Thursday, July 07, 2011
Cast: Shia Labeouf, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, John Turturro, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich
Director: Michael Bay
Runtime: 155 min.
Verdict: 3-D has a new champion.
Genre: Action, Sci-fi, Fantasy
There’s towards the end, what I would call the quintessential Michael Bay shot, a shot I remember now to have been in almost all of his films – The Rock, Armageddon, surely Pearl Harbor (whatever I remember of it). If you are in the condescending mode you might label it as Mr. Bay’s jerk-off point, or maybe respectfully call it a fetish. You know, like the one where Quentin Tarantino has a terrific feel for a woman’s feet. I would, in my turn, earmark Mr. Bay’s films as cases of juvenilia. When you see the ultra masculine image of uniformed men with sunglasses walk in slow-mo to music pretending to be rousing, and then a woman’s slender figure literally appear from among them, you got to say that the man is still locked in there somewhere. Right here right now, I cannot make heads or tails of that image except for one of those empty psycho-sexual jabs. Maybe my jabs would be on target. But then, that image, probably coming in from the very deepest corners of Michael Bay, is one of the most interesting to dissect and ponder over. Sigmund Freud would have had a field day with it. Come to think of it, David Cronenberg too.
That is not my point right now. My point is the action sequences, and the 3-D image that renders them. A statement that claims that Dark of the Moon is the best 3-D since Avatar doesn’t exactly inspire a great deal of enthusiasm in me, considering the fray contains Clash of the Titans and its ilk. Just the same way, when I call Dark of the Moon the blockbuster of the summer, it shouldn’t inspire much in you (I have not seen Super 8 and Source Code). Michael Bay does most of the stuff right and Dark of the Moon is a spectacle alright. Of course, modern editing habits leave Dark of the Moon as a 2-D film consisting of 3-D frames, where when a building torn apart from the middle leaves us with no clue as to we are in the torn horizontal part or the remaining vertical part, and where the default shot is the helicopter shot. Also part of the whole bargain is an irony, wherein Mr. Bay moves his camera to cause more continuous shots than usual, you know to create a sense of space and a sense of movement through it, and yet the geography of that space is never really clear. They are moving north or east or west or south or maybe they are running in circles and it is all the same. Maybe it is inept filmmaking, or maybe just casual, or maybe a case of different priorities, wherein we are provided with several shots of Chicago, so that we are sure that this Chicago here is not a strange shape shifting elliptical maze itself. We are sure of it just like we are sure that the numbers contain 1 to 100. And we are provided with an objective wherein we learn that the target is, say, 72. Movement from 34 to 72. The thing is we’ve no idea how they traverse that path, and whether it is through the alphabetical order, or maybe some other shorter route, you know like a game of snakes and ladders.
The thing is Mr. Bay might not be a conventional blockbuster filmmaker, even if he tries real hard at it, and even if his films seek a father figure just as much as the executive producer’s. His films simply defy convention. His films are merely an assembly of short films, and a narrative arc is not his aspiration but a commercial guideline he has no option but to work with. Bumble Bee and the fellow autobots have been rounded up. One of them has already been shot, point blank. Next up is Bee. The conventional sad music is playing in the background. Now, most other filmmakers use this sad music as a narrative signal. Complete silence during such a moment could be a signal that an external force might intervene and change the equation. A sad music usually signals inevitability. It is what we call consistency of tone. When Nyah injects herself with the virus and is left in the captivity of Sean Ambrose and the music is one of those sad ones, we know for sure that there is no way Ethan Hunt is going to get her back now. But with Mr. Bay, that sad music is just an element to be used to manipulate us, and it is a strange confusion in there when we know Bee cannot die and we feel this sad music is just plain inappropriate. The sad music in the hands of a conventional filmmaker, like Raj Kumar Santoshi in Ghatak where the father is made to bark like a dog, is a powerful narrative punch, a low point for the protagonist, a tool to provide leverage later on during the revenge, and it is not to be used lightly. Not with Mr. Bay, who has little to no eye for that thing called arc, and whose films exist in only the present. An old-schooler might call it a case of short-attention span.
And yet, despite being a Michael Bay film, Dark of the Moon sometimes defies the Bay convention. There is the destruction of Chicago, and unlike Mr. Roland Emmerich who would let no such opportunity go unmilked for thrill and melodrama, Mr. Bay, in a rather interesting formal choice, goes for little solemn flashes of scenes of images of the destruction. He doesn’t dwell on them, but rather cuts through them, and in turn provides for a seeming inevitability to the destruction. No thrill, just plain fact. His movie is interested in the aftermath. There is a seeming indifference, or maybe seriousness to it. I was surprised, and pleasantly so. From being a frivolous Michael Bay explosion-rama, it becomes something as serious about an apocalyptic destruction as Terminator: Salvation, the blunt economical cold seriousness he always wanted to achieve and always ended up missing for loud in-your-face melodrama. It is probably the closest Mr. Bay has ever reached to let his aesthetic choices be in tune with the politics and themes of the film.
There is a remarkable addition to the overall aesthetic of Dark of the Moon in the form of 3-D. For the first time 3-D surprised me with its thematic purpose it brought to the fore. Even for all its spectacle Avatar offered nothing more about the purpose of the extra dimension. Until now, and even for large parts of Dark of the Moon the standard recommendation of good 3-D is just another way of saying that it all makes us unaware of the technology, ergo makes the experience akin to 2-D. A sequence in here challenges. Soldiers jump off planes and buildings and become human gliders, as they wade through into the enemy territory. We all have seen such a scene earlier. More recently Lara Croft: Cradle of Life and the Hong Kong action sequence from The Dark Knight come to mind. 2-D they were, and our instinctive reaction at such a scene done well is the thrill of such an activity, or in the case of Cradle of Life the Bond-esque preposterousness of the escape. To that similar image Mr. Bay adds another dimension. And what looked like a defect in Avatar, with those little figures not feeling a part of the image but a little toy hanging before it, miniatures so to speak, here in the Dark of the Moon reign in the themes of the film visually much better than any set of scenes or compositions. They are still looking like miniatures alright, but against the film’s ideas of the epic scope of the whole predicament humans and these erstwhile natives of Cybertron are finding themselves in, this feels all the more gravitating. One might wonder about a Werner Herzog documentary about a compulsive sky-diver, and this image would fit right in there.
This might be Mr. Bay’s most interesting film. A grand mess of the ideas and politics and fetishes and indulgences that make his movies mostly interchangeable. A frame, as usual, is densely packed, and there is a scene involving a Mexican stand-off between two members each of Decepticons and Autobots, and one might make little sense of the ensuing action, although it has all been neatly sketched out. Maybe Mr. Bay sometimes loses track of the human processing speed of visual information. And yet, in a breathtaking spectacle of an action scene on the expressway he slows it all down. Sometimes you wonder how someone could be so out of tune. Or sometimes you just sit back and watch stuff explode real neat.
A final question: What the hell was that with John Malkovich and Bumble Bee?
And Megatron wearing that trailer’s canvas around him in the desert? Neat touch. I park my car under the shade too.