The original "Transformers" film was clearly a fluke.
After a lot of initial skepticism, I went to see the original "Transformers" film and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Funny characters, exciting action scenes, really cool special effects thrown into Michael Bay's blender to produce a very enjoyable summer movie experience. In the inevitable sequel, "Revenge of the Fallen", Bay heaps on the characters, the special effects, the so-called 'funny moments' and a particularly jarring Jar-Jar Binks-esque pair of characters to create a loud mishmash that completely loses any humanity, any character the first film has. So, when I heard they were doing a third "Transformers" film, the eternal optimist in me hoped that Bay would learn from the mistakes of the second film and create something closer to the first.
But he seems to consider the huge box office of "Fallen" as license for more of the same.
"Dark of the Moon" begins with an interesting premise. The entire Apollo Space program was a ruse, a cover-up to get to the moon and find and investigate a strange space craft. The space craft crashed many years ago when Sentinel Prime (voiced by Leonard Nimoy) managed to escape the destruction of the Transformers home planet carrying precious cargo. The United States and Russia begin the Space Race to find out what crash landed on the moon. Flash forward to present day. Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) and his girlfriend Carly (British supermodel Rosie Huntington-Whitely) are living in Washington and Sam is trying to get a job. He is more than a little pissed that he helped to save humanity twice, but can't get a job. His parents (Kevin Dunn and Julie White) pop up for a surprise visit and Sam manages to get a job with an accounting firm run by Bruce Brazos (John Malkovich). At the same time, Lennox (Josh Duhamel) is still running the unit with the Transformers, traveling around the world to put a stop to the various Decepticons. But Optimus Prime is concerned about Mearing's (Frances McDormand) handling of the unit. Then he begins to realize the Decepticons are about to try and retrieve the cargo Sentinel Prime has on his ship. They race to the moon and bring the dormant Transformer back. Eventually, the Opticons and the Decepticons begin to battle in Chicago. And Sam, Carly, Lennox and Epps (Tyrese Gibson) are all back in the center of the action.
"Dark of the Moon" is a little better than the last film. And this can be contributed to the pretty impressive battle in Chicago, which closes the film. It also lasts a long time, making it a little more impressive and also a little excessive. But it is still fun nonetheless.
But let's talk more about that in a minute.
The best summer films contain the most interesting characters, the most interesting character development. Without believable, or at least interesting, characters, why should we care about all of the special effects, explosions, car chases, etc. In "Dark of the Moon", the actors seem to be in a contest to see who can out mug each other. Each actor creates a human cartoon character with broad gestures, bugged out eyes, flailing hands, and the like. And the winner of this contest would have to be Shia LaBeouf. He starts screaming at people and yelling and overacting for little or no reason. And he does this throughout the film, basically at the drop of a hat. The whole idea wears thin quickly. Basically, his performance is nothing like what an actual human would do in the same situations. John Malkovich is also so broad, his performance is almost unwatchable. Generally, Malkovich plays strange, unusual people, but Brazos is just a strange, strange creation. Worse it is difficult to figure out why he is acting like this. He doesn't really seem to be a part of the plot. Kevin Dunn and Julie White seem to be comic relief because they appear to be used simply to make Sam cringe and start yelling. Frances McDormand (really?) is also pretty bad, doing very little to create a believable persona. Patrick Dempsey pops up a few times. His performance only prompts me again to wonder why he is working with such a bad agent. After making such an impact in "Grey's Anatomy", Dempsey has appeared in a number of films and all but one has not provided him with the opportunity to create a memorable character. But the worst is easily Ken Jeong, who made such an impact in "The Hangover". Because of the success of that role, he seems to be getting additional work in which the filmmakers simply want him to recreate that character, only broader. Yikes. Broader than "The Hangover"? In "Dark of the Moon", he never utters a word in anything that could be considered a normal voice. He is always yelling, whispering in a loud voice, flailing his arms, the like. Basically, it is a repeat of his performance in "The Hangover 2".
On the opposite side of the coin, Josh Duhamel seems to be in a different film altogether. If the other characters are broad and over-the-top, Lennox is downright sedate. He is always serious, always has an eye on the situation at hand. In other words, he is in an action film and tries to figure out how to get out of the situations created by the Transformers.
When the action shifts to Chicago and the Decepticons begin to put their plan into motion, the film picks up a bit. Maybe this is because everyone is running around and fighting and there simply isn't any time to try and act.
Why this battle takes place in Chicago is still lost on me. For some reason, the Decepticons have chosen to use Chicago as Ground Zero for their plan. Their plan is to use these machines to… Well, if that is really that important to you, you should find out what their plan is by watching the film. But why they choose Chicago is vague.
The climatic battle is long, a little excessive and fun to watch. It's even a little corny because the Decepticons raise the bridges completely hampers the progress of the humans and this becomes the main thrust of their efforts for a while. "We have to get the bridges lowered". People are trying to hack into computers, soldiers are trying to get close to auxiliary switches, everyone wants to get close to the bridges because "We have to get the bridges lowered." I guess they can't use boats, swim, use the El tunnels, get close enough to use missile launchers, etc.
Once the fighting gets under way, everyone gets together to come up with a plan. They have to take out a certain tower, because the Decepticons have set up this machine that will… Again, see the movie. But to take out this tower, they have to get close to the tower. How do you do that when all of the bridges are up? Well, they decide to do a dangerous sky dive. This is really the centerpiece of the entire sequence and it is pretty impressive. A large group of soldiers drops into the sky and flies towards their target, small wings attached between their arms and bodies. It is a visually stunning stunt and pretty exciting to watch. Bay seems to realize this because he includes the stunt twice. Normally, doing something twice in a row would point out the lack of original ideas, but I didn't care because it was fun to watch.
At one point, all of the humans are trying to get to a floor in the building directly across from the Decepticons machine. Apparently, they can only disable the machine by shooting at it in a straight line, directly across from it. The Decepticons learn they are in the building and send Shock Wave to take them out. Shock Wave is a large Transformer with large extensions, tentacles, that appear to extend from the main body and can wind and tunnel into anything, in a more fluid manner. Shock Wave is introduced early in the film, but the true terror of the Decepticon doesn't come into play until this sequence.
And it also provides an opportunity for Sam and Carly to get in the way of danger. Repeatedly. And it provides an opportunity for Sam to save his pouty lipped girlfriend more than once.
The most impressive thing about the "Transformers" films is the special effects. Sure, CGI can let most filmmakers accomplish some pretty impressive stuff, but when your special effects move as fast as the Transformers do, that adds another degree of difficulty, another degree of interest and it really holds your attention.
The least impressive thing about the "Transformers" films (and any Michael Bay film for that matter) is the acting. But in the first film, the acting seemed to be sweet, somewhat genuine and even a little plausible. Sure, there was a lot of shouting and John Turturro was pretty over-the-top, but these moments seemed justified by the unique nature of the threat. In "Fallen", the balance shifted and the acting grew exponentially cartoonish. In "Dark of the Moon", I can't say the acting has improved, in fact, I think Shia LaBeouf is even worse in this film, but the balance has shifted again, just slightly. The unique and interesting nature of the special effects and some of the action scenes outweighs the arm flailing and histrionics from Sam.
Based on the enormous success of this film, there will be a sequel. Yawn. I want to say I won't be in the theater, waiting to get my money's worth. But by that point, I probably will have bought into the hype again and parked my but in a seat on the aisle, waiting for the silver screen to come to life.