I actually enjoyed the first Transformers movie. It brought to life cartoon characters from my childhood, toys which I had played with for years, and, yes, it did have its fair share of faults, but it was still unlike anything anybody could have ever envisaged in terms of movie adaptation. Who other than Michael Bay could have brought these giant robots to life in such a grand, epic way? Of course there was a downside – often involving the human element, which drifted into Lucas’s Jar-Jar Binks territory; as well as the frenetic actions sequences, where you would be hard-pushed to figure out what the hell was actually going on – but most of this could be forgiven for a first effort. Surely it would be all ironed out between the first and second movies, when Bay could learn from his mistakes and deliver what the fans truly wanted? I went to see Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen at the IMAX cinema in Waterloo – that was how hopeful I was that things would work out well; I thought it would be bigger and better than anything we had seen before.
Well it certainly was bigger... and, in the interests of being fair, it did have some halfway decent action sequences which easily bested the best equivalent scenes from the first movie – Optimus Prime having a suitable amount of screen-time and playing an integral part of all of the best robot-on-robot battle sequences. The action was more coherent, better staged and more eventful. Unfortunately, the movie around it was not. Running at a bum-numbing two-and-a-half hours in length, Revenge of the Fallen took a continent-hopping journey around the globe, one which made very little sense and was positively painful to endure purely because it was about an hour too long. It involved even more silly characters getting even more screen-time and being compelled to do even more demeaning things. Positives: Shia LaBeouf (and, arguably, his interaction with Megan Fox), Optimus Prime versus anybody (sometimes it was quite hard to tell), and generally better action. Unfortunately at the expense of everything else. Truly it felt like Michael Bay had never heard of the word ‘editing’, or at least assumed that it meant that he had to splice four action sequences together to keep your senses suitably assaulted. No, Mr. Bay, editing is for scenes involving comments about Transformers’ ‘testicles’, or John Turturro’s ass.
Come the release of the third movie, I was sufficiently burned to remain cynical about it. In spite of the reasonably positive hubbub, and the rumours of how Bay had responded to fan criticism of Revenge of the Fallen, and come up with a darker, more significant sequel which had less silliness, less throwaway action and a far better story, I retained my cynicism...
It’s 1961 and a mysterious object crashes on the moon, igniting the space race between the Americans and Russians, the former making the first lunar landing only to discover a huge alien ship with futuristic technology, crewed by giant robots – Autobots.
In the present, the Autobots have been fully integrated into the US military, conducting operations with them across the globe. The Decepticons appear to have gone into hiding following their last conflict. During one of their missions, the Autobots encounter Shockwave, a powerful Decepticon, as well as discovering an artefact which Optimus Prime recognises as belonging to The Ark, the Autobot vessel that crashed on the moon over half a Century earlier. Optimus knows that The Ark was manned by Sentinel Prime, his mentor, and that the ship contains a device which could end the war with the Decepticons once and for all, and so he decides to go to the moon to recover it.
Meanwhile Sam Witwicky has himself a new girlfriend, whose career is going from strength to strength, where unfortunately Sam’s is not. Eventually he gets a position working for a strangely OCD boss, but it’s not long before he discovers a secret plot – humans who have collaborated with the Decepticons are being assassinated, before they can reveal the truth about what is really waiting for the Autobots on the moon...
I will say this: Dark of the Moon is a better movie than Revenge of the Fallen. The trouble is, that’s not really much of a compliment, particularly when you consider that it isn’t that much better. Seriously, Bay made it clear that he had learned from his mistakes; that he had learned from the criticism of the second film – he went on the record as stating that “One thing we're getting rid of is what I call the dorky comedy. The twins are basically gone.” – so why is it that he has replaced them with two groups this time: a trio of loud-mouthed ‘Wreckers’ who don’t really do anything other than shout at one another, and a pair of mini Autobots who, whilst tolerable, often pop up in the middle of dramatic situations just to mess around like... well, like the droids from Star Wars (only with less endearment). If he does not want dorky comedy, why has he replaced John Turturro’s bare ass with Ken “The Hangover films” Jeong pulling his trousers down and jumping on top of Shia LaBoeuf in a toilet cubicle? Why do we get John Malkovich being tickled by an Autobot? I’m not saying that we don’t need a human angle, nor that some levity doesn’t add to the much-needed ‘fun’ element of the proceedings, but Bay simply does not know where to draw the line.
