06 July 2011

"Transformers: Dark of the Moon"

Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Starring: Shia LaBeof, Josh Duhamel, John Turturro, Tyrese Gibson, Rosie Huntington-Whitely, Patrick Dempsey, Kevin Dunn, Julie White with John Malkovich and Frances McDormand
Written by Ehren Kruger
Directed by Michael Bay
Theatrical Release Date: 28 June 2011
Date of Screening: 1 July 2011

Look, I'm a "G1" fan, meaning I've been into Transformers since the first generation of toys, comics and cartoons more than a quarter century ago.  I haven't kept up with the various incarnations so my knowledge of the mythology isn't nearly as extensive as many fans, but I have my ideas of the themes and the principle characters.

When I pay to go see a Transformers movie, I'm really only expecting one thing: lots of robot-on-robot violence.  Some would have me believe I'm guilty of critical thinking heresy with such low standards.  What am I supposed to do?  Enter the theater expecting a thesis on the existence of God in an homage to works of Ingmar Bergman?  I could do that, but what am I supposed to do when that's not the movie I get?

In Dark of the Moon, we learn that the Ark (an Autobot ship) left Cybertron at a critical point in the war between the Autobots and Decepticons and was believed destroyed.  Instead, it crashed on Earth's moon and was the real subject of our lunar missions in the 1960s.  Today, this secret project has come to light and led the Autobots to search the Ark where they discover famed leader Sentinel Prime (voiced by Leonard Nimoy) and the space bridge technology he invented that was supposed to turn the tide of the war.  Once revived by Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen), Sentinel attracts the attention of the Decepticons who intend to make use of Sentinel and his space bridge in their plans for conquest.  Amid all this, Sam (LaBeof) discovers a human/Decepticon alliance.

Personally, I enjoyed the story this time.  For starters, I'm a sucker for plots that connect the dots with real, historical events (though, strangely, I have yet to see The Da Vinci Code and have no real desire to see it), and space exploration interests me enough that I got into the opening act of the film.  Having Sentinel Prime voiced by Leonard Nimoy appealed to me on a personal level; I knew him as Galvatron from 1986's The Transformers: The Movie before I knew him as Spock.

Moreover, I really liked the subplot of the human/Decepticon alliance.  Often in science-fiction stories, we see mankind uniting once confronted by an alien race.  I love those kinds of stories, but I confess I found this approach more honest.  The politics of Dark of the Moon are somewhat confusing.  Much is made of Sam having received a medal from President Barack Obama, but is later put down by others in the movie.  Former Sector 7 agent Simmons (Turtorro) is interviewed on TV by Bill O'Reilly, who calls him a "pinhead" and argues that many believe we'd all be safer if the Autobots were to leave Earth.  At first glance, we liberals take it on the chin but in retrospect it seems that the Autobots debunk O'Reilly's apprehensive xenophobia.  An allegory for immigration?  Maybe.  The point is, Dark of the Moon recognizes that we have competing motives and objectives and that these would react differently to the presence of Autobots and Decepticons.
The pace was fairly taut, the action sequences were terrific and despite what reviewers have said about Rosie Huntington-Whitely as Carly, I found her perfectly fine in this film.  The role asked her to look pretty and appear in over her head; she nailed both parts.  It wasn't a mind-blowing performance, but it wasn't atrocious, either.

I keep encountering in online reviews remarks about how this film "makes no sense."  This is always a derisive scorn, as though the plot is so convoluted that nothing is explained by anything else within the film.  I just want to know whether those people were even bothering to pay attention, and more importantly how they feel about effectively admitting their observational skills are so poor they got lost by a Transformers movie.  It's a very straightforward story, really.  The first half sees different factions following their investigations until they reach the point in the story where the enemy plot is revealed and then it's a matter of combat.  I find it hard to believe that anyone over the age of nine would honestly not understand this film.  Find it simplistic, sure, but not making sense?  Hardly.

Even Roger Ebert seems to miss some clearly-explained points in his recent blog post about the film, in which he uses the series as a pretext for questioning Intelligent Design and Creationism:
I raise the subject of Creationism because it opens the door to Intelligent Design, which I will require to explain the existence of Autobots. Do you know what an Autobot looks like? At first appearance they're mild-mannered motor vehicles. They are suddenly capable of unfolding and expanding into gigantic humanoid robots whose size seems optional, since sometimes they can bend over and look a human in the eye, and at other times they are hundreds of feet tall. One might wonder how they pack so much metallic mass into an area the size of a Camaro, and well one might.
They seem to consist mostly of auto parts: Fenders, bumpers, grills, hoods, trunks, windshields, and sometimes large tractor tires as shoulders. These parts expand as needed according to scale. They seem to be entirely made of metal, although in this movie an old Autobot has grown a beard, and when another opens its jaws we can clearly see a strand of saliva, which I assume is Pennzoil.
It's made perfectly clear in the first film that the Transformers are shape-shifters capable of adopting any design they scan, and it's clear there is a varying size scale.  Optimus Prime is clearly larger than the other Autobots, comparable to Megatron and smaller than some of the other Decepticons.  I don't recall any glaring instances of Transformer sizes being inconsistent.  Perhaps Mr. Ebert mistakenly thought they were all the same size?  I don't expect a reviewer of Ebert's vintage to see a film like this as anything but a glorified toy commercial, but it does seem a bit embarrassing that he would miss a plot point like that which is 1) explicitly answered on screen and 2) fairly trivial to the story.  It just seems petty to get hung up on a detail like how the Transformers know about human cars.

There's some fat to be trimmed, yes, but much less than the previous two films.  Personally, I think the biggest blunder was how they handled the departure of Megan Fox from the series.  We're told she simply "dumped" Sam after Revenge of the Fallen, with no further explanation.  I think it would have been far more effective had Sam explained to us that they just had a hard time adapting to regular life after having shared those extraordinary experiences with the Transformers.  This could have easily been incorporated into the new romance subplot by giving Sam a motive for not fully committing to Carly.

If you've already passed judgment on these movies or Transformers in general, save your money.  There's nothing here that will redeem the mythology for you.  You'll only feel smugly justified in whining about wasting 157 minutes of your life.  If you care that much about having a ticket stub to justify whining about wasting 2 1/2 hours of your life on a movie you didn't expect to like in the first place, you need some perspective on life, 'cause it's way too short to squander on experiences you know won't please you.

If on the other hand, you're capable of following a simple story and enjoy robot-on-robot violence, then I think there's a strong chance you'll share my belief that this is easily the most enjoyable of the three live action films.