On Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Continuing from Transformers and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is Transformers: Dark of the Moon, probably the most ambitious of the films. It’s probably the best of the film series in terms of both scale and development, though, like it’s predecessors, it still remains quite sexist (and racist) in nature, as according to to The Atlantic‘s article, “‘Transformers 3’: Sour, Sexist, and Salivary“:

 

The second Transformers movie, Revenge of the Fallen, was, as any viewer who failed to repress the experience will recall, astonishingly awful: a script of unsurpassed inanity, a pair of crude, jive-talking robots, a running time best measured in geologic terms—I could go on. (And did.) The latest installment in the epic tale of good Autobots, bad Decepticons, and Shia LaBeouf, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, improves on its predecessor in almost every obvious way. (Apart from length, that is: it clocks in at a brutal 157 minutes.) The plot—which posits that the midcentury U.S.-Russian “space race” was actually an effort to recover lost Autobot artifacts from the dark side of the moon—is much sharper. The special effects are more impressive, and the action considerably more intense. The movie even manages, in stark contrast to such summer duds as Green Lantern and the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie, to make effective use of 3D.

Yet despite these manifest improvements, there is something so sour and unpleasant about the new film that it left me almost nostalgic for the innocent idiocies of its predecessor. As its title hints, perhaps unwittingly, Dark of the Moon is a journey into the angry, adolescent id of director Michael Bay. I, for one, could not wait to get out.

Let’s start at the beginning. Following a Kennedy-era prologue, the first shot of the movie is a closeup of the barely-pantied bottom of Rosie Huntington-Whitely as she ascends a flight of stairs. This is the second shot as well; the third, opting for expository variety, shifts to the front and works its way up her torso. Now, it is true that Huntington-Whitely has a fine bottom, as one might expect from a veteran Broadway character actress former Victoria’s Secret model. But Bay’s lens leers so emphatically, almost pornographically, that this opening can’t help but come across as a statement of his philosophy of gender. This is, after all, the man who fired previous franchise eye candy Megan Fox for being insufficiently sexy, which is a bit like firing water for being insufficiently wet.

Huntington-Whitely plays Carly, the new squeeze of returning hero Sam Witwicky (LaBeouf), which means that her narrative functions—apart from a scene near the end, in which she goads a Decepticon by calling it a “bitch”—alternate between being ogled and being held hostage. It’s a bit of a challenge to capture just how retrograde the film is on this score. Bay clothes Huntington-Whitely in a series of short dresses and, as often as is practical, films her from floor level, as if his camera were a mirror hidden in the shoelaces of a horny 12-year-old. Early on, a pint-sized Autobot, fresh from rooting around in her underwear drawer, pauses to peer up her skirt; shortly after, John Malkovich (in perhaps the most embarrassing performance of his career), tilts his head a full 90 degrees to stare ostentatiously at her ass. In what evidently constitutes a pun these days, it is Huntington-Whitely who is center screen when another character, commenting on the case a medal came in, gushes “What a gorgeous box.”

In keeping with this view of women’s proper role—Sartre, with whom Bay has more in common than one might imagine, would have called it the etre-pour-autrui—the director also supplies us with a pretty Latina who is ushered briefly onscreen to be berated for her “hoochie” outfit, and a hard-nosed National Intelligence Director (Frances McDormand) whose authority is gradually usurped by a renegade male agent (John Turturro) to the point where she ends up, literally, across his lap. A few circa-1980s gay gags are thrown in for good measure, notably a lisping German named “Dutch” (played by the far-too-good-to-accept-such-material Alan Tudyk). But credit where it is due: Bay has at least abandoned the outright minstrelsy of streetwise Autobots Mudflap and Skid. (There are two poodle-sized imbecile-bots thrown in for comic effect, but they are, so to speak, race-neutral.)

One might argue that this is merely par for the course for Bay, and one would not be entirely wrong. Where the director truly begins to break new ground is in the character of Sam, who is—how to put this delicately?—an asshole. Gone is the eager, All-American boy of the prior movies, his enthusiasm curdled into a mixture of entitlement, self-pity, and belligerence. (Yes, he does rather seem to suit the political moment.) As the film opens, Sam is unemployed, a circumstance he accepts with decidedly less equanimity than he did his near-fatal travails in the previous two films. He’s angry at the employers who don’t hire him, at the girlfriend who has a good job, and at her smarmy boss (Patrick Dempsey), who, like everyone else in the film, eyes her with undisguised cupidity. Most of all he’s angry, as he gripes on countless occasions, that he hasn’t gotten enough credit for already saving the world twice.

