Monday, July 4, 2011

Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon [2011]

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (A-III) Roger Ebert (1 Star) Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Roger Ebert’s review

Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon [2011] (directed by Michael Bay and written by Ehren Kruger) is the third and most ambitious movie based on the Transformer toy line first conceived in Japan and in the early 1980s and sold there by the Japanese toy manufacturer Takara and brought to the United States by Hasbro when it bought U.S. distribution rights in 1984. 

The basic concept behind the Transformer toy line was that each toy was a “two in one.”  In one state, the toy looked like a robotic “action figure.”  But when properly “folded together” (manipulated), the robot would “transform” into something else – a vehicle, an insect, a prehistoric animal, etc.

Guessing at the possible sources of inspiration for the toy line is rather fun: 

The Transformer toy line came out a short time after the Rubik’s cube craze, which was introduced to the world as a 3-dimensional transformational puzzle in 1980.  In the 30 years since its introduction, over 350 million Rubik’s cubes have been sold, making it the best selling toy of all time. That toy-makers around the world would seek to find their own ways to capitalize on the joy/intrigue/delight evoked by playing with this toy would not be surprising.  While obviously easier to successfully manipulate than the Rubik’s cube, the Transformer toys do produce a certain delight resulting from the successful transformation of a toy “that’s a robot” into “something else” and back again.

Then there could also be several long standing/”traditional” cultural reasons and as well as a number of more modern ones as to why the Transformer toys originally came out of Japan:

An East Asian country, Japanese culture is permeated by Buddhism (Zen Buddhism in particular). A central tenet of Buddhism is that of samsara; that is, that _nothing is stationary_, that life (and indeed all things) are continually changing. Toys that are capable of changing shape from one state to another and back again actually express this concept quite well.

Then the Japanese have been famous for the art of Origami or paper-folding in which a humble two-dimensional sheet of paper is folded and transformed into all kinds of marvelous shapes.

In more recent times, in the post-WW II years, Japan became famous for its Godzilla movies in which various monsters were seen as materializing as a result of human negligence or evil to wreak havoc on humanity.  Godzilla was portrayed as a giant lizard that materialized in the sea as a result of nuclear radiation.  The Smog Monster materialized from and fed on pollution.  These monsters would fight it out over Tokyo, while humanity, the creator of these monsters, found itself largely at their mercy.  (This description of the 1950s era Godzilla movies starts to sound actually a lot like the plots of the current Transformer movies.  More on that below ;-). 

Finally in the 1980s, Japan was basking in its post-WW II scientific-technological miracle.  The Transformers were essentially cool shape-shifting “robots” which both fostered pride in Japan’s technological progress and arguably served to encourage Japanese youngsters into continuing this technological march forward.  I say this because there are actually intriguing physical and mathematical concepts embedded in both the Rubik’s cube and the Transformer toys which make them not only "cool" but arguably formative/educational:

For as one proceeds from studying the simplest of atoms to studying ever heavier atoms (with more electrons, hence more orbital shells) and then from the simplest of molecules (like water) to ever more complex organic molecules (like carbohydrates, proteins or enzymes), to make sense of them, quantum mechanics becomes increasingly a discipline which seeks to identify and exploit the symmetries and degrees of freedom present in the more complex structures. 

A casual observer may not see a Transformer toy as basically _a kids’ representation of an enzyme_ but the concept that allows a toy transform from that robot into a a sports car (or into an F-15 fighter plane or into a mushroom or daisy) is _essentially the same operating concept_ by which an enzyme turns “on” and “off” – in one configuration an enzyme is “off” in another it is “on.”  What makes transformation from the “off” state to the “on” state possible are “joints” (carbon atoms in organic molecules).  Each “joint” (or "node") brings with it a number of degrees of freedom (a joint being able to twist a portion of a molecule in one direction or another).  

Then a just like a bug or a car (or a human form for that matter) can be classified by the number of planes and points of symmetry present within it, complex organic molecules can be classified in the same way.  And a complex organic molecule _can_ conceivably fold-in on itself or expand outward., just like a transformer toy can convert from a closed shape (like that of a bug, car, etc) into its expanded form (which in the transformer toy would usually be a robot).  The study of symmetry in mathematics is called group theory and really is quite elegant.

So there is a lot embedded (or "going on") in these Transformer toys!

Now having created a line of toys in which “robots” are able to be converted into “something else,” the need arose for its Japanese manufacturer Takara (and U.S. distributor Hasbro) to come-up with a “back story” explaining “why” these shape-shifting robots would exist. 

Already two kinds of Transformers toys were developed Autobots that were robots that transformed into essentially benign objects, and Decepticons that transformed into more malevolent objects (like weapons, tanks, military aircraft, etc). 

So the basic story presented Marvel Comics' Transformer comic book series, that became an animated television series and served as inspiration for the more recent Transformer movies, including this current one was that of a battle between evil Decepticons and the more peace-loving (in current American ideological speak “more freedom loving” but it’s basically the same thing – because peace is largely rooted in an ethic of “live let live” so long as it does not hurt anybody) Autobots.

Viewers of the Transformer movies may be confused or even appalled by the fact that people are largely “side characters” in the drama of this battle between the Autobots and Decepticons.  

But one could look at the comic book series, children’s animated series or the more recent films with the following perspectives that _could_ make sense of the matter:

First, consider this epic battle between the Autobots and Decepticons to be analogous to the battles between Godzilla and the Smog Monster in the 1950s-era Godzilla movies.  Indeed, in this current movie, Transformers 3, Chicago becomes the hapless, suffering Tokyo of those 1950s movies.  We get to watch and perhaps marvel at the destruction wreaked on the city (I’m a Chicagoan actually ;-) by forces largely beyond our control.

