What the movie Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the third installment in the lucrative franchise, does is bombard your senses so hard with explosions, metal clangs and a throbbing soundtrack that you barely have time to process what’s happening. The movie is so loud even a lot of the dialogue has to be shouted to be heard above the din of intergalactic robots battling over the fate of humanity. The effect is like a roller coaster; you knew you had lots of fun, but it’s futile to analyze why.
The movie opens with a fictional explanation of NASA’s Apollo space program in the ‘60s. A spaceship from Cybertron called “The Ark” crash-landed on the moon in 1961 and the United States government put a plan in motion to investigate the ship, concealing the alien inspection under the guise of lunar exploration. When astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin land on the moon, it turns out there’s more to the spaceship than meets the eye: They bring several alien artifacts back with them. Undiscovered by the astronauts is Optimus Prime’s predecessor, Sentinel Prime, voiced by Leonard Nimoy of Star Trek fame*. Nimoy is no stranger to Transformers lore, he lent his voice to the character Galvatron in the animated 1986 Transformers movie (now that was an epic storyline).
The movie cuts to the present day where the Autobots are helping humans solve global problems like unrest in the Middle East. This showcases the new Autobots joining the lineup: Wheeljack and Mirage, who are a Mercedes-Benz E550 and a sexy Ferrari 458, respectively. Fan favorite and Chevrolet Camaro image model Bumblebee also gets to show off a cool new energy cannon that he can fire while in vehicle mode. Those familiar with the original ‘80s Transformers TV show will recognize these new Autobots.
And speaking of familiar robots, in Russia Optimus and the NEST military unit (introduced in the last Transformers flick) investigate a disturbance at the site of the Chernobyl disaster. It turns out the anomaly is none other than another ‘80s Transformer, Shockwave. In this incarnation he has a big robot tentacle as a pet.
In the Michael Bay Transformers movies, the introduction of Optimus Prime alone is worth half the price of the ticket already. The scenes where he stopped and transformed before Sam Witwicky in TF1 and where he fell from a cargo plane in TF2 are golden moments in fanboy cinema. In TF3 he doesn’t disappoint. When the blue Peterbilt truck with flames rolls in, I feel a tingle run up my spine.
And--oh, wow--he has his silver trailer with him. In the animated series the trailer becomes a battle platform and it includes a mobile scout named Roller. In TF3 it simply becomes a weapons rack, although I think I saw some gun emplacements. At one point later in the movie Optimus looks for his trailer because it contains his flight pack, but they never show him accessing it again or merging with it. This is important because one of the reasons we watch Transformers movies is for the transformations; that magical computer-generated sequence where the robots turn into vehicles and vice-versa. Even after three movies, we never get tired of it. Optimus does battle with Shockwave, then the latter disappears for most of the movie, reappearing only at the climax.
It is the first of many inconsistencies that would remind me I’m watching a Michael Bay film, a genre that prioritizes explosions, hot women and slo-mo heroic shots of the important male characters--and robots in this case. There are never heroic shots of women, the fairer sex are decorations in the Michael Bay universe. His latest muse, the Victoria’s Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whitely, more than fills in the heels left by Megan Fox. Her character Carly’s introductory scene alone will have you thinking “Megan who?”
For characters other than female leads in a Michael Bay film, they are either heroic or funny. To display a range more than that is unnecessary for the director. This is a shame, because somehow the production was able to get the services of people like John Malkovich, Frances McDormand and the hilarious John Turturro. These aren’t stars, they’re actors, able to depict human emotional range far greater than what’s required of a Michael Bay film. But here they are, interacting with CGI robots to get a reaction out of us. The good thing is--once you get past the idea of their acting talents being underutilized--their performances help propel what little story there is along to the action pieces.
Because once the action starts, it is here that the film finds its footing. There’s the quick action sequence in Chernobyl, a highway chase reminiscent of the first TF movie (this incudes a shot that is one of Shia LaBeouf’s best scenes ever), and the long climactic battle in Chicago.
In between the action are funny scenes that involve John Turturro’s retired Agent Simmons and Sam’s investigation of a conspiracy involving what really is behind the crashed Autobot ship on the dark side of the moon (Eureka! The title). But more importantly, there are gorgeous shots of cars onscreen. Carly’s boss Dylan Gould, played by Patrick Dempsey, is a car collector and he has a museum filled with very rare automobiles including an old Bugatti and a Delahaye. Dylan also has a warehouse filled with classic Chevrolet cars and memorabilia, a reminder of the successful partnership GM has with this movie franchise. At some point, and much to Sam’s jealous consternation, Carly is gifted with a Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG by her boss. But this turns out to be a gift with an interesting twist.
For a movie that has many plot inconsistencies, it managed to spring a few surprises, including a switching of loyalties with dire consequences and a revelation of a bigger conspiracy.
Also, be prepared for plenty of violence. Yes, this is a battle about intergalactic war among robotic beings, and there have been visceral clashes since TF1. For this third installment Michael Bay ups the ante on everything, including the body count for both robots and human. I wasn’t expecting the human casualties to be so many, or so vividly depicted. But I was even more affected by the robot deaths because they were given a semblance of character development, they weren’t collateral civilian casualties or faceless soldiers.
As expected the movie succeeds because Michael Bay did what he does best: blow stuff up, make cars and the U.S. military look cool, and make the woman look insanely hot. The robot battles are also the best in the series. Sometimes you still can’t figure out who’s bludgeoning who or blasting what, but film slows down at times to let you savor the heavy metal violence. And that’s why, despite the movie making as much sense as opposition to the RH Bill, we still line up to watch our robot toys come to life and do battle: It’s hard for our imaginations to compete with millions of dollars worth of CGI.
Writer Ehren Kruger managed to do a laudable job of creating a sense that something real was at risk, I know it’s not easy stringing together a compelling story when the real stars of this movie are well-rendered computer pixels, pyrotechnics and lots of stunt work. However in the end I still felt the editing, pacing and storytelling could have been a lot better. The special effects are great cinema, but it’s not enough to make a good movie.
*For true geeks like me, there’s a line that Sentinel Prime utters as a nod to Nimoy’s Spock character in Star Trek. If you know the line, you won’t miss it.
Photos from Paramount Pictures