The Transformer film franchise has proven itself to be near critic-proof, making obscene box office takes even under a heavy barrage of extremely negative reviews. The first film had novelty on its side, and the special effects were truly an achievement – but the film was hampered with a nonsensical story and juvenile humor. The sequel, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, super-sized everything about the first – from number of characters, amount of action and movie length, down to number of incongruous plot elements and bits of subtle racism. The fact the writer’s strike was going on at the time is one defense of the film, but it still doesn’t excuse it (and director Michael Bay and star Shia LaBeouf have both spoken out about how dissatisfied they were with the result, in the latest trend of filmmakers bad-mouthing their previous efforts in an attempt to get you to give them another chance). So now we’re at the swan song (thank god) of the series, and the question is: is the third film any better?
In some ways: yes. The decision to make the final chapter in 3D meant Bay couldn’t cut action scenes as quickly or as shaky as he normally gravitates towards. Shots are smooth instead of spastic, and last much longer than the ½ second cuts that littered the last two films. Watching the explosive action, you’re able to get a decent sense of where characters are in relation to each other. And the movie was filmed natively in 3D so most of the 3D effects are excellent, rivaling Avatar more than any other live-action 3D film I’ve seen sense.
Also in the film’s favor is a slight decrease in the amount of juvenile humor peppered throughout. Robots no longer piss on people, or have giant swinging balls between their legs, or dry-hump actresses’ legs. The jive-talking robot duo is gone. Sam, our returning lead played once again by LaBeouf, still has his parents hanging around, but they feature in fewer scenes and disappear as the plot starts to take off. And the plot itself is slightly more consistent, without random bouts into the robotic afterlife or obvious plot-holes where characters do things like walk out the back of a museum in a city area and end up in a vacant field in the middle of nowhere. The plot is still a threadbare linking of action set pieces with most development coming from explanatory voiceovers, and it misappropriates US and Russian history in a sometimes unsettling way, but at least it’s follow-able.
But those improvements are not nearly enough to recommend this disaster. Saying Dark of the Moon is better than Revenge of the Fallen is such faint praise that it borders on meaningless. The movie not only is filled with contradictory elements that make the whole thing feel unbalanced, those elements fail independently as well.
The easiest thing to pick on is the sense of “humor” (I use that term lightly) of the film, so let’s start there. Sam himself, our supposed every-man, is an unlikable jerk -his fast-talking rants are played for laughs, but that is nearly his only mode of communication and it becomes tiring very quickly. And while less prevalent towards the latter half, the first few acts are still loaded with idiocy, with the returning John Tutturo as well as newcomers John Malkovich, Frances McDormand and Ken Jeong acting the part of utter fools. It’s a shame seeing Malkovich and McDormand slumming it to this degree, though the same can’t be said of Jeong – he’s made a career of unlikable racist caricatures, and his display here is no different (“Deep Wang,” really?). Some elements are subtle –like Sam’s mom yelling “What a nice box!” during new co-star Rosie Huntington-Whitely’s introduction, or later thrusting ‘She Comes First,’ a book on techniques for providing oral sex to your female partner, into Sam’s hands. Others, like the implication Sam and Jeong’s character are having gay sex in a toilet stall, are less so. I would find these unfunny in an R-rated comedy, and their inclusion in a film franchise based on a children’s toy is even more puzzling.
The same goes for the action sequences. The fact these are mechanical robots gives a lot of leeway, and that leeway is certainly used to its utmost – Transformers are decapitated, dismembered, shot in the face, and even drawn-and-quartered. They beg for their lives before being shot in the back of the head, execution style. One clearly has its spinal cord (or the robot equivalent) ripped clean out. And the coolant or fluid they bleed is now a crimson red. Again, it’s a matter of tone – is this a kid’s movie, or not? The action is played like a gritty war film, just with children’s toys that bleed oil instead of blood swapped in for the soldiers. Not that humans are free from casualties – innocent bystanders are vaporized by Transformers gleefully gunning them down like fish in a barrel – they just disappear in a cloud of dust, instead of graphically bleeding out everywhere.
And mean-spiritedness aside, the action set pieces still aren’t compelling in any emotional way. The camera has slowed down enough that you can tell what is going on, but it is still hard to care about – so many of the characters look the same that it can be difficult to even know which are good guys vs. bad guys. Sure, you always know when Optimus or Bumblebee are onscreen, but the list of recognizable characters ends there. And there is still no flow to the battle, no sense of which way the tide is turning. Random robots you don’t know attack other random robots you don’t know, and eventually Optimus Prime fights the important bad guy, signaling that the fight is finally coming to a conclusion.
A common defense of films such as this one is that they aren’t trying to be the next Citizen Kane, and you should just shut your brain off and enjoy it for the popcorn movie it is. That’s well and good – I certainly don’t look for the next Citizen Kane in every summer movie I view, and I love a good crowd-pleaser. But, in my opinion, there is nothing pleasing about Transformers: Dark of the Moon.