Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Summer blockbuster season is in full swing, but very few films actually do bust down cityblocks, and if any are going to do it, it’s going to be the third Transformers movie.  Join Geek Chocolate as we find out if it’s worth seeing the action or not.

And so, another film about robots that turn into cars.  It was a daft and convoluted concept when it appeared in the 1980’s and is no less silly on the big screen.  Suspension of disbelief is an obvious requirement, but so is faith in the story and characters by the filmmakers.  Alas…

Let’s get this clear from the start: Michael Bay is a talented filmmaker.  He has a large box of tricks and employs every bit of his skills to put amazing visuals on screen.  What is unfortunate is that he is not a talented storyteller, and while putting pretty pictures onscreen and blowing up whatever he can for whatever reason, he struggles with narrative.  Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was an outright disaster on several fundamental levels and he certainly seems to have learned a few things from that debacle when starting up his third and final entry into the franchise, Dark of the Moon, but there are still glaring missteps and the film still aims squarely at a teen audience.

Things get off to an interesting start with a flashback to the 1960’s moon landing, with the discovery of alien tech on the moon sparking the space race into top gear.  Jump forward to today and the Autobots are helping the US enforce their foreign policy, so it appears, while poor old Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is struggling to find a job, despite presidential recognition for saving the world twice.  And so when a job comes up that seems connected to his new girlfriend’s boss, well of course things are too good to be true, leading to all sorts of mildly understandable events, betrayals and general Bayhem.  There is a plan to use Autobot tech to restore the Decepticons and their homeworld to its former glory but at the cost of pretty much the entire human race.

This time there is most definitely a clear story to follow and there is at least some effort from Bay to get the audience to engage, but only without unqualified success.  As usual, there are often too many things going on – Autobots disappear and appear during the action too conveniently, and characters are introduced for no good reason other than to lengthen the running time.  There is nothing all that wrong with a two and half hour long film provided it tells a compelling and entertaining story.  Here, Bay settles for filler with extended and useless cameos from John Malkovich and Ken Jeong, and Sam’s comedy parents also return for a few scenes, stopping the proceedings dead with their unfunny and unnecessary appearance.

Leonard Nimoy’s performance as the old Autobot leader, Sentinel Prime, is fair enough and a gift for the fans, but his character’s motivations are inexplicable and the shoe-horning in of one of Nimoy’s most famous lines from The Wrath of Khan just serves to detract from the proceedings.  Rosie Huntington-Whitely debuts as Sam’s new, unbelievably and almost unnaturally hot girlfriend, and tries her best but she is simply not an actress.  Not as grating as the absent Megan Fox, she at least gets something to do near the end of the film, convincing one menacing character to follow a particular course that affects the outcome.  But be aware why she’s really there.  Bay knows why she’s there.  On with the show.

There is a marked improvement in Bay’s usually frenetic cutting style but this may have been a technical necessity rather than a creative choice; shooting in 3D requires longer shots so audiences can process the effect, but the result helps the action a great deal.  We are now able to actually tell not just what is going on but also where it is going on and to whom it is happening.  The final third of the film is a tour de force of intense action, with a sequence involving squirrel suited soldiers flying through a destroyed Chicago particularly effective, and the use of 3D is the best since Avatar, which may be a blessing for an industry trick that is now wearing thin amongst audiences and this reviewer.

Some of the action on display is simply the best of Bay’s career and the VFX are beyond stunning.  But, as has been said, this is not enough.  What is most frustrating is his continued resistance to developing characters, the Transformers themselves being obvious candidates.  What is the point of putting characters in mortal danger (and the Transformers prove to be very mortal indeed with some metallic ultra-violence and executions) if we don’t care about these guys?  If we could be made to care about a fibreglass and rubber alien in 1982 on a grand scale then why does this prove to be so difficult now with pixellated robots?  Filmmakers need to care more.

In the final analysis, what we have onscreen is one half of wasted set-up and another of amazing action, a lot of fun combined with a wasted opportunity.  Let’s hope an inevitable fourth instalment goes some way to address this.  Now that Bay is moving on from Transformers, someone else will be given the reigns for what has proven to be an enormous cash cow, a prospect that is slightly promising.  This franchise needs to be handed over to someone who shows concern for the characters and the emotional engagement of the audience.  In fact, why not just make a film about the Transformers themselves and let the humans be side characters?

There are worse ways to spend a night at the movies, but this film does nothing to disprove the polarisation amongst audiences in their opinions of Michael Bay.

Transformers: The Dark of the Moon is on general release in the UK now