Transformers: Dark of the Moon opened about two weeks ago to critical revilement, before going on to take a hefty $645m (and climbing) at the global box office. Predictably, this led to the usual round of accusations that critics were out of touch and that their snooty attitudes had no place being applied to the summer genre commonly called the ‘dumb action movie’.
Flixist’s review tended towards the positive end of the critical spectrum, though my own thoughts were significantly less generous – were it not for the depressingly lazy Pirates 4, Dark of the Moon would comfortably be my worst movie of the year so far. Just as plenty of people were ready to stand up and defend Pirates against its critical pillaging, so too would a significant percentage of viewers dismiss my opinion (and those who agree with me) on the basis that since I write reviews, I must be a snob and automatically averse to the spectacle-over-sense mantra that Transformers and director Michael Bay have come to symbolise.
Except that’s rubbish. The problem with Transformers 3 isn’t that it’s a dumb action movie, it’s that it is a terrible example of a dumb action movie. Like most Western males of my age group, I grew up watching the likes of Terminator 2 and Die Hard, and am as big a James Bond geek as you’ll find anywhere – a series of movies which defined meaningless, big-budget formula entertainment. I doubt anyone went into Transformers expecting to be intellectually stimulated, but many will have come out disappointed to not have even been entertained. I’d therefore like to take the time to examine what I believe is the difference between a great ‘dumb’ action movie and a bad one, and why Transformers 3 falls firmly in the latter category.
I’m going to first appear to argue against my own point by saying that I do believe there is a difference between the way a film geek or critic watches a movie and the way an average cinema-goer does. It’s inevitable that the more you experience something, the pickier your tastes become. Someone eating steak for the first time is going to be less critical of unexceptional cooking than someone who eats it frequently: that’s not snootiness or pretension, just a wider range of experiences informing a reaction. Someone who sees over a hundred new movies a year is going to be more exacting than someone who only sees a handful.
Here’s why I don’t think that’s a problem when it comes to dumb action movies. One of the genre’s biggest strengths is that it should be appealing to everyone: spectacle is universal, after all. Everyone was a child once, and the appeal of big noisy things banging against each other harks back to those days when everything was exciting and new. A fireworks display doesn’t require anything in the way of intellect, yet can be enjoyed by just about anyone.
If a critic likes an action movie, it’s a safe bet that the majority of moviegoers will as well. Someone with more experience may be able to pick apart what makes a sequence work or not (should they choose to), but those thoughts are not exclusionary in the same way that a critic’s reaction to an abstract or arthouse film might be, for example. For those movies, you often need a working knowledge of how certain aspects of cinema work; for action movies, you can pick apart its pieces all you want, but a good spectacle for one will be good for all. If a critic doesn’t like something, there’s still a chance that a less experienced moviegoer might, but what a (good) critic should be telling the casual viewer in that case is that even with that chance that they might find something to enjoy, it’s not a safe bet and that there are better examples of the genre out there which they could watch instead.
So let’s think about what makes a dumb action movie work, and why I believe Transformers 3 gets it so wrong. For the record, I found a lot to enjoy in the first Transformers movie, but for the purpose of this analysis I’m going to use a more traditional dumb action movie as a point of comparison in order to show why the fundamental rules of the genre work whether focusing on giant robots or the more normal human combatants. (If I didn’t, this article could instead be called ‘Why Transformers 3 fails as a Transformers movie’). To do that, I’m going to use one of my favourite dumb action movies, directed by the same man as the Transformers series: Michael Bay’s glorious The Rock from 1996, starring Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage.
Let’s examine the most basic story ideas behind both movies as an entry point. As the name dictates, a dumb action movie should be easy to follow, with a narrative that serves predominantly as an excuse to justify the spectacle that follows, rather than distract from it. It should be the perfect movie to chill out in front of with a group of friends after a hard day of work.
So The Rock, then: a group of renegade soldiers take over Alcatraz and hold its visitors hostage, threatening to fire chemical weapons at San Francisco unless the government pays due compensation to the families of their fallen comrades. The FBI recruit a chemical expert to work alongside the only man to ever escape the prison as part of a team that will break into the island stronghold and take it back from the soldiers.
Regardless of the story’s themes – which add a nice touch of depth, but are hardly necessary or particularly complex – that concept is as quick to explain as it is to understand. You can enter the movie at just about any point and get the gist of what is going on. There is a small and clearly delineated set of lead characters – the lead soldier, the chemical expert, the former Alcatraz inmate – with simple objectives but plenty of opportunity for conflict: the soldier is the lead antagonist, whose honourable intentions even put him at odds with the more gung-ho of his own men; the chemical expert is not suited for a combat role, and thus always in danger; the former Alcatraz inmate does not believe he can trust anyone and is constantly looking for a way to escape. The number of parts making up the core story is limited and straightforward, but each has a purpose and brings new layers to the action.
Now for Transformers 3: the human race is at the centre of a war between good robots and bad robots. When the good robots discover that the humans had knowledge of a robot ship that crash-landed on the moon in the ’60s, they reveal that the deactivated robot on board and the equipment he has with him could win the war. Unfortunately, he turns out to be a traitor, who was setting a trap to bring an invading army to Earth.
That basic premise is okay, if a little more difficult to get a grasp on than The Rock because it spans a longer period of time and requires a degree of knowledge about Transformers continuity, by merit of being a sequel. The major problem comes in everything I’ve left out, which as you’ve probably noticed includes everything related to any of the human characters – whose drama forms most of the movie’s first two hours – including the supposed protagonist, as played by Shia LaBeouf. A dumb action movie should contain the bare minimum of plot, yet Transformers 3 drowns its core plotline under a deluge of pointless supporting characters whose individual contributions only compound the problem.
The writers know that you need a human character through whom the audience can follow, yet since that character is peripheral to the story, the audience are held at the same distance from the action that should be the most gripping part of the movie. As for the robots, who are the lead characters, the villains’ goal keeps on changing (destroy the good robots! Invade Earth! Bring back the home planet! Enslave the humans!) whilst the good robots are absent or incremental to a large amount of the climactic battle, leaving it to the support characters to fill the gap. That confusion between who occupies what role is a key part of why the battle, despite its impressive scale, is not being talked about as the big event it aspires to be. We need to see the humans fighting to create a sense of peril, yet none of them are remotely important to the story and thus if they fail, nothing will have changed. The failure of the good robots would have consequences, but they leave most of the fighting to the meatbags. The Rock‘s characters are smaller in number and often argue between themselves, but the divide between each of their roles is always clear, allowing the audience to effortlessly engage with the right people, and through them the story of which they are a key component. In Transformers 3, it’s as difficult to know who to follow as it is why anyone should care.
If that sounds overanalytical, what I’m getting at is that The Rock does the hard work for you – telling you in concrete terms who to root for and why – whereas Transformers 3 is constantly giving you more to work out when you should just be enjoying yourself. An inspiration for writing this feature was The Rock airing on television in the UK on the night before I went to see Transformers 3 – as anyone who follows me on Twitter would have noticed, to throw in some shameless self-promotion – meaning the moment I stepped out of the cinema, I was wondering about why one is still so effortlessly enjoyable and the other such a chore. As much as I could further dissect the two for an answer as to what separates an enjoyably dumb action experience from a bad one, it all seems to boil down to that one key word: The Rock is ‘dumb’ because you don’t need to think to enjoy it. Transformers 3 is dumb because not enough thought went into why an audience should enjoy it. Critics may get accused of overthinking these movies, but rest assured that we’d all be cheering together if the filmmakers had done that work for us.