Wednesday, June 29, 2011

"Transformers: Dark of the Moon" (2011)

Starring Shia LeBeouf, Josh Duhamel and Patrick Dempsey
Written by Ehren Kruger
Directed by Michael Bay
Rated PG-13 - Intense, prolonged violence, language
Running Time: 154 minutes

And Michael Bay wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer. 

"Transformers: Dark of the Moon" opens in the early 1960s as we discover an Autobot ship, the Ark, commanded by the leader of the Autobots, Sentinel Prime (Leonard Nimoy), has crash-landed on Earth's moon.  The space race of the 1960s was borne out of a need for the United States, in the midst of the Cold War, to reach the moon first and explore the wreckage.

Fast forward to the present, and we find Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf) has graduated college after saving the world twice and is now attempting to find a job.  What he really wants to do is work with the Autobots, hunting down and destroying the remaining Decepticons on Earth.  But, alas, he is not a government agent and can't do that.  He lives with his girlfriend, Carly Spencer (Rose Huntington-Whitely), the lovely assistant to the exceedingly wealthy Dylan Gould (Patrick Dempsey). 

Meanwhile, around the world, human agents of the Decepticons are being assassinated as Megatron's (Hugo Weaving) plan is finally ready to be put in motion.  When the Autobots discover the truth about the human moon landing, Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) travels to the moon and discovers the body of Sentinel Prime kept in stasis.  Revived, Sentinel informs Optimus that he has carried with him devices capable of creating a matter teleportation bridge, supposedly the key to revitalizing their dead homeworld of Cybertron. 

Unbeknownst to the Autobots, retrieving and reviving Sentinel Prime was Megatron's plan all along, for Sentinel had betrayed the Autobots.  He wasn't leaving Cybertron all those years ago to keep the matter bridge technology from falling into Decepticon hands... he was defecting.  Now the Decepticons have annexed our world, planning to use the six billion humans as slave labor to rebuild Cybertron to its former glory using the matter bridge.  Now Sam, Colonel Lennox (Josh Duhamel), Epps (Tyrese), the rest of their elite military squad and the surviving Autobots are all that stand between the Decepticons and Earth's annihilation.

I have in the past, and will continue to do so in the future, championed infamous director Michael Bay's series of "Transformers" films, based on the hugely popular Hasbro line of shape-shifting toys and the 1980s animated TV series. Bay has steadfastly refused to give in to the base wants of hardcore fans, those who simply want to see that old cartoon back up on the screen, but made with glossy CGI.  Instead, he has plowed forward like the Hollywood bulldozer that he is, reshaping "Transformers" from something boys loved as kids and nerds hold dear as adults into glossy, bombastic summer spectacle that general audiences eat up.

Sure, the scripts for these films are less than Oscar-worthy (far less).  Sure, the humor is mostly juvenile and, sure, the excitement comes not from heady ideas or great characters but from presenting progressively more massive action sequences of robotic destruction.  Each time, fans of the toys and the cartoons whine and moan about the rape of their childhoods, never understanding that what they want on the screen would never sell on the scale of these pictures.  Michael Bay has stripped "Transformers" of its Saturday morning cartoonishness and turned it into three blockbusters reviled by critics as audiences plunk down thick wads of cash to eat up.

I understand exactly how people want these movies to look and feel, with the robots as the absolute star of the show and not a single human in sight.  What people have consistently failed to understand is that Michael Bay refuses to treat the robots that way.  Instead, he shoots his movies like he would any other... and just happens to have giant robots mixed into the frame.  The climactic action sequence of the first film was awesome and genius because the robots were mixed into the chaos instead of standing out amidst it.  That way of thinking, along with the perfect CG effects work from George Lucas' always-incredible Industrial Light & Magic workshop, made "Transformers" into an amazing show of surreality. 

For "Dark of the Moon," Bay has employed the technicians that crafted James Cameron's 3D billion-dollar powerhouse to come in and thoroughly demolish the city of Chicago.  Because of the limitations of the 3D camera rigs, Bay is forced to steady his shots and cut between them a little slower.  This has the added side effect of making the apocalpytic goings on in the back half of the film seem larger, more epic.  Indeed, the first "Transformers" film seems almost small and quaint by comparison.  But it also makes things more obvious.  You're more aware that you're watching large CG robots instead of watching all that mixed chaos. 

But, there is a lot of chaos.  The entire back half of the film deals with Sam, the soldiers and the Autobots attempting to infiltrate Chicago, which has been cordoned off by Decepticon forces.  Sequence after breathless sequence is thrown at us, with nary a moment to rest.  The effect is almost numbing, but Bay manages to sell the feeling of desperation in the characters.  Never in either of the two previous "Transformers" did things ever feel so hopeless, that the bad guys were so close to winning.  The fact that "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" is able to accomplish this pretty well makes it the best movie of the three.  The fact that it actually has a story to tell, albeit a flawed one (but what did you expect?) pretty well makes it the best movie of the three.

