Transformers: Dark of the Moon Review
by Bret Dorman
Before I start just a side note I will NOT be referring to Transformers 3 as T3, nor Transformers 2 as T2, nor Transformers as T1.
Terminator gets the T# abbreviations because it came out first and its way more awesome. The Transformers movies seem to know this though, since they abbreviate themselves as TF#. But even that’s too close to my precious Ah-Nuld Franchise if I do say so myself.
Transformers was okay. Tried a little bit too hard to be epic when all it had to go on was a silly toy line and cartoon. Transformers 2 had a handful of impressive action moments but narratively was a mess. Transformers 3 is… the best of the three. Not that that’s saying much…
The Story: In the past, a spaceship crashes on the moon and a bunch of CGI/archive footage of Presidents justify it. Then in the present day a bunch of robots fight other robots. A bunch of robots fight people. And some people fight other people. Also, the robots turn into cars. Except for one that turns into a bird.
I’m not trying to knock the movie for having forgettable moments. If anything, I’m going to ultimately make a Pro Bay case for it.
There are large chunks of this movie that if you look back on it after a viewing, will just appear in the Transformers 3 timeline as big gray chunks. If you were to watch this movie in theaters one weekend, then next weekend watch an edited for time/content version on TV, I bet you’d have a hard time picking out what didn’t make the cut. I’m thinking mostly of the largely time wasting opening. Sure it makes for a cool trailer, Neil and Buzz landing on the moon and finding a giant space ship, but it just eats up time in this movie and by the time the opening title is shown, nothing big or important or cool has happened, just a bunch of backstory.
And before we even get to the whole Moon Plot, Optimus lays down a brief history of the final days of The Transformers’ home planet, Cybertron. So if you are going to use the whole ‘voice over’ thing to introduce backstory to the third installment that wasn’t in the first two, why not just glaze over the whole moon landing? Why take 15 minutes to do what you can in two?
The fact that history is not only recreated, but rewritten to include the Transformers is cool (like the cuban Missile Crisis being a major plot point for the X-Men in First Class). But we don’t need to see a dozen locations containing hundreds of actors eating up a huge chunk of the movie just for a little bit of backstory. The coolness of these scenes isn’t that they are well done and spare no expense, its that Michael Bay can and will expand upon any part of the story and make every part look as expensive and complicated as possible. The opening is forgettable, but its impressive that a man could waste so much money on such a simple task.
Enter the mindset for Transformers 3. The entire movie is shot with this mentality. Let’s make everything overly complicated and super expensive. This isn’t about cutting corners and being frugal. This is spending the most amount of money possible to make the most amount of money possible. I bet if you were to cut even twenty minutes out of this movie at the production level, you’d have enough money to pay for half the Gross National Debt of America. But this movie isn’t about helping America, its about celebrating it.
Its almost shocking how much this movie is Pro-America. I mean, I like America and stuff, but this movie makes us out to be the best country that ever was and global representatives for the entire world when it comes to Justice and Peace. There’s a moment where two robots fight some Iraqis and the main Decepticon, Megatron wears a cloth over his face reminiscent of Middle Eastern Cultures. Also, there are tons of ‘hero’ shots of either man or robot standing, camera spinning around them (Classic Bay) and the American flag behind them, usually tattered, but always waving proudly. Optimus even says “We have to take the fight to them”, “Sometimes our allies will turn against us”, “(something about) Independence and Freedom”, and “I’ll have four hundred Big Macs. Trucks gotta eat! USA! USA! USA!”
I’m not anti-America or anti-Propaganda, but I’d rather have fun watching a movie than feel as though I’m being brainwashed. Luckily for us free-thinking people who can see past this, there’s tons of fun to be had! Bay has openly admitted to Transformers 2 sucking and he seems to have learned his lesson. Critics ripped him apart for Transformers 2 and most of those problems are addressed as much as is “Summer Blockbusterily” possible (the usual ‘flaws’ of these movies exist, more on that later). Of course, when it comes to giant robot fighting movies, critics can only be so pleased, so this one is just getting slightly less ripped apart.