The Transformers, too, have gotten surlier since their last outing. In particular, the Decepticons all seem to have sprung leaks in their mandibular hinges: their mouths ooze, slobber, and spray with a salivary vehemence that would shock H.R. Giger. I hadn’t seen such grotesque machinery since Pontiac discontinued the Aztek in 2005. On the battlefield, the brutality has been ramped up considerably, with Transformers good and bad alike spattering blood-like fluids as they are stabbed and dismembered. In one scene, an especially sanguinary Decepticon announces “We will kill them all!”—no wait, that’s a quote from Optimus Prime, heroic leader of the Autobots. How about the one who screams “You die!” as he savagely tears through his adversaries? No, that’s Optimus, too. And the bit near the end of the film, when someone flamboyantly executes a downed and helpless Transformer with a point-blank shot to the head? You guessed it, also Optimus. (The otherwise enthusiastic crowd at the screening I attended seemed a bit taken aback by this, with the few half-hearted claps quickly petering out.)

The last third or so of Dark of the Moon involves a battle for the city of Chicago that is notable in the extremity of its violence: screaming, fleeing civilians are blown to bits; the camera glides over toppled buildings and a busload of human corpses. The 9/11 echoes only grow louder once Sam and sundry commandos arrive on the scene—as, for instance, when our heroes, trapped on the upper floors of a smoldering, glass-and-steel skyscraper, are forced to jump out the windows. One need not consider such freighted imagery sacrosanct to feel that it probably doesn’t belong in a movie inspired by a bunch of Hasbro toys.

Indeed, Bay seems almost completely to have lost interest in the goofy premise undergirding the franchise—that legions of massive extraterrestrial robots would bother disguising themselves as backhoes and muscle cars in the first place. There are a smattering of de rigeur Transformations throughout the movie, but in this installment the mechanized protagonists spend less time morphing into mundane vehicles than they do piloting otherworldly ones: floating dreadnoughts the size of city blocks; a giant, burrowing contraption that looks like a cybernetic sandworm. The latter has stuck with me both as pure visual spectacle—it is a minor triumph of CGI—and as emblematic of the movie as a whole: massive, inexorable, and utterly devoid of humanity.

Indeed, the treatment of Carly Spencer in the film is all about being objectified, as according to The Society Pages‘ article “Review of Transformers 3: Machines are Subjects, Women are Objects, and Female Leadership is a Joke“:

Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” the third installment in this $1.5 billion franchise that just set a new record for a Fourth of July weekend opening, follows what has become a Hollywood action movie tradition of virtually erasing women, despite the fact that women buy 55% of movie tickets and market research shows that films with female protagonists or prominent female characters in ensemble casts garner similar box office numbers to movies featuring men.

Only two featured characters in the large ensemble Transformers cast are women, and none of the Transformers (alien robots, for the uninitiated) are female. And the two female humans consist of an unmitigated sexual object and a caricatured mockery of female leadership.

Let’s start with “the object,” Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), the one-dimensional, highly sexualized damsel-in-distress girlfriend of protagonist Sam Wikwiki (Shia LaBouef). Carly wears stiletto heels, even when running from murderous machines (except when the filmmakers slip up and her flats are visible), and she is pristine in her white jacket after an hour-long battle that leaves the men filthy.

The movie opens with a tight shot of Carly’s nearly bare ass as she walks up the stairs:

In a later scene, Carly is reduced to an object as her boss (Patrick Demsey) compares her to an automobile in a conversation with Sam:

And in case the audience doesn’t know to leer at Carly, they get constant instruction from a duo of small robots that look up her skirt and Sam’s boss (John Malkovich) who cocks his head to stare at her ass:

Sam’s “friend,” Agent Simmons (John Turturro), also ogles Carly and suggests she be frisked against her will.

