Friday, July 8, 2011

"Transformers 3" is one of Summer's Biggest Surprises

Film Rating: B+

Sometimes, fate has a way of intervening in my writing.  I first saw Transformers 3 (I’m not going to use the real title, for reasons I’ll explain later) on opening night last Wednesday, and had my review ready the next evening.  That review was seven pages long – the one you read today is significantly shorter.  The film inspired a lot of conflicted thoughts in my mind, ones I found impossible to relate concisely.  I went to post the review, and found that was undergoing a redesign, so I had to hold off as I planned for the future (i.e. creating this shiny new blog).  Before I was able to get the review published, I ended up seeing the movie again, and found it to be a completely different experience.  There are a lot of things I loved about Transformers 3 the first time, and I loved those things even more re-watching it.  There were also plenty of elements I flat out despised, and when I saw the film again, I didn’t mind most of them, and even embraced a few moments or characters I initially dismissed as egregious flaws.  Once I stepped out of the theater, the first thing I thought was “thank God I didn’t publish that review, because I don’t agree with most of it anymore.”

More after the jump...

Transformers 3 is a great time at the movies.  It’s as simple as that.  It’s flawed, certainly, but I don’t think it has any problems that are inexcusable, and it’s enjoyable from start to finish.  Most importantly of all, it is a massive improvement over its two predecessors, films I have little to no respect for (my complaints are detailed in Podcast form here!).  It’s as though Michael Bay looked at people’s complaints with his first two Transformers movies, made a checklist, and took great effort to fix every problem for part 3.  Not everything is perfect – some of the humor is still too out-of-place and over-the-top – but overall, I have never seen a sequel rebound this amazingly strong from weak initial entries.  I can say, without hesitation, that this is the live-action Transformers movie I’ve always wanted.

Indeed, Transformers 3 is one of the most awe-inspiring experiences I have ever had in a movie theatre.  Much has been made of the film’s last hour, and rightfully so.  It’s one gargantuan climactic set piece – think the Battle of the Pelennor Fields from The Return of the King as a reference for length and scope – that may very well be the most amazing extended action sequence ever committed to film.  Certainly, Transformers 3 boasts the greatest special effects in film history.  The final hour is spectacular for many reasons, chief among them that it takes place in Chicago and completely decimates the city over the course of the battle.  Not just one street, like the final fight of the first Transformers, but the whole of Chicago is the battlefield, and there is not one millisecond where the action looks anything less than 100% realistic.  The robots look fantastic as always – and there are more of them than ever before with a whole hell of a lot more screen-time – but destroying enormous, recognizable buildings and wreaking havoc on beloved landmarks while maintaining total realism is another level of special effects entirely, and I guarantee that you’ve never seen anything like it.
It’s especially invigorating on IMAX, blown up to the largest size possible; at IMAX resolution, the highest in the world, it’s easy to spot all flaws in FX work.  Having experienced the film in IMAX, trust me when I say there are no flaws in the FX work – from start to finish, every bit of director Michael Bay’s insane ambition is rendered to total perfection in glorious 3-D.
Yes, 3-D.  As you may have gathered recently, I’m not a big fan of the medium.  3-D served James Cameron’s Avatar very well, and TRON: Legacy boasted images of tremendous depth, but other than that, 3-D has become Hollywood’s bane.  Most 3-D work is sloppy.  I tend to hate it.  The public is really starting to hate it.  People have begun abandoning 3-D in droves, and the hype from Avatar has all but vanished. 
Who knew Michael Bay would be the savior of 3-D?
Transformers 3 features the best use of 3-D in a motion picture to date by a wide, wide margin.  Nothing else – not even Avatar – even comes close.  Shot using the cameras invented for Avatar, the 3-D is an integral part of the cinematography, action, and effects work, and it is the first time I think we can definitively point to 3-D as the future of filmmaking.  The realism of the Chicago sequence isn’t just achieved through good effects work, but through 3-D; that extra dimension draws you in, makes every shot more exciting, and surrounds the viewer in the action.  To say it is an essential part of the film would be a colossal understatement; the 3-D is what makes it so exhilarating in the first place, because the extra dimension has forced Michael Bay to become a better director, and fix many of the flaws found in his last two Transformers flicks.