One of the most welcome changes is that Sam Witwicky is the only main character. In the previous films they had a bunch of sprawling stories that spanned several characters. Here, if you can’t help Witwicky, you’re out. That’s not to say every single scene has him, but the human story is primarily driven (pun intended!) by Sam. As for Shia Lebeouf, the man is a natural star. He exudes charisma and confidence at lightning fast speed. I’d be willing to bet the price of admission that when he’s given a script he just throws it out and says “Just give me ten words or so per scene that are crucial to the story and I’ll take it from there…”
The biggest change is newcomer (and Victoria Secret Model) Rosie Huntington-Whitely as Sam’s Love Interest… I mean Carly… no, I meant Sam’s Love Interest. She’s got more skill than Megan Fox and for my money, looks better too. There’s even one part where she is standing next to a car and they are describing the car as ‘sleek and having sexy curves’ and explicitly point out it is built to be like a woman. So… I guess her purpose in the movie is to be drooled over and taken out for a ride? Only problem is at first I thought she was Australian, but then someone said she was British. Sorry Aussies/Brits… but your accent just isn’t that sexy. Unless your name is Daniel Craig… wait…
The rest of the ‘usual’ Transformer cast shows up. Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, and John Turturro. Sam’s parents (Kevin Dunn and Julie White) make a brief appearance as well. The Mom is still overly annoying but at least she’s reduced to a couple of scenes instead of an entire pot brownie eating sub plot that takes up 20 minutes of the movie. There’s a bunch of newcomers as well, and impressive ones at that. John Malkovich and Ken Jeong have minor roles in Sam’s normal jobby job. I think Jeong is mostly annoying but at least he’s only in it a couple of minutes and super crazy, so it works. Also he has a nice stare down with Malkovich works because Malkovich sells the big moment. Frances McDormand is a kind of mean lady who is in charge of things. I heard some people behind me actually go “Ooooohhhh…!” like Sam with in trouble with the school’s principle when she reamed him out a couple of times. Patrick Dempsy plays a sort-of rival to Sam. The biggest surprise to me was Alan Tudyk as Dutch, Turturro’s personal assistant. He definitely stole the show and when Transformers 4 is made I hope he has a bigger part.
As for the robots, I don’t know much about the cartoon (I was a TMNT and Ghostbuster fan growing up). There were some that had names and screen presence, some that just had names, and some that were simply mechanical henchmen. The robots were pretty cool though and while you can’t really tell what they are doing to actually transform, the action is pulled back enough to be able to, for the most part, tell what is happening. There’s this awesome thing that they do, something I’ll call “Forward Momentum Action”, where the bots, since they have wheels I guess, are able to glide or roll-strafe on the ground and since they are ginormous, I know, they can smash through any debris and ‘henchmen’ baddies in their way while keeping their forward momentum. Even Sam has a nice albeit it very brief and watered down parkour-esque scene.
Also they are able to do some extremely violent things because they are only robots. The same way the awesome TV Show Samurai Jack gets away with being a kids show but when you think about what he is doing its really R-Rated material going on. Faces being blown off, bodies being ripped apart, and none of the Robots wear clothes (Robo-Nudity!).
The innate flaw of Transformers as a movie is this separation of Robot and Man. The humans get all the emotional stuff and fun stuff (the two mini-bots don’t count. They were annoying as well). I mean, Bumblebee has his comic relief moments, but that comes also from the bond between him and Sam. He is the only one who gets any real character traits other than Optimus, who is a whole different story (more on that in the Spoilers! section). But because the people are fighting giant alien machine beings, the Transformers get all the badass action stuff. If you try to involve more Transformers then the story gets too convoluted and really super duper cheesy. Bay knows right now he’s “Forward Momentum” roll-strafing that line of what audiences will find tolerable in a giant robot movie and he knows to hold back on making them ‘real characters’. So other than some of the Autobots being different colors (or having company logos on them a la Nascar), its hard to tell some of the Transformers apart. One scene has four, two Autobots and two Decepticons, in a Mexican Standoff situation and I couldn’t tell who was who right away if the camera cut. I know the good guys are more human-like and the bad guys are more animalistic, but really I just didn’t know who they were period. Maybe my lack of Transformers Cartoon experience is hindering my understanding of the who’s and what’s of the movie, but I found it slightly frustrating.
The limit to what Micahel Bay can put on a movie screen right now is basically limited only by his imagination. He has the backing financially to do it, the ‘fanbase’ of loyal teenagers who will pay to see his movies, and the technical capabilities and know how to pull it off. I can’t wait to see what he can do when he doesn’t have a script that has the Transformers Fundamental Flaw in it and the emotion and character build up is also related to the action… Bad Boys Franchise, I’m looking at you…
There were also these “Uh… what?” moments that came when any Transformer that wasn’t Optimus did anything even kind of cool, where they would spout out a cheesy one-liner (Optmius did have some cheesy ones but they fit his character). I’m all for one-liners, from the clever puns to the cringe inducing ones, but here a character would just kill some human and say something like “Class dismissed!” Thing is, they weren’t near a school or anything and there was no prior reference to anything teaching related. “Huh… what?”
Lastly, this movie could have been shortened a lot. There are so many moments, like every ten minutes, where we have to check in with every character just to make sure what they are doing. Sam is running around! Josh Duhamel is yelling at a screen for back up! Tyrese is driving a (real) car! Megatron is standing up! Optimus is looking somewhere off in the distance! Bumblebee is… Loitering! By the time we get into Chicago and are ready to have all the action occur and get a giant mega super fight, instead, what we get is a ‘prolonged’ action scene made up of some mini set pieces that has a bunch of “check in montages” inbetween and mini motivational speeches or info dumps of what needs to happen next.
