In the dehumanized and soulless clutter marking the third installment of the Transformers series, the movie really only approaches any possibility of visual poetry once. It happens during the much talked about climatic assault on Chicago when the airborne special forces unit, wearing web-fitted personal body suits, float and whirl through space while alertly dodging the falling debris as they evacuate their damaged jet.
Flight is the pervasive metaphor of science fiction, suggesting escape, power and absolute freedom. The movie’s cinematographer is Amir Mokri, long one of my favorite photographers. He started out doing madly inventive work on the early, low-budget films of Wayne Wang before making the leap into larger scaled, action oriented material.
I’m not so sure how much credit ought to be issued to the director and “auteur,“ of the franchise, the extremely self-regarding Michael Bay. Mokri, I suspect, is the principal reason (along with the film being conceived and authored in 3-D) that Transformers: Dark of the Moon is by far the most spatially coherent of Bay’s works.
That’s about the extent of my admiration of the film.
It’s not really a sequel, but like the middle entry, the vile Revenge of the Fallen, a putative remake. The story’s another variation of the first two plots, about the struggle for supremacy between warring shape-shifting, metallic mutating species, the benevolent Autobots and the nihilistic Decepticons.
Ehren Kruger is the only credited screenwriter, but the director’s leitmotifs are everywhere: the puerile objectification of women, the vicious homophobia and casual racism (not just in the minstrel act of the jive-talking subordinate robot but a riff late in the film featuring a bulky black Marine who evinces shame and panic at the suicide mission confronting him).
Bay’s often shown, publicly, in the company of Penthouse models and aspiring actresses, but ferreting the sexual subtexts of his movies, one wonders if this is not just an elaborate cover. This is a guy who works awful hard to prove his own masculinity. How else to account for the pronounced male sexual panic running through all of his films?
The most obnoxious current example occurs in the opening hour with the nominative protagonist, Sam (Shia LaBeouf) caught in flagrante delicto with a corporate rival (Ken Jeong), in a bathroom stall and humiliatingly witnessed by his new boss, the very slithery and dryly amusing John Malkovich.
It explains a lot of why I find so disingenuous about Bay, as a film director and Hollywood hack. In the group interview published in the current issue of GQ, he cannot fathom the toxic reaction a great many critics hold against him. People get so angry, he said. “You are making entertainment,” he protests.
I understand, Michael Bay has a style, and he does what he does, so live with it. (To be fair, a lot of first-rate critics have been more open and upbeat about this film.) I’ll be the first to admit I’m not the demographic for his films. I’m a lover of the wild, the fantastic and the artful.
On a conceptual level, what groups the great science fiction films (La jetee, 2001, Solaris, Blade Runner, AI: Artificial Intelligence) is the way each expertly, hauntingly negotiate and probe the emotional implications of being human. Bay’s movies are the opposite; they’re about the denial of humanity. (In Armageddon, he pulverized Paris and did not for a moment stop to consider the culture, the history, the greatness destroyed in the process.)
Bay renounces humanity in order to perpetuate his “entertainment,” rooted in an ideological system that operates like the Roberts’ Supreme Court. That is, he holds a withering contempt for anybody lacking status, power or privilege. In that same GQ article, the producer on many of his films reports Bay approaching him once and asking whether they knew each other. “I told him I was second unit on Bad Boys, and he said, ‘Oh, I remember you. You sucked.’"
At one hundred and fifty-seven minutes, Dark of the Moon has a lot of digressive parts; but they’re almost all nasty and mean-spirited, like a bit inside Malkovich’s office during Sam's job interview that is interrupted by a young female office worker who’s promptly humiliated for committing a minor infraction. If Bay is indeed an “artist,“ he’s a particularly fascist one, especially sexually; his work is fixated on hierarchies and social order.
He’s like the odious John Simon who notoriously evaluated women solely by their physical attributes. Bay’s the same way, ridiculing, like the female office clerk, the less attractive ones. He treats beautiful women as a private fetish, first Megan Fox and now the British model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, who assumes Fox’s part of playing Sam’s beautiful, compliant girlfriend.
Huntington-Whiteley is the logical direction for him to go. He wants a model in the purest sense, deferential, plastic and largely mute. Bay leers at her ostentatiously, like the first time we see Huntington-Whiteley, the camera low and emphatic, thrusting and sloping up the back of her exposed legs and the lower curve of her ass. Bay is incapable of giving his women any inner life, a sense of intelligence, wit or daring. Not for nothing is the movie’s money shot a lingering, outrageous moment of her gazing out forlornly at the mounting mayhem and destruction.
Death is a constant, but it’s always distant and bloodless. There’s no sting or sense of loss. The millions destroyed in the Chicago invasion are never really thought of, even as disembodied and broken figures. They’re collateral damage. During a sequence much celebrated by the movie’s defenders of the Mies-like glass and steel skyscraper twisting and bending in half, the soldier turned private contractor Epps (Tyrese Gibson), having led a daring expedition into the building’s interior, screams aloud to see whether his team has survived as they slide from end to the other, oblivious of the three or four bodies of several comrades that have violently crashed through the plate glass barrier and had their bodies spastically strewn about.
But, have I mentioned, the machines really gleam. (Bay’s vulgarity is not without human consequence. It should be pointed out a young woman named Gabriela Cedillo was seriously hurt and permanently injured during filming in Hammond, Indiana.)
Bay works in a very recognizable idiom, but like most directors that came to movies from advertising or music videos, he brings very little personality or point of view. Every time he tries to say something, it’s bombastic and didactic. Everything, to him, is a brand; he worships and genuflects before it. The jingoism of his films has gotten worse each time out.
His college film instructor, the much derided Jeanine Basinger, of Wesleyan, apparently never showed him any Sam Fuller films. Privately, I‘m always screaming at Bay: “Are you waving the flag at me?” like Richard Widmark in Pickup on South Street. Andrew Sarris famously observed Billy Wilder was too cynical to believe his own cynicism. Michael Bay is likewise too deaf to appreciate his deafening of form, style and meaning.