Transformers: the world’s greatest screensaver

Transformers - Dark of the MoonSeeing the new Transformers movie had me worried. A Michael Bay action scene makes your eyes sizzle at the best of times. But in 3D?

Thankfully, my eyes survived. The action was devastatingly good and the 3D was the best I’ve seen. That’s more than I can say for the rest of the movie.

The first Transformers film surprised me by being rather good. Okay, so the final act was just a bunch of robots knocking seven bells out of each other, but it was never less than spectacular. Number two turned out better than the critics told me it was going to be. So how about number three?

Well, it gets off to a terrific start, rewriting the Apollo 11 moon landing to become every conspiracy theorist’s dream. Having astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin discover a wrecked Cybertron ship in the Sea of Tranquility is a great way to kick things off (later in the movie, in a delightful cameo, Aldrin actually appears as himself). After that, everything rapidly goes south.

The bottom line is there’s no compelling human story. Sam’s journey from discarded hero to action man is there if you bother to look, but blink and you’ll miss it. The supporting cast is wasted, and the new characters (notably Alan Tudyk as a conflicted hacker-hitman) are elbowed out of the way by all the returnees from the previous films. Why bother hiring John Malkovich just to mug for a couple of reels then vanish from the story altogether? On the plus side, casting the impossibly gravel-voiced Leonard Nimoy as Sentinel Prime was a stroke of genius.

As the plot sank deeper into the abyss, I gave up trying to rationalise why certain things were happening. Uh, why are the Autobots being exiled into space again? Uh, how come there’s suddenly loads of Decepticons buried on the moon? There’s a serviceable story in there somewhere, but the storytelling is just plain lazy. It’s a crime when so much loving care has clearly been paid to the film’s visuals.

Ah, the visuals. In short, they’re unbelievable. Director Bay and visual effects supervisor Scott Farrar have found that sweet spot where the action is not only jaw-dropping but also much easier to follow than in the earlier movies. The shots are wider, the choreography is slicker, the colour-coding of the good and bad guys is clearer and they’re not afraid to switch to slo-mo when we really need to see what’s going on. I don’t know if all this is a response to the constraints of 3D (something about the brain needing more time to process the visual information) or a maturing of the technique. Either way, it works. And works. And works.

ILM get the main visual effects credit, though inevitably a host of other vendors were involved, notably Digital Domain. According to this article in The Hollywood Reporter, some of ILM’s shots showing the immense Driller chewing its way through a Chicago skyscraper took an incredible 288 hours per frame to render! Believe me, it was worth it. With Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the VFX bar’s been raised yet again. We really are entering the era when, given enough time and money, anything you can imagine can be realised on the screen.

But where does that leave the movie industry? Exactly where it was, of course. Nothing’s changed. A turkey’s a turkey, however glossy the feathers. The next quantum leap we need is to harness the skills of the visual effects industry to stories full of real human passion and drama. In particular, with science fiction and fantasy, Hollywood needs to set aside its belief that the genre is all about action and spectacle. I’m as ready to shout, ‘Gosh! Wow!’ as the next guy, but if I’m not emotionally engaged I might as well be staring at the world’s greatest screensaver.

Which Transformers: Dark of the Moon may very well be.

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