I wasn’t exactly looking forward to this movie when it went into production, as I hadn’t seen the first two in theaters and struggled to maintain attention to them when I rented the Blu-rays for them. I could appreciate the scale of the action and the attention to detail, the explosions of course and the overall almost ballet style choreography, but the characters and the stories themselves just didn’t draw me in. I’m of the generation that grew up at the right time in the 80’s to be able to have the toys and adore them, and my mother still tells of how she would go shopping at Christmastime with other mothers to make sure they hustled when stores opened on sale days to get my friends and I the toys we most desired. So I’m not against, Transformers, and I’m not holding it up to any particular canon or belief of how it should be done, I just didn’t care for what has come before.
But damn Michael Bay and whoever cut that first trailer, because they did an excellent job. Between the initial fool-you moment where it could have been an intriguing science fiction story about what the space race in the 60’s was about and then the look of the massive attack sequence taking place in Chicago, the trailer made me waver. Waver on actually sitting down in the theater and seeing it. And then the barrage of commercials hit, the trailers in theaters, and my eldest daughter insisting that we go. She is of the next generation of geek out there, the fun and social girl who plays sports, reads comics and, as she put it, watches movies that have “giant robots duking it out and lots of explosions.” So yes, she gets the Michael Bay method perfectly at age eleven. So we made it down there opening day.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon has a pretty straightforward approach that gets a little muddied and unnecessarily convoluted at points. In the time since the last film, the Autobots work with the government to deal with problems around the world, lots of Energon detectors are set up and sometimes they act like teenagers by going out and messing around with secret nuclear facilities that could harm the planet, leading them to giving it an ass kicking it’ll never forget in some Middle Eastern country. But there are forces on the move here as we see that the Decepticons are manipulating events so as to lead the Autobots to a discovery about what happened on the moon in the early sixties, when a Cybertronian ship crashed there that contained Sentinel Prime, the precursor to Optimus, who had what they believed was their last hope to save their world from the Decepticons. That mankind knew about some of this and never told Prime gives them a bit of distrust, but the larger goal of acquiring Sentinel and his device is at the forefront. Which is what the Decepticons want.
It all leads into plenty of confrontations, but it’s very poorly set up for a lot of it. What gives it the driving force is Sam Witwicky, returning once again, as he’s doing his best to land a job. After saving the world twice and getting a special medal from the president (which lead him to meeting his new girlfriend, Carly, who has some pretty good management skills), he’s not having the best of times. He’s been reduced to a boy toy of sorts and is struggling to find his place in the world when he feels like he should be doing something that matters. With the Autobots put on special black ops missions in essence, he’s lost contact with them and feels very apart from what he should be a part of. His frustration feels natural, but there are issues with it as well. His parents are so sorely disappointed by his lack of a job that you can’t help but to feel that it has a disconnect from the reality of the moment, and the last couple of years, with intense unemployment out there and so many people vying for jobs. It’s a disconnect that really does feel very off.
His series of job interviews are amusing, and the place he ends up in has a bigger role in things and it’s not exactly clear for awhile, particularly with the character played by Patrick Dempsey who feels sorely out of place here. With the way the Decepticons are manipulating things, it’s rather subtle and out of place for them, and Megatron in particular, who is doing his best Mad Max world impression hanging out in the African outback complete with hood and cloak. The tying together of the various plot elements that brings it all down to “giant robots intend to conquer the world” does have its moments. Sam’s struggles with his job has a strangely entertaining segment with Ken Jeong playing the role of Jack Wang, a forced conspirator trying to get the word out about what the Decepticons are doing. He’s so terrible at it that you can’t help but be amused while hopeless confused as well.
But let’s get right down to it. Does the film deliver on its promise? With a two hour and thirty seven minute run time, it does take a bit to actually do so overall, but it does and it does in spades. With Sam separated from the gang for a lot of it, it jumps about to a lot of different things to bring in the action, and with the flashback material to help deal with the sixties era discoveries and the distant past on Cybertron, they do have a lot to cover. So much so that you almost wish you were getting a sixties Transformers movie. But when the film hits its third act as events shift to Chicago, it spends nearly an hour on this portion of the film and it manages to keep going very well. There are pauses in it to catch your breath, so to speak, but it mostly just keeps moving you forward. It deals with a relatively short period of time overall when it gets to it, and it has that feel of adrenaline about it that really keeps you captivated to watching it all unfold.
This isn’t a science fiction action movie though. It’s a science fiction disaster film filled with giant robots and the way the world is about to come to an end. It has more in common with those seventies disaster films in a lot of ways because of this since it focuses so much on the disaster and attack going on in Chicago. With a budget of just under $200 million, you can feel that it is on the screen on a regular basis. There’s no shortchanging of Autobots or Decepticons here. And in the third act, the scale of destruction is so massive that what we saw in that first trailer is barely scratching the surface. It’s not perfect CG of course, but the scale of it all is impressive, especially when it deals with the city itself and all the buildings and the action that takes place within it.
There are two things I have to call out about this movie in particular. The first is the way that Rosie Huntington-Whiteley has been taken to task over her performance, especially with no acting credits prior to this. When I saw one of the first featurettes that showed some of her in the movie, I cringed at it because the scene itself was awful and nothing anyone could do would save it. She’s not a knockout actress by any means here, but damning her with faint praise, she carries on just as well as anyone else here. I doubt she’ll become an incredible actress based on this, but the performance here doesn’t warrant the criticism. And honestly, she felt more in tune with the Sam character than whatever it was Megan Fox was trying to bring to her role.
The other issue is in regards to the 3D aspect of the film. Some seventy percent of the film was shot in 3D so I was looking forward to seeing how a non-post production 3D conversion would look. I’ve seen a fair number of 3D films in the last year and it’s continually losing its impact on me, though I always felt it was better for certain types of films than others. Avatar really set the bar high for me and nothing has come close since then. This movie is the one that broke the camel’s back though. After seeing a number of post-conversion films, this one really didn’t have a whole lot more going for it. It has some good moments, and there are areas where it works well, but I kept coming back to the core belief that it wasn’t offering anything radically new or making a real difference in the actual presentation of the film. It’s not bad, but it’s pretty much said to me not to bother going for the 3D option at all anymore unless something significant happens.
The third installment of the franchise has a lot to overcome after the Revenge of the Fallen and I think it largely does it. I really did not like the first two movies at all but came away very pleased by this one. I’m not a fan of saying “turn your brain off” to enjoy a film, but there is something to be said for going into a particular film with the right expectations. You don’t go into this kind of movie expecting high art. You want it to be done competently and without gaping plot holes and you want to be entertained. It’s like going into a trashy romance novel and criticizing it for falling short of being a work of Shakespeare. While the trailer sucked me in here as did the insistence of my daughter, I had a very fun experience watching this and the final hour or so itself with all the time spent in Chicago is worth the price of admission alone. It has its issues, but in the end I found myself quite engaged with the action of it and was surprised that it really didn’t feel like too much, even as big as it goes. It’s not perfect, but it gave me nearly three hours of very good entertainment. I can’t say that I’ll have any desire to watch it again, but it completely overcame what I thought were two very bad movies prior to it and is definitely a high note to close out the trilogy with.