It is no secret that I didn’t like the previous Transformers films. In fact, I would go as far as saying I hated Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Not like I hate famine, or locusts or whatever, but like I hate an ice cream headache. It hurt my brain. The first was fun but very dumb. To wit: If evil alien robots that have shown no regard for human life are after an object that humans have, why would anyone take that object into a crowded city? Why?! Granted, it was just LA, but still. On the other hand the second film was borderline offensive. A paper-thin plot, little racist robots and metal testicles left me wondering if Michael Bay had lost his damn mind. With that film, Transformers became the worst most successful franchise of all-time. So when the screening for the third movie came around I considered fleeing. They would never find me in Mexico.
Thankfully my sense of responsibility (and dwindling bank account) halted my flight, and I’m glad it did. Transformers: Dark of the Moon is the Transformers film that Michael Bay always had in him. It just took a few hundred million dollars in practice movies first. Dark of the Moon is big and wild, and dumb and filled with explosions. And it is the best popcorn movie of the summer.
Revenge of the Fallen was just a mess of a film. It was all style over substance, and its humor bordered on the ridiculous. It also made it hard to care about the characters, because they kept opening their mouths and releasing the most absurd things. It was tough to take seriously the apocalyptic threat of a massive, pyramid-eating monster robot when its metal balls kept clanging together. It also didn’t help that the majority of the characters were just background that filled predictable patterns. If they died it was hard to care or even notice. And of course, there were the little racist robots and again, metal testicles.
But the biggest problem was simply that it was visually hard to follow the action at times. The Transformers themselves had so much going on, so many moving parts to them, that the fight scenes quickly became a seizure playground, waiting to attack the minds of anyone foolish enough to stare for too long. At times in both previous movies, it was like watching the episode of The Simpsons when they went to Japan and watched “Battling Seizure Robots.” It was Michael Bay at his wackiest.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon takes most of those problems and fixes them. In fact, I almost feel a little dirty admitting how much I liked the film. The shadow of the previous movies is somewhat felt, but it is almost like the third film is a reboot, and all the things that happened before are mostly ignored. There are still some massive plot holes, the acting remains suspect at times and Bay still can’t resist planting the camera under peoples’ chins while panning around them to give them that heroic look, but in general the film is solid, and the most action packed of the summer.
Transformers 3: Transform Harder
The plots of the first two films are never mentioned at all in Dark of the Moon. There are plenty of references to the characters fighting in Egypt and further back when they all met, but the actual Decepticon plans of the past have been almost totally ignored—which is a good thing, because otherwise the third movie would make no sense at all. Besides, both plots were very silly.
Chronologically the film begins in the early 60s when a ship from Cybertron crashes into the moon, which begins a massive conspiracy involving the moon landings. Back in the present day, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is having a tough time finding a job, despite having saved the world. Twice. Thankfully though, he managed to land an impossibly hot girlfriend, Carly Spencer (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), who replaces Megan Fox.
Sam wants back in on the action, as the Autobots are working with humans to hunt for Decepticons and to do the occasional mission against human enemies. When Sam becomes the target of a Decepticon attack he goes to the Autobots to tell them what he knows, but is stymied by the head of intelligence, Charlotte Mearing (Frances McDormand).
So Sam turns to Agent Seymour Simmons (John Turturro), who with the help of his assistant Dutch (Alan Tudyk), helps Sam piece together a plot against the Autobots that has been decades in the making. And no, that doesn’t fit with the timelines of the previous films, but it is a better movie for it. The Decepticon plot is eventually revealed, and a full scale war begins.
The plot is still mostly an excuse for robots to blow stuff up real pretty, but it is much better than in the previous films, and it makes sense (more or less). There is even a trace of emotion present in the rationale for it, something that was totally lacking before. The stakes continue to climb, and the third act of the film–where the city of Chicago is almost decimated–is a satisfying climax.
In terms of tone, Dark of the Moon is much darker than the previous films. There is less humor, and not just in the dialogue, but in the sense of scale. The Decepticons brutally butcher hundreds of people, and the Autobots want their heads. Sam and the humans also get into the fight and the battle for Chicago is tense and bloody. And throughout the whole film, there is nary a pee or genitalia joke. Kudos to Bay for the restraint.
The acting is about what you would expect. LaBeouf is entertaining, and Huntington-Whiteley looks pretty. She isn’t the best of actresses, but she is beautiful, and looks good against an explosion. There is even one scene that was laughable, as she stands in the middle of a battle just staring at the camera, wind rushing through her hair, as explosions go off behind her. Classic Bay.