In a disturbing scene of sexualized violence, Carly’s (robot) car sprouts “arms” and threatens to violate her:

Normalization of female objectification causes girls/women to think of themselves as objects, which has been linked to higher rates of depression and eating disorders, compromised cognitive and sexual function, decreased self-esteem, and decreased personal and political efficacy. Ubiquitous female sexual objectification also harms men by increasing men’s body consciousness, and causes both men and women to be less concerned about painexperienced by sex objects.

Transformers 3 is pitched as a “family movie” and the film studio carefully disguises it as such with misleading movie trailers showing a story about kid’s toys. (Okay, I still have an Optimus Prime robot…) Young kids were abundant at both screenings I attended, taking in the images with little ability to filter the message.

It would have been easy for Michael Bay to positively present the second female character, Director of National Intelligence Charlotte Mearing (Frances McDormand). Instead, she is a tool to openly mock female leadership and promote female competition.

McDormand does her best to breathe some realism into Director Mearing, but the script calls for a caricature with “masculine” leadership traits – arrogance, assertiveness, stubborness, etc. – who is ultimately “put in her place” at the end of the movie with a forced kiss. Women continue to be vastly under-representedin positions of corporate and political leadership, partially due to the double-bind of women’s leadership where, in order to be considered acceptable leaders, women have to project a “masculine” image for which they are then criticized.

Director Mearing’s authority is challenged by virtually everyone she encounters in a way that simply wouldn’t make sense for a male character in her position. Sam openly challenges her in this scene:

Director Mearing’s authority evaporates when Agent Simmons comments, “moving up in the world, and your booty looks excellent”:

Director Mearing is even challenged by a transformer. [SPOILER ALERT: Director Mearing is the only one to challenge this transformer’s intentions, and she gets no credit when it turns out she was right.]

This Transformer again puts her in her place with the dual meaning of “I am a prime. I do not take orders from you.”

Director Mearing also has a running theme of not wanting to be called “ma’am.”

The “ma’am” theme doesn’t readily make sense since Director Mearing isn’t young and doesn’t appear to be trying to look young. But it does make sense when viewed through the lens of director Michael Bay intentionally mocking women’s leadership. Remember the flap when Senator Barbara Boxer at a hearing requested that a general use her professional title instead of “ma’am”?:

The “ma’am” theme resurfaces in a particularly troubling scene where Director Mearing meets with Sam and Carly, who, in good double-bind fashion, challenges whether she is even a woman:

Bay does include a few minor female characters with lines – Sam’s mother, the nagging mother/wife; Director Mearing’s subservient Asian assistant; a scene with both the “Olga” and “Petra” Russian woman stereotypes; and a Latina with a bare midriff who has a “Latin meltdown.”

If Michael Bay can buy off the most accomplished actors and even musician/social activist Bono to participate in such harmful media, what hope is there in the war that pits girls/women (the Autobots) against unrepentantly sexist movies makers (the Deceptacons)?

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Finally, the only recurring character of color in the films is Master Sgt. Rob Epps (Tyrese Gibson), who really only functions in the supporting role to Special Operations Captain William Lennox (Josh Duhamel).

According to the IGN review:

Time will tell whether Transformers: Dark of the Moon really is the final Transformers film for both director Michael Bay and star Shia LaBeouf, but it’s certainly the best one in this hugely successful, but widely loathed franchise. It’s devoid of Decepticon testicles, Autobot heaven, offensive robots — and Megan Fox.

Here’s the plot to the threequel in a nutshell: A sweet prologue (marred only by a phony-looking digital JFK) recounts the war for Cybertron and the real reason behind the U.S.-Soviet space race of the 1960s. Cut to the present where Sam Witwicky (LaBeouf) struggles to find his first post-college job, while the Autobots led by Optimus Primeand the U.S. military’s NEST team led by Lt. Col. Lennox (Josh Duhamel) work in tandem to take out the remaining Decepticons around the world. However, the evil ‘bots eventually get the upper hand and begin an invasion to conquer the Earth with Chicago as Ground Zero in this final war between the Autobots/humans and Decepticons. There’s more going on, but for the sake of spoilers we’ll keep it at that.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon definitely has more of a plot than either of its predecessors. There are genuine stakes this time, and it’s the first Transformers film where you actually get some sense of physical or emotional consequence to the events that transpire. (That said, the timing of the villains’ scheme makes no sense given all that’s happened in the series thus far.) Mostly the film works because of its kick-ass 3D action scenes. Transformers 3 could very well be 3D’s savior in light of its waning box office appeal in recent months. The ‘bots battles have never been more vibrant or entertaining than they are in this installment. Unlike say Green Lantern or Pirates 4, Transformers 3 really is a movie you need to see in 3D. The 3D action highlights transpire mostly during the film’s final hour in Chicago, such as the wingsuit jump sequence and the set-piece where Sam, his new girlfriend Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) and the now-retired Epps (Tyrese Gibson) are inside a collapsing skyscraper.

