Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Here Comes the Boom:

Now five films deep, it’s hard to call the Transformers series anything more than “barely narrative.” Sure, there are recurring motifs and a familiar ensemble of returning characters, but any sense of a coherent story or mythology capable of being grokked stopped in the end credits of the first – and best – installment. With Transformers: The Last Knight, director Michael Bay seems more than ever invested in the movie only insofar as it allows and affords him the ability to stage whatever kind of bombastic set piece he wants. This is franchise filmmaking as a bajillion-dollar playground where he can build, play with, and blow up anything: a submarine, a castle, a small town, Stonehenge. Why not? He can get away with this because he’s such a great imagemaker. There’s nothing like seeing his brand of spectacle – the grade-A Bayhem – carted on screen by the metric ton. Frame by frame this movie sparkles with sunsets and vast vistas and impressive effects and awestruck hero shots. But, of course, it’s also in service of a series that’s long since passed into irretrievably convoluted gobbledygook. This iteration doesn’t reach the heights of its predecessors, but it doesn’t scrape the barrel’s bottom like their lows, either. A middle of the road Transformers it is then.

At least the screenplay cobbled together by four writers recognizes that the Transformer destruction playing out over the last four films would leave the world rattled. We join the story in progress, with the world terrorized by all the gigantic alien shapeshifting automotive robots who have landed and continue to arrive on a seemingly unstoppable basis. With Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) missing, the Autobots just roam the planet doing whatever, getting into scrapes with Decepticons who still have their leader, Megatron (Frank Welker). That Transformers are sufficiently mindless to need their strong leaders to give them purpose is certainly strange, and makes them dangerous. Humans have decreed them illegal, and deputized an international paramilitary force to hunt them and anyone helping them. The conflict is that, once again, there’s a world-ending calamity coming, provoked by bad ‘bots, and the humans must allow the Transformers to fight it out for the fate of the planet. Tagging along with the junkpiles gurgling crass one-liners in the voices of beloved character actors (John Goodman, Ken Watanabe, Steve Buscemi, Jim Carter) are the token humans: last movie’s hero (Mark Wahlberg’s hilariously named Cade Yeager), the military liaison from the first three movies (Josh Duhamel), and new characters like a scrappy orphan teen (Isabela Moner), a scatterbrained Englishman (Anthony Hopkins), and a supermodel, in good looks and frequent inexplicable wardrobe changes, historian (Laura Haddock). Bay needs these human-sized caricatures to sell the plot’s stakes and scale.

There’s no need to recap the nonsense except to say it hurtles through frantic globe-trotting (Chicago! South Dakota! England! Cuba! Africa!) and alternative history digressions (Bay squeezes in a lengthy King Arthur prologue and a World War II flashback) on its way to the expected oversized explosive finale with alien floating weapons and enormous energy pulses and endlessly complicated competing schemes to destroy and/or save the planet. It’s cut together with manic editing and an eardrum-quaking sound design. Get Bill Hader’s Stefon to describe it. This Transformers has everything: fire-breathing baby dino-bots, a potty-mouthed steampunk robo-butler, a floating alien tech witch, comic relief characters played by funny guys (like Jarrod Carmichael and Tony Hale) for whom no one wrote jokes, the United States freeing evil robots on a Dirty Dozen work program, bean-bag-shooting drones, a three-headed dragon built from a dozen interlocking mechanical Knights of the Round Table, John Turturro. Any movie that starts with Stanley Tucci playing Merlin (and yet he’s not an ancestor of the character Tucci played in the last movie?) and gets to Mark Wahlberg sword-fighting a Transformer (and that’s before Stonehenge blows up as the nexus of ancient robot evil) is certainly following its own bizarre id. The movie is all hollering and hurtling, cleavage and calamities, in between Bay’s usual aggressive humor and loud exposition and leering camera ramping up even small dialogue scenes as concussive clattering exertions. 

By the end I stumbled out dazed, deafened, and defeated by the volume (in noise and dimension) of the experience. But it was not entirely unenjoyable to sit back and allow the pummeling. Bay’s genius, and it is genius, is as one of the only modern blockbuster filmmakers who has figured out how to make digital and physical effects work together to create a sense of weight and scale. (Just look at any given Marvel movie, which will be competently handled, and maybe even a better coherent story most of the time, but will have all the tangible qualities of a CG laser light show.) Bay places figures – or spinning bodies, clouds of debris, blasts of fire, and so on – in frames arranged to provide contrasts, to accentuate size and scope, to emphasize motion and speed. Then he sets out sealing the deal with stomach-churning heights and dips, awe-filled low-angle shots of towering monstrosities, precision chaos. He makes the IMAX screen a massive mural tribute to action cinema. A car chase is filmed from as low to the pavement as possible, feeling the grit of the roadway as a character hangs out the door while Bumblebee shoots an evil cop car. A squadron of drones are placed just so to allow a character to leap from one to another, saving himself after getting thrown out the glass back panel of an elevator. A massive structure rising from the ocean drips waterfalls human figures must dodge as they, soaked, run to the aid of their robotic allies. Though not as memorable as the series’ high-water marks, these are sights you might find worth seeing and feeling, but only if you’ve already committed to sitting through the whole jumbled pandemonium anyway.

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