Sam is given the lamest action moments in the movie. The only ‘cool thing’ he does he still messes up. He shoots Starscream (?) in the eye then jumps and gets him with his boomstick (was anyone else waiting for the exchange “What is that?” “This… this is my BOOMSTICK!”) and even when he nails that into the bad guy he still needs to be saved. The final confrontation between him and Dempsy was extremely weak. Dempsy stole his girlfriend (I say ‘stole’ instead of ‘kidnapped’ cuz she’s more of an object), he put her life and Sam’s in danger, and he almost got the entire Autobot Clan killed. Yet at the end Sam hesitates to kill him and only hits him with a concrete stick. You could argue he’s dead but let’s face it, if he is, Sam didn’t do it on purpose because he wanted to.
As for the action with the robots, it seems a little off. Optimus has no problem plowing through a bunch of henchmen, but when it comes to fighting Sentinel he gets his but kicked. Then for no reason he can beat not only him but also Megtron… one handed. I mean… trust me, I get how cool this is, to be handicapped and KILL two major bad guys in less than a minute of each other, especially when Optimus is made out to be such a goody two shoes, but something has to happen other than “Oh, we need to wrap this up in a couple minutes.”
Also, while we’re at it… Megatron, the baddest of the baddies, would NOT stop Sentinel before Sentinel killed Optimus if his plan was to kill Sentinel anyway. Why not just let Sentinel kill Optimus, then kill Sentinel, take over the thing and let the planet come through? Weak bad guy move to let your sworn enemy live only to die by his (one) hand a mere moments later.
Shockwave’s intro was alright, but his character could have been built up a little more. I have no idea who or what a Shockwave is in the Transformers Universe or if he was portrayed accurately. I just know that he was a cool bad guy that wasn’t given enough proper build up.
Alan Tudyk is awesome. Just wanted to say that again.
A little thing as well. Optimus was being total badass and flying around and saving the day, then he gets his jet pack damaged and gets caught in some crane/construction thing and is suspended and trapped like its a net? Optimus. The coolest Transformer of the movie. Come on… this is the ONLY this that doesn’t work on a visual concept level. I mean, Predator was trapped by a net like thing and that only laster what? A couple of seconds. Sure you could argue “But the net the Predator is trapped in is made from Jungle Vines!” Yeah, well the ‘net’ Optimus is trapped in is made from man made metal. And he is a giant robot with weapons.
Optimus was the coolest Transformer. Like I said, for the most part he is a goody two shoes, but he stays true to his character. The silliness of his speeches and how ‘profound’/corny they are are only amplified by the fact that he is a giant robot that turns into a giant truck. I like how his character never considers doing the wrong thing, but rather he is always right. Which makes the end way more badass when he ‘kills’ (I’m sure sequels somewhere will undo this) Megatron and Sentinel.
I’m not going to get really picky here, but in one of the “check in montages” near the end I was thinking about Sentinel’s plan to bring Cybertron to Earth and it just didn’t really make sense at all. Wouldn’t Cybertron crush Earth and kill all the people? Why not, if your pillar bridge thing transports anything to anywhere just transport the people of Earth to Cyberton? Why use humans as slaves when you’re giant super robots? It would take us generations upon generations to build something cool for you. It would have been cool if (somewhat like in Transformers 2?) they had a device that could turn anything into a transformer… only this device was going to transform Earth INTO Cybertron. Planetary Transformation! Yeah!
Finally, one of the coolest moments of the movie was the highways attack scene where some three Decepticons come out of nowhere and start ripping stuff up. Sam is thrown from his car, Bumblebee, who not only launches him in the air, but transforms and deflects tires and recaptures him and turns back into car mode and has him safe and sound. I can’t tell if the audience was cheering because they were happy to see Bumblebee save his friend, who was in real danger (emphasized by Lebeouf’s sheer terror on his face) or if the audience cheered because of how cool it looked. Either way I know why I was cheering… because they were. Yay America! USA! USA! USA!
In Conclusion, Transformers 3 is not a movie that earns most of its cool points from its story telling capabilities. For the most part its just Good Guys Vs Bad Guys. The action is well filmed but the Robots are only there because Hasbro had a bunch of toys that sold well and wants to sell more. However much you go into Transformers thinking you MIGHT enjoy it is the ceiling of its enjoyment capabilities. The movie doesn’t make giant robots fighting engaging, but if that’s already what you’re into it makes it cool, light, and fun.
Final Grade: B (for Flawed, Fun, and (semi) Forgettable… wait…)