July 18, 2011


Before I start talking about Michael Bay's latest robo smash-'em-up let's take it back a bit. Growing up, the original Transformers cartoon was my favourite TV show by far. I raced home from school every day to watch, enthralled as these alien robots warred with each other. Sure, there was Thundercats, Voltron and G. I. Joe too but they couldn't hope to compare. It helped the Transformer toys were , in fact, two toys in one. Three even, if you count them as being a puzzle as well as a robot and car/plane/boat/whatever. The original Orson Welles (and, yes, Leonard Nimoy) starring original Transformers movie was a seminal movie for my kid-self. I recognise the fact that it was out to sell me more toys, but damn if I didn't enjoy the hell out of it anyway. To give you an idea of the pop culture space this series was taking up in my brain, a live-action Transformers movie was the first movie I can ever remember wanting to make (I was 8 and was thinking of having huge, remote-controlled robots for the Transformers).

So. Transformers. I know 'em, but I'm not a precious geek about 'em. And Michael Bay's Transformers: Dark of the Moon is courting the old-school Transformer fans like myself as none of the previous films have. There are various call-back to the original series: the Autobot Matrix of Leadership, the Ark, the Space Bridge and even Optimus Prime's transforming trailer. It's a shame they couldn't have focused on the story instead.

The film begins with the reveal that the entire space race of the 1960's was in fact a race to retrieve a Transfomer ship, crashed on the moon. That's a cool place to start, even if it is another tortured reveal of unnecessary Transformer mythos and is crow-barred into the existing continuity. In the present, the Autobots discover the existence of this crashed Transformer ship and, lucky day, happen to have a space shuttle of their own standing by. Sentinel Prime, an old Autobot leader and the last great hope for ending the war, is found and brought back to Earth. He's the guy who invented the Space Bridge - basically a teleportation array. The long and short of it: Decepticons get a hold of it and invade Earth from the moon (wait, what? Where the hell were those guys?! they've just been hanging out on the moon for the last two movies? And no-one's seen them before?!). The rest of the story can be summed up thus:

For all of the talk, from various people involved, Dark of the Moon is not a huge improvement over Revenge of the Fallen. Yes, it is better than that sorry excuse for a film but Dark of the Moon still carries the baggage of the Fallen and suffers from a lot of the same afflictions. Once again, there is an over abundance of, and over reliance on, pointless "comedy" relief characters. John Malkovich is obviously picking up a pay cheque here because his crazy boss character could be cut from the film entirely, with no loss (only improvement) to the story. Ken Jeong's crazy paranoid guy is grating and, once again, the Witwicky's make an appearance. While these two were a welcome surprise in the first Transformers, they serve no purpose here and the humour just falls thuddingly flat. On top of all this, Bay and screenwriter Ehren Kruger once again add torturous Transformer backstory and secret history. Is it too much to ask that the Decepticons formulate a new plan instead of re-using ideas from their Cybertron days?

Bay knows his way around an action scene but, as with Revenge of the Fallen, the rhythm and pacing is off. The confrontation between Sam and Starscream is a perfect encapsulation of this: what could have been an awesome take-down of a Decepticon by a resourceful human just keeps going and going and going. And Bay's depiction of the violence is brutal and callous. Hundreds, if not thousands, of humans die - crushed in cars or disintegrated by lasers. And no-one, least of all the heroic Autobots, seem to give a damn. Optimus Prime, the leader of the peaceful Autobots, is a cold-hearted motherfucker. He purposely lets Chicago fall to prove to the humans how much they need the Autobots.

The rhythm of the entire film feels off - a lot of stuff just happens, with no gradual build towards it. I will, however, say that the cut from the beginning of the invasion to the complete devastation of Chicago is an intriguing move - Bay deciding to not cram in another action scene? It also helps to give a sense of how fast this invasion becomes an occupation. With the first Transformers, every Transformer was given at least a small moment of character. By now Bay has introduced so many that even the old favourites have become indistinguishable; I felt more when the cartoon Ironhide died in The Transformers Movie than when the character died here. In addition to all the alien robot action (and introducing new Transfomers again) we have returning cast members Tyrese, John Turturro and Josh Duhamel. Rosie Huntington-Whiteley tags in for Megan Fox and acquits herself rather well amongst the action and testosterone. And, Jeong and Malkovich aside, the other newcomers (Frances McDormand and Alan Tudyk) manage to do much with the little they are given. Patrick Dempsey is actually rather watchable as the smary, snivelling Decepticon collaborator, even if his character continues to make baffling decisions. But yes, it is rather overstuffed. Overstuffed with characters, coincidences and story.

Gods, I've really given this a blasting haven't I? And I actually enjoyed it! A number of the action sequences are thrilling and fun - Duhamel and his flying squirrel squadron a particular stand-out - and Bay has a better handle on the geography of a large action scene than in Fallen. Perhaps my opinion of the film would even be improved had I seen it with a more engaged/Transfomer-fan heavy audience. Dark of the Moon is a big, crazy film and those are always more fun with an engaged and cheering audience - there were no guys dressed in home-made cardboard costumes this time. I don't know where this leaves the Transformers as a franchise (likely in good shape - they've made a stack of money off this film already) but Dark of the Moon is not quite a heroic return to the goofy, explosive fun of the first Transformers.

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