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Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011) – The Ambivalence of the Metallic Sublime

July 21, 2011

Michael Bay is a director whose career can best be described as a heroic fall from competence.

Bay cut his directorial teeth by producing the sort of ‘documentaries’ that allow bands and soft-core pornographers alike to bootstrap unconnected short-form material (such as music videos and photo shoots) into something that can be sold either as a DVD or a VHS. Having learned how to please the eye and how to link together completely unrelated sequences, Bay naturally made the step up to producing action movies.

While Bad Boys (1995) and The Rock (1996) were never going to win Cannes, they do stand as incontrovertible proof that Michael Bay knows how to make a film. Both films are well paced and feature some memorable dialogue delivered by casts only too aware that they are present only as human ballast designed to humanise what would otherwise be nothing more than a succession of fire-fights, chase sequences and expensive-looking explosions. Looking back over Bad Boys and The Rock, Bay’s talent for spectacle is only too evident: abandoned prisons and airfields are shot with the same impossible glamour that you find in the photo-shoots of glossy magazines. Characters in Bay’s early films do not walk, they glide and their cars do not so much accelerate as explode into the world with energy so absurd as to be joyous. There are some who would have Bay return to these sorts of films and it is easy to see why… much of what we think of when we sneer the words ‘a Michael Bay’ film are not present in either The Rock or Bad Boys, but the potential is there. Oh such potential…

Having made a name for himself with a couple of relatively unambitious productions, Bay graduated to producing what industry commentators habitually refer to as ‘Tentpole movies’. Tentpole films are the sorts of hugely expensive and lavishly produced blockbusters that studios produce as a means of financing less commercial and more risky undertakings. The resources thrown at tentpole pictures means that, while they can gain access to the biggest stars, the best technicians and the most advanced filmmaking technologies, they must also reach as wide an audience as possible. To think of these productions as films is almost to miss the point… they are financial instruments designed to turn hundreds of millions of dollars into billions of dollars and, like all financial instruments, they are astonishingly precise and complex entities.

Over the last thirty years, it has become increasingly apparent that decent plots, inspiring themes and well-drawn characters are largely irrelevant to the success of a tentpole picture. Yes, a summer blockbuster may have something to say or tell a particularly moving story, but the presence of these elements is frequently irrelevant to that film’s financial success. Because tentpole pictures need to raise money in as efficient a manner as possible the aesthetics of the summer blockbuster have been shaped by a great Darwinian rendering, a process whereby everything that does not directly contribute to a film’s commercial success is stripped from the production. The history of the summer blockbuster tells us that plot, character and theme do not sell movies and so summer blockbusters treat these elements of a film as entirely optional. Over the years, this great Darwinian process has given birth to a new set of cinematic aesthetics, aesthetics drawn not from precepts laid down by ancient tragedians but by the dictatorial fiats of the global financial markets.

The process of transforming a vehicle for the communication of ideas and emotions into a means of extracting vast amounts of money from the public is a tricky process and a risky one. When hundreds of jobs depend upon the success of a single film, you simply cannot afford to be haphazard in your approach to filmmaking. The great rendering of American cinema is a Darwinian process because the film industry’s creation of more and more efficient financial vehicles requires extensive experimentation, experimentation not only at the level of effects technology but also at the level of plot, theme and character. Indeed, it takes an experimental filmmaker to decide that plot is an unnecessary extravagance and it takes a genuinely innovative filmmaker to intentionally produce a $100,000,000 movie without a plot. When art house filmmakers strip out plot and character to produce gaps, we hail them as geniuses. When commercial filmmakers strip out plot and character to produce gaps, we deride them for their incompetence. Both deviations from expected norms are innovative and both are experimental and, as such, I feel quite content to describe Michael Bay as an experimental filmmaker.