Where Shia LaBeouf’s energetic Sam Witwicky used to be a pretty decent human component (LaBeouf has been pretty good playing this kind of role in everything from the Indy IV to Eagle Eye) in the previous instalments – even Revenge of the Fallen – here he just goes way over the top; at one point we get a montage of failed job applications where his interviews are reminiscent of that character out of Trainspotting who goes to work on speed. This was fun when Sam was a teenager, but his behaviour is even more extreme now and now, as a supposed adult, he just seems massively immature, sporting more than just a twinge of ADD.
Whilst I’m not Megan Fox’s biggest fan, I have a great deal more time for her than many of her similarly gorgeous counterparts – she at least tries something different (Jennifer’s Body, and even the failed Passion Play) – and, as is perhaps hammered home by her conspicuous absence here, her and LaBeouf’s Sam had a fair amount of chemistry and engaging repartee between them. She is replaced by Victoria’s Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, who plays Sam’s new love interest, Carly, in what feels like a horrific bit of miscasting – it feels like Bay just did a lottery for young supermodels: the winner would get this central role in Transformers, and it didn’t matter one jot if they can’t act and don’t have any chemistry with LaBeouf. Whiteley is just painfully bland, her faux posh Brit accent grating at best, and her character often forced to do or say things which were clearly written for Megan Fox’s recurring character, and not properly amended. Why on earth would she even be with Sam, especially when she has no idea about the truth behind his wacky ‘I saved the earth twice’ history? They have no chemistry whatsoever, apart from that which is forced upon them by the script, and Sam’s increasingly manic behaviour in this particular episode strays pretty far from the borderline charm that he exhibited in the first movie. And why would Carly go and have a chat with Megatron about who is going to be the future leader of the Decepticons? (Don’t worry, it really isn’t that big a spoiler) She has no history here, with these other characters – it’s as if she stepped right into a scene written for Megan Fox’s Mikaela; one which everybody had forgotten to change to fit the new character.
The recurring side-characters are about as likeable / distracting as they have ever been – Sam’s parents pop up to say something uncomfortably and awkwardly funny; soldiers Josh (Las Vegas) Duhamel and Tyrese (Fast Five) Gibson prove, once again, that they are, for no apparent reason, the only two effective human opponents for the Decepticons (more so than even the Autobots on many occasions), and John (Miller’s Crossing) Turturro manages to just about keep things in check as the world’s least likely ex-covert ops agent. Added to the mix are the aforementioned John (Red) Malkovich, who actually appears to be having quite a lot of fun here – until they go too far and have him tickled by an Autobot – and Frances (Fargo) McDormand, playing the idiot Director of National Intelligence, who doesn’t do anything right until it is too late. The Hangover’s Ken Jeong appears to still be playing the same character he always plays (c.f. Role Models, ); smarmy Patrick Dempsey is playing a, well, smarmy exec who covets Sam’s girlfriend; and Serenity’s Alan Tudyk occasionally has some decent moments as the strangely camp German (/Dutch) assistant for Turturro’s ex-Government agent. (It’s also worth mentioning Leonard Nimoy, who voices Optimus Prime’s mentor, Sentinel Prime, further adding to the numerous Star Trek references that curiously populate this sequel)
The trouble is that most of these characters are redundant – we appear to just jump from one lacklustre comic cameo to the next as if Bay is trying (once again) the shotgun approach to humour, and (once again) failing miserably. There’s a serious amount of wasted footage here. Which brings me to the storyline. Story-wise, Dark of the Moon is, on the face of it, easily the strongest of the three Transformers movies, building on the founding ideas of the first movie, skipping most of the nonsense ideas of the second, and arriving at a plot that actually appears to have some significance and consequence. Sure, the 60s space angle is crow-barred in, but it ties into the story arc in a better way than you might expect; sure, the overall plot makes little-to-no sense – if you remember anything from the previous two movies then this third movie almost appears to be non-canon, such is the gravity of the damage done by its GAPING plot holes – but, honestly, few people are going to truly care about that: I can barely remember the ‘plot’ in Tranformers, and haven’t a clue about Revenge of the Fallen; and, sure, the end of the world crisis is a bit tried-and-tested, but it still feels quite effective here. But what does not work is that there is (once again) just too much exposition and back-plotting.
Before seeing the movie, I heard rumours that the first half was basically pure story build-up, and the second half was pure action. Well, that’s pretty-much right, give or take – but when that means ninety minutes of story exposition followed by an hour’s worth of action climax, even those forewarned don’t realise just how long this ride is going to be. It’s a real endurance test to make it through the first hour-and-a-half – for comparison, you could watch the whole of Nicholas Winding Refn’s excellent Drive before anything significant happens in Dark of the Moon. You’d miss about as much as you would miss from skipping the trailers and adverts when going to see a movie at the cinema.
