Thursday, 29 June 2017
Transformers: The Last Knight
Michael Bay's problems are rooted in cohesion, specifically he struggles to arrive at a consistent tone or emotional wavelength. With Transformers: The Last Knight the director appears to have manufactured a solution - endless, breathless propulsion. Tossed off concepts and writer's room notes boil in a cauldron of pure, kinetic imagery. Bay is keyed into a ratcheting, agitated movement that extends to every facet of the filmmaking experience, even a constantly changing aspect ratio. The film never sits still, there's none of Christopher Nolan's stately approach to IMAX inserts, Bay's film is rabid, hurtling back and forth between the towering, vertical photography of super projection and letterbox vistas that read left-to-right.
Viewers are warned early and often that The Last Knight has been assembled to express a specific vision. It is not an easily digestible Summer product. Even for a Michael Bay film Last Knight is aggressive and inflexible, chewing up hundreds of millions of dollars so the director can scratch his various itches. Like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword before it, The Last Knight holds up John Boorman's Excalibur as a primal filmmaking text. Ever the obsessive, Bay zeroes in on the details, littering the battlefield with the swords that assailed Gabriel Byrne's Uther Pendragon and replicating Terry English's chromed plate armour on a massive, techno-organic scale.
Although The Last Knight lacks Excalibur's mythic sweep, God-King Optimus Prime notwithstanding, Bay's film does attempt to replicate the elliptical storytelling of Boorman, a model in which image and feeling trump structure and order. Boorman's compression came from a desire to fit a storied King's entire lifetime into 140 minutes of film. Bay's truncation is different, more about removing any peak on the film's carefully calibrated emotional chart that isn't total, screaming noise.
The Last Knight then allows us an insight into how Bay chooses to interpret the screenplays he's assigned. An undercooked example like Bad Boys urged the director to lean heavily on his cast, using them to create skits that conveyed critical plot details in a package that, if not organic, at least had a fair opportunity to be entertaining. The career that has followed that film is indicative of a talent not completely sold on writing as anything other than a blueprint used to string together disparate, fantastical situations.
Armageddon and Pearl Harbor stand as garbled attempts to ground the director's bombastic leanings in human stories about amateurs under stress. Bay fails to draw out any finer details in these situations because he either doesn't believe the moments or simply cannot relate to them. The Last Knight is, at a conceptual level, a committee crafted jump-off designed to dangle threads and hit specific, audience friendly targets. Bay has been handed a piece wringing with a particular kind of arrogance, it's a franchise maker. Bay may be on his fifth Transformers film but the director has never been asked to do anything as vulgar as consider continuity.
Each Transformers film has been an iterative example of what a live action interpretation of the 80s toyline could be. Love interests and even protagonists have come and gone; doomsday scenarios are replayed and reconfigured; the Transformers themselves die and are resurrected over and over again with zero regard for where the previous films left them. The Last Knight places a marker and, barring another entry that dispense with the concepts presented here, asks that further sequels proceed from a point where the Earth is slowly mutating into Unicron, the world-eating machine from Nelson Shin's The Transformers: The Movie, and Optimus Prime is battling a malevolent robotic Gaia.
With very little need to spin wheels, Bay delivers a film that moves at two hundred miles an hour. Aiding and abetting this rampage is Sir Anthony Hopkins, the actor brimming with the kind of unfiltered glee he brought to the later, trashier Hannibal Lecter films. In Hopkins Bay has a collaborator genuinely capable of plugging one of the director's most obvious leaks. Hopkins can deliver stilted, stuttering exposition as a lark, turning the kind of heavy lifting usually reserved for a bug-eyed John Turturro into something that actually moves.
The winding, circuitous logic of Hopkins' info dumps are adrenalised by a companion action sequence that sees super-charged sports cars attacking London's landmarks and side-roads. The set-piece focuses on tourist destinations and the old city arteries that connect them. Bay forcing a McLaren 570GT down cramped, atypical alleyways manages to evoke the brief, busy thrill of Claude Lelouch's C'était un rendez-vous if not that piece's sustained, death-defying intensity. The image of gleaming, finely-tuned automobiles struggling along cobbled streets could even be read as the director using the absurdity of the film's unceasing momentum as a literal, self-referential component. Michael Bay has been allotted several finely packaged ideas and they're going down your throat whether you like it or not.