Bay’s middle films are a decidedly uneven bunch that saw the emergence of many of Bay’s more unfortunate tics. For example, what is most striking about Bad Boys II (2003) is not its sensational fight scenes or its highly effective chase sequences but the hysterical and unpleasant nature of its characters who spend the entire film sniping and shrieking at each other in a manner that is quite astonishingly unpleasant to watch. Similarly, having discovered the crowd-pleasing potential of American flags in Armageddon (1998), Bay decided to up the ante with Pearl Harbour (2001). The result was a film whose spectacular aerial combat scenes and uncharacteristically downbeat ending are entirely overshadowed by a breed of chauvinistic historical revisionism unseen at the cinema since the days of Leni Riefenstahl. While none of these films is particularly good or memorable, they remain of historical import as they show Bay trying different things, honing his vision and improving the template that forms the basis for what we expect of a summer blockbuster.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon marks the latest iteration in Michael Bay’s on-going quest to produce a film in which every inch of footage serves to stimulate the audience in an effort to coax money from them. The fact that one can watch this film without either reaching orgasm or soiling oneself is proof that Bay’s formula is not yet quite perfected but one can see in its tortured narratives, its hysterical tone and its absolute indifference to either psychological or narrative causation an attempt to move beyond the tenets of classical filmmaking that is no less ambitious than that of Michelangelo Antonioni when his L’Avventura goaded a Cannes audience into booing. Transformers: Dark of the Moon is the future of tentpole filmmaking.

We join Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf) an indeterminate amount of time after the events of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009).  Having been dumped by his girlfriend, Sam is down on his luck and looking for work, a demeaning and soul-destroying task he hugely resents given that a) he has now saved the world twice and b) he feels that he should be working with the Autobots anyway.

The Autobots, meanwhile, are now a fully integrated part of America’s illegal war machine and they spend their time traveling about the planet randomly attacking any Middle Eastern country that dares to work towards developing nuclear power. Having defeated the Decepticons in the previous film, the Autobots now consider themselves Earthlings and are happy to devote their energies to solving human problems.

However, as Sam takes a new job and the Autobots stumble across a Decepticon sneaking about in the ruins of Chernobyl, they soon realise that the Decepticons are plotting to make use of some advanced technology that crash-landed on the Moon.  Hoping to make an end-run around this plot, the Autobots visit the moon and discover an Autobot ship containing not only some very advanced technology indeed, but also Sentinel Prime, former leader of the Autobots and Optimus Prime’s teacher who, upon being revived, betrays the Autobots and throws his lot in with the Decepticons as part of a plot to make Cybertron appear ‘inside our atmosphere’ and to enslave the entire human race in an effort to return it to its former glory.

Disappointed by Optimus Prime’s error of judgement, the American government falls out with the Autobots prompting them to leave Earth on a secret space shuttle that the Decepticons promptly blow up.  Left entirely to their own devices, the humans band together to sneak into a city and foil the Decepticons’ plans.  But of course… they are not alone.

The two most striking thing about the plot of Transformers 3 is that a) it makes no sense if you have not seen the trailers in which the moon landings are revealed as a secret mission to plunder alien technology and b) it makes little sense even if you have seen the trailer.

The fact that Bay uses the film’s own marketing material to provide some of the exposition is an intriguing development of the approach used first by the makers of The Blair Witch Project (1999) and then by the makers of Cloverfield (2008).  In both cases, the producers used marketing material in order to provide information that was absent from the actual film.  This meant that, while you could watch both films without seeing the documentaries and websites, seeing that additional material made the film going experience a lot more rewarding.  By embedding not extra material but important plot points in a film’s marketing material, Bay is not only acknowledging the universal power of marketing, he is also refusing to waste time or space on telling the audience something they already know.  This desire to use shorthand wherever possible is central to Bay’s approach to storytelling.

There are a number of times when viewing Transformers 3 that I found myself reeling with incomprehension. For example, in one early scene, Sam is shown bristling at his parents’ gentle suggestion that he should get a job.  In another scene, we see him screaming at a soldier in an effort to be let into the secret building where the US government keeps the Autobots.  In both of these scenes, Sam comes across absurdly touchy and hysterical, but this is simply because we have been denied access to the context of Sam’s heightened emotional state.  In effect, Bay has stripped out the entirety of two dramatic arcs, leaving behind only the scenes in which a tired and emotional Sam freaks out. Strip out all of the stuff about their love affair and Hamlet pretending to be mad and Ophelia comes across as just as incomprehensible. Bay does this because he assumes that we will catch up.  This belief that audiences can fill in the gaps between images is also evident in the film’s somewhat puzzling attitude towards continuity.  For example, in one scene we are introduced to Sentinel Prime, then we are shown a load of Autobots driving along a highway and then we hear a voice-over explaining that the Decepticons are trying to kidnap sentinel.  Now, at this point, we have only actually seen Sentinel in robot form.  We have no idea what he looks like as a car.  This means that, when the Decepticons attack, Bay leaves it to us to work out that the big truck on the highway next to the Autobots is Sentinel.  Catch up! Even more daringly, Bay shows us the Autobots travelling to the moon in a giant spaceship and it is only later that he has the scene in which we are shown the space ship and we have it explained to us that the Autobots built it.  Why would the Autobots need a spaceship given that they live on Earth? Well… Bay showed us that in the scene where they go to the moon.  Catch up! Catch up!

