I could’ve lived a long and happy life without about an hour of stupid plot and bullshit Transformers™ mythology, but once it finally wound itself up, I have to admit Transformers: Dark of the Moon was as enjoyable an exercise in the spectacle of destruction as you could expect from a Hasbro toy commercial. If the idea of sentient robots turning themselves into assorted cars and trucks and back again while kicking the crap out of each other and everything around them doesn’t appeal to you, then you already know to steer clear of this one. If that sort of thing is your cup of tea on the other hand, this is the summer movie you’ve been waiting for. It easily vaults the low bar set by the other two films in the franchise and it’s also the least irritating entry in director Michael Bay’s entire filmography.
The story such as it is has something to do with a bunch of magic pillars buried on the moon that can be used to build some kind of crazy space bridge that allows for instant travel from one end of universe to the other. Naturally if the bad robots get a hold of the pillars before the good robots, it’ll be dark times for the fine people of Earth. Bay spends just enough time on this nonsense for you to start getting restless and asking stupid questions like “Why are the robots spiffy and shiny-new when they’re in car form, but dented and scratched and beaten up looking when they’re in robot form?” and “If they already knew this shit was on the moon, shouldn’t this have been the plot of the first film?” Since this is not a movie that stands up to a minute’s scrutiny, it’s at its best when it zips along from one fight to the next without giving you time to analyze what you’re seeing. In fact, these movies would all benefit from being shorter and from Michael Bay not treating them as reverently as a 10-year-old playing with his action figures in the back yard.
The performances aren’t Transformers‘ drawing card, but Shia LaBeouf remains an engaging screen presence. His ability to jump naturally from taking things seriously to goofing on the absurdity of it all helps keep the film grounded a little. Less successful is English muffin turned underwear mannequin turned action movie T&A Rosey Huntington-Whiteley. In her defense, she’s never asked to be anything more than eye candy, but she has all the charm of a blowup doll and her entirely vacant on-screen personality is a surprisingly long jump off the bottom rung represented by Megan Fox. Fox at least was able to give her fetish object a little bit of spark and she had some chemistry with LaBeouf. Their characters also had the benefit of having had some history together over the course of two films. That history and chemistry would’ve gone a long way toward punching up the sense of peril and drama when the love interest is inevitably endangered, but here you just don’t care. When The Crumpet isn’t on screen (and sometimes when she is), you forget she’s even in the movie. While she doesn’t detract from the spectacle, the movie would’ve been that much more interesting if she’d added a little to it.
The supporting cast is a mixed bag. John Turturro returns to chew the scenery as Simmons, but the thrill of seeing the Coen favorite cutting it up in a live action cartoon is gone. Another Coen regular, Frances McDormand seems more comfortable in one-on-one character interactions than when stuff is blowing up, but she’s fine. John Malkovich is completely wasted as a kooky industrialist. It turns out his particular form of entertaining bombast has a lot more kick in quieter movies. He’s buried here. For his part, Josh Duhamel holds his own as a bit of military beefcake. On the other hand, the only good thing left to be said about ubiquitous human irritant Ken Jeong (The Hangover, TV’s Community) is that he’s involved in one of the best parts of the film when ***spoiler*** his annoying character Wang (Heh heh, Wang. Get it? It’s like “penis” but it’s also Asian. Funny right? Heh heh) gets tossed through a skyscraper window. ***end spoiler*** Patrick Dempsey has just the right amount of sleaze as LaBeouf’s romantic rival – enough anyway to make you root for his untimely death. The best part support-wise is Alan Tudyk (TV’s Firefly) who gives a fun performance as Turturro’s zesty but off-kilter German assistant, Dutch. Less Wang and more Dutch, please.
The thing is, you don’t watch a Transformers movie to see an acting tour de force, you turn up for the action and the effects and both are excellent this time around. Bay’s usual hyperactive over-edited style is generally not how I like to see my action presented, but here he tones it down a notch. He’s still the king of imaginative and thrilling ways to destroy things – the sequence with the tipping building and the crazy giant worm-bot is an especially exciting and unique carry away sequence – but here he demonstrates a little more patience in lingering on shots and scenes. There’s still no sense of geography, but at least in the moment there’s an opportunity for your brain to catch up and enjoy what it’s seeing on more than just a subliminal level. In an effort perhaps to counteract the annoying strobing effect that comes with fast action in 3D films, Bay also deploys some effective use of slow motion amid the carnage and it works beautifully. It’s a technique Bay should use more often in action and not just when he’s focused on his starlet’s pantied ass as she swishes up the stairs.
The effects and sound design are top notch as you’d expect. They’re so good in fact as to be relatively seamless. That’s a good thing because they don’t draw you out of the action, but at the same time they lack the “wow” factor that you sometimes get with new and revolutionary effects. I prefer effects that blend in and are entirely at the service of the action, but be forewarned if you’re looking for a Terminator 3-level leap forward in technology. As for the 3D, it’s used about as effectively here as it has been in any live-action film so far. In films that depend more on character and story, the 3D tends to actually be an unwanted distraction for me, but Transformers is pure spectacle and the 3D is just more visual stimulus. That’s fine, but for my taste the illusion of depth never impressed enough to make up for the loss of brightness in the image and the diminished vibrancy of the colors. Having said that, if you’ve enjoyed the 3D you’ve seen in other films, this is about as good as it gets.
Overall, if you’re already invested in the Transformers back story and know all the robots by name, you’ll probably have a smoother time with the film’s draggy opening. I found it incredibly boring with one too many of Bay’s usual music video sequences meant to convey the emotion the rest of his film lacks, but at least he eliminated a lot of the 3rd grade playground humor that normally ruins these things. The humor that’s left works. That combined with Bay’s more thoughtful approach to action elevates the second half of the film so much that you easily forget the slow start as soon as the robot crap starts hitting the fan and the entire city of Chicago succumbs to the mechanized mayhem. All in all, Transformers: Dark of the Moon does what you want it to do and that’s no small thing in this particularly disappointing and dull summer season.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon. USA 2011. Directed by Michael Bay. Screenplay by Ehren Kruger. Cinematography by Amir Mokri. Original music by Steve Jablonsky. Edited by Roger Barton, William Goldenberg and Joel Negron. Starring Shia LaBeouf, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Josh Duhamel, John Turturron, Tyrese Gibson, Patrick Dempsey, Rich Hutchman, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Alan Tudyk, Julie White, Kevin Dunn, Buzz Aldrin and Bill O’Reilly. Featuring the voices of Peter Cullen, Hugo Weaving, Leonard Nimoy and James Remar. 2 hours 30 minutes. MPAA rated PG-13. 3 stars (out of 5)
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