Michael Bay has the mind of a 14-year-old boy. He likes things big, bold with little subtlety. He likes women and fast cars. And he like explosions, boy does he like explosions.
But he has no concept of what actually makes a good action movie – Transformers 3 might be full of the biggest bangs you’ve ever seen, but its set up is laborious, its character development non-existent, the plot lazy and could have been written on the back of a stained beer mat and it’s jam-packed with the most superfluous supporting cast ever seen in cinema.
Its start is promising. The entire 1960s Space Programme turns out to be a cover to find a crashed alien spacecraft which reveals that the former Autobot leader Sentinel has been hibernating on the moon. This prompts the defeated Decepticon head honcho Megatron to come out of hiding and restart the war. Explosions ensue. Entertainment does not.
Five minutes in and “intrigued” rapidly turns to “bored” as Transformers fails to engage. Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) having saved the world twice over is now struggling to find a job. He’s been getting more annoying with each subsequent Transformers movie – if this keeps up he’s liable to collapse in on himself and form some kind of irritation singularity. He’s gone from being a hapless everyman to being a whiny brat. You can empathise with a kid getting his first car or even going to college; you can’t when his biggest problem is that his supermodel girlfriend has a handsome leery boss. It’s not clear why he even needs to be in the movie beyond some tenuous continuity with the first two instalments.
It’s spot-on casting though. Shia LaBeouf is a walking charisma black hole playing the most boring character in existence, so that’s a perfect fit.
One thing that Michael Bay can do is action and the scale of the wholesale destruction in the last act is at least inventive. A scene in which Bumblebee transforms from a car to android spitting Sam out in the process and shooting a load of Decepticons before transforming back into a car with Sam once more inside is stunning feat. Similarly Special Forces base-jumping past a collapsing skyscraper is a feast for the eyeballs.
But while Transformers might contain some good action, it doesn’t make it a good action movie. Without any investment in the characters, there’s absolutely no sense of danger or peril. And no peril means no excitement, no matter how big the fireballs. It’s hard to muster even a shrug; it’s like the world’s most pointless fireworks display.
In fairness, it’s actually better than Transformers 2 with a slightly more coherent plot, but that’s like saying being shot in the face is better than a nuclear apocalypse. The robot fights are much more clearly defined (a constant problem which plagued the last instalment was that you couldn’t easily distinguish who was fighting whom) with bold colours to label the combatants.
The good news is that the racist robot twins of Mudflap and Skids have been consigned to the scrap heap but unfortunately they’ve been replaced by two Transformers with Scottish accents who perform the same role – they’re just stereotypically belligerent instead of marinated in Ebonics. There’s also a horrible insistence on giving “humourous” physical characteristics to robots. The geeky robot Que has Einstein-style hair and goofy metal teeth and optics which are made to look like glasses. He’s a robot. What need does he have for such things? It’s representative of lazy visual shortcuts which take the place of good character or, heaven forbid, a personality.
Bay might be able to direct a good action scenes but he sure can’t direct humans. The overstuffed cast includes the unnecessary bit parts from John Malkovich as Sam’s new boss, Alan Tudyk as a campy bodyguard and Ken “Paycheck” Jeong showing up to do the same tired schtick he pulls in every movie. Each one of these is an attempt at humour which is awful. Not merely bad, but awful, toe-curlingly, knuckle-bitingly, head-in-your-hands awful and so embarrassing that you’ll want to climb into the screen and shake them to make it stop.
There’s also a horrible patina of sleaze which coats Transformers. Newcomer Rosie Huntington-Whitely (a sort of Cameron Diaz clone with a thinner face) depressingly has more time spent with the camera pointed at her bum than her face. But it’s difficult to tell if the alternative would be any better, as she’s such a bad actress that any possible life is leeched from every scene she’s in. Together with LaBeouf, they’re like the twin suns of Anti-Charisma System.
Transformers 3 is a tedious, overlong explosion factory; one special effect after another which we’re supposed to applaud. And At a bladder-challenging 150 minutes, an hour could have easily have been stripped out with no discernable difference.
John Malkovich’s character at one point blurts “It’s a visual and therefore a visceral betrayal. Stop it!” One has to wonder if he wasn’t talking directly to Michael Bay. But Transformers 3 is not simply a visual betrayal but also a cinematic one. We can only hope that he does indeed, stop it.