Second, there is a “Clash of the Gods” aspect to the Autobot vs Decepticon story.  The Transformers are presented as an alien race of intelligent mechanical beings from a planet Cybertron far more advanced than us that extends its rivalry/battle _to our world_ as well.  Indeed, much of the current movie, Transformers 3, centers on the efforts of humanity (and various representative individuals within our human community) to “manage” (and perhaps exploit) this conflict between these two forces which are much more powerful than us.

Finally, I do find interesting the trend in American sci-fi movies present since at least the movie Independence Day (1996) and continuing to this release (as well as of the release of another such movie recently, called Battle: Los Angeles), that America seem intent now on _inventing_ “alien invasion” scenarios so that we could continue to feel like “underdogs,” when _in reality_ we have by far the strongest armed forces in the world and currently spend more on them than the rest of the world combined.  There is a logic behind our level of military spending and the world could become a far more chaotic place (at least initially) if we chose to draw down our military’s size.  However, I do think it is worth noting that we seem to be finding the need to _invent_ “aliens” to fight because there aren’t too many enemies _on this earth_ that could really challenge our Abrams tanks, cruise missiles, and drone and stealth aircraft.

So then, what to say about the actual film?

Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon is not Dostoyevski.  It’s a screen adaptation of a story that first appeared as a comic book, which itself was created to give a ‘back-story’ to a ‘really cool line of toys’ that needed a reason to exist.  As such, the dialogue in Transformers 3 is something that you’d expect more in a graphic novel than from Shakespeare (but then the Bard wasn’t exactly enlisted to write this screen play).  The dialogue is sparce, arguably Spartan/Laconic, but evocative.  A 10 year old will understand what’s going on.  

Main characters include Sam Witwicky (played Shia LaBeouf) who returns from the previous Transformer movies and plays the role of an “any man.”  He knows the Transformers from his previous encounters with them (he’s friends with the Autobots, knows the dangers presented by the Decepticons) but as an “any man” he is “a nobody,” who isn’t taken seriously by either the government, notably by Charlotte Mearing (played by Frances McDormand) who heads a US government intelligence agency in charge of managing the U.S. government’s relationship with the Autobots, or really anybody of note.  He begins the story,  as someone "with talent but _unemployed_."

There’s Sam’s love interest Carly (played by Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) who replaces Mikaela Banes (played by Megan Fox) in the previous Transformer movies.  Carly’s a photo-model and though she loves Sam, she’d also wish that he’d finally succeed in becoming the more important, more respected person that she believes that he could be.  (Present in many of the superhero comic books is an element of male “wish fulfillment,” that of an “average guy” not being actually an “average guy” bur being rather “super” in some way, and there being some very attractive woman who both likes him despite him being average but also wishes that he succeed in “stepping-up” and becoming the “awesome person” worthy of her affections). 

There are also Sam’s parents Ron (played by Kevin Dunn) and Judy (played by Julie White) who love their son but _also_ wish that he finally make something of himself.

There’s the villain, Dylan (played by Patrick Dempsey) who’s a rich industrialist who also is hot for Carly and who meddles in the conflict between the Autobots and Decepticons, saying at one point to Sam, “As my dad told me, 'if it’s _not your war_, just make sure you get on the side that’s going to win.'” 

And finally there are the Transformers.  There’s the good Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) leader of the exiled Autobots, there’s Megatron (voiced by Hugo Weaving) leader of the malevolent Decepticons and Sentinel Prime (voiced by Leonard Nimoy of former Star Trek original series fame) who was the leader of the Autobots until he and his space craft were lost trying to escape the Autobots’ home planet during the course of the climatic battle there between the the Decepticons and Autobots. 

The crash of Sentinel Prime’s crippled spacecraft “on the dark side of the moon” is presented as the true motivation for the U.S.-space race to the moon in the 1960s and sets-up the story of Transformers 3: The Dark of the Moon.

What happens?  Well, if you wish to know go see the movie.  Much happens.  In the course of “much happening,” Chicago (like Tokyo of the Godzilla movies) is largely flattened.  I think most will guess who wins in the end ...;-)

Would I recommend this movie?  Sure.  It’s probably not for the smallest of kids.  There is a lot of glass breaking, skyscraper stomping violence in movie, but as is typical of current PG-13 fare, it has virtually no blood or gore.

Again, I personally have some problems with the “alien invasion” films _of our day_ and would ask people who see the movie to reflect on (and hopefully come to reject) the “propagandistic” aspect of such films.  But having then articulated these concerns, I’m a realist.  This is a typical American summer-time movie and it obviously gives some delight to mostly younger and middle aged audiences who remember movies like this of the past.

Finally some words about the 3D in this movie:  While a 2D version of this movie exists and is playing in theaters, it seemed to me particularly hard to find the 2D version playing at a convenient time.  As with current most 3D movies, the 3D is _largely unnecessary_.  Rather it serves primarily as an excuse to extort a few extra dollars from movie goers (and to eventually force television viewers to buy expensive 3D televisions which are now entering the market).

Here I do hope that between Japan, China, the EU and the United States, one or another of these economic powers will come to see what is going on here -- an attempt by electronics manufacturers to eventually force the world’s consumers to buy new largely unnecessary, _fatigue causing_ (and perhaps even unhealthy) television technology -- and that one or more of these economic powers will use its regulatory power to stop this needless and exploitative trend on the part of television manufacturers.

There is simply no reason other than jacking-up ticket priced today and forcing consumers to buy 3D televisions in the future for movies like this to be(1) made and (2) _primarily_ distributed in 3D.

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