet witnessed.
It seems most appropriate, emblems created undoubtedly as commercial rather than creative beings eventually powering a franchise with a kind of commercial ego, the power of the merchandise usurping the stories of its consumers, growing sentient, pretentious and pompous.  Whereas much children’s television of the 1980s were obvious narrativizations of commercial goods—toys for purchase—Dark of the Moon takes such ruthless co-opting of an expressive medium to a suitably mythic and apocalyptic proportions.  The story is not one of mankind but materialkind.
The eponymous robotic machines are the most extreme, obscene expression of the film's splendid glamour of material wealth and overabundance, where every object in the film is an advertisement for luxury goods unobtainable by the general audience, every key, non-fantasy device used in the film (and some fantasy ones too) are powered and branded by the glory of real world firms.  The film's ostensible protagonist, a young human male played by Shia LaBeouf, is preposterously and perpetually held in a simultaneous state of resplendent fantasy lifestyle and catastrophically fantastic worldly anxiety—as fatted by luxury as he is worried about its loss in the form of his endangered girlfriend, vapid, reclining parents, and geek-gigolo lifestyle. This "human" side of the story is repeatedly overturned by the real protagonists of the film, the real heroes who are the world changers, the models of behavior, the giants who walk the earth and decide our fates…the cars, planes, trucks and other means of transport who anthropomorphize to become emblems of a perfect ruling class.
Indeed, will there ever be a filmmaker who will come to represent such a romantic advocate for the era, now perhaps fading gently, of the automobile? To get out of a car in a Michael Bay film is an event in and of itself, and so how fitting is it for him to devote three feature length films to the empowerment of vehicles!  The glory of combative vehicles in the Transformers films is on par with the other tremendous moments Bay deems worth of cinematic note: a young man’s emotion when his favorite robotic car may be summarily executed by other robotic cars (note: no tears are shed over the human loss of life in Dark of the Moon, when Chicago is torn asunder), the embarrassment caused by clueless parents, a futuristic airborne squad suspended in the air navigating between Chicago skyscrapers, the jealousy and spite that tears your guts out when you only date supermodels, the number of immediate ways unsuspecting automobiles can be totaled, the backlighting of the sun producing that color blue unique only to Michael Bay films, and, of course, the way the camera can arc around a body slowly raising in the frame in wonder, awe and alarm.
One major problem is the gigantism and maximization of Michael Bay. Everything is huge; all is grandeur.  A computer generated extravaganza, despite much evidence to the contrary, is not what he excels at.  The filmmaker’s preference for an action of vibrantly colored frenzy over one of eloquent spacing obviously means lots of activity.  But at two and half hours long and starring animated objected replete with dozens upon dozens of micro-movements, details of puppeteering and robotics, all the ligaments and muscle movements of humans robotized and animated with maniacal attention by ILM, Dark of the Moon defaults to an unimpressive constancy of the big, the important, the energetic, flattening the film over its long timespan. There is no nuance to the film’s love of its subjects, all are equal, from the way two cars colliding magnificently transform into robots in repelling slow motion to the emo hard rock musical transitions whenever the film moves back to its human story, to the camera’s description of a woman’s legs, or its preference for dilapidated modern baroque architecture.  It all towers on the screen. The destruction of Chicago is on the same scale as the "execution" of a robot, which is on the same scale as the orange skin tone and fake hair of John Malkovich, or the ritual humiliation comedy of job-hunting, a human subplot which unexpectedly is placed, like in Malick's The Tree of Life, within the context of a violent cosmic struggle.
This is not to say the film is pitched on the wrong scale—indeed, many scenes and sequences, including one where the robot villain demolishes the Lincoln Monument to sit on the Presidential throne while a rat-like mini-robot licks and chips at the decapitated head of the statue, is clearly at the level of preposterous maximalism at which the director excels.  The principle problem is that when everything, including the non-preposterous, is expressed at that level, nothing becomes spectacular because the counter-distinction of regular life is eliminated (witness the "normal" LaBeouf subplots about his parents, job hunting, and self questioning).  As such, the immense vision here is threatened to be on the brink of thundering banality. One might miss how Bay makes giants again walk the Earth—not just huge robots tromping in our fields deciding whether to enslave humanity or not, but a movie where everyone and everything in it is giant.  The most vacuous of material pleasures, the most misanthropic of human relationships, the most preposterous of product placement and commercial tie-ins, all are dressed and staged like they are the most sexy, most exciting, most immensely, dangerously glamorous things one could possibly conceive of, the wildest, most spectacular of fantastic objects. As if only the cinema could raise things to such heights.


Michael Bay
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