In our rage-fueled podcast last week, my friend Sean Chapman and I counted down the ten things we hated most about the first two films, and Michael Bay’s directorial style came in at number two.  The first two Transformers movies are incomprehensible messes; the action is totally incoherent, there’s no choreography, and the camera is zoomed in so closely on the robots that discerning which character is which is virtually impossible.  3-D, however, has changed Michael Bay.  The complexity of the third dimension has forced Bay to slow down, think things through, and choreograph everything very precisely.  He’s zoomed the camera out.  He’s minimalized the shaky cam, and his editing is far less frenetic and far more focused.  Bay has always had potential as an action filmmaker, but it’s usually gone to waste.  3-D, it turns out, was waiting for him, and now that he’s found it, he’s discovered a way to make his style work.
With 3-D cameras by his side, Bay stages some of the most spellbinding action I’ve ever seen.  It cannot be described – it must be seen to be believed.  The first half of the film has some great set-pieces, but it’s that last hour in Chicago where Bay gets it right.  This is the all-out war between Autobots and Decepticons that we’ve been waiting so long to see, but most importantly, Bay also manages to tap into the human side of the action.  Not only do the humans and the military feel like more than just dead weight in this battle, they contribute significantly and organically, and it finally justifies all the time Bay wasted on the human characters in films one and two (well, mostly). 

This is the apocalyptic level of action I’ve always dreamed of seeing on the big screen, but never have before.  One section involves a collapsing building and one of the biggest, meanest Transformers of the bunch, and it should be taught in film school as a model for staging effective action; the stakes are defined, the characters and their positions are always clear, and it builds to a ridiculously satisfying resolution.  And after that, there’s a good half-hour left.  Optimus Prime hasn’t even gone to work yet.  And once he does…oh boy…let’s just say the battle for Earth climaxes on a bridge in one final brawl between three choice Transformers.  Were this scene performed by humans, it would be the single goriest thing ever committed to film.
Bay wisely chooses to let the Transformers themselves drive those final moments, and throughout the movie – not just in the last moments – it’s Optimus and company that shine brightest as characters.  Given how astonishingly terrible most of the human characters have been in this series, that’s been true since the first movie (even if I like the humans a lot more this time around).  Still, it’s more apparent here than ever before, and the Transformers are actually built up as strong characters this time based on their own merits, not just in comparison to the bland or obnoxious humans.  The bots actually get scenes on their own, separate from humans, and Bay trusts them to do most of the dramatic heavy lifting.  That speaks volumes to ILM’s immaculate effects work, of course, but also to the script, which finally has a solid handle on many of these characters and their relationships. 

Optimus Prime clearly steals the show.  Voice actor Peter Cullen is immensely talented, and he knows this character inside and out, having originated Optimus way back in the eighties on television before reprising the role in the movies.  Here, he’s better than ever, playing an Optimus who is done messing around – he is ready to go to war and when he does, he is out for blood…or oil…whatever is inside the Decepticons, he wants to rip it out and beat them to death with it.  By the end of the film, Optimus has emerged as one of the most badass characters the silver screen has every played host to; yet at the same time, he really is a character.  Optimus isn’t Hamlet or anything, but his morality and motivations are clear, and for the first time, the writing is up to Peter Cullen’s level, giving him material that really allows us to understand Optimus. 

But he’s far from the only Autobot to make an impact.  Characters like Ironhide and Ratchet don’t have much screen-time, but when they do appear, they have clearly defined personalities and roles, as do all the Autobots.  There’s an undeniable weight to these characters and their camaraderie that makes their struggles compelling, and when one of them dies, it’s actually an emotional moment, the polar opposite of Jazz’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it demise from the first film.  Bumblebee is, next to Optimus, the most recognizable robot in the films, and he’s somewhat marginalized this time around; since his personality and relationship with human protagonist Sam Witwicky was actually well established in the preceding films, that’s not a problem here.  The Sam-Bumblebee friendship was one of the few saving graces of the franchise’s first two entries, and moments between the two resonant very strongly in this last chapter. 

