Shia LaBeouf as Sam Witwicky
Rosie Huntington-Whiteley as Carly
Josh Duhamel as Lennox
Frances McDormand as Charlotte Mearing
John Turturro as Agent Simmons
Alan Tudyk as Dutch
Patrick Dempsey as Dylan
Tyrese Gibson as Epps
John Malkovich as Bruce Brazos
Kevin Dunn as Ron Witwicky
Julie White as Judy Witwicky
Ken Jeong as Jerry Wang
Peter Cullen as the voice of Optimus Prime
Leonard Nimoy as the voice of Sentinel Prime
Hugo Weaving as the voice of Megatron
Charles Adler as the voice of Starscream
Frank Welker as the voice of Soundwave
Keith Szarabajka as the voice of Laserbeak
Robert Foxworth as the voice of Ratchet
Jess Harnell as the voice of Ironhide
James Remar as the voice of Sideswipe
Tom Kenny as the voice of Wheelie
Reno Wilson as the voice of Brains
Greg Berg as the voice of Igor
George Coe as the voice of Que
With his third, and by all accounts final, try director Michael Bay has made what is probably his best “Transfomers” film yet. Which means that it is merely mind-numbingly bad rather than eye-gougingly bad.
Bay’s tenure on the franchise has been… frustrating, if we’re being extremely generous. Only the purest, most hardcore of original “Transformer” fans could suggest that every idea the series’ filmmakers have had has been terrible. There have actually been plenty of improvements and generally interesting derivations on the idea of transformable robots to suggest development of the concept on the scale a big-budget feature film should be able to offer, and “Dark of the Moon” offers several new iterations. But it’s been very much a ‘one step forward, two steps back’ process and “Dark of the Moon” keeps up that part of the formula as well.
For example. After an introductory monologue by Autobot leader Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) to set the stage we are introduced into the travails of Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf,), a young man on the cusp of adulthood, trying to figure out what exactly to do with himself. Almost against his will, he soon finds himself drawn into the battle between the Autobots and Decepticons for the fate of the Earth, working with a deranged spy (John Turturro) and a group of Special Forces commandos (Josh Duhamel) to convince the US Government of the danger it faces before it is too late and the Decepticons invade the Earth.
If that sounds very similar to the plots of the first two “Transformer” films, that’s because it is. Sticking close to his long-standing motto of ‘even if it is terribly, terribly broken and probably just needs to be put out of its misery, don’t bother fixing it,’ Bay has chosen to repeat almost everything that didn’t work the first two times all over again.
Which means the series’ major problem is still its major problem. “Dark of the Moon” is a film about giant robots invading the Earth which ultimately has very little to do with giant robots invading the Earth. Bay’s focus has always been first and foremost about his human characters. No, that’s not right. Bay’s focus has always been first and foremost about the human character-shaped stereotypes the likes of which populate all of his other films, from the wisecracking, fast-talking protagonist to the various grumbling, dorky comic-relief characters to the inevitable no-nonsense Special Forces guys.
In “Transformers'” case, that means spending about two hours of its two-and-a-half hour running time following Sam’s exploits as he, fresh out of college, prepares to cross his latest milestone of adulthood: his first job. Despite having saved the planet twice, by this point the rules of teenager-oriented adventure mean he has to be starting at nearly square once again because only jocks and megalomaniacs are allowed to be successful at the start of a story.
Characters like Patrick Dempsey’s Dylan, a man of wealth and taste with a love for fast cars and possibly for Sam’s girlfriend Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley). By the rules of teenager-centric action films this makes him Sam’s natural arch-nemesis, and “Dark of the Moon” runs with that by the genuinely interesting idea of secret Decepticon collaborators among the human race, helping them with their plans. Dempsey plays it completely straight with little of the antics which have distinguished most of the ‘acting’ “Transformers” has been blessed with. Unlike everyone else who has ever been in a “Transformers,” Dempsey has figured out how to interact with the Transformers as a character and an actor, creating a believable actual human whose reactions are both believable and consistent. And creating an actual human nemesis for Sam to physically and emotionally grapple with is a genuinely good idea.
