Principal Cast : Shia LaBeouf, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Josh Duhamel, John Turturro, Frances McDormand, Patrick Dempsey, Kevin Dunn, Julie White, John Malkovich, Alan Tudyk, Ken Jeong, Voices of Peter Cullen, Leonard Nimoy, Hugo Weaving, Tom Kenny, Charles Adler, Frank Welker, James Remar, Jess Harnell.
Synopsis: The Decepticons lay a trap for the Autobots, after the discovery of long-lost Cybertronian technology is discovered on the surface of the moon. Returning it, and it’s guardian, Sentinel Prime, to Earth, the Autobots are soon on a collision course with the full force of the Decepticon invasion army, with Chicago and humanity caught in the middle.
I’ve read a few reviews of Dark Of The Moon in the 24 hours or so since I went and saw it for myself at the cinema (one of my very few cinematic outings these days!), and I think it’s fair to say that opinion is divided upon the merits of Michael Bay’s latest robotic extravaganza. On the one hand, you have folks like Dan over at Dan The Man’s Movie Reviews, who go along with the nonsense of it all with a sentiment of glee, while Sam at Duke & The Movies seems to have confused his review of Dark Of The Moon with The Human Centipede. I can’t wait ’til Al K Hall gets his eyeballs over this one! Ahem. The criticism leveled at Michael Bay’s work is pretty well justified, I’ll admit. His films range from the bloated to the nonsensical to the plain offensive, with Bad Boys II being a prime example of the latter, and Pearl Harbor an example of the former. Transformers and its sequels sit somewhere under the umbrella of the middle descriptor, with a large amount of logic-free storytelling on display alongside millions of dollars of visual effects. Before I saw Dark Of The Moon, I said to my friends who accompanied me, that as long as it was better than Revenge Of The Fallen, I’d be happy.
Transformers: Dark Of The Moon is a massive, massive piece of fun. Yes, it has pacing and narrative issues, and some of the characters in this are even less relevant than the most irrelevant ones in Revenge Of The Fallen, and yet, DOTM feels more epic, more tense. In a pre-title sequence, we learn that an escaping Autobot craft known as The Ark crashed on the Moon during the 60’s, catalysing the human space race, resulting in the US putting men on the moon to – secretly- have a peek at what the ship contained. Flash forward to the present, and Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is now living in Chicago with his super-hot new girlfriend Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) and searching without much luck for a job. Meanwhile, the Autobots travel to the Ukraine and uncover a relic of the Ark ship hidden in Chernobyl, a fact which displeases Optimus Prime (voice of Peter Cullen, awesome as always!) since humans were supposed to have shared all their knowledge of Cybertronian technology. The fact that humans are working for the Decepticon forces is also another facet of the story which heightens the tension, since nobody truly knows who’s on the good side or not. Sam scores a job at a local technology company, and shortly afterwards one of his co-workers is killed by Ravage, a Decepticon hiding on Earth. This worker imparts some secret information about the Decepticons plans for Earth, information which Sam knows he must get to Optimus. Optimus, meanwhile, is under pressure to stop the Decepticon menace by the aggressive new National Security Director Meaning (Frances McDormand), while former Sector 7 agent, Simmons (John Tuturro) is now super-wealthy due to the success of his tell-all autobiography re-teams with a desperate Sam to piece together the clues left by the Decepticons. The guardian of the Ark on the moon, Sentinel Prime (Voice of Leonard Nimoy) returns to life thanks to Optimus; however, his true mission on Earth is yet to be revealed. Megatron, skulking about in Africa somewhere, has his own plans for Earth, and they involve the mysterious “pillars” brought to Earth from the moon, a technology which can transport stuff across the vast reaches of time and space.
Dark by name, dark by nature – Dark Of The Moon goes to new places for the franchise, and it works. A streamlined script, devoid of the clunky “humor” and scattershot narrative beset on us by Revenge Of The Fallen, makes Dark Of The Moon a pretty straightforward action film in itself, although Bay’s penchant for juvenile laughs still appears here and there. Yes, the film does have issues, most of which take place in the first hour or so, setting up the story and its truly cataclysmic conclusion, but Bay’s editing and lack of restraint in pacing means any and all weaknesses are brushed aside quite quickly: thankfully. Dark Of The Moon feels a lot more cohesive this time out, more like the original film than the sequel. Characters we’ve come to know and love actually die in this film, and of all the elements of the film which heighten the emotional impact of the narrative, it’s this unknown “who’s gonna die” tension which Bay ratchets up.
