Michael Bay has screwed up again. For the longest time, the rule of thumb for any summer blockbuster trilogy has been that the first film should be pretty good, the second film even better and then the third film be a massive disappointment. Leave it to Bay to get it all wrong and make the second installment of his Transformers trilogy the massive disappointment and the third film the one that improves on the series’ initial offering.
Of course, saying that Transformers: Dark Of The Moon is the best of Bay’s three films based on a toy line about an alien race of robots engaged in a civil war and who can disguise themselves as Earth vehicles does sound like I am damning it with faint praise. And I probably am, but it still remains a fairly solid summer popcorn flick. And I say this as someone who never really held all that much interest in the Transformers franchise through all its incarnations as toys, comic books and cartoons. Sure, there are some lapses in logic and some plot holes, but nothing so big as to swing a wrecking ball up against one’s suspension of disbelief.
It has been a few years since the heroic Autobots have finally defeated their enemies the Decepticons in the centuries-long civil war that brought them to Earth, they have allied themselves with the United States’ military to help keep humanity from destroying itself. On one such mission to the damaged nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, they discover a part of a spacecraft that had been piloted by their former leader Sentinel Prime. Confronting the US military, it is revealed that the entire Apollo lunar program was a smokescreen to investigate a mysterious alien spaceship whose crashlanding on the Moon was detected by NASA in 1962.
Meanwhile, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBouef), the Autobots first ally when they arrived on Earth, has been shut out of the military operations that the Autobots go on and is having a hard time finding a job like every other college graduate. Eventually landing a position in the mail room of a company, Sam is confronted by a co-worker and a conspiracy theory fanatic who recognizes Sam from news reports of his adventures with the Autobots and tries to warn him about the mysterious deaths of several scientists. Sam brushes it off until the co-worker is murdered and the office is attacked by a Decepticon. Still being rebuffed by the military, Sam starts his own investigation with the help of former government agent Seymour Simmons (John Turturro) and quickly discovers that there are still Decepticons hiding on Earth and that they have a plan involving retrieving some advanced technology still aboard the crashed ship on the moon. After much running about, things culminate in battle between the Autobots and the Decepticons through the streets, buildings and skies of Chicago with the fate of the world, as always, hanging in balance.
Much like this is the best film in a series that hasn’t been all that great, Ehren Kruger’s script is possibly the best thing I’ve seen from the writer. But then again, when you have films like Reindeer Games, the American remake of The Ring, The Skeleton Key, The Brothers Grimm and the last Transformers movie on your resume, you have nowhere to go but up. Kruger does a nice job weaving some real world history into the story and these plot points stand out as some of the more inventive moments in the script. True to form for a Transformers movie though, the robots have more interesting motives and characterizations than the humans. The comic relief moments aren’t as awful as in the past and thankfully the two odious and racist comic-relief Autobot characters from the last film are nowhere to be seen this time around.
Perhaps in an attempt to curry favor with the top brass at Paramount, the studio behind the Transformers films, Kruger works in three references to the studio’s crown jewel franchise Star Trek, including lifting a plot moment from last year’s relaunch of the series. Ironically, the Star Trek reboot was written by Roberto Orel and Alex Kurtzman, who had worked on the first two Transformers installments but declined to participate on this outing out of a fear of “getting stale.”
Shooting the film in 3D seems to have had a positive effect on Bay. Typically, Bay moves his camera swiftly around the action to a point that can leave one reaching for some motion-sickness pills even during a simple conversation between two characters. Coupled with Bay’s quick style of editing, the end result can often be action sequences that are nothing more than a confusing jumble of images. However, due to the demands of how one’s brain seems to process 3D imagery, Bay has been forced to slow down his moving camera and lengthen the time between edits resulting in scenes that are much more visually coherent and comprehensible.
And while Bay seems to have upped his game for the film’s added visual dimension, much of the acting remains as flat as ever. For most of the film, LaBeouf plays Sam at one constant level of anger which makes it hard to want to root for him. The only thing that distinguishes Huntington-Whitley’s girlfriend character from the departed Megan Fox’s similar role is a British accent. As this is Huntington-Whitley’s first acting job it is hard to determine if her flat performance is the result of an underwritten role or a lack of experience.
But at the end of the day, or in the case the film’s two-hour and 37 minute run time, Transformers: Dark Of The Moon provides plenty of bang for your buck, even with an inflated ticket price for 3D. The film’s third act siege of Chicago is filled with some exciting sequences that make one forget the in adequacies of the previous hour and a half. It certainly isn’t going to rewrite the rules of the summer blockbuster, but it never had that intention to begin with. And there’s nothing wrong with that.