Bay’s action scenes here are bigger, better and more brutal than any in the first two films, even though it’s still tough at times to tell the robots apart in battle. That said, the ‘bots have far more distinct personalities than in the past movies. When a ‘bot dies here, you feel it unlike when Jazz bought it in the first film. But more humans perish here than robots, with scores of poor Chicagoans blasted when the Decepticons establish base camp in the Windy City. (The Chicago invasion sequence alone makes the film worth the price of admission.) The Decepticons are legitimately scary at times here, such as when they invade the homes of their human allies, an assassination sequence that’s creepy as $h*!.

On the performance front, Shia remains the reason why the viewer is even interested in whatever human element this VFX-driven franchise offers. It was nice to see Sam still having to struggle to prove his worth despite having saved the earth twice before. Victoria’s Secret model-turned-first time actress Rosie Huntington-Whiteley makes you forget all about Megan Fox within moments of seeing her onscreen. Where Fox’s love interest was skanky, Rosie’s is charming, sweet and, yes, hotter than hell. Patrick Dempsey makes for a great douchebag as Carly’s boss Dylan Gould, who is unsurprisingly not as nice as he initially seems. Dempsey could have really twirled the proverbial mustache here, but he goes for the sleaze rather than the camp.

As they have twice before, Duhamel and Gibson reliably provide the action movie muscle in their underwritten, one-dimensional roles. Frances McDormand tries to class things up and bring an edge of seriousness to the proceedings as National Intelligence Director Mearing. It is indeed strange to see two Coen Bros. staples like McDormand and John Turturro playing major supporting roles in a Transformers film. Speaking of Turturro, he once again chews the scenery as former FBI agent Simmons. While he’s not in the film as much as he was in the second one, Turturro’s hammy turn is still enough to mar the proceedings.

The backstory between Simmons and Mearing was unnecessary and annoying, but not as much as the inclusion of John Malkovich and the ubiquitous Ken Jeong, both of whom quickly outstay their welcome with protracted, awkward and unfunny scenes. While not as grating as either Anthony Anderson or Ramon Rodriguez were, Alan Tudyk pops up as the extraneous comic relief this time. And, of course, Kevin Dunn and Julie White reprise their schticky roles as Sam’s parents, albeit in a smaller dose than before.

The robots remain the real reason why people go to see these movies (sorry, Shia) and, thankfully, they’re better served here than they were last time around. Optimus Prime is finally depicted as the badass robot warrior fans of the animated series remember him as, and his battles here are the best he’s ever had in the trilogy. Megatron is also back, badly disfigured by the Egyptian battle at the end of ROTF. Starscream, Shockwave and the Wreckers have their scene-stealing moments, while Wheelie and Brains are thankfully not nearly as goofy or prevalent as recent TV spots have suggested. The biggest ‘bot role here besides Optimus is Sentinel Prime, voiced by Leonard Nimoy. He’s great as Optimus’ mentor and the Autobot discovered by the Apollo 11 astronauts during the film’s pre-credits sequence. (There are some Star Trek nods that will make fanboys chuckle.)

Michael Bay and Co. strive to redeem themselves here for Revenge of the Fallen. Did they succeed? Mostly. Of course, those who loathe the series won’t be convinced no matter what, but that begs the question why they’d even bother to see the third film let alone go in with an open mind. There are pacing problems and pockets of goofy humor in the first part of Act Two that threaten to derail the film, but it wisely course-corrects enough to save itself. Its last hour is the full-on human vs. robot war film that the Terminator series has always promised but never delivered. Transformers: Dark of the Moon may not be a great film, but it is largely great fun. In a summer movie season that’s only had a handful of films that have really offered that, it’s nice to see the Transformers exit the screen (at least for now) on a high rather than low note.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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3 thoughts on “On Transformers: Dark of the Moon

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