But this is still Michael Bay we’re talking about so one step forward, two steps back. The introduction of a human conspiracy working with Decepticons means moving away from the Transformers themselves, who do very little for the first two-thirds of the film, to focus on Sam’s quest for relevance. Which mostly boils down to Sam hooking up with eccentric former secret agent Seymour Simmons (John Turturro) and his German man-Friday Dutch (Alan Tudyk) and searching out former members of the US and Russian space programs who have been helping the Decepticons since at the latest the early 1970s. Which makes no sense at first blush and less sense the more it’s explained. It seems man’s trips to the moon were really to investigate a Transformer space craft which crashed there in the 1960s. Since that time, the Decepticons have been burrowing into human life in an extremely long range plan to allow their evil leader Megatron (Hugo Weaving) who crashed 30 years before the moon missions and wasn’t awakened until 40 years after them to trick Optimus Prime into using the macGuffin he didn’t receive until the second film, to start his plan for world domination. With that kind of foresight how do these guys ever lose?
Granted, the plot isn’t usually the reason you go see these kinds of movies, though you could be forgiven for thinking so as the “Transformer” series has always offered up half or more of its running time to unraveling some sort of robot oriented mystery. Because despite how they may be advertised, these films are generally about treading water for as long as possible until bringing out most of the big robot set pieces in the last act. And any time spent thinking about how ridiculous what they’re actually talking about is, is still more entertaining than some of the antics the supporting characters get up to, be it John Malkovich trying to kung fu a robot or a former Special Forces soldier complaining stress or all the running he was having to do, or dear God anything having to do with Sam’s parents who offer nothing to the film but reminders why they shouldn’t be in it.
Which is still better than any robot gets as Bay resolutely refuses to turn any Transformer not named Optimus Prime into a character. Worse, there seems to be a direct relationship into how interested Bay is in any given robot character and how annoying they are. Thus you get stuff like the Wreckers, who even the other characters in the film describe as “assholes” who get more screen time than most of the other Autobots in the film despite not appearing until well into the second half.
But that’s not why we’re coming to this film either, is it? It’s just to see big robots destroy things, right? There is as much of that as ever if not more. Industrial Light & Magic is joined by Digital Domain to complete the siege of Chicago which encompasses the last act and it’s as visually impressive as ever. It’s also as kaleidoscopic as ever with the various machines insisting on twisting in the air like acrobats no matter what they’re doing, which combined with 3D, might induce epilepsy.
You’re still getting giant robots fighting though, right? More or less, with a trend towards less. Bay has always basically viewed the Transformers not as characters but as either ways to create tremendous destruction or vehicles for cheap humor (and preferably both at the same time) and “Dark of the Moon” is more of the same in that regard. Even once the final act begins the Transformers themselves disappear for long periods of time in exchange for extended set pieces of Sam and his friends running around inside a slowly toppling building. Which is a good idea for a set piece and is well done but after nearly two hours at that point you could be forgiven for wanting to just get to the meat of the thing.
But there isn’t any meat. Bay’s insistence on focusing only on the humans as characters makes it almost impossible to care once the robots finally do start braining each other. Action is all well and good, but visceral thrills wear off quick. It’s emotional connections to the characters that make you care about who is doing what to who and Bay resolutely refuses to go there with his machines. Every time the Autobots show up they quickly disappear again so Bay can get back to people running around and looking intense with major plot points involving them often taking place off screen. For all the series is called “Transformers” the robots aren’t really there in any appreciable way.
Which remains the franchise’s biggest problem because Bay has realized that the physical culmination of any “Transformers” film must lie in Optimus Prime coming to blows with his rivals, but can’t seem to make the next logical leap from there. Theoretically the climax of an action film should tie together all of its emotional and plot conflict into one big moment of physical catharsis. But “Dark of the Moon,” like its forebears, can only manage half of that because he’s not capable of turning the Transformers into actual characters. Most of the time they don’t even talk to anyone else, they just live in their own world cut off from any other people around them and never the twain shall meet.
It’s also extremely badly paced with an over long opening and an abrupt conclusion, and it has too many villains, further diluting any sort of emotional pull the climax might have. The end result is just hollow. One step forward, two steps back.
All critical analysis aside, there really is nothing wrong with mindless entertainment. Done well it can be a welcome respite from the stresses of everyday life. The problem with “Transformers” isn’t that it’s mindless. It’s that it’s brainless, and worse than that, it’s heartless and soulless.
“Transformers: Dark of the Moon” doesn’t have quite as much juvenilia, pointless sub-plots or cacophonous set pieces as the previous “Transformer” films, though God knows it tries. Unfortunately, Bay doesn’t have anything to replace those pieces with, either, and that lack becomes more and more apparent as “Dark of the Moon” speeds towards its conclusion.
In his never-ending quest to go beyond the impossible, Bay has actually succeeded but not at all in the way he probably hoped. Miraculously, against all odds, Michael Bay has made a movie about giant robots invading the earth… boring.