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Sunday
Jul032011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon 3D (2011)

Revenge of Revenge of the Fallen

Last week, I tweeted a question:

"How much of the Transformers 3 hate is based on the lingering smell of part two--versus an honest assessment of the new movie?"

Having just seen the film, I can safely say that the answer is, "a lot".

Not that Dark of the Moon hasn't earned its current 37% Tomatometer rating; but there are an awful lot of critics and commentators who either refuse to acknowledge that there's some good stuff here, or, at the other extreme, gloss over the bad parts and proclaim the film great--by virtue of the fact that it's at least not as bad as the second one. It's fine to love or hate the movie, but I think there's a lot of honesty missing from the discussion about what works and what doesn't, and to what degree that sabotages or saves the film.

Personally, I think this is the best of the series, but it's still not terrific. It has the most potential, story-wise, and is by far the prettiest to look at, but director Michael Bay again buys into the belief that every blockbuster must A) exceed a two-hour run-time and B) balance out the heavier elements with comedy that wouldn't make it out of a Nickelodeon writers' room. 

The story follows the exact same beats as the previous installments (a fact I picked up on by watching Revenge of the Fallen mere hours before heading to the theatre): The evil Decepticons and the human-loving Autobots must scour heaven and Earth to find an ancient artifact that holds the key to either the destruction or preservation of the universe (a cosmic cube in the first movie, a dagger-like Matrix of Leadership in the second; a Leonard Nimoy-voiced robot named Sentinel Prime in part three). Caught in the middle are college grad Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), his military buddies, Lennox and Epps (Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson, respectively), and his new girlfriend, Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley). The robots destroy large parts of the planet in order to save it, but wind up settling their scores in a single-location, hour-long battle (Los Angeles, Egypt, Chicago, in franchise order).

Like the Friday the 13th movies, the Transformers films aren't about the journey or the destination; rather, they're notable for their wacky, disposable characters and the spectacular ways in which they're used and abused. When John Malkovich, John Turturro, Patrick Dempsey, and Alan Tudyk show up in a movie like this, it's not because Bay wants them to stretch the abilities they've spent decades crafting into solid careers; it's so that the audience can say, "I can't believe they got THE John Malkovich to get into a tickle fight with a Transformer!"

In the case of Ken Jeong, it's probably more like, "It was funny when that Asian guy from The Hangover acted all weird and Asian and gay."

Only Frances McDormand escapes with her Oscar intact, and even elevates the material during her relatively few minutes on screen as the buttoned-down Director of National Security.

(In a shamefully funny twist, many of these great performers are out-done by a Victoria's Secret model. Huntington-Whiteley provides a pleasant trade-up from Megan Fox in both acting ability and character disposition. My one criticism is completely superficial: her lips seemed to alternate from scene-to-scene: in one instance plump but manageable; in the next, intimidating, as if attempting to swallow the rest of her face.)

A close second in the Race To Be Taken Seriously After Transformers 3 is Dempsey. He plays a millionaire financier named Dylan who snatched Carly away from the British Embassy in order to curate his collection of vintage luxury cars. His cultured, smirking seriousness is the perfect foil for Sam, who's struggling to find his first job out of school; even though he helped save the world twice, his adventures are top-secret--meaning the only difference between him and the other mail-room workers is the chip on his shoulder. Yes, Sam is pretty unlikable this time out, transforming from wise-ass, good-hearted teenager to entitled, jobless whiner. It wasn't until Dylan turned out to be a race-traitor that I wondered why I was supposed to be routing for Sam instead of him.

I guess that brings us back to the plot. Sentinel Prime crash-laned on the moon years before we stepped foot on it. Bay plays out a nifty bit of historical fiction by suggesting that this event kicked off the space race--but the kernel of coolness is marred by the execution, which involves unnecessary, multiple film-stock switch-ups, and some of the most godawful CG facial animation I've ever seen. The bit where JFK addresses his cabinet in the Oval Office looked at best like a cartoon and at worst like the President's waxy visage after "Oswald" blew his brains out.

Dammit! See? I try to get back on track with the story and keep getting distracted by the visuals!

The Autobots recover Sentinel's body from the wreckage, along with five pillars of a massive stargate. Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) uses his Matrix of Leadership to revive Sentinel, who was his mentor on the robots' war-ravaged home world of Cybertron. The Decepticons learn of Sentinel's awakening and dispatch a team of nasty metal creatures to deliver him to evil mastermind, Megatron (Hugo Weaving). To go any further would spoil the last hour-plus for the five of you who may care to be surprised; suffice it to say, the stargate opens and all hell breaks loose in The Windy City.

That last hour is pretty much all anyone wants to talk about, but you should really put it out of your mind if you plan on enjoying this movie. The Chicago invasion is intermittently spectacular, but it suffers from what I like to call Gamer Syndrome: people playing video games can get so wrapped up in fighting and level-beating that, for them, an hour of constant re-starts and shooting the same enemy can fly by like minutes. For the casual observer, it just looks like the same mess of explosions and carnage; every establishing shot is a heart-sinking realization that the next five to ten minutes will drag just as much as the previous, identical chunks of time.

There's only so much running around and pointing to strategic positions one can endure; only so many bot-on-bot street fights that can be packed into one climax before the only machine you care about is the one on your wrist. I'll give Bay and his amazing effects team credit: every frame of this movie is gorgeous. The trite criticism that it's impossible to tell what's going on in the metal-heavy fight scenes was legitimate four years ago, but the digital artists have cleaned up their acts and their compositions (Note to film snobs: It's much easier to follow the action if you stop rolling your eyes). Despite being justified in wanting to show off his new toys, Bay sacrifices pacing and, with the help of his earlier, ill-conceived comedy bits, draws his movie out 45 minutes past the point of being tolerable.

It's a shame, too, because there are some nice, dark plot turns here that would have been better served by a more serious writing/directing team. Ehren Kruger's screenplay touches on interesting themes about war, adulthood, and national security, but they're drowned out by more goofy robot-sidekick shennanigans, disaster-porn imagery (Bay evokes both 9/11 and the Challenger explosion in a move that's more jaw-dropping than Revenge of the Fallen's racist-robot duo, Mudflap and Skids), and a bizarre fixation on blowing Leonard Nimoy (the movie features at least six nods to his Star Trek role, including an ironic twist on his famous "The Needs of the Many" line). The scene where Dylan reveals himself to be a Decepticon sympathizer is Bond-villain chilling and suggests a really interesting, sinister big picture; but the following ten minutes of Sam acting silly under the influence of a behavior-modification drone undoes all that.

The first two Transformers films feel like sketches of the third; Dark of the Moon is hardly great, but in the pantheon of summer blockbusters, I'd place it in the "okay" category. Had this been the first of the trilogy instead of the last (and it easily could have been, given the interchangeability of the series' plot points), I would call it a solid launching point that, with a few tweaks, could develop into a cool franchise. But since this is ostensibly Bay's last go-round with the Hasbro icons, I can only shake my head in disbelief that it took a guy half a decade and several-hundred-million dollars to make one semi-successful popcorn epic.

Note: Thanks to a ticketing snafu, I saw Dark of the Moon in 3D. I'd wanted to watch the 2D version, but I'm glad I didn't: unlike 95% of the late-stage-conversion garbage pushed on an already cash-poor audience, this movie was actually filmed for 3D and delivers a satisfying, depth-rich experience. It's not a home run, but it's the best I've seen so far.

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