In his superlative account of cinematic storytelling Narration in the Fiction Film (1985), David Bordwell writes about the difference between what he calls classical narratives and the narrative structures of art films:

For the classical cinema, rooted in the popular novel, short story, and well-made drama of the late nineteenth century, “reality” is assumed to be a tacit coherence among events, a consistency and clarity of individual identity. Realistic motivation corroborates the compositional motivation achieved through cause and effect. But art-house cinema narration, taking its cue from literary modernism, questions such a definition of the real: the world’s laws may not be knowable, personal psychology may be indeterminate. Here new aesthetic conventions claim to seize other “realities” – Pp. 206

Both Bay and art house directors are in the business of opening gaps in the causal processes that tie the world together.  However, while art house cinema opens those gaps up as a means of dwelling on the nature of causation and interrogating received opinions about how the world works, Bay uses those gaps to fit more spectacle and more film into amount of time that audiences will inhabit the cinema.  Indeed, had Transformers 3 been made along classical lines with all of its plot-lines present and correct then I suspect it would have been over ten hours long, by cutting out all the pre-amble and forcing his audience to fill in the gaps, Bay is concentrating the cinematic experience to a series of major chords. Indeed, we do not see Sam becoming more and more demoralised as he tries to spend time with the autobots, nor do we see him slowly being edged out by the Autobots’ human handlers. All we see is the pathos and comedy of a man freaking out in front of a gate while his girlfriend looks on with pity in her eyes.

This desire to make a film composed of nothing but major chords also accounts for the unreconstructed sexism that pervades most of the film. The decision to open the film on an image of a model’s arse ascending a staircase is far from arbitrary.  As is the decision to introduce one of the characters by having him deliver a speech about beautiful cars in which he could just as easily be discussing the curves of his secretary.  Transformers 3 does not so much represent the male gaze as attempt to fill the gaze of its male audience with an endless stream of arses, tits, cars, explosions and endlessly shifting robots.

Many people wanting to dismiss the Transformers series describe it as being ‘robots punching each other in the face for two and a half hours’. Aside from being technically untrue (there’s at least an hour and a half of model-perving, car-fondling, gun-stroking, flag-waving and limb-flailing in there too) this remark fails to acknowledge the jaw-dropping majesty of Bay’s action sequences.  The first thing to understand about the Transformers is that, while they can fight in both vehicular and robotic forms, they tend to do most of their fighting whilst moving between either of these two points.  This means that, far from being about cars driving really quickly or robots punching each other in the face, Transformers 3 is really all about vast cohesions of metal flying through the air whilst dodging other bits of metal and moving between being in the shape of a car and being in the shape of a robot. The result is a cinematic experience that aggressively pushes the boundaries of cinematic spectacle.

For example, one of the most astonishing sequences in the film sees Sam’s car Bumblebee throwing himself into the air so as to avoid an exploding truck. Whilst in mid-air, Bumblebee leaves his vehicular form and so projects a screaming Sam through the air. Tumbling after him and dodging exploding gas canisters as he goes, Bumblebee guides Sam safely through the explosion with gentle nudges and then leaps forward in order to reform as a car around Sam before he hits the ground. To describe such an imaginatively conceived, carefully choreographed and perfectly shot sequence as ‘robots punching each other’ is nothing short of an insult to the cinematic form.

These action sequences are not merely entertaining, they push the outer limit of what the brain is capable of processing and, by overloading the brain’s capacity to make sense of what it is perceiving, Michael Bay touches what Edmund Burke famously referred to as ‘The Sublime’. In his book on the subject A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Idea of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), Burke writes of the emotional impact of the sublime:

THE PASSION caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it. Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that, far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force. – “Of the Passion Caused by the Sublime”.