The rest of the cast has also toned it down, and John Turturro is actually watchable. Fans will also be happy to know that neither Skids nor Mudlap, aka those stupid racist robots, make an appearance (although they are supposedly seen in the background of a few shots, but they never have a presence). In their place are Wheelie and Brains, two mini-Autobots who crack plenty of jokes, but actually end up being fairly entertaining. Usually dumb, but entertaining.
Things ‘Splode Real Pretty
It wouldn’t be a Michael Bay movie without his trademark of leaving giant divots in the Earth. Where Bay goes, so go explosions, and Dark of the Moon is no different. Of all the big budget summer movies, Dark of the Moon is the most action packed–literally. Almost an hour solid is nothing but a series of action scenes. Of the 155 minute running time, probably 75-90 minutes or more involve something blowing up, being shot at or destroyed in some fashion.
But with all that action, Bay seems to have either been reigned in, or decided to give subtlety a try. Comparatively at least. This movie is meant to be seen in 3D, and Bay actually does an amazing job of using the depth—not just a good job, but an amazing one. And it may have even helped the movie in other ways.
It takes the human brain about two seconds to process a 3D image. If a camera cuts too quickly or cuts often, it will give you a headache and can make the best of movies unwatchable. The same is true for scenes when things move by too fast even in a steady shot—in 3D they are physically hard to watch.
Bay seems to have taken this to heart, and the action scenes are easily among the best of his career. They are not just watchable, a few border on spectacular. One scene in particular where soldiers are gliding through Chicago as the battle rages around them is memorable. Bay also relies heavily on slo-mo (more so than usual), which was an excellent choice when you have robots made of thousands of moving pieces fighting each other.
Whether it is the 3D or the massive criticism Bay took in previous films, the result is a film that is much easier to watch than the previous Transformer movies, even though the action is bigger. You can even tell most of the robots apart, some of the time. The film is also much more brutal than the previous movies. Chicago gets wrecked, and the people are not spared. There are even a few scenes that border on disturbing, but they help sell the emotion of the final act and up the stakes suitably, which was something totally lacking form the previous movies.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon is easily the best of the three films. So much so that it might even make you consider going back to watch the previous two in order to see if they are better because of it. Spoiler: they won’t be. The first film was dumb, but it had some fun moments. It was a big budget action movie that could entertain if you didn’t mind overlooking a bunch of stuff. The second film was a bad movie. Sure, it made a ton of money, but it was not a well-made film. Besides the insanity that griped Bay, there were technical problems. Plus, there were little racist robots and metal testicles. I can’t stress that enough. The third film seems to have learned from the mistakes of the previous entries in the series.
Dark of the Moon has a slightly different look and feel than the other Transformer movies, but it is still obviously a Bay movie. You will see plenty of close-ups under the chins of the cast, and if there is a single unattractive person in the film they are probably blown up quickly. If you have ever seen any Michael Bay movie, you have a general idea of what to expect. This film is better than his previous Transformer efforts, but there is still the music video look that defies reality. You’ll also see plenty of American flags waving majestically and be subject to a handful of over-the-top speeches. Don’t expect any symbolism or much depth here. A glossy sheen covers all the visuals, but by now you should expect that from a Bay film. Fans, and those that are indifferent to Bay’s style will enjoy it, those that don’t will continue to dislike him.
Revenge of the Fallen seemed to be made for a younger–or at least more adolescent audience, and it was hard to take a lot of the dramatic moments serious, especially when there were so many dumb parts. Not to mention the little racist robots and metal testicles. It cheapened the whole film. That is absent here, and the movie benefits from it. But the single biggest improvement is the way that the fight scenes are shot. You will seldom see a closeup of the robots as the battle rages, nor will you see a dozen quick cuts. Instead you will see long shots of the robots moving in slow motion. Whether this was a result of the 3D, or a deliberate cinematographic choice made early on doesn’t matter—it works. The 3D itself is also well handled, and Bay uses the medium in the same way that James Cameron did—for depth, not as a gimmick. And while that may be the only comparison to be made between Bay and Cameron, it is an apt one.
It shocks me to say that Bay actually underplayed his own instincts compared to his previous films. Dark of the Moon isn’t a deeply complex film, and it won’t win over the art house crowd. It is big, dumb and loud, and proud of it. There is some suspect acting, the plot makes very little sense in the context of the series and there are a few over-the-top moments that are groan-worthy, but as far as big summer ‘splosion-friendly movies go, this is the Transfromers movie we have all been waiting to see.