Transformers: Dark of the Moon | Don’t Expect Character Development: It’s All About the Visuals

fMichael Bay masters the art of the product-placement movie with Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

Michael Bay, director of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, isn’t a normal hack. He’s not like Brett Ratner or Simon West, grinningly fastidious company men who make exactly the unimaginative films they were asked to make. Michael Bay is one of the most radically pure aesthetic filmmakers of all time. He addresses the usually accepted tenets of filmmaking—story, dialogue, characters—in the most perfunctory and cynical terms, punching out each requisite plot point (hero struggles!) like a microchip manufacture. That’s why it’s perfect he’s helmed the Transformers films. Until Rihanna shows up in Peter Berg’s big screen adaptation of the board game Battleship (playing a gutsy ship hand, I’m guessing), there has never been a more streamlined product-placement movie.

Transformers begins with Leonard Nemoy gravely intoning: “We are a highly intelligent bio-mechanical race.” It would have been more convincing if he had said: “We are a toy invented by two brothers from New Jersey.” The rest of the movie is spent setting up the destruction of Chicago at the hands of robot toys. There’s some vaguely nifty nonsense about the covert mission of Apollo 11 (find the wreckage of the alien toys!). Some wonderful actors (John Turturro, Frances McDorman, John Malkovich) realize their dreams of owning second vacation homes by emailing in their roles. Shia Labeouf returns as Sam Witwicky, a perfectly non-descript character who runs around the robots doing nothing. Once again he has an improbably super-hot girlfriend. After comparing Michael Bay to Hitler, Megan Fox was replaced by Victoria Secret’s model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. In realizing teenage boys’ fantasies—dating a lingerie model always dressed to the nines—Bay creates a kind of surreal cruelty. Seeing Labeouf and Whiteley together is as hilariously unrealistic as a centaur in a petting zoo.

The last third of the movie is a sustained, elegantly indulgent battle in Chicago. Why Chicago? Because they give the banging tax breaks, that’s why. This is where Bay shines. Bay’s action scenes are like the previews for a videogame too expensive to finish. When engaging in this expected CGI carnage, most of his peers falter into a rut of fireball muzak tedium. Bay, like James Cameron without the earnestness and soul, maintains a skilled serenity. The climax of Transformers provides the same soothing, eye-pleasing pleasure as a DVD of a tropical fish aquarium.

And so, this is why I think Michael Bay is so reviled. He bypasses any conventional integrity for seeing movies. People watch his movies with no attachment to anything except the visuals. You do not leave a Michael Bay film thinking about the imagined realities of the characters (where their lives go, etc.), the way you do with an immersive serious film. You watch it and forget everything instantaneously and feel strangely refreshed. If The Sharper Image hadn’t gone bankrupt, they could have made a digital sleep mask for air travel that just played Michael Bay action scenes on mute to the score of Andean flute music. I would have bought that.


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