I was responsible for an unfortunate tweet on Wednesday: “I’m going to see the corpse flower this afternoon and the Transformers movie tonight,” I wrote. “Looking forward to finding out which stinks more.”
I say this is unfortunate, because I’m not really in the habit of mocking art I haven’t seen yet. And, honestly, is there anything more tedious than making fun of Michael Bay? The filmmaker is perhaps a well-deserved target of mockery, and earns much of it, but the release of a Bay film is primarily an opportunity for critics to sharpen their knives and dine on his flesh.
I’m not going to participate in that particular feeding frenzy. “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” is not a good film — oh, my heavens, it is anything but. But Michael Bay offers some peculiar pleasures, and I will detail them in a moment. But first, the corpse flower.
As many of you know, the Como Observatory has an example of Amorphophallus titanum in its possession, known more colloquially as titan arum, and even more colloquially as the corpse flower. It’s a name that calls to mind something you would discover in Morticia Addams’ greenhouse, blooming behind her as she snips the bulbs off of roses. And it looks right as well — you don’t call a flower a titan unless it’s pretty big, and the corpse flower is the largest unbranched inflorescence in the world. Now, I know you’re probably not a botanist, and so a phrase like “unbranched inflorescence” may not mean much. Suffice it to say the plant can grow to as tall as 10 feet. The one at Como Observatory is taller than a typical man, and a typical man in Minnesota is a giant. The flower has a long and frankly rude-looking spadix in its center, a sort of french loaf-shaped thing that is purplish, which is not the color you want your baguette to be, and, from the right angle, causes the flower to look a bit like it is sticking its tongue out at the sky. This is surrounded by what is called a spathe, which is a sort of enormous petal that generally hugs the spadix closely, but the plant flowers very infrequently, and the spathe opens up to reveal that it is also purplish, and also to reveal the source of the flower’s most colloquial name.
It smells like death. It does this to attract scavenging flies and beetles to act as pollinators, and also, one supposes, to attract Morticia Addams. And so, when the Como’s corpse flower blooms, it’s a big deal, and people gather around to get a whiff.
I’ve gone twice. The first time, I was a little let down. It’s not a profound smell. I’ve smelt human death up close — I had a neighbor who died in his shower and went undiscovered long enough to produce a pungency that was eye-watering and gag-producing. This is not that. It’s supposed to smell of rotting flesh, but, to my inexpert nose, it instead smells like somebody has stubbed their cigarettes out in orange juice and then poured both out onto a big pile of dirt, and all have sort of gone bad together. It’s not a delightful smell, but neither does it make you think that, just perhaps, you have stumbled into the opening scene of an episode of “Law and Order,” and are about to trip over a murdered cadaver.
This time, I knew not to concern myself with the smell, and instead enjoyed the fact that the flower is a local celebrity. There were dozens of people crowding around it, all snapping photos, and some would pose in front of it — I genuinely expected some to try and put their arm around the titan arum, the gesture of intimate friendship that we typically affect when having our photo taken with a movie star with whom we are neither intimate nor friends. The corpse flower is so popular, it should just get some professional headshots, a ball-point pen, and sit at a table. “Who do I make this out to,” the flower could ask each person in line. “How do I spell that?”
I hear Shatner gets $50 per photograph. I think the corpse flower could do as well.
From the flower, it was on to the Transformers movie. I had seen the previous two, and found them ridiculous. The previous one was astonishingly bloated, and it is quite difficult to know how to respond to the gravity of the circumstances Bay sets up. These films detail Hasbro toys that are engaged in an ancient war against each other, which destroyed their home world and left the few survivors to duke it out on Earth. As the toys are cars that turn into robots, they’re pretty big, and Bay especially likes to take them to the world’s monuments, which the robots promptly destroy.
So that’s what you get. And this, the third film in the series, is even more bloated — Bay has set up a Hasbro toy apocalypse, wherein the bad toys completely destroy Chicago as part of a scheme to rebuild their home world. They wander through the streets of the windy city, murdering refugees by shooting them with a gun that causes their victims to explode and then vanish, and is that what you want a child’s toy to do? No, it is not. These bad toys, and whatchoo gonna do when they come for you?
None of it makes sense. His films never do. But they have their own internal logic, and it’s based around creating scenes of extreme jeopardy that are then resolved by sudden heroic turnarounds. And he’s not content to have just one moment like this — his films are based on stacking these moments atop each other, a tower of “Hell yeahs!” And the tower he builds in this film is monumental — 157 minutes, 15 minutes longer than “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which was so long that it had an intermission.
And I must confess to respecting Bay’s commitment to telling the story of these Hasbro toys, and to his structure, despite the fact that neither make any sense at all. Think about it: There have now been three “Transformers” movies, clocking in at a total of 452 minutes and costing a grand total of $545 million. Let us compare that to the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Bay’s trilogy is not quite as long — about 100 minutes shorter. But Michael Bay has spent about $260 million more on his “Transformers” movies than was spent on what is undeniably the most epic and significant fantasy trilogy in film history. That’s one hell of a commitment to telling a tale of a war between Hasbro toys.
Aside from my grudging respect for the fact that Bay is so gung-ho for the world’s biggest WTF, I mentioned that there are genuine pleasures to his films. He can lens really breathtaking action sequences — there’s an extended scene in this film when soldiers parachute into Chicago, flying around the city using cloth jump suits that come with little flying squirrel-like wings. The helicopters that flew them in explode behind them, and flying Hasbro toys spray them with anti-aircraft guns, and never mind the WTF, it’s genuinely thrilling, as is a scene in which a huge mechanical worm devours an entire building with our heroes still in it.
Additionally, Bay has an astonishingly daffy sense of humor, and it particularly demonstrates itself through a group of indie-film character actors he hires and then encourages to go bonkers. And so John Turturro is back in this film, having appeared in the other two playing a deranged former government agent turned hysterical conspiracy theorist turned eccentric millionaire author. He’s joined by John Malkovich, very briefly, as a Trump-like businessman with a taste for martial arts and an obsession with color coordination, and Frances McDormand as a government agent whose officiousness is represented by a bespectacled assistant who carries dozens of purses, handbags, and attache cases.
And if that were not enough high weirdness, Bay adds in two minor characters. First, there is Ken Jeong as a a bad toy co-conspirator, and he’s like a live version of The Onion’s deceased accountant, Herbert Kornfeld, who thought himself to be a gangsta and died accordingly. Jeong, a former medical doctor who has matured into a fearless comic actor, creates one of the oddest comic performances in screen history, playing a character of relentless belligerence and almost no sense of personal boundaries. He’s joined by Alan Tudyk as a Eurotrash bodyguard with delicate, apologetic mannerisms, even when he turns violent. In one scene, he disarms a group of Russian gangsters and turns their guns on them, and then looks remorseful. “This is the old me,” he explains.
We probably shouldn’t waste the sort of time and money that Michael Bay demands for an epic fantasy about Hasbro toys. But, if we’re going to, I can’t really complain if it gives a group of extraordinary character actors the chance to lose their minds, and become rich in the process.