The human characters, as they have been most of the way through this franchise, exist purely to serve the purpose of keeping the “plot” moving forward. Sam, although the primary focus of the original film, seemed to have lost his way in Revenge of the Fallen; in DOTM, he’s once more the primary human character. Although, his character isn’t as likeable this time round. Sam’s ostracized from his Autobot friends, thanks to a domination of their time with the US military in hunting down Decepticons; his girlfriend emasculates him a little for the fact he has no job, and her boss (Grey’s Anatomy’s Patrick Dempsey), Dylan Gould, is as slimy as they come. Feeling unappreciated as well, since his world-saving escapades in films 1 and 2 have been kept under wraps by the Government, Sam gets the grump up a little in Dark Of The Moon, and I admit, after an hour of it, it gets a little tiresome. I understand the requirement for it as part of the narrative, but it’s still annoying. LaBeouf obviously enjoys these kinds of roles, and he obviously loves this series, for gives his all in his characters’ performance execution. Rosie Huntington-Whitely, as Carly, Sam’s new girlfriend, does a passable job as the films’ main eye-candy (aside from the robots), and I have to say her “acting” is only just on par with former franchise star Megan Fox. If I can be a little brutal with Rosie’s turn here, it’s that I was constantly distracted by her enormous lips. Man, I love a good set of lips on a girl as much as the next man, but her lips outdo even Angelina Jolie’s for size and protuberance. For a while, I wondered if her lips were themselves transformers of some sort, perhaps a new type known as Lipicons; a scene at the end of the film where she shares a kiss with Sam, lips all smooshy and gooey, looks like a hippo trying to nibble at a whippet. Those lips should have got a credit on this film for their own existence.
Anyway, there’s more to discuss. Second-tier cast members range from the pretty decent (Patrick Dempsey) to the downright horrible (the execrable Ken Jeong) to the middling (Frances McDormand), and then there’s John Malkovich doing some sort of penance for Jonah Hex – he’s fricking orange, people. I know it’s a joke in the film, but what on Earth was the Malk thinking when he allowed this to happen? Spray-on tan has never looked so terrifying. Dempsey plays the slimy boss of Carly, and a pivotal mover and shaker in the Autobot/Decepticon war. I was expecting a lot less from him, I’ll admit, and his character actually presented more of an emotional impact than just about any of the others. He’s the kind of character you want to see get stepped on by Bumblebee (he doesn’t…) or punched in the face by Sam (doesn’t happen either…) or perhaps defenestrated by Optimus and his sword-weapon (again… nah, you get the message..). Dempsey plays him with the smarm and charm of a pro, and I applaud his effort in a film where true character development, good or bad, is sorely missing. Frances McDormand shows up as the narky, perhaps-I’m-a-lesbian National Security Director, who firstly tells Sam to take a hike with his theories but ends up having to eat her words (although, in truth, the “can’t wait ’til she’s proven wrong” story arc of her character comes to naught in all the explosions) and it’s great to see an actress of McDormand’s talent take on a giant robot picture. Her chemistry with John Turturro in their scenes together are kinda funny, kinda not, but they do go well together on screen. Ken Jeong, whom I have not forgiven for the horrifying Asian gangster character he played in The Hangover, once more assaults my eyeballs with his utterly unfunny, seat-squirmingly terrible performance as some weird conspiracy theorist/Decepticon ally who ends up on the wrong side of Ravage’s anger. God help me, Jeong’s appearance ruined a good 15 minutes of this film forever.
Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson once more reprise their nothing military characters, people who once actually had a backstory but which has now been excised completely from memory by them simply being stock characters of the franchise. They add nothing to the story except be pivot points for the action sequences to begin. Kevin Dun and Julie White, as Sam’s parents, are limited in their roles this time out, and if you read the internet diatribes against them, you’d think they were some of the worst characters in the world. Personally, I always found them to be more amusing than a lot of the other, ribald humor Bay insisted on including, and their appearance was, to me, a highlight of the film. Alan Tudyk, playing Simmons’ personal assistant, is yet another wasted role in a Bay film, and I think Tudyk does more harm to his career than good, here.
