They Made Me Watch Transformers: Dark of the Moon

I have to admit that when I read the little Sequart email about Transformers week, I had to brace myself a wee bit. I mean, you guys may have noticed, but I write about movies. And the Transformers movies are… well, I had to brace myself. The first one’s fine. Harmless action movie fun. The second one is every bit as painful and offensive and stupid as you’ve been led to believe. Which left the third one. Long. Bad. Everyone knows the films aren’t good; I’m not really imparting any knowledge by pointing that out. I will suffer for my art though, so I downloaded a copy of the film and set out on my quest.

I really, really wanted some caffeine in my system prior to sitting down to watch this movie. This movie being Transformers: Dark of the Moon, for those who don’t have an encyclopedic memory of Michael Bay titles stored away in their system. I did not get coffee. I did rope someone into enduring this movie with me, so that was good. For me. Bad for him.

You all know the Transformers movies are bad. Sorry, but anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong. Your parents should’ve warned you about people like that, so hopefully you’ll be able to deal with them yourselves. The movies are dumb, dumb, dumb action movies. Really just crass, bottom of the barrel, lowest common denominator garbage. The action movie equivalent of an Adam Sandler comedy, but with more overseas appeal. They manage to be racist, sexist, boring, stiff, boring, and occasionally have explosions, which often barely undercuts the boredom. I rather think you all know this by now, however.

What less of you may know is that Michael Bay is actually a good filmmaker. “But those other things you just said!?” You might exclaim. Well, sure, he’s absolutely terrible at stories, scripting, and often enough story telling. What he does have is a fabulously keen eye. Granted it’s a music video/commercial based eye – all fragmented cool and no internal consistency or even logic. Damn though, Michael Bay does know from cool. That’s why he’s fabulously wealthy and has produced movies on the sorts of budgets that could feed whole impoverished countries. The problem is he’s so focused on what’s cool that he looses sight of every single other portion of the filmmaking process.

If Michael Bay knew how to write a script, or cared enough about storytelling to align himself with a talented writer, he could make unbelievable, game changing movies. His style is so synonymous with stupidity at this point, that for any late-game shifts in his product he’d rather need to find a self-aware, subversive scriptwriter to change perception. A good script coupled with his talent for finding singularly badass images would probably lead to some sort of unstoppable juggernaut.

But then there’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which is so inherently badly made it resembles something like The Room. No lie.

And it’s not just because Shia LaBeef and Tommy Wiseau share an unbelievably wrong-headed idea of what human interaction and behaviour looks like. It’s because there are some simple rules you should always follow when you try to make a movie, and Transformers 3 breaks most of them – with what might almost be gleeful disregard for the audience’s intellect. It’s seriously mind-boggling.

It’s not just the obvious rules – have interesting characters, arcs, and maybe some tension – that Dark of the Moon breaks. It goes way beyond that.

Let’s talk about the basic principle of composing a scene. You establish a location, establish the characters, establish some tension, resolve something or generally provide the story with forward momentum. Then you do it again and again until it ends up like a movie. Of course you might want to ensure that character behaviour, visual style, and tone stay consistent. Otherwise you might end up with a movie that feels more like a collection of scenes than one coherent story. You’ll want to keep that in mind for me, I’m going to circle back to it.

In the meantime, let’s take a bit of a break to examine Michael Bay’s fascinating choice of actors.

As far as I can tell there are two options as far as this goes. Option one is that Michael Bay has become so far removed from a normal lifestyle that he now no longer quite remembers how normal humans act. Option two is that Michael Bay has become enamoured by the idea of surreal and interesting acting choices that he can no longer tell “weird” from “Nicholas Cage.” How else would you explain the group of actors he’s selected for this movie? The good ones are, almost across-the-board, individuals that watching Coen Brothers’ films taught him were good. Some, like Ken Jeong and John Malkovich, are actors he saw in other things and thought “weird.” Everyone he sort of finds is unanimously terrible. Like the Victoria’s Secret model he casts as the female lead (admittedly his justification there might be self evident). Or any of the cardboard soldier actors who seem to be trying very, very hard. The result is unimpressive. To say the least. The good actors bring this weird disconnect and surreality that Bay movies absolutely do not need. If you’re not even remotely fond of any character presented in a movie as bad as Dark of the Moon, there is very little to keep you interested.

That last paragraph seem like a bit of a weird way to work those sentiments in?

