Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Transformers: Death of the Author

with 5 comments

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Never has a city been more lovingly destroyed on camera than Chicago in Transformers: Dark of the Moon. By the time the movie reaches its crowning orgy of destruction, my wife and I had been staring at the screen for close to ninety minutes, along with an enthusiastic crowd in the IMAX theater at Navy Pier. My wife had seen much of the movie being shot on Michigan Avenue, just up the street from her office at the Tribune Tower, and I think it was with a sort of grim amusement, or satisfaction, that she watched her own building crumble to pieces as an alien robot spacecraft crashed into its beautiful gothic buttresses. It’s an image that merits barely five seconds in the movie’s final hour, which devastates most of downtown Chicago in gorgeous, even sensual detail, but it still struck me as a pivotal moment in our personal experience of the movies. (And hasn’t the Tribune already suffered enough?)

Like its immediate predecessor, Transformers 3 is generally pretty lousy. (I actually liked the first one, which had the advantage of comparative novelty, as well as a genuinely nimble comic performance by Shia LaBeouf that both director and star have struggled to recreate ever since.) As a story, it’s ridiculous; as a perfunctory attempt at a coherent narrative, it’s vaguely insulting. It’s also staggeringly beautiful. For the first ten minutes, in particular, the IMAX screen becomes a transparent window onto the universe, delivering the kind of transcendent experience, with its view of millions of miles, that even Avatar couldn’t fully provide. And even after its nonstop visual and auditory assault has taken its toll on your senses, it still gives new meaning to the phrase “all the money is there on the screen.” Here, it feels like the cash used to render just one jaw-dropping frame could have been used to pay down much of the national debt.

As I watched Dark of the Moon, or rather was pummeled into submission by it, I had the nagging feeling that Armond White’s notoriously glowing review of Revenge of the Fallen deserved some kind of reappraisal. At the time, White was dismissed, not without reason, as a troll, for issuing such pronouncements as “In the history of motion pictures, Bay has created the best canted angles—ever.” And yet I don’t think he was trolling, or even entirely wrong: it’s just that he was one movie too early. Michael Bay’s genius, and I use this word deliberately, is visible in every shot of Dark of the Moon, but it’s weirdly overdeveloped in just one direction. Bay is like one of those strange extinct animals that got caught in an evolutionary arms race until they became all horns, claws, or teeth. While a director like Christopher Nolan continues to develop along every parameter of storytelling, Bay is nothing but a massive eye: cold, brilliant, and indifferent to story or feeling. And it’s pointless to deny his talents, as ridiculously squandered as they might be.

So what exactly am I saying here? To steal a phrase from Roger Ebert’s review of The Life Aquatic, I can’t recommend Transformers: Dark of the Moon, but I would not for one second discourage you from seeing it—provided that you shell out fifteen dollars or more for the real experience in IMAX 3-D, which Bay has lovingly bullied the nation’s projectionists into properly presenting. (On video, I suspect that you might have the same reaction that my wife and I did when we rented Revenge of the Fallen: within forty minutes, both of us had our laptops out.) It’s an objectively terrible movie that, subjectively, I can’t get out of my head. As an author, I’m horrified by it: it’s a reminder of how useless, or disposable, writers can be. I won’t go as far as to say that it’s a vision of my own obsolescence, or that I believe that the robots are our future. But at this point in history, the burden is on writers to demonstrate that we’re necessary. And the momentum isn’t on our side.

5 Responses

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  1. Michael Bay = Sauron?

    And Alec, I always like reading your movie reviews.

    Eric Simons

    June 30, 2011 at 12:11 pm

  2. I like writing them, too!

    And yes, I guess my analogy implies that Bay is basically Sauron, except that instead of starting his career by befriending the Elven-smiths of Eregion in the guise of Annatar, Lord of Gifts, he directed videos for Meat Loaf and Vanilla Ice.

    nevalalee

    June 30, 2011 at 1:40 pm

  3. It’s an improvement over the second one, which isn’t saying much, but still is a very fun blockbuster filled with action, destruction, romance, robots, and Michael Bay once again letting loose on all the special effects and action there is to let loose. Good Review! Check out mine when you can!

    CMrok93

    July 1, 2011 at 10:47 am

  4. I haven’t seen any of the Transformer movies, which is strange since I have two boys who are (or were) right smack in the middle of the American demographic for these movies. I’ve always assumed — without having any fact-checked source for the assumption — that a large part of the point of the Transformer movies is that they could make money with any audience, in any language, anywhere around the world, because the lack of meaningful dialogue or a coherent story means you might actually be able, in theory, to sell tickets to a non-English speaking audience without dubbing the film or adding subtitles. It’s all visuals. Plus, the lack of much story means you don’t have to worry about whether or not the movie will be a bad match for someone’s culture. The real message of the movie is money. I think they did rather well, didn’t they? P.

    Peter Galen Massey

    October 26, 2012 at 11:01 am

  5. Very true. Although it only makes me appreciate the work of someone like Chris Nolan, who can make visually spellbinding movies of considerable complexity that still make a billion dollars worldwide.

    nevalalee

    October 26, 2012 at 8:51 pm


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