But what of the robots? How to they stack up this time out? Well, once more, the computer geeks in the effects houses have outdone themselves, providing some of the most astonishingly realistic robot-on-robot fighting action we’ve ever seen. The detail and realism in the effects is mind-blowing yet again, although the difference between DOTM and Revenge Of The Fallen is less evident than between Revenge and the original film. Optimus Prime, once more voiced by Peter Cullen with that iconic enunciation, has a hard time conveying emotion in this film, since he’s written out of entire sequences of critical importance just to keep other characters involved. At one point, Prime gets strung up in the cabling of a crane for half an hour, a plot device only used so that a last-minute rescue can seem even more heroic and last-minute than it otherwise should have. I enjoyed Cullen’s voice work, although his performance here felt a little thinner in terms of the aural heft the soundtrack provided. Megatron, the original films’ primary antagonist, is reduced to a hermit in this installment, a debacle of a character arc which seriously undermines the films’ impact at the end. Megatron has been living in Africa, scaring the zebras, thinking about the circle of life, and contemplating how he’s only got half a face (as a result of his battle with Optimus in Revenge Of The Fallen); he remains the scarred, Phantom of The Opera caricature throughout the Decepticon invasion. Geek-god Leonard Nimoy voices the pivotal character of Sentinel Prime, and most Star Trek fans will spot (and hear) a number of references to both Trek and Nimoy’s character of Spock. A famous line from Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Kahn, is bastardized here by Nimoy in one of the more eye-rolling moments of the film. Something about the needs of the many… You’ll know it. Nimoy has a great vocal presence in this film, and Sentinel Prime is the character on which the entire film hangs on in terms of resolution to the conflict. To say more would be invoking our spoiler rule here at fernbyfilms.com, but suffice to say, his actions in Dark Of The Moon present the onset of the final battle as a result.
There’s betrayal in this film, not only by humans but by robots as well, with one in particular being a key element of the plot; as I watched, I kinda felt that the motivation behind a significant betrayal was a little undercooked – like the writers had to have a betrayal, and made up a whacked-out motive for it to occur. It didn’t feel organic, didn’t feel natural. Instead, it smacked me in the mouth and told me it was this way or the highway. There’s also plenty of death in this film, again involving both humans and robots alike. Unlike Revenge Of The Fallen, in which any major character’s demise or injury was lost in all the white noise, Bay’s managed to give deaths here a significance which heightens the drama. You actually worry that they’ll kill off some of your favorites, and it’s this tension which permeates the entire final hour of the film. This script isn’t afraid to shake things up a bit.
Much critical text has been written about the films astounding final third – the all-out destruction of downtown Chicago and the battle henceforth for Earth is one of the most mind-blowing sequences in the entire franchise, and outstrips the much lauded final battle in the original Transformers by a few orders of magnitude. Chicago gets torn a new one, that’s for sure, and while the prospect of witnessing another Baytastrophe caught on screen in all it’s hurdy-gurdy frenetics might fill those with epilepsy with dread, this time we get to see what’s going on. In balance with the massive, monstrous action sequences, Michael Bay’s decision to film this beast in 3D mean that a lot of the rapid-fire editing and jump-cuts are gone in favor of longer, wider establishing shots. Sure, there’s moments where the robot fighting becomes a blur of visual digital-ness, but the difference between DOTM and its predecessors is significant in that you can actually follow the action more often than not! The final hour of the film, with the shit going down, will knock out your brain, fry it up in a mixture of brain and robotic frackupness, and serve it back to you in stunning, glorious high definition. One disappointment with the finale, however, is that the film just…. ends. It’s going along, explosions, fights and all, and when the last enemy is defeated, Optimus says a few words, and the credits roll. What the..? Where’s the moments of character finality, where we find out what happens to all the people we’ve just been watching? Does Josh Duhamel’s character get back to his wife and child? Does he even still have a wife and child? Does Sam reunite with his parents and forge a new, lasting relationship? Does he shag Carly and have a couple of kids? Nope, all we get is Optimus doing his best “be all you can be” schtick, and then Bay’s name comes up on the screen. Lights up, go home people. It’s like they ran out of money to film a few more minutes and just chose to end the film when the fighting stopped – which makes sense, I guess, since you’ve never developed the characters beyond a need to see them in action, and any kind of humanity outside of this is a waste…. right?
