July 12, 2014

Shadowcon Mini-Views- Transformers: Dark of the Moon

One of the things that has always annoyed me about these movies (and indeed many film adaptations of franchises) is their continued failure to capture what the Transformers franchise is really about. And that's kind of a tricky thing to pinpoint: what is Transformers even about? What's the draw? On the one hand, and in the broad sense, it's about a war between two factions of robots both of which come to Earth and continue their fight here with the humans stuck in the middle. Now, that's the premise, and from there the fiction has diverged and run with any number of things, the most successful (in my mind) being the stories that focus on the Transformers as characters, as people, or the stories that actually tackle the horrors and moral conflicts of war and barbarism.

For me, the former of the two can be found in shows like Prime, Beast Wars, and Animated; the latter can be found most heavily in the Marvel and IDW comics, and again in Beast Wars. The film franchise has never dealt directly with either of these two approaches in fleshing out the Transformers universe. And they don't need to; as I said in my look at the first film, these ones aren't really made for fans. They're dumb summer blockbuster movies. But they also carry with them the Transformers title, and while action is paramount in most Transformers fiction, I don't think that's all the Transformers franchise is or should only aspire to be. Prime proves this in its first season. Or to look at a more popular series, Animated proves that a character- and plot-driven narrative can be successful all the way through its run, Beast Wars consistently builds upon its mythos and characters, and the IDW comics universe is simply sublime, rich in character motivation, plots and subplots, overarching themes and questions, and fun stories.

But the films... they're just action movies with the barest hints of plots or characters. Which is fine for summer blockbusters, and indeed most would say is fine for Transformers films. But for me, I find the most effective parts of Transformers material to be when the fiction focusses on the mythos, plot, or characters, and that's the reason I'm so turned off by the movies and by the various other fiction that's out there that has action galore as its main draw. Not that I'm opposed to action; as much as I hate Revenge, the forrest fight scene is still one of my favorite fights ever seen for Transformers. But there is such a thing as too much, and that's what Age of Extinction proved a hundred-fold. Some would say that's what Revenge proved as well (though I'd say it proved that when you make a movie without a script... well, you wind up with exactly what Revenge was: an admittedly enjoyable load of shit), but the point is the same: if all you have is action and shoot-em-up, it gets old really fast.

And as much as Dark of the Moon is a bloated action shoot-em-up movie, it nevertheless does try to balance itself out with hints of something resembling development for its characters (which is far more praise than I can say for Revenge): Sam wanting to matter in the world, Simmons becoming ridiculously rich and just not giving a damn, the weight of seeing Chicago decimated... it all just barely bumps this up from "stupid movie" to "mindless action movie", and hey, that's a few steps up from Revenge of the Fallen, so it's looking good.

There are actually a few weighty scenes in this mess, most of which are, in actuality, just half-assed attempts at drama but when surrounded by the other material of this film, they're good scenes; it's just a matter of perspective. The opening of the film with mankind's first moon-landing mixed in with the Transformers stuff had a semblance of substance to it, however forced; moments of Sam wanting to do something important in his life in the interview montage made that cringe-fest bearable; Optimus and Sam's parting words when the former is being deported from Earth carried a kind of burnt, inedible but still appreciated pathos. These elements from scenes make the movie slightly better than its predecessor, and it's why I tend to regard this one as having something more Transformer-ish about it. Don't get me wrong, this thing isn't a good example of what Transformers is or is capable of, but it is clearly at least trying to be more substantive than the one that came before, and I do have to give it points for that. Meager praise? Sure, but this thing needs all the points it can get.

Another point of praise is most what I have to say about the effects. In the previous installment, the FX guys I guess had a stroke and forgot how to animate a large portion of their stuff well (exceptions noted). But here, everything looks pretty real, very heavy, and pretty in line with reality. Few shots look bad, though this movie does lack the final touch of grace and beauty that made the first film so remarkable and beautiful to look at. The fights in here are okay. Some are ludicrous, others are on par with what the first film did, and other still approach the levels of obnoxiousness that the second film bathed in. So the effects in this one are kind of all over the place; most are good, some are a little poor, and then the rest are just as bad as the last film's were, for whatever that's worth.

As a Transformers fan, I do think this manages to do better by the mythos and established fiction than the previous installment. Oh sure, names are still all messed up, but they manage to work Optimus' trailer in here with a logical and awesomely badass purpose behind it, the Space Bridge actually does what it's supposed to, and Energon is actually addressed in this film which is pretty neat. Sentinel Prime has a similar enough backstory to his Marvel self to be acceptable (in that he was a Prime before Optimus), and while this messes with last film's "continuity", I hardly think we need to pick the film franchise apart for having continuity flaws... because "continuity flaw" is something of a default for this series. So yes, the Transformers material that they manage to pull from other stuff is put into the movie reasonably while not disgracing the original material. That said, I and most other people don't really like how death was handled in here. Even more so than Revenge, death is treated as nothing important. Ironhide dies and no one even brings it up; Wheeljack (Que in the movie) is killed in a laughably absurd way (and not in a good way either); both Sentinel Prime and Megatron die at the hands of Optimus in what amounts to little more than a skirmish battle, granted one where Optimus gets his arm ripped off.

So I think this one fairs better than Revenge both in that it actually has a script (though a poor one) and as such it manages to squeeze a little bit of something like substance into the still bloated runtime. The Transformers stuff is treated with more respect in my opinion this time around too. Dark of the Moon is kind of like Highlander 3; it's the sequel that's good (relatively speaking), and it's best to just ignore the second one. Unfortunately, it seems that the Transformers series is continuing even after the terrible Extinction film, as the fifth film has already been green-lit. I'm hoping that the movie franchise is suffering the inverse of what the Star Trek movies suffer, in that the odd-numbered Transformers movies are decent action films while the even-numbered movies are shit.

And that concludes my look at the Transformers movie trilogy (and the thing that came after it). The brand is all the better for the films from a marketing standpoint, but I certainly don't hold these films up as examples of good Transformers material, and after Age of Extinction, I'm actually kind of ashamed that that film is what is representative of the Transformers franchise right now to the wider world. It is uninviting, but I guess the film franchise does serve as a great example of the old line that if you look beyond the Transformers movies, you'll find a franchise that is truly more than meets the eye.

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