Review: “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”

Neither as fun or surprising as the first, nor as insultingly stupid or insipid as the second, ‘Dark of the Moon’ manages to claw back a modicum of respectability to a franchise in desperate need of it. The often directionless wandering in ‘Revenge of the Fallen’ has been curtailed in favour of a more coherent and simpler story, but many of the bigger problems with both the last film, and director Michael Bay’s approach remain firmly entrenched. The result is still like being urinated upon, but at least this time Bay was considerate enough not to ingest asparagus first.

‘Moon’ commences with its best foot forward. The opening ten minutes showcases both the war on Cybertron and an alternate version of the 60’s space race and moon landing which this posits as an effort to retrieve a piece of Autobot technology. The blend of actors, real footage and visual effects is handled deftly, though the few glimpses of a CG President Kennedy look a little rough. Nevertheless, it demonstrates what Bay can deliver when given decent material to work with, even if this whole alternate history seems to retcon some of the events of the past two films.

Then Shia LaBeouf turns up and things fall apart. Instead of spreading the action throughout, Bay effectively splits the movie so that the entire last hour of the film’s gargantuan 154-minute runtime is one extended action sequence. This means we have to sit through a full feature length (80-90 minutes) of expository setup to get to the thrills. When they do finally arrive, they become repetitive enough one can’t help but let one’s mind drift. The action isn’t just about scale and imagination, it’s also about pacing – something Bay normally understands but oddly fumbles at times here.

With the third film in any franchise, you know pretty much what you’re going to get and as a reviewer one has to keep that in mind. “Transformers” hasn’t been and will never be Oscar bait, rather it’s the cinematic equivalent of fast food. Yet even with fast food, there’s a big difference between eating from the clean and tasty BBQ chicken outlet at the nearby mall, and eating from a roach infested Taco Bell down the street. One will satisfy, the other will leave you worshipping the porcelain god all night.

Nowhere is this more aptly demonstrated than with the first two films of this franchise. Though the second was a bigger film in practically every way, it also demonstrated perfectly how sequels can go wrong when those at the helm literally have no idea which way they’re steering. Bay’s masturbatory excesses, kept under tight control by the chastity belt of Spielberg’s hand in the first film, were let loose to grind away at the follow-up. This resulted in jokes about wrecking ball testicles and pot brownies which acted like amphetamines. Added to that was a blond Decepticon slut with a mechanical tongue, college frat parties akin to high-class brothels, and of a portrayal of the Middle East which made it seem like a small and very easy place to get around.

Bay has cooled his jets a bit here, even though most of the corrections are mere window dressing. John Malkovich as a very strange despotic boss and Alan Tudyk as a temperamental German former operative turned swishy secretary are now saddled with much of the comic relief. Does it make the gags work better? yes. Does it make them funny? not really. There’s still plenty of painful moments from Sam’s mom making comments about his penis size to “The Hangover” star Ken Jeong as a manic workmate whom Bay uses for a gay-baiting blowjob joke.

Much of this is just downright strange, though it thankfully takes the focus off the grindingly dull main plot of Sam’s early days in the workplace and his frustrations of being sidelined despite saving the world twice, having a hot model girlfriend and living in a very lavish looking D.C. apartment despite not having much money. Shia LaBeouf is his usual somewhat annoying self, a serviceable everyman who pads out the time early on.

He’s traded in Megan Fox, whose character gets only a one line mention as having dumped him and is rather savagely dismissed as “mean” by one of the robots, for model Rosie Huntington-Whitley. She seems like a nice girl and is both pretty and WAY out of LaBeouf’s league. Yet in the acting stakes, her singular expression and delivery make the now discarded Fox look like Sir John Gielgud in comparison. Things aren’t helped by a thinly drawn character who is there mostly as eye candy and is literally compared to designer cars and a dog in one scene. Josh Duhamel, Tyrese and even Patrick Dempsey all do better in their short amounts of screen time.

There’s an interesting side plot here of the U.S. military using the Autobots on black ops missions in foreign countries – a potential gold mine of themes to explore about imperialism and foreign relations in a world inhabited by the Transformers. Yet that is all ignored in favour of either clunky plot mechanics, or the odd action moment like a sequence set around the snowy ruins of Chernobyl. Frances McDormand shows up and plays it unrelentingly straight as an Intelligence Director whose job is solely to unleash reams of backstory from Ehren Kruger’s very dull script.

There are a few obvious reversals, none of which matter much in the long run, while the ultimate bad guy’s scheme is almost directly lifted from a “Doctor Who” special a few years ago. Though the general constriction to two U.S. cities actually works in the film’s favour in terms of coherency, there remains some big gaps in logic and a wildly shifting tone. Hell, Kruger owes various key moments to the “Star Trek” franchise – and not just having Leonard Nimoy voicing Sentinel Prime.

Of course, plot and character aren’t what people come for with these films, they want the mindless action and all the visual effects that $200 million can buy. On that front, the film certainly has its moments. The highlight here is a ten-minute sequence in the last act involving an office skyscraper slowly being ripped apart with many of the main cast members trapped inside. This allows for lots of sliding around as the gravity of the building shifts, characters dangling over precipices, and some well-timed thrills.

Also of note is a sequence with military men in gliding suits jumping out and flying down into Chicago – it’s a thrilling stunt because it’s obviously being done for real (albeit with a few CG explosions in the background). A mid-point sequence involving an attack on a convoy is enjoyable, while there’s one scene where a small dragon-like Decepticon essentially kills a family in their own home that’s a bit darker than these films normally go for.

These all work because the focus is on the human characters. When the action shifts to robot-on-robot fighting, it just becomes repetitive computer animated tedium with all of these giant vehicles spinning on a dime – real world physics doesn’t apply here which robs the film of a lot of its impact. More than ever before it’s astonishing how any people are interacting with these beings covered in sharp metal appendages and yet not one of them are even getting a minor cut let alone disfigured in any way.

Effects are up to the usual standards for these films. Much of the budget has obviously gone toward a new Decepticon, the one-eyed Shockwave who basically stands offscreen and allows his enormous penis – think the Transformer equivalent of one of those giant sandworms from “Dune” – churn through the landscape and destroy everything in sight. It’s an impressive beastie, certainly more interesting than Megatron who is even more of a waste this time out than he was in the last film.

The 3D and aggressive audio mix are stellar. For the first time since “Avatar”, we finally have a live-action film that gets the technology right. After the disappointments of various post-converted films, here comes one mostly shot native in 3D and the difference is like night and day. Bay also gets that good 3D isn’t about things jumping off the screen but rather depth being added to what’s there – opting to be subtle at times (a word you’d never expect to hear in conjunction with Bay).

This allows for some glorious beauty wide shots such as on a space shuttle landing platform or various high altitude shots of Chicago. The tech has also forced him to thankfully avoid some of his more annoying stylistic trappings – there’s very little manic editing here, no over saturation or high contrast – shots are clean, fluid and precisely done.

We do get lost at times in terms of the geography of the action in the last act, but that’s expected as the film drags on. The sound mix is pretty loud and is never less than aggressive, but remains fairly clear and distinct throughout. The score is fine but forgettable like the other two films.

These films are what they are – if you’re a fan of both the previous films you’ll be satiated by this. If you liked the first and hated the second, you’ll probably find this falling somewhere between the two. There’s a better degree of control here than the last film, but not nearly enough to take us back to the minor pleasures of the first film let alone anywhere near the levels of a really good blockbuster. The end effectively tidies everything up so the franchise could stop right here or continue on – whether anyone will be keen on doing so, however, we’ll see.