Transformers: Dark of the Moon, 2011, 154 minutes, rated PG-13
On a relative scale, the third time is the charm for the Michael Bay robot-smashing series. This second sequel basically gives us the apocalyptic Transformers epic we've been waiting for since 2007. That which was annoying about the previous two films is still present here, but in more sensible doses. We still have needlessly campy humor. We still have Shia LeBeouf trying to wring sympathy from a genuinely obnoxiously-written lead character. We still have a needless female lead who exists purely to be ogled.
But this time we get a story that takes itself seriously. We get a narrative that makes a token amount of sense and shows something almost resembling discipline. And when the action comes, it does deliver the goods. At long last, Michael Bay gives us a healthy helping of robot-on-robot smackdowns. The problems with the previous two films are still there, but they are that much easier to forgive because we finally get what we actually came for in a Transformers movie.
A token amount of plot: Despite having saved the world from Decepticon destruction twice, Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf) still remains unemployed three months after college. Sure he's got a new girlfriend (Rosie Huntigton-Whiteley) but he's fed up with having to beg for scraps when he feels he should be working with the Autobots and their covert missions on a regular basis. But fate intervenes when Decepticon forces assassinate a senior employee at Sam's office, which leads Sam into a whole new Decepticon plot involving the Apollo space missions and the long-lost Sentinel Prime (Leonard Nimoy). Can Sam help the U.S. government put the pieces together in time to prevent another Decepticon strike? And what will happen to our world if they fail?
From the outset, it appears that Bay and company are crafting a more complicated narrative that, nonetheless, can be told in a simple and straightforward fashion. More importantly, the stakes are clearly spelled out (and viciously demonstrated) before the final action blow out. While we still have to sit through about 70 minutes of 'character' and setup, it is far less painful than before, because the picture goes out of its way to make Optimus Prime and his cohorts into genuine supporting characters this time around. You'll cheer when the Autobots and/or Frances McDormand (as the official government figurehead this time around) show up, and then you'll cringe when the film cuts to Shia LeBeouf being an obnoxious jackass (he alternates between being painfully unprofessional in job interviews and being borderline abusively-jealous of his girlfriend's millionaire boss). But there is a genuine logic to the story progression this time around, and when the pieces click into place you won't regret having waited it out. And you get to pass the time watching John Malkovich eat the scenery and swallow it whole, which is always fun (and Alan Tudyk earns some honest laughs).
But after that first hour, it's all uphill from there. The film hits us with a couple of genuinely surprising plot twists and allows about 30 minutes of 'really bad stuff' happening before we're off to the races. Those of us wanting a 'darker, more serious' Transformers movie may wonder if we had the right idea as we're presented with a kid-targeted 80s action figure adventure showing countless innocents blown to pieces and burned to death onscreen as bloodied children race through the streets trying to avoid their parents' fates. It's a sobering few moments that will bring to mind Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds, if not a certain real life mass murder that happened just under ten years ago.
But to the film's credit, the impact of those moments give the finale a gravity that it otherwise would not have had, and the humor from that point on is kept to a bare minimum. Also helping the 'emotional impact' of the final hour is a score that seems taken straight from the Inception trailer (the powerful Zack Hemsy stuff). As last summer's deluge of Inception trailer mashups proved, putting that music to pretty much anything will make it emotionally compelling. It may be cheating, but it works. And to be fair, composer Steve Jablonsky knows just when to use the sweeping Transformers theme for maximum effect.
Oh wait, you wanted to hear about the action and special effects? Right... Yes, the entire final hour is pretty much one non-stop action sequence, as Decepticon forces decimate a major U.S. city and our heroes try to sneak in to prevent further invasion and destruction. Yes, again there is too much 'soldiers and human heroes running from explosions,' but I've come to terms with the fact that robot-smashing is really expensive and they have to make a little go a long way. And there is a sizable increase in both the quantity and quality of said robot smackdowns. There is no single scene as impressive as the forest fight scene in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, but there are countless smaller moments that offer genuine robot-driven thrills. And this is easily the best live-action 3D film since Avatar, arguably even more impressive as so much of the film was practical, as opposed to a mostly-CGI animated world.
The film looks so bright that you need those 3D glasses so as to not hurt your eyes. And frankly, this is a rare case of a director who benefits from being forced(?) to shoot in 3D. Due to having to shoot on 3D film (yay! film!) Michael Bay slows down quite a bit, giving us long, wide and fluid takes which really shows off both the astonishing robot effects work and the exquisite action choreography in play. My only regret is that the press screening was not in IMAX. If you go, splurge for the 3D. If you can, DO see it in IMAX.
Put simply, Transformers: Dark of the Moon gives us arguably the biggest-scale action ever to be set on planet Earth (as opposed to Middle Earth). And intermixed with the scenes of our human pals racing to and from danger are just enough applause-worthy robot duels to satisfy. More so than in the previous films, the robots really do take center stage once the action kicks in. Optimus Prime actually gets a dramatic scene or two mixed in the chaos this time around. We may carp at the middle school comedy and the open leering over Huntigton-Whiteley (who neither distinguishes nor embarrasses herself and who feels much more comfortable being obviously exploited than Fox). But the film delivers where it damn well must. While Optimus again proves not as capable as you think, and Megatron really gets the shaft this time around, there indeed remains a copious amount of impressive robot action. The sight of dozens of robots laying waste to humans and fellow robots in the middle of Chicago is genuinely dazzling, and there are scenes in that last act that should be framed and hung on a wall. If this picture doesn't win the Best Special Effects Oscar, well it wouldn't be the first time (none of the Star Wars prequels won either, Transformers lost to The Golden Compass, and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen didn't even get nominated).
And for those who would accuse this film of being an empty-headed spectacle, you would be wrong. This film, and really the whole Transformers trilogy, has been Michael Bay's epic parable for 'Why we were right to invade Iraq and/or Afghanistan and why we should never leave.' Like the previous two films, there are several scenes of Optimus Prime monologuing about how the Autobots (cough-America-cough) cannot leave Earth (cough-the Middle East-cough) even if Earth (cough-the Middle East or the Anti-War left-cough) wants them to leave, because they know that the Decepticons (cough-the Taliban or al Qaeda-cough) will return and unleash hell if they do.
Bay doesn't name names per se, as we don't hear Obama being criticized this time around and we see the (presumably) Tea Party-led Congress voting to basically capitulate at the halfway mark. That you or I may disagree with this line of thinking does not negate the fact that Bay did infuse these big-budget robot epics with a genuine social and political viewpoint. And frankly, I'd rather a film be infused with a point of view that I disagree with than not have any point of view at all.
So in the end, Michael Bay finally delivers what was promised. Transformers: Dark of the Moon is an eye-popping audio/visual sensation that gives us a level of spectacle matched only by James Cameron, Peter Jackson and John Woo (yes, you should rent Red Cliff). In a weird way, through its more-is-more philosophy, it takes us back to a time when special effects could genuinely impress us, and studios were proud of their enormous budgets because every dollar was obviously onscreen. Despite its human-scale issues, it remains a vast improvement over the first two whiffs. It earns points for actually having a political subtext that can be discussed, even if it's one I vehemently disagree with.
I hated Transformers. I really hated Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. And I genuinely enjoyed Transformers: Dark of the Moon. For better or worse, Transformers: Dark of the Moon is the Transformers film you've always wanted to see. And if you never wanted to see a Transformers film in the first place, well, here's hoping that Tree of Life (which also has some breathtaking effects work) has expanded to your area this weekend.