After getting through the tedious build-up – which has its moments, but still suffers due to the sheer length of it – we finally get to the action, and it’s good, perhaps the best action in the entire series, but still not enough. I don’t mean there’s not enough of it – I mean that it is not as well thought-out as it should be. As epic spectacle goes, the pseudo post-apocalyptic final hour of this film is one hell of a ride; an epic experience which, by all accounts, had the kind of 3D results that actually rival Avatar. It’s hard to argue that this is not the definition of pure audiovisual entertainment (much like Tron: Legacy) – seamlessly blending grand-scale CG effects with human components, so much so that you simply cannot tell between the two and get totally lost in the event – but you’re still pretty tired by the time that the last hour comes around. You would also likely be forgiven for assuming that you’ve suddenly switched on the next instalment in the series by mistake, so striking is the tonal shift and setting change. And somehow, the lack of interesting characters – both humans and robots – is more than a little disenchanting, making the action sequences, however great, come across not only too late, but also a little too flat. For such an apparently grand 3D event, it’s such a shame they didn’t develop the dimensions of the characters a bit more.
The Decepticons are a little more easily distinguishable this time around (the last instalment had a three-on-one fight with Optimus and a bunch of Decepticons who, in their native steel state, looked pretty hard to differentiate between), but the Autobots are truly shown up here instead – little more than a bunch of pretty cars, they make for a truly terrible fighting group. Only about two of them can actually compete with the Decepticons, which leaves the brunt of the battles up to Optimus to fight single-handedly. Which is great when he is on-screen, but bad news when he gets conveniently tangled up in a cable for just long enough to result in the entire Autobot group surrendering and being rounded up for execution! Thankfully, in terms of actual Optimus Prime combat, none of the Transformers entries have really disappointed – and Dark of the Moon is no exception. He is a kick-ass hero; he gets all the best scenes and is the single coolest character in the franchise. He even gets a triptych of equally threatening – and distinguishable – antagonists here, including the powerful Shockwave and, as always, the ever-reliable Megatron (still damaged from their last encounter, his exile to the desert is a good, if confused, sub-plot).
If, by some miracle of decent, professional editing, Bay had somehow trimmed this down to a more streamlined 100-minute actioner, it could have had all the good bits, a fair few moments of levity, all the vague character development that’s stretched out over the runtime, and, most importantly, all of the action. But that’s a dream. Bay, probably not wholly unjustifiably, assumes that sequels have to be bigger than their predecessors – irrespective of quality – and, most unfortunately, thinks that ‘bigger’ = ‘longer’. Maybe a change in director would help this series, before we get any closer to the three hour mark!
Ultimately, disappointment is still, unfortunately, the name of the game with Dark of the Moon. Not as much as with Revenge of the Fallen – that was an unquestionably bad film – but nevertheless a big issue – because at the end of the day, Bay, despite stating otherwise, clearly has not really learned from his mistakes. Too long, too many silly extraneous characters, goofy over-acting, unnecessary plot exposition. Did he really think that we wouldn’t notice?
Indeed it looks like this third instalment in Bay’s Transformers franchise may be his last – neither he nor Shia LaBeouf have (publicly) expressed any great interest in returning, even though I’m sure Bay’s mind will easily be changed (he had wanted a break between the second and third movies, but the Studios nevertheless announced a 2011 release date and pushed him into getting the third one going a year ahead of schedule, no doubt by waving large wads of money in front of his face). After all, along with Harry Potter and the Pirates film series, Transformers is one of the most successful franchises of all-time – and with Dark of the Moon easily passing the Billion-dollar mark to become the fourth highest grossing film of all time, I really cannot see how this is going to be the end of the series. Which is both a good and a bad thing: good because it may give somebody (even if it’s not Bay, perhaps Executive Producer Spielberg could take over the franchise?) the chance to do a better Transformers movie; bad because it gives Bay the chance to make more just like these.
If you know what to expect, Dark of the Moon can be a fairly entertaining way to spend a night in (although successive viewings definitely benefit from liberal use of your remote control). Basically just drift your way through the first ninety minutes, and then pay (slightly) more attention to the final action-packed hour. It’s nowhere near as jarring as Revenge of the Fallen – not as unpleasant a watch (both reasons for why it gets a higher movie score) – but it is also not as effective as the first movie, which is a true shame for a film marketed as the last of a trilogy. Fifteen seconds after the last shot is fired, the closing credits roll, a very abrupt conclusion to what is a near-eight hour journey that viewers have been on with Bay and his transforming ‘bots. Perhaps I didn’t want him to go all ‘Lord of the Rings’ on the ending, but he could have crafted a more memorable scene out of what is an unquestionably significant moment. Hell, may he could have crafted a more memorable movie while he was at it.
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