And the fact that Michael Bay has finally delivered his master class in awesome.  There are logic problems in this movie, yes.  There are lines of painfully expository dialogue that gifted actors struggle to deliver.  There are jokes that fall flat.  There are far too many characters for its own good. 

But "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" is fucking awesome.  The action in Chicago is huge, and epic.  The city is positively demolished.  The body count is massive.  But Bay takes all this chaos and crafts several truly excellent sequences.  Lennox's men infiltrating the city by diving out of their crashing planes while wearing suits that pretty much enable them to fly is the definition of cool.  Sam and Epps trying to escape a skyscraper being systematically demolished by Decepticons is a lot of fun.  Finally, in this film, the humans aren't so completely out of their league in fighting the Decepticons.  Lennox's NEST team has the training and the equipment to take out the bad guys, and Bay briefly lets them loose in the last act.  Even Sam gets his chance to kill a Decepticon!

"Dark of the Moon" introduces a number of new characters, most of whom are disposable, but serve their purpose well enough.  British model Rose Huntington-Whitely is a better actress than Megan Fox, but she's still basically just there to look real pretty.  You know exactly what her role is (and likely why she was cast) in her first scene.  I'm sure that looks fantastic in 3D.  Oscar-winning actress Frances McDormand also joins the cast as the United States Secretary of Defense, getting to play a hardass government type, while John Malkovich is clearly having a lot of fun as Sam's bizarre corporate overlord.  Alan Tudyk also appears as Dutch, assistant to shifty, egotistical Agent Simmons.

The new robots joining the fray include Dino (Francesco Quinn), a red Ferrari, Sideswipe (James Remar), a Corvette, Que (George Coe) an Autobot scientist, and the Wreckers (John DiMaggio and Ron Bottitta), heavily armed NASCAR racers.  For the Decepticons, Shockwave (Frank Welker), who can control a massive, tentacled digging creature, Laserbeak (Keith Szarabajka), and the Dreads - three black Chevy Suburbans.  The Decepticon ship, a massive purple spacecraft, is never named but I'm positive it's supposed to be Astrotrain. 

Leonard Nimoy, who previously portrayed the villain Galvatron in the 1980s animated movie, once again makes a great villain for the franchise with Sentinel Prime.  Nimoy has always had one of the greatest voices in Hollywood.  You can tell listening to him now that he's, well, he's 80 years old.  But he can still manage to growl out some anger and intensity when he needs to.  It's great to hear Nimoy interacting with Peter Cullen, the voice of Optimus Prime.  If only Hugo Weaving was finally given the chance to shine as Optimus' nemesis, Megatron.  One of the failings of these films is the lack of any real, meaty moments between Optimus and Megatron.  "Dark of the Moon" handles Megatron in an intriguing fashion, but he still feels like a minor character instead of the ultimate evil Decepticon that he's supposed to be.

John Turturro reprises his role as the shifty, egotistical Agent Simmons.  Kevin Dunn and Julie White also appear once more in a couple of scenes as Sam's parents, mostly for comic relief.  Thankfully, they don't stick around long enough to become annoying as they did in the second film.  In fact, none of the characters do.  Probably the benefit of having so many is that few of them are even allowed to outstay their welcome, since the film has already moved on. 

"Dark of the Moon" is a long film at 154 minutes.  Many will undoubtedly check out by the time the 90 minute mark rolls around, not caring about the thin characters or the juvenile humor.  The movie drags in a couple of parts, but once it comes time for Chicago to burn to the ground, the film comes alive once more and stays that way.  The film could probably stand to lose fifteen or twenty minutes, since it's not like this is a film totally beholden to its story, for the sake of pacing.  Some of the characters could go, funny though they may be.  Sam's parents really serve no purpose, nor does John Malkovich's Bruce Brazos.  Their scenes are funny and peppy, but all they really do besides provide the laughs is make the movie longer.

Michael Bay and Shia LeBeouf have both stated that they're done with "Transformers," regardless of how much money "Dark of the Moon" makes.  Whether this is true remains to be seen, but at the same time, "Dark of the Moon" also closes out the franchise pretty well.  I'm hard pressed to think of what could be done to top it or to even go further with it, considering the events that occur in the film's finale.  Beyond that, what could Michael Bay do now that he's torn a major city to shreds?  Bay has delivered the biggest, baddest, rockin'est action sequences of a career built on flashy, ludicrous mayhem.  It might honestly be all downhill from here for this master of disaster.

So there it all is.  You either get Michael Bay's "Transformers," or you don't.  I get them.  And I love them.  Your mileage, understandably, will vary.  Many, many people hate this franchise.  Many, many people will hate "Dark of the Moon."  I don't.  Giant honking robots from outer space kicking the crap out of each other is all I've ever wanted from this series, and it continues to deliver in spades.  It's not the TV series.  It's not the toys.  It's "Transformers." 

Roll out.

See Also
Transformers: The Movie (1986)