That’s how Michael Bay’s scenes fit together in this shining capper to the LaBoeoef Transformer’s Trilogy. (By the way, if you couldn’t already tell, I refuse to spell LeBeif’s name right because fuck that guy.) Michael Bay movies don’t even begin to feel coherent. Hell, there are scenes that can’t even decide on a tone, let alone the movie as a whole. Please don’t mistake this for some pleb sentiment about how “tone changes are jarring” or something. I love movies that juggle multiple tones. In most cases though, the good ones don’t feel like a juggling act. They feel like a whole – like Cabin in the Woods, any of Edgar Wright’s films, or even Fargo (one of Bay’s favourite films). These movies all feel like one tone, despite the fact that they juggle several. They are mainly drama in some form with comedy. The Cabin in the Woods is equal parts funny and frightening. The World’s End blended comedy, exciting action, and legitimate emotional beats with a story about addiction and aging. Fargo is a bleak little movie with a fantastic dose of dark comedy thrown in. These are cohesive films. That being said there are plenty of films I like that aren’t very cohesive at all. John Dies at the End, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Funeral Parade of Roses, and Oldboy all feature drastic and frequently harsh and “jarring” tone changes, and I love them dearly. The story, themes, and characters contextualize all these tone changes however.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon just forgets what kind of movie it is from scene to scene, shot to shot, and sometimes line to line. It’s phenomenal in it’s wrong-headedness.

This is par for the course when you compare it to the script, which forgets every rule, law of physics, and understanding of character that could possibly be forgotten. Somehow the core logic behind the concept of Transformers gets stressed so far past its breaking point that it’s incredible. The characters are all identical. The science is moronic. The humans are immortal. It goes on and on and on. The tone changes, however, seem to purely come from the filmmaker’s direction. The direction and Michael Bay’s immature sense of humour.

Let’s examine one establishing beat from a scene. There’s a shot of Megatron walking silhouetted against the African sun. There’s a quick cut to some elephants nearby. The next shot, seemingly the same scene from a different angle, is during the day. The next one shows elephants at sunset. Then Megatron again, during the day, near grass. Then he’s near sand. Then suddenly he next to a Decepticon camp, the elephants are nowhere in sight, and it’s daytime. There was at least one more shot with a sunset before the Decepticons started talking and all I could absorb was the stupidity of their plan. That’s some Filmmaking 101-type shit to forget about. Hell that’s the sort of thing you’d just gloss over in Filmmaking 101 because you’d assume the class would have enough sense to realize that.

It’s hard to know when during the filmmaking process that mistake was made. It probably wasn’t directly Michael Bay’s fault, although it might have been, and he certainly should have caught it when he saw it. It was probably the visual effects team. The animators and compositors and stock-footage downloaders. That seems like the most likely option. But Michael Bay should have had enough involvement to prevent that. Someone should’ve said at some point that all these shots should look like the same time and place. Or the editor should’ve been told that they WEREN’T and asked to imply time passing.

That’s a fabric thing, and the tone of this film works much the same way. At times, it’s a romantic comedy, bawdy comedy, buddy cop film, over-the-top Matrix-esque action movie, man-on-a-mission movie, epic science fiction film, Rendevous with Rama type film, surreal sketch comedy, monster movie, disaster film, conspiracy film, Apollo 11 inspired something, crazy crime film, straight drama, war movie, comedic crime film, and possibly a touch of Tony Scott at one point? Plus I think Bay thinks he’s making a statement about veterans in parts of this. What. The. Fuck. A bunch of these tones will pop up IN THE SAME SCENE. It’s not just spasmodic and dizzying and… It’s awful. It’s not like watching a movie. I was literally shouting at my laptop watching it. “What the fuck is the tone of this movie meant to be!?”

Please, please, please keep in mind that this neurotic tone, already doing it’s best to prevent any kind of audience investment, is presented in the worst possible way. Every single goddamn shot in this movie drips cool. Every. One. It prevents anything from seeming real, or tense, or emotional, or anything at all. Every shot screams “look at me I’m cool” so loudly it drowns out any other information Michael Bay might be trying to convey. Then throw in Shia LuBoof’s character, Sam Whitwikky. Between LeBaf’s insufferable inhuman delivery and the way his character is scripted, something magical is born. So magical I’d like to imagine him and the main writer just bumping fists and crying, “Our powers combine to form: the douchiest protagonist ever?” Sam does nothing but bitch and whine and spew maddeningly illogical nonsense. I defy you to not hate his character by the end of this movie. Then throw in the blandest, most generic, most innocuous-yet-terrible soundtrack I’ve ever heard and… AAAAAAAGH.

