The third film in Michael Bay’s version of Transformers is being released to Blu-Ray and DVD today, so I knew from experience that if I was going to catch it in the second run theatre, it was probably going to be last night or never. Fortunately, they still had it available in 3D as well. I went in not knowing what to expect in terms of the movie’s quality; Bay’s Transformers movies have toyed with my expectations throughout. Being a fairly typical boy growing up in the 1980s, I was a big fan of the original cartoon (and the comics when I could get them). Also being a fairly typical 80s kid, I still have a good number of Transformers. So when a Transformers movie was first announced, I was eagerly anticipating it. Then it was announced it would be directed by Michael Bay, whose filmography was less-than-impressive to me, and they started revealing what the robots would look like. I wasn’t a fan of the style; I’m still not, in truth, though it has grown on me a bit. But it’s too busy and it makes it harder to distinguish between them in robot form, especially the Decepticons.
The more I heard and saw about the movie, the more I expected to dislike it. But when I went and saw it, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself watching a movie that I’d happily give four stars to. So I was back to eager anticipation for the second movie… which turned out to be awful. Maybe it was because of the writer’s strike causing it to be rushed, I don’t know, but the cringe comedy that had been a minor element of the first one dominated the second, especially for the first hour or so. I’d give it two stars, and that’s entirely on the strength of the second half of the movie, and even that never completely let up on the stupidity.
So with the third movie, I was again uncertain. Would it be as good as the first? Or would it be more like #2?
I’m happy to report that 2011’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon is back on a par with the first movie in the trilogy; arguably, it might even be a little bit better. The cringe comedy of the second film is toned back down the levels of the first film, with only a few scenes dedicated to it, and those less offensively bad than in the second. A few bits even got me to laugh, so hey, mission accomplished there (John Malkovich’s role as Sam Witwicky’s boss was responsible for much of this, as Malkovich did his usual entertaining chewing of the scenery). Just as importantly, it seems like several IQ points have been restored to the characters, and Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf) was more useful in this film than simply running around shouting for Optimus all the time. John Turturro’s Seymour Simmons, while still rather goofy, also seemed to be back to his prior levels of competence. (Plus, we didn’t have to see him pants-less this time. This is important.) Frances McDormand, possibly the most skilled actor on the set, was impressive as Charlotte Mearing, the hard-nosed but reasonable Director of National Intelligence (and how refreshing is it to get an authority figure who does finally figure out that the guy who’s been involved all along might know what he’s talking about? So many movies would have had her remain an obstacle all the way through.)
The character of Sam’s girlfriend, Mikaela Barnes, was dropped after Megan Fox got fired. (Note to vapid actresses everywhere: Do not compare your director to Hitler, especially if the other executive producer is Jewish. It’s just a bad idea.) Making her acting debut as her replacement is Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, who plays Sam’s new girlfriend, Carly Spencer. The character’s name is a nice nod to the original series (where Spike’s girlfriend and then wife was named Carly), but unfortunately, not much of her personality comes through. It’d be easy to make a judgment on Huntington-Whiteley’s acting ability here, as many internet reviewers have done, but the truth is she wasn’t given much to work with here. The role of Carly is basically to act as a distressed damsel for most of the feature, although at least she does prove useful towards the end by playing on Megatron’s ego. She also serves to introduce the character Dylan Gould (Patrick Dempsey), who serves an important role in the film as a direct antagonist to Sam.
Of course, while the human factor is important, nobody goes into Transformers for them; we’re here to see giant robots fighting each other. Dark of the Moon is centered around the recovery of the Ark, an Autobot spaceship lost many years ago, which crashed on the moon and was the impetus for the Apollo moon landing. The Ark in the series was the ship that transported the Autobots and Decepticons to Earth; in the movie, it contains pillars with which to create a space bridge (also an element from the original series), an intergalactic teleportation device intended to save planet Cybertron. Also on board is Sentinel Prime, the inventor of the space bridge, and the only one who can make it work. Sentinel is voiced by Leonard Nimoy, who previously voiced Galvatron in the 1986 animated movie, and who was also in some space series or other. Reprising their roles as Optimus Prime and Megatron, respectively, are Peter Cullen and Hugo Weaving, and prolific voice actor Frank Welker reprises his roles as Soundwave and Shockwave.
On the subject of Shockwave, one disappointment for me throughout the film series has been how few lines are given to the Decepticons. The total lines for all the Decepticons in all three movies doesn’t seem much more than the lines given just to Brains in the third movie. It holds things back a bit, as we don’t get to see much of the interplay we expect between Megatron and Starscream, and while Shockwave is still portrayed as tremendously powerful, without much in the way of dialogue, it’s hard to get the sense of intimidation that should go with the character whose debut in the original comics was with a cover that had him carving “The Transformers are all DEAD” in stone (and then essentially making it happen.) It was great seeing him, don’t get me wrong, but it could have been greater had he been given a significant amount of dialogue.
They did, however, deftly adapt the classic look into the movie style.
The quest for the space bridge of course leads to a conflict between humans, Autobots, and Decepticons, which concludes in a massive battle in downtown Chicago. In a plot taken directly from the classic three-part episode “The Ultimate Doom”, Megatron attempts to bring Cybertron into orbit around Earth. Traitors are revealed and dispatched, losses are had, and the city is reduced to rubble. While we never quite believe the villains will win, the movie does a good job of making us believe they could win.
Visually, this movie was a treat, and I’m glad I saw it in 3D. Not that this came as a surprise; one of Bay’s strengths is that he does always manage to make things look impressive. But there were a lot of shots that take full advantage of the 3D technology, and really bring the viewer into the movie without being distracting.
Both Shia LeBeouf and Michael Bay have said they are done with the franchise, so most likely there will be no more Transformers films for a few years until somebody decides to reboot the franchise. Dark of the Moon brings both itself and the series to a satisfying conclusion. I would almost apologize to Mr. Bay for initially doubting him, as he has done a much better job with the franchise than I expected. Almost. There’s still that second movie, after all.