Movie Review: Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)

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Photo: Paramount Pictures / DreamWorks

The saying tells us you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. For the most part, Transformers: Dark of the Moon proves this. However, even if a dog can’t learn a trick they will sometimes try their hardest to please their masters, who tend to love them no matter what. Michael Bay’s relationship with his audience is really no different, but it does seem as if Bay’s audience is growing tired of his lack of effort after Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, which is to say if Bay wants to be appreciated as much as he wants box-office success he was going to have to put in a little more time in the lab.

To that end, Bay is clearly trying harder to deliver his first cohesive Transformers film, free of distractions and clutter. For him it’s like fitting a square peg into a round hole, and while it appears he has just shaved that peg down enough to where it will fit, even if it means gaping holes on all sides, his primary goal of telling a story that makes sense, with action sequences you can understand and only the slightest amount of unnecessary comedy was achieved. Dark of the Moon is epic when it comes to spectacle and its use of 3D was obviously thought out in advance rather than a post-converted after thought. It is hardly a film for the ages, but it serves its purpose bringing us the first true summer blockbuster of 2011.

Dark of the Moon begins with what is becoming a common place occurrence in major blockbusters, a 100% CG introduction accompanied by voiceover. In this case Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) tells us the story of an ark that left the Transformers’ home planet of Cybertron and crash landed on Earth’s moon back in the early ’60s, becoming the primary, but secret, reason for U.S. interest in reaching the moon. Amidst flashbacks of Kennedy and Nixon we are introduced to this storyline which concludes with the title screen transforming before our eyes.

Fade to black.

Next scene, a close up of Victoria’s Secret model-turned-actress Rosie Huntington-Whiteley’s rear end as she ascends a staircase with nothing but a pair of underwear and a dress shirt on. When you see it, if you aren’t laughing, you aren’t likely to enjoy this movie. Similar to Dug from Pixar’s Up, a beautiful woman is a like a squirrel sighting to Bay. He can’t help but turn his head when they are in the room and spend a moment drooling before returning to whatever it was he was doing before they showed up.

This one time British embassy employee — Carly is her name, as if Bay cares — is bringing her boyfriend, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) a stuffed “lucky bunny” as he is now residing in Washington D.C. as an Ivy school grad and looking for a job. Replacing Megan Fox as the love interest in the franchise, Huntington-Whiteley serves her role just fine and perhaps there was something to the talk of Fox not being comfortable on Bay’s sets as Rosie seems to have even turned in a better performance… for lack of a better word.

Getting back to introductions, life for Sam is comparatively normal to the last few years of his life, though he yearns for the days he was fighting flesh-to-metal against the evil Decepticons, a race of the alien robot species that has gone quiet for the last year as Optimus and his band of Autobots have been working hand-in-hand with the American government to secure the country and even helping combat terrorism abroad.

However, it isn’t long before the Decepticons are once again part of the conversation, popping up in Chernobyl with a piece of the spacecraft that landed on the moon 50 years ago. Recognizing the material and learning of the wrecked ship for the first time, Optimus and his team head into space to collect the cargo the ship is holding, which includes Sentinel Prime (voiced by Leonard Nimoy), a mentor to Optimus (and apparently a socialist) who created a teleportation system that ultimately plays a large role in the film.

From here, human characters are introduced, including newcomers played by the likes of Patrick Dempsey, John Malkovich, Ken Jeong, Alan Tudyk and Frances McDormand. Add to them your list of returning actors including John Turturro, Tyrese Gibson, Josh Duhamel and, of course, Julie White and Kevin Dunn as Sam’s parents, who are the number one aspect of this film that absolutely never should have been included. And, finally, Buzz Aldrin and Bill O’Reilly play themselves. Yup, it’s a packed house and of the bunch Jeong and Tudyk, the latter especially, add a lot more to the film than I would have expected.

Yet, while the human quotient is just as big, if not bigger, than the previous films it is nowhere near as annoying. As a matter of fact, while Dark of the Moon pretty much follows the same model as the previous two films, it’s a matter of timing that keeps this installment afloat while it sunk the other two.

For starters, the attempts at comedy are more a series of one-liners inside the story rather than instances where they feel as if they were simply dropped into the film for a laugh. You won’t get robots tip-toeing around gardens, peeing on people’s heads, break-dancing or playing up racial stereotypes. What felt like deleted scenes in the first two films are now simply jokes as part of the narrative, which makes them funnier and far less intrusive.

Speaking of narrative, this is where it gets a bit tricky. The film has a cohesive plot. It moves from Point A to Point B and you are never lost, at least not in terms of what is going on. However, the editing is quite poor as scenes seem to be missing and at other times it all turns into one big sizzle reel. Bay will send you off on a storyline for ten minutes, leave it and return 20 minutes later after the situation has been resolved. Other times it’s editing for convenience, or merely editing to turn the film into a series of quick cuts, separated by a couple frames of blackness, turning 90 seconds of the story into nothing more than a trailer reel. It’s moments like these where Bay just decides to color outside the lines as Steve Jablonsky’s score pounds in the background, sounding a lot like a mash-up of his previous Transformers scores and Hans Zimmer’s Inception composition. Braaaaaahm!

The reason you are watching this movie, though. The reason you are plunking down your dollars. It’s the action. You want to see Bayhem. You want to see robots beating the living hell out of one another as they transform from concept cars, fighter jets, semis and SUVs into heavy artillery wielding robots. Guess what, you get just that and lots of it. And unlike the two previous installments, all of it is shot wide enough for you to make sense of what is happening. Whether it’s Optimus ripping the head and mechanical spine off a character or Decepticons disintegrating humans into ash and rolling skulls, you see it all clear as day. Add to that the effects here are truly some of the best I’ve seen in a movie.

The final piece of the puzzle is the 3D, which has been talked about at length leading up to the film’s release, and I can honestly say it is some of the best usage of the format I’ve seen in some time. Sam is tossed in your face more than once, Ken Jeong will push a couple of gun barrels in your eye and there’s a sky dive scene that is simply spectacular. In fact, Bay obviously realized this film with 3D in mind, which means 2D screenings may actually look a bit odd during some of the scenes where the action is meant to come at the audience rather than remain in the box. I’m not saying you’ll get a whole lot more out of a 3D screening, but I would definitely say it is the preferable way to see this movie, especially if you are considering waiting to see it on home video.

Overall, Transformers: Dark of the Moon is the film I wish we had gotten the first time around. While it makes all of the same mistakes as its predecessors it does them in ways that don’t sabotage the film as much as they are occasional nuisances. More importantly, had the first film been this good there is no telling how good the third film would have been after Bay had learned his lesson and been trained appropriately. Nonetheless, this is still a franchise built around a comic book, cartoon and toy franchise, which means you need to be prepared for a film meant for spectacle over substance and in those terms Dark of the Moon has just enough substance to serve the spectacle and is a film I can easily recommend.

GRADE: B

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Weekend: Oct. 17, 2019, Oct. 20, 2019

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