Logic takes a back seat to high powered action. Human beings are tossed about like rag-dolls by our robotic superstars, never bruising up or breaking bones from whiplash or inertial stress; a key moment where Sam hangs dangling by a wire from the head of Starscream and is flipped about like a cork on the ocean – not once does he dislocate a shoulder or snap his spine, and yet science and the laws of gravity would indicate this is almost a certain outcome. And then, when Simmons is involved in a relatively minor freeway accident, he spends the rest of the film in a wheelchair and braces! It’s this lack of logic which many critics find to highlight with the Transformers franchise, and Bay’s films as a whole. I overlook this in favor of simply enjoying the moment, appreciating the visuals, and going with it. The shit-detector in my movie brain doesn’t work so well, apparently.
Michael Bay directs the hell out of this film. He leaves no stone, robot, human or sexual joke unturned, whether it’s to the detriment of the final film or not. Compared to Revenge Of The Fallen, Bay’s shown a fair amount of restraint in this installment. Much of the overt sexual crassness is gone, and the ribald humor is also vastly decreased in favor of short, less awkward moments of supposed “levity”. Bay’s determination to put Huntington-Whiteley in tighter and tighter outfits (after an ass-ome entrance by Carly in an opening scene) throughout the film will keep the teenage demographic happy, even if it does feel a little sexist and misogynistic at times. Bay’s ability to handle the massive, epic action sequences this film demands is, quite frankly, second-to-none. Bay is, without doubt, the undisputed master at blowing shit up. He films explosions like a conductor produces orchestral magic – he’s the action film equivalent of Herbert von Karajan. His set-pieces defy both logic and common sense, and yet they feel largely believable within the context of this film; it’s as if by sheer force of will he makes you overlook the fact that giant robots don’t actually exist and pummels you into submitting to whatever crazy stuff he’s prepared to throw your way. I detected subtle hints references to a number of films here; the most obvious being the gritty, techno-grime aesthetic of Terminator Salvation in key scenes with the hunter-killer drone Decepticons during the Chicago sequence (I saw an interview with Bay online where he actually spotted some early digital work on the massive T1000 while visiting ILM one day – I think it chapped his craw that they were doing something similar to his own work) and a slew of visual similarities to the recent Battle: LA. However, Bay’s all on his own when it comes to the grand, un-toppable set-pieces in this film. The trailers gave us a glimpse of a building being torn in half by a massive worm-like Decepticon (which is actually the mode of transport for resident Decepticon powerhouse Shockwave), and that glimpse is more than done justice in the finished film. It makes the city-destruction sequences of 2012 look antiquated by comparison, and the scale of this one sequence (among many) is more than most films have in their entire budget!
I want to clarify something, if I may. It may sound like I absolutely loved this film, and I want you to know that I didn’t love it, but I did enjoy it. Dark Of The Moon is the best possible resolution to Bay’s trilogy of transforming, with a massive effects blowout at the very end of it all to keep the geeks happy, and the potential BluRay buyers salivating with glee. Its scale causes the humanity of it all to be dwarfed by the massive action sequences, meaning audiences are left still feeling a little slighted with the paucity of character development or genuine emotional impact, and yet it doesn’t seem to matter. The grandiosity of it all outweighs any possible tidbits of meaning in Sam’s plight, in Carly’s plight, hell, in Chicago’s plight – this isn’t a film about humanity being human, it’s a film about humanity getting it’s ass kicked and having to fight back. Is it better than Revenge Of The Fallen? By a long way. Is it better than the original film? Therein lies the crux of my dilemma. Technically, Dark Of The Moon should chew up and poop out Transformers all over its contracting energon cube. The look of DOTM and the awesomeness of the action sequences gorge themselves on the remnants of the tattered remains of Transformers’ still-great Capital City battle finale, and toss it aside like so much scraps. However, Transformers has one thing missing from Dark Of The Moon. Soul. Where Transformers focused on Sam’s relationship with Bumblebee and Optimus, and had a genuine energy and emotional hook, Dark Of The Moon still ponders along its action-path with barely a hint of anything beneath the shiny shiny surface. So no, I don’t think Dark Of The Moon is a better film than Transformers. Dark Of The Moon is a top notch Transformers movie, don’t get me wrong, and is most definitely worth seeing in the cinema (because that final battle needs to be big, man!) but keep your expectations low before you witness it and you should be quite happy.
After all, I’m happy.