Wednesday 20 July 2011

Things fall apart. And by things I mean robots.

I liked Transformers. That may not be cool in certain circles, but those circles fail to love robots the way they should. I'm a fan of both Battlestar Galactica and Terminator, and by simple logic bigger robots should be more fun. That didn't work out perfectly, but the mixture of mecha-a-mecha action and teenage shenanigans appealed to me so much that I happily reckon Transformers a guilty pleasure. On the other hand, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen felt like someone reading the phone book to you while kicking your face in for three hours.

So now, two years and a big public fight between actress Megan Fox and director Michael Bay later, we have Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Glory in that title, earthlings! Dark of the Moon, well, it doesn't make sense at a basic level. They just picked random words out of a dictionary. And so the title breaks down the seeming fixedness of language itself, leaving us to navigate a sea of unstable meanings.

It's been argued that Revenge of the Fallen was the first poststructuralist blockbuster. The non-existence of plot, the disappearance of any structure connecting images, characters and events showed the loss of fixed relationships in postmodernity. If we consider RotF a deconstruction of the blockbuster, DotM marks a cautious attempt at reconstruction: it has a discernible plot, which it mostly follows for a significant part of the film's running time. Until, that is, it goes utterly insane. But more of that later.

Plot, then: Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) has graduated from university and been ditched by wrench wench Mikaela. Having taken up with new love interest Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), who works for wealthy, smarmy Dylan (Patrick Dempsey), Sam finds a job of uncertain description with psychotic Bruce Brazos (John Malkovich). Meanwhile, it is revealed that the real purpose of the 1969 Apollo 11 mission was to investigate the wreck of The Ark, a Cybertronian ship containing Sentinel Prime, the original leader of the Autobots. Sentinel, however, turns out to not share the other Autobots' views on coexistence with humanity, and soon the Autobots and their human allies must stop the Decepticons from taking over Earth and enslaving humanity with the aid of five pillars aboard The Ark.

Michael Bay is not a merciful man: subplots around Sam's boss, his parents, and Dylan are drowned like a sack of kittens. But at the centre we have a real plot about mankind's attempts to prevent total Decepticon domination. It's not the freshest or most sophisticated of plots: but it's there, it's quite gripping for a good portion of the running time, and I'd take that over the sub-Eisensteinian montages of RotF any day. What's more, the film is much less visually and sonically aggressive than its predecessor, which constituted an all-out assault on the audience.

But in the massive, extended climactic battle nothing makes sense anymore. This is a pity because a good part of that scene is, in fact, awesome. But alas, all Decepticons look the same to the untrained eye - a problem that has persistently plagued the series, although it seems to be worsening - and so I genuinely thought Megatron had perished about five times in the space of twenty minutes. Stated plot points are suddenly violated. And in the worst Michael Bay tradition, the editing and framing makes it impossible to establish who is where or what is happening at any moment, leaving the viewer with nothing but noises and colours and no framework to help interpret the experience.

In a sense, this is worse than it was in RotF because through the coherence of the film to this point, the audience has been lulled into a false sense of security. DotM suddenly pulls the rug out from under our feet, demolishing the universe of meaning wholesale and simulating the disorienting collapse of modernity into postmodernity. What's more, it is perhaps the most realistic war film ever: as in real combat, we have no idea at all what is happening. Cherished certainties of sequence and association dissolve into air.

Next to this ultra-hip poststructuralism, however, there's unfortunately some good old-fashioned misogyny. Bay never attempts to convince us Carly exists for any purpose other than fanservice. The mercenary way in which Megan Fox was replaced by Rosie Huntington-Whiteley certainly does not inspire confidence in the director's intention to treat her as an actual human being. In the film's worst scene, Patrick Dempsey praises a car's design and 'curves' while the camera lingers over Miss Huntington-Whiteley's body. By association with the automobile she becomes nothing more than an object to be possessed by men. (Incidentally, her car-related job is proof that the writers just went through the script replacing 'Mikaela' with 'Carly'.)

There we have it, then: another film from this most distinctive of directors. It does not go as far in questioning the nature of cinema itself as RotF did, but its reliance on coherent plotting makes for a rather more enjoyable time at the cinema. 'Better', I'm afraid, is not good; and while freedom is indeed the right of all sentient beings, I may be willing to make an exception for Michael Bay.

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