On the Decepticon side, things are still a bit problematic.  We’ve never gotten to know any of these characters well, not even Megatron, which means that Bay doesn’t really have any established relationships to play with.  Nevertheless, I think he’s found a very good solution.  The Decepticons have really just been faceless villains throughout this series, and the third film simply comes right out and acknowledges that, establishing one central villain who summons hundreds of evil robots to Earth as cannon fodder.  It works just fine.  Some Decepticons do get substantial face-time, however: Megatron returns, and while I still believe original voice actor Frank Welker should have performed the role, Hugo Weaving does inject some personality into the character this time.  Starscream is even more entertaining, and his rocky relationship with Megatron is captured perfectly.  The newest Decepticon, Shockwave, isn’t really a ‘character,’ per se, but as a destructive force, he’s an incredible creation, used very creatively from start to finish.

But the best addition to the film is, without a doubt, Sentinel Prime, who stands second only to Optimus as the best character this franchise has to offer.  Sentinel is an old friend and leader of the Autobots, resurrected many years after the war for Cybertron.  I won’t reveal what role he plays in the film, but suffice it to say that it’s important – apart from Optimus himself, Sentinel is the second-most prominent Transformer in the film, and if the character didn’t work, the movie would fall apart top to bottom; since Sentinel is so engaging, then, he elevates the entire story.  The character works primarily because of his voice, provided by the great Leonard Nimoy.  Nimoy is the kind of actor who devotes himself wholly to a role with a near Shakespearean level of authority, and he brings that same natural intensity to Sentinel.  The script even works in a really wonderful Spock quote, and it’s a sign of how effective Nimoy is that the reference feels natural rather than forced. 

Sentinel and Optimus alone raise this movie to heights unattained by its predecessors, but Michael Bay has addressed my concern with the use of the Transformers characters across the board.  They really got the robots right this time, and that goes a long way towards making Transformers watchable again.  The last hour of the movie is fantastic for so many reasons, but the action only works because we’ve come to like, or at least understand, the robots at the heart of the battle, and that makes the climax absolutely unforgettable.

But at the same time, Bay hasn’t neglected to address the human problem.  I still think there are too many human characters in the film, many of them pointless and/or annoying, but in comparison to films one and two, it’s not much of a problem, and the story flows very strongly even in spite of the character glut.  There are brief roles filled by John Malkovich and Ken Jeong that are spectacularly unfunny, characters that threaten to derail the movie early on.  Luckily, both are out of the film quickly, and in Malkovich’s case, his character does at least get a good, heartfelt moment with protagonist Sam.

Sam, played by Shia LaBeouf, continues to be at the center of the human side of things, and I like what they’ve done with his character here.  He’s out of college, looking for his first real job, and to add to the pressure, he’s got a new girlfriend he needs to impress.  He’s frustrated because the government won’t let him work with the Autobots; after saving the world twice, he’s much rather fight alongside his robotic friends than slave away in a mailroom.  Sam’s struggle isn’t just understandable, but relatable; we’ve all been there, directionless and feeling as though we aren’t being used to our full potential.  There are some problems with Sam’s story in the first act; he’s at the center of the film’s most unfunny sequences, though that’s not LaBeouf’s fault, and it takes too long for his story to intersect with that of the Transformers.  Nevertheless, the film chugs along just fine despite these bumpy spots, and Sam’s story ultimately comes down to one very effective struggle: rescuing his girlfriend, Carly, from the Decepticons by infiltrating a dying Chicago.

