Rating: 3 out of 5 (meh)
Transformers: Dark of the Moon is a Michael Bay film. That pretty much sums up exactly what the movie is, and you don’t really need to know any more about it. It’s not a bad film, exactly, and it’s not a good film (definitely). It’s a film, a Michael Bay film.
Lots of stuff blows up. (OK, it is a Michael Bay film, so that’s not really a spoiler.) Interestingly, very little blows up in the first half of the film. This means that Mr. Bay — to reach his contract-specified density of cordite use — has to really pack the last half, which is a numbing non-stop explosionfest that involves Chicago (for reasons the film never adequately explores, or indeed, mentions). There is much loud boomage and lots of robots turning into and out of their vehicular disguises, again for little explained reason. There is a brave assault by the humans, who nonetheless come off looking like ants attacking two children wrestling on a beach. For most humans, it ends up about as well as it would for the ants.
Shia LaBeouf is, well, Shia LaBeouf. He seems more or less stuck in the same place. His Sam Witwicky is far less engaging than in the first movie. (I did not see Revenge of the Fallen.) Somewhere along the line, Megan Fox’s Mikaela dumped him, and it’s hard not to sympathize with her. Sam is self-absorbed and a bit whiny.
Rosie Huntingly-Whitley plays his romantic “interest”, Carly. Apparently Ms. Huntington-Whitley is a Victoria Secret model. She is not an actress. In fact, she is the most robotic character in a movie about robots. As made clear by the rear-end lingering establishing shot (itself taken from a Victoria Secret commercial, I expect), her primary purpose is eye candy. She is also of course the romantic MacGuffin (that is, hostage) whose capture “motivates” Sam for some fraction of the movie. (Because, apparently, he wouldn’t go save the world and all unless he had a direct personal stake in it.) Finally, she is also there to play a pivotal but silly role in reminding Megatron that he is, in fact, a bad guy and nominal leader of the Decepticons — a realization that leads to him backstabbing the Autobot who back-stabbed Optimus Prime. This makes Megatron this movie’s Starscream, and he does an even worse job of that than the actual Starscream (who eventually meets exactly the end foreordained for that type of character).
Optimus Prime takes a level in badass for this movie. I know the character starts out pretty bad-ass, but in this one he becomes pretty dark — very nearly an anti-hero. For one, he outright lies to his best human buddy Sam, when the latter asks him what his plan is once the Autobots are exiled from Earth (again). Optimus tells Sam there is no plan, which makes the subsequent destruction of the Autobot’s spaceship all the more emotional. At least it would, if it wasn’t telegraphed better than Western Union ever could that this is not in fact the end of the Autobots. They hid in the first stage, you see, and played dead while everyone wept over their destruction. So, on the one hand, +10 bonus points for the Autobots being genre savvy and realizing the Decepticons would, well, be deceptive and betray them. On the other hand, -1,000,000 for bald-face lying to the only human who’s ever been totally on their side. But on the gripping hand, +2,000,000 because said human — that is, Sam Witwicky — was in fact betraying them at that very moment, spying for the bad guy. (That’s the whole MacGuffin/hostage thing mentioned above.)
Anyway, back to Optimus. He not only straight-up lies to Sam (of whom, remember, Optimus should have no suspicion whatsoever). Optimus also allows the Decepticons to ravage Chicago, more or less to teach us humans a lesson. When he eventually decides to intervene, he tells the Autobots “Kill them all”. He’s talking about the Decepticons but still, that’s cold. He eventually beats up his mentor Sentinel Prime (who, to be fair, had just betrayed Optimus and all they had ever fought for) and kills him by shooting him in the head with a blaster. Earlier, after Carly’s improbably reverse-psychology trick, Megatron swoops in and disables Sentinel Prime. He tells Optimius that the two need each other. “What would you be without me?” asks Megatron. “Let’s find out,” replies Optimus — and he rips out Megatron’s spine. Wah?? This is the good guy?
In fact, by the time the movie ends, Optimus is giving off a deeply disturbing psycho vibe — which, in honesty, would be a way cool path to take the next movie: The Autobots have lost their world, been betrayed by their greatest leader, and been thrown off Earth no fewer than three times by the soft bags of meat they’ve decided to ally with. Who could blame the ‘bots for getting tired of the entire scene? Maybe it’s time for some Autobot-mandated order here.
By far, the best human is former agent Simmons (played by John Torturo). Simmons was a surprising breakout character — not only because he’s been transformed (get it?) from an obstructionist bureaucratic man-in-black to an O’Reilly Factor-appealing obscenely wealthy conspiracy-theory author whose wisecracking and over-the-top outrageousness is genuinely funny. He’s the surprise breakout character in that he is a character, an actual human being who stands out from the mass of fleshy targets that define the rest of the breathing cast. Also, his assistant Dutch is played equally well by the always-stellar Alan Turdyk, who steals every scene he’s in despite the tremendous dearth of lines. I was mildly disappointed that Dutch never said, “I am a leaf on the wind, watch how I soar” but I understand. 😀
I’d describe the climax of the movie but it would really be lost in print. Plus, it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t make sense and it doesn’t really follow from what came before, but plot isn’t why you see a Michael Bay movie anyway. In this case, you have to sit back and let it wash over you.
A final note: While the special effects were good, the 3D was a complete waste. Not a single scene benefited from it. I’ve heard that Mr. Bay wasn’t keen on adding them but his backers insisted. He should have stuck with his intuition. One nice side effect, though, is that the technical requirements of 3D forced Mr. Bay to use wider shots than is his wont. Unlike earlier Transformer movies, in this one you can actually see the Transformers. It makes a difference and makes them a least little more relatable.
Is this a good movie? Yes, for certain values of the word “good”. It’s a decent summer blockbuster; in fact, it might be the quintessential one. If what you’re looking for is soggy-cardboard thin plot just about barely holding together a string of explosions and fights, you will not be disappointed. If you want something reaching the higher reasoning centers of your cerebrum, this won’t be it.