“How can anyone make a bad film about giant robots fighting each other?”
That was the question that was on everyone’s lips after 2009’s terrible follow up to 2007’s smash hit Transformers. Blamed on the writer’s strike Revenge of the Fallen was in many ways a typically Michael Bay film; bloated production, stylised and action driven, but it failed to deliver on any character front and was quite simply a bad film. However, not one to let a monster franchise slumber, Paramount were eager to bring the Transformers back on line, so much so they brought this sequel’s release date forward by twelve months, capitalised on 3D technology and brought back many members of the original cast and crew to try and sweep away the bad taste of ‘Fallen’ by delving into a darker story line, bring forward the characters and upping the action stakes into what many believed, at the time, was going to be the biggest and best sequel; Dark of the Moon. Unfortunately it’s still a Michael Bay film, which means it is big, bold, brash, loud, uncouth, over produced and ultimately forgettable – worse still it has none of the panache or verve of the 2007 original and suffers from being overly long, not thought-out or logical with action set pieces that whilst undeniably spectacular never seem to stop and it rounds up and ends so fast it leaves you spinning. No, Dark of the Moon, while it might be the biggest is certainly not the best.
Central to the premise of a good film is the story that it tells. Sequels have it difficult as they have to appeal to the core audience while trying to win over new ones. ’Fallen failed miserably in this regard since is disregarded everyone and no-one liked it. Dark of the Moon, essentially, ignores the events that took place and starts its own story; indeed the start of the film goes right back to Cybertron, the Transformer’s home planet – seems that the Decepticons were outnumbering the Autobots, who were in danger of losing the war, but one last ditched attempt at saving the planet involves a new weapon hidden in a secret ship, the Ark, and its developer the enigmatic leader of the Autobots, Sentinel Prime, leaving to secure a possible victory by exiting the atmosphere to deploy it; unfortunately it was intercepted and shot down, and, by some ‘movie miracle’, found its way to the dark side of our Moon. It is here that one of the better ideas employed by the film is utilised; that the space race between the Americans and the Russians in the 50’s and 60’s was initiated by the discovery of this alien wreckage. It even employs actual news footage cleverly interspersed with ‘aged’ film to tell the hidden story of how the first astronauts real mission on the Moon was to search the Ark and bring back the Autobot technology. It is this pivotal development that was to cause so much awful destruction wrought by the Decepticons on their quest to bring this ancient weapon to bear by deceptively employing human agents to work within governments driving the ultimate goal forward. I really like this development as it is something that the previous two films never hinted at – the Autobots work with mankind, albeit covertly, to help out with conflicts, but all the while the Decepticons have been employing humans, deceitfully, as a kind of mirror image to further their own agenda; it is such a shame that the film fails to really capitalise on it, preferring to muddy the waters with assassination attempts of the original conspirators, corporate takeovers and extraneous exposition that bloat the first half of the film beyond all reason. So whilst the idea and plot narrative are actually quite neat, their execution is over produced stylised nonsense, you know, typical Bay, which, quite frankly, is too much lead in before you get to the ‘good stuff’ i.e. seeing transformers battling each other!
Next up you need decent characters through which to tell your story. Once again it falls to Sam Witwicky to tell the human part of the story through which we, the audience, discover what’s going on. Now in the original film Shia LaBeouf was terrific in the part, the great, great grandson of the discoverer of Megatron, who wants nothing more than to get the grades for the car, the wise cracking, smart talking teenager who, through sheer force of will, manages to side with the Autobots, save the world and get the girl despite the lunacy of the situation somehow felt right. His second outing was much the same, this was forgivable in a dire film. However, Dark of the Moon is set some three years later, Sam is now a collage graduate, living with another unashamed hot girl (who we are expected to believe he pulled in the President’s office after receiving a medal) but unable to talk about his achievements nor is he able to get a job. Yet, LaBeouf plays him in exactly the same style as he has before, but, because of his supposed age and status he comes across as some kind of spoilt ADD ridden child and that is before he gets embroiled in the Decepticon plot and drawn back into the Autobots fight.
Then we come to the new girl. Megan Fox, despite her limitations, was something of a force in the Transformer films; she had a definite place within them, but for whatever reason, she is not present in Dark of the Moon, necessitating a hasty rewrite for her character, and, since this is a Bay film, you need a ludicrously hot bit of stuff as eye candy - even if she can’t act. They cast perfectly, then, with Rosie Huntington-Whiteley whose on screen chemistry is as good as Labeouf’s characterisation of Sam – terrible. Their scenes together are almost painful to watch because we are asked to believe in so much with no explanation and Huntington-Whiteley’s wooden (or is that metallic) performance fails to raise the bar to anything resembling actual talent – she is there as a Fox-lite, but is expected to take on the same role; shown up in such out of place scenes as her talking direct to Megatron when she has no clue as to who, or what, he is let alone be able to reason with him when a few hours before she never knew such creatures existed? It makes no sense.