To watch Transformers: Dark of the Moon is to experience moments in which one’s brain is so devoted to processing images of tumbling metal and twisted shapes that one can only recoil in awed horror. I do not believe in God but I do believe that were I to see Him, he would look like a Michael Bay action sequence.

It is interesting to watch Transformers 3 immediately after watching Terrence Malick’s Cannes-winning Tree of Life (2011), as despite being from entirely different ends of the art house/blockbuster divide, both films actually have a lot in common. Indeed, both films eschew linear characterisation and plot in favour of creating gaps that the audience must navigate on their own and both films use a combination of powerful imagery, well-chosen scoring and carefully chosen imagery to produce in their audiences a sense that they are moving beyond mere entertainment and onto some other plane of aesthetic enjoyment.  The difference is that while Malick uses the beauty of nature and images of childhood to exalt his audience, Bay uses the female form, the destructive power of the American military and a bunch of cars that turn into robots.

While Transformers: Dark of the Moon kept me completely fascinated for the entirety of its two and a half hour running-time (another trait it has in common with Tree of Life) and while the film’s capacity for cinematic beauty is considerable, I am aware that I did not particularly like the film. I believe that this is the result of two separate factors:

Firstly, while Transformers 3 undeniably pushes the envelope of classical film making to the point where it starts to resemble an experimental art film, there is clearly something holding it back. Indeed, while Malick’s Tree of Life demonstrates that he is a filmmaker unafraid to divest himself of such classical elements as the linear narrative or the coherent drawn character, Bay retains an incomprehensible and seemingly reluctant attachment to the idea that films ought to have plots and characters. Whether this aesthetic conservatism stems from producers wary of moving too fast for their audience or from Bay himself, it is clear that Bay’s attachment to elements of classical filmmaking are holding him back and that this attachment to past genre tropes and techniques is manifesting itself as an increasingly sour and half-arsed approach to those classical elements that do get included. The tension between what Transformers wants to become and what Transformers is forced to be is evident in every misjudged comic line and in every underdeveloped plot line. Transformers: Dark of the Moon is difficult to like because the film’s sourness is difficult to ignore.

Secondly, while Bay is clearly reaching towards the sublime in the same way as Malick, Fincher, Ramsay, Herzog and Antonioni, he does so in a very different manner. Many leftist critics praise art house cinema because the ambiguities of art house film coax their audiences into a process of self-reflection that can lead to their deciding to make changes in their lives. Indeed, by showing us the gaps between the real world’s causes and effects, art house directors suggest that effects do not necessarily follow from causes and that different effects could well be obtained if only we looked at things differently. However, while Bay’s techniques undeniably open up gaps that demand that the audience meet him halfway, he allows little room for genuine self-appraisal or questioning.  Bay’s gaps are not there in order to make people realise the contingent nature of the status quo, they are there because Bay does not want to be tied down with exposition. We do not fill the gaps in Transformers 3 with new ideas and different perspectives but with received wisdom. Bay confronts us with the sublime, but the path he has us walk is paved with the trappings of oppression and not liberation. Indeed, for all of their artistic accomplishment and mad experimental brilliance, Bay’s films encourage us to find the sublime in images of racism, sexism, nationalism and violence. Combine this with the fact that Bay’s experimentation is prompted by the desire to make more and more money for multinational corporations and you have a recipe for a distinctly unpleasant viewing experience.

9 Comments
  1. July 24, 2011 4:23 pm

    Sorry, I just can’t see this. The sublime idea just didn’t work for me. You could argue this is a matter of personal response but I’d argue the film just doesn’t evoke the sublime.
    As to the ‘narrative’. The plot (a re-hash of every element we know from scores of other films) is not at all difficult to piece together. The explanations are rushed but there is nothing really to explain — it’s a story from identikit components.There is the odd loose end, but no more than many Hollywood films.
    True, Sam’s character is all over the place. But that is because he is a 12 year old boy in the body of 22 year old.

    12 year old boys must be a good portion of the target audience, and as good deal of the film is devoted to this aspect..