It’s Sam’s actions that start the wonderful, final hour in Chicago, and centering the action around this very human relationship is part of what makes the action work so well.  Carly herself is played by newcomers Rosie Huntington-Whitely (Megan Fox, fired by producer Steven Spielberg, is absent for inadequately explained reasons), who gives a surprisingly good performance.  In fact, Carly is my favorite human character in this entire Transformers trilogy.  No contest.  Most of that praise goes straight to Whitely – she’s extraordinarily likable, has a wonderful screen presence, and gives a pleasant, naturalistic performance at all times.  I’ll go to bat for the unfairly maligned Megan Fox any day of the week, but like most humans in this series, I never bought her character as a real human.  Whitely, on the other hand, has the very rare talent of managing maintain credibility even during the height of the mayhem, and she therefore provides the film’s heart and soul.  We care about her, we want Sam to save her, and we feel like applauding when, near the end, she does the single smartest thing any human has ever done in this series.  Whitely isn’t necessarily giving a ‘great’ performance, managing to shine through so brightly in a Transformers movie is a tremendous achievement for a new actress, especially one whose normal job is as a Victoria’s Secret supermodel.  It’s not a career that usually translates well to acting, but if she plays her cards right, Whitely could have a very impressive career ahead of her. 

She and Sam aren’t the only human characters I like.  Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson both return as the lead military men, and while I liked their characters well enough in the first two outings, this is first time they really shine as likeable protagonists, with Gibson in particular adding an awful lot to the final hour.  With these two, Sam, Carly, and all the wonderful Transformers inhabiting the cast, I can finally say that Bay has assembled an ensemble worth rooting for.  There are, of course, annoying characters.  I already mentioned Malkovich and Jeong.  Add to that Frances McDormand, unfortunately cast as the unlikable head of National Security.  Her role is extraneous and detrimental to the drama.  On the other hand, we have Alan Tudyk, one of my favorite actors due to his role as Wash in Firefly; his role isn’t necessarily essential, but he’s very funny with an over-the-top accent, and does play an important role in the final battle.  He’s likable, which is more than I can say for some of these characters.  And John Tuturro, surprisingly enough, actually adds something to the proceedings this time.  He’s annoying in his first scene, but mellows out after this and actually becomes kind of funny. 

The story, believe it or not, is actually pretty good this time, certainly the best plot this series has ever had.  We open with a terrific expository sequence that explains how the 1969 mission to the moon was in response to a Cybertron war-ship landing on the dark side of the moon.  Notice how I said ‘dark side of the moon,’ as in the Pink Floyd album.  Every character in Transformers 3 says it the same way, often emphasizing the word side.  The phrase Dark of the Moon, without the word side, appears nowhere in the movie.  I hardly see how it is supposed to function as the title.

But I digress – the opening is excellent, enriching the mythology and exciting one’s imagination.  It’s a simple, effective set-up for the rest of the story, a story I dare not spoil too much of here.  There’s a lot of fun to be had in following all the twists and turns as Optimus and company race to uncover the secrets of their long-lost ship, and the story builds organically in intensity throughout, earning every major dramatic beat.  Most importantly, the story sets up the action wonderfully.  This is still a Michael Bay movie, and that means that the set-pieces come first, but let’s not forget that action can’t work if the story is worthless.  Transformers 3 works because the plot engages the viewer; it grabs hold of our imagination and leads us on a wild ride, and by the time the characters reach Chicago, the story has put everything in place for the battle to end all battles.  Optimus’ big, badass moments get us invigorated because the script has done everything necessary to illustrate why his anger and thirst for revenge is so deep.  Even Michael Bay’s movies need a good story to function, and Bay himself has finally realized this. 

Transformers 3 is far from perfect – I’ll be the first to admit that, but I’ll also sing this film’s praises far and wide.  I recorded a 90-minute podcast detailing my hatred of the first two films, so I hope you’ll take it to heart when I say that I loved watching this third movie.  The amount of improvement shown here is, quite frankly, stunning.  It’s stunning to see Optimus achieve such unbelievable levels of baddassery, it’s stunning to actually care about the human characters, and it’s stunning to see some of the greatest action ever filmed rendered with the best use of 3D yet.  Transformers 3 is one of the highlights of this summer, and it’s an absolute must-see.  

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