John Turturro returns again to reprise the role of ‘secret agent’ Simmons, who is now a bestselling author, but still with enough money, technical knowhow and friends in high places to be able to assess and discover the secret plot behind the Decepticons and the Moon landings. Of all the roles reprised it is Turturro’s that doesn’t feel anywhere near forced; the man has been on the back foot since he was forced to drop his pants in the first film, here at least the ridiculing of his conspiracy theories could indeed lead to the inane and outlandish behaviour he exhibits when talking to anyone. He even makes a wheelchair look cool.
But what of the new talent? Well, John Malkovich turns up as a potential employer for Sam, a slightly OCD character whose strange office behaviour seems well within the bounds of a Malkovich character. Indeed his characterisation of Bruce Brazos is something to watch as he is obviously having a whale of a time and it’s only spoilt by another out of place scene where Bumblebee tickles him? Frances McDormand puts in a fiery performance as Mearing the new head of the Autobots team sent into discover what is happening when a mission goes wrong – at times out of her depth, but always able to take back control, hers is another characterisation that actually comes off really well within the confines of all this lunacy. Patrick Dempsey plays slightly against type as the human face of the Decepticons, Dylan, whose accounting firm manages to sway governments (don’t they always?) in a characterisation that comes remarkably easy to him, giving just the right amount of boo-hiss-ability without overplaying the pantomime villainy. But perhaps the biggest name, at least in sci fi terms, this being a sci fi film, is that of Leonard Nimoy (Spock himself!) who voices Sentinel Prime and goes someway to explaining away the curious amount of Star Trek references that proliferate through the film (great for geeks like me, but surely completely unnecessary in a Transformers film?). Although it is little more than a glorified cameo, his presence coupled with the against type characterisation is a bit of a shock, which, no doubt, was the intent.
So with the first act (that’s about 90 minutes mind) of the film dedicated to the massive amount of backstory, unnecessary plot exposition and elements of padding that are there seeming to bloat the run time to an insane one hundred and fifty minutes, the second act, the whole point of the film, finally ups the action stakes. Now while that might sound great, and, indeed, the action set pieces are extraordinary in their execution, many of the scenes simply go on too long with jeopardy after jeopardy compounding upon explosion after building collapse. Repeat for an hour. Yes it is supposed to be an action finale, but, man, it’s like you are in a snow globe that a kid won’t stop shaking – once the film reaches Chicago the brake lines are cut and it doesn't stop. It wears you out and ultimately, for me at least, becomes boring. And where is Optimus Prime in all this? You know the one fearless leader that these films should have been centred around? Well, he gets a couple of great scenes when he dons his flying gear and strikes hard and fast; but then peculiarly is unable to escape being trapped in some crane cables? OK, I don’t want him to be infallible, but when he is so cool devastating a seemingly unstoppable foe one second and the next is dangling like a string puppet, something is amiss. Optimus is a terrific character, once again voice by Peter Cullen, and really should be the focus (the one good scene in ’Fallen was his three on one battle in the middle of the film, where his determination and sacrifice showed what a true hero he really is) but he is curiously sidelined here, and when he does get a moment to shine he is immediately shown a weakness – it grated on me.
Dark of the Moon, then, is very much a tale of two halves, but the overall feeling of the film is one of climax – the story is grander, the stakes are higher, the spectacle is bigger and in every way it feels like a closing of the trilogy. Except about a minute after the winning blow the credits roll, as if the makers had no conclusion, especially after such a mammoth run time, to end so abruptly is jarring. Ok it doesn't need a protracted or drawn out ending, especially with its already bloated runtime, but something to round out what amounts to eight hours of film in this trilogy is not too much to ask is it? And you can’t count the inter-credits ‘funny’ with Simmons, that could happily have been left out.
So what do we have; a good story idea, told excessively with poor acting choices, a build up that is too much and action sequences that go over the top, that is all wrapped up far too quickly. Doesn’t sound like a particularly good film to me. And, indeed, it isn’t. Dark of the Moon fails on just about every level save that of spectacle. At times it is incredible to see, and the mammoth production values are all up there on the screen. However, style over substance is rarely a good combination and when Michael Bay is involved, you pretty much know what you are going to get – and this film delivers exactly what you expect. Go into in with that mind set and you may get your money’s worth, expect anything more and you will be sorely disappointed.
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