    * Sam is frightened of being ‘spanked’ by his parents

    * Sam’s parents tease him by talking about their sex lives.

    * Sam has the hottest girlfriend in the world. But the relationship isn’t sexual in itself so much as Sam being able to show off that he’s got a girlfriend. The reaction of his workmates, the reaction of Sam’s retired CIA friend and his buddy. The girlfriend is also a mother figure: she provides the fancy apartment they live in and Sam’s pocket money, she gives him advice and worries about him, and puts up with his tantrums.

    * The adults of the work world are completely incomprehensible.

    * His dissatisfaction with life is because he doesn’t receive recognition. His judgement and achievements aren’t valued. Yes, he resists being infantilised but the frustrations he feels are those of an infant.

    * The satisfactions are when the adults (the mad mother CIA boss) for example, recognise his worth.

    * Yes, his character veers from bristling to screaming. He has tantrums. That’s because he’s 12.

    * Most of the time that he is in danger he is rescued by one of the parent or babysitter substitute robots. He never the thanks the robots. Because he’s a sulky teenager. The robots have to give love unconditionally. They are ‘good’ parents. )His own are absent of unsympathetic.)

    The clever trick is not to put Sam’s character in a 12 year body. Instead by putting the character in an adult, it can appeal to the 12 year old boy in all of us. (Or at least. mine.)

    The film is a perfect case of emotional dumbing down.

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  2. August 4, 2011 11:04 am

    Sorry Mark… didn’t notice this one sitting in the pending file :-(

    I agree with pretty much everything you say about the film, but I think that you’re looking at it in completely the wrong way. You’re approaching the film with a clear idea of what constitutes a good plot and good characters. These ideals are forged by your experience of culture and the culture you exist within. When judged against our conceptions of what constitutes good plot and character you are absolutely right: Transformers is a mess.

    But what are plot and character if not means of emotional manipulation? They are devices used by writers to reach into your brain and tweak elements of your nervous system.

    Films like Transformers are produced by an on-going process whereby Hollywood producers and filmmakers come up with alternative ways of tweaking your brain. In particular, the film makes extensive use of visual and audio stimulation to pummel the audience into a particular emotional state. Transformers does not need plot and character because it has its own devices.

    Of course, if you look at the film in terms of traditional aesthetics then it is an absolute piece of shit, but my point is that Transformers and films like it are built in accordance with an entirely different set of aesthetics and so to lambast the film for weak plotting and hysterical child-like characters is a bit like saying that Last Year in Marienbad is shit because it doesn’t contain any car chases.

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  3. August 9, 2011 4:12 am

    I haven’t seen this third movie, but based on the first two, you’re definitely on to something when you talk about how the robots are at their best when they are in their in-between, indeterminate state. That’s a genuine creative insight on Bay’s part, I think: the appeal of the original toys, and comics and TV series they spawned, was all about how one cool-looking thing could become another cool-looking thing, a change of surfaces with a shared interior that always remains artfully hidden. But in Bay’s hands transformation becomes a violent act of revealing the interior. The Transformers become avatars of raw technology–and so many people are terrified of technology, hence we have companies like Apple whose whole selling point is designing technology products where technology is completely encased. Thus in a weird way the movies have complete conceptual integrity–we’re obsessed with sexy surfaces and horrified by interiors, and so that’s exactly what the films give us, in both the stories they tell and how they tell it.

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  4. August 9, 2011 8:56 am

    I think that that’s a very useful insight Matt, thanks.

    Your idea goes some way to explaining why it is that Bay is so keen on showing us the gears and machinery inside the robots. I think a number of the films’ trailers feature shots that take us in through the eye of one of the robots to show this weird clockwork internality that makes little sense in technological terms but a lot of sense when you think of it as an attempt to point out the otherness of these creatures. We like to think of the robots as being either robots or vehicles but in truth, they’re neither… both are conceits and when the robots fight and shift shapes you can see the fundamental fluidity of their nature. Which, to a species trapped in one form, is kind of freaky and goes some way to explaining why so many people are horrified by the sheer visual dynamism of the films.

    You could probably tie this idea in quite nicely with a Horror film such as Carpenter’s The Thing as the horror there stems from the fact that the Thing has no fixed shape. (Something which Peter Watts completely failed to understand in his novella I think)

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