Thursday, July 7, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

After I caught Willard in the theater several years ago, I heard another theatergoer remark, "Worst.  Movie.  Ever."  One of my friends (or possibly, me --- it's been a while) loudly countered with, "I don't know about you guys, but I paid to see a movie about rats, and that's what I got."  Expectations can be a tricky thing with movies.  Too high, and you're likely to be disappointed, too low and you'll forgive just about anything.  I was a pretty big Transformers fan as a child, so I was super excited when the first film went into production; then I realized that Michael Bay was directing it, and those expectations dropped considerably.  I've seen all three Transformers movies in theaters now (four, counting the animated one), and I have entered each film with the same expectation: giant robots fighting each other.  Sure, other filler stuff might happen, but that is what the movies need to satisfy me.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon begins with a Transformer spacecraft crash landing on the moon in the early 1960s.  The knowledge of that crash created the space race, which culminated in the Apollo 11 space walk.  You might have thought the space race was a time of scientific achievement and ridiculous funding, but it was all a ruse; Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's true mission was to investigate an enormous space wreck.  It makes you wonder what Tom Hanks would have done if Apollo 13 had been successful, eh?

In the present time, the Autobots (the good Trannies) are spending their time hunting for any left over Decepticons (the bad Trannies) that survived Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.  To kill time between giant robot fights, they help out the US government by apparently fighting terrorism.
Presumably pictured above: a member of Seal Team 6
On a mission in Chernobyl (tourism motto: the playground of Eastern Europe), the Autobots find a fuel cell from The Ark, an Autobot ship that was damaged as it left the Transformer home planet of Cybertron.  Autobot leader Optimus Prime and the other good Trannies head out to the moon and investigate the wreckage, finding the inactive (but not dead) Sentinel Prime (voiced by Leonard Nimoy) and some important devices.  These devices, called "pillars," can create a space bridge capable of transporting large amounts of stuff across the universe.  Like what?  Oh, I don't know, invading force of Decepticons?  Clearly, Sentinel Prime and the pillars must be kept safe from the Decepticons and their leader, Megatron.  One thing that troubles me, though, is what happened to the several hundred other pillars that were supposed to be on The Ark...

Oh, and there are some stupid human subplots that involve Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) trying to find a joe job and dealing with the pressures of living with a fantastically successful girlfriend (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) who could pass as an underwear model.  These stresses help shape Sam into an ungrateful, whiny man-child and lead to all sorts of awkward and "comical" interactions with the likes of John Malkovich, Ken Jeong, John Turturro, Alan Tudyk, and a slumming Frances McDormand.
Yeah, I'd be pissed if I wore white that day, too.

I know that the acting in this movie is probably the furthest thing from your mind, but I have to comment on it.  I hate Shia LaBeouf in this movie.  He is such a dick to everyone else and he keeps getting rewarded for it.  There was one moment, where he had to choose between his girlfriend (who he can have sex with) and Optimus Prime (who he probably can't have sex with), that could have made up for the rest of his bitchy performance --- but that incredibly difficult decision ended up having no impact on the greater plot, so who cares what happened?  I thought Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, who more or less replaced Megan Fox as Shia's romantic lead, did a surprisingly good job in her role.  Sure, she was a damsel in distress, had no good lines of dialogue, a bizarre fetish for rabbits, and apparently was hiding a Machiavellian streak for most of the film, but she did a pretty solid job of what she had to work with.  I have to admit, though, that my favorite scene in the movie is the extended shot of her staring blankly into the distance as Transformers blow stuff up behind her.  That made me laugh out loud.  As for the rest of the cast, Patrick Dempsey was MWA-HA-HA evil, Frances McDormand was a bureaucrat, John Malkovich was comic relief, and Ken Jeong delivered the same ridiculous performance that is normally expected out of him.  Nobody was great, but nobody was awful (although that depends on your Jeong tolerance).  Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson return as the sexiest robot fighters the US military has to offer, as do the eternally chatty/embarrassing/migrane-inducing Witwicky parents, played by Kevin Dunn and Julie White.  How these characters have all survived three robot battles is beyond logic.  Speaking of which, John Turturro