I need something that both cleanses my palette and expresses my emotion now. The rest of the article is under this video:

The deadening sum of these parts isn’t even effective as entertainment. It’s maddening on every possible level. There’s maybe some aesthetic enjoyment to be had, but even that’s drowned out by the rest after a while. This is an action movie about giant robots with almost no visceral enjoyment either. There is literally no reason to watch these films in a world where Pacific Rim exists. Except nostalgia, and if that’s the case fine, own it, but don’t tell me these have any value as art or entertainment.

There’s only one type of value to be found in this movie.

If you want to learn how to make movies watch Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Watch it and take diligent notes. Then watch something quietly perfect like Chinatown. Take diligent notes. Then watch Transformers: Dark of the Moon again. It should legitimately help you learn how to craft a basic scene and script well. You might not be able to create something as perfect as Chinatown, but goddamn it you’ll come through the fire of two viewings of Transformers: Dark of the Moon knowing what not to do.

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Harry Edmundson-Cornell is obsessed with comics and film and writing, and he fancies himself a bit of an artist. He's dabbled in freelance video production, writing, design, 3D modelling, and artistic commissions. He mainly uses Tumblr to keep track of what he's watching and reading and listening to. Occasionally he uses it to post original works. You can find his email and junk there too, if you want to hire him or send him hate-mail.

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  1. Brent Holmes says:

    Harry, so much to say about this article and all of it is thank you. Thank you for sharing the truth about the last movie I saw in theatres because yes; it was that awful and it has kept me out of them for 3 years.

    John Turturro and Leonard Nimoy wasted. Shia Lebarf making me re-evaluate trips to the dentist in a positive fashion. If the main character is nails on a chalkboard, how can you engage? The female lead appears to have been cast for how she looks exiting a high end car. Why film an actress showcasing intelligence, emotional depth, more than one dimension, an arc through the film, etc. when you can ask them to shoot for lowest common denominators to keep the film consistent? I turned to my girlfriend when I sensed the final fight was going to start (after the “death of the Autobots in a space shuttle” that was so obviously a red herring that pre-schoolers should be insulted by the presumption) and said “Oh no! this could last an hour!” When you equate the remaining running time of a movie as torture, you know it has failed like water has failed to be dry..

    I could go on about how while Oldboy does have frequent tonal changes, these are because of the protagonist’s drugged, sequestered, manipulated environment, leading to a jaw dropping conclusion. I could mention how Cabin in The Woods is a SPOILERS

    masterful movie cleverly disguised as a horror, only borrowing horror tropes to reach an ending exceeding audience expectations. But I think I’ll close by saying this isn’t a movie that failed to make me care, I actively hate it as an insult to cinema. Imagine the worst movie possible as bound by the laws of physics; then ask talented and effective programmers to put admittedly great CGI throughout the movie. I love pizza, but just won’t pick it up out of excrement.

  2. David Mann says:

    “You all know the Transformers movies are bad. Sorry, but anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong. Your parents should’ve warned you about people like that, so hopefully you’ll be able to deal with them yourselves.”

    Our Dear Leader Dr. Darius might have something to say about that…

    I am slightly ashamed to admit this is easily one of my all-time favorite articles on the site. Certainly my favorite title. Great, funny stuff.
    (I still need to watch Chinatown. Among so many other movies.)

  3. So… I take it you didn’t like the movie?

    Seriously, though, this is a fun post, even if I don’t agree with it. I don’t know these are awful movies. And while the acting is varied (and John Turturro is sadly pretty wasted), the acting in the Transformers movies is probably better than in the Star Wars movies. Which is a more apt comparison than Chinatown.

    Which I love. But which isn’t without some boring sequences and a lot of convenient aspects to its plot. Yeah, it’s a better movie than the Transformers movies, but it’s also a different type completely. It’s like comparing Die Hard (the archetypal brilliant action movie) to French expressionism.

    Anyway, sincere thanks for the post! If nothing else, I hope it’s a counter-balance to my deluge of writing this week!

    • Yeah, not sincerely comparing the two as stories. But from a filmmaking standpoint it’s almost a perfect counterpoint. Quiet, self restrained, perfectly edited. It’s just the basics done exceptionally well.

      My thoughts about how overrated Star Wars is as an actual piece of film cannot be expressed so briefly here!

      I would totally compare French expressionism to Die Hard if I felt it served a point! No rules!

      Your “deluge of writing” has been incredibly impressive. Always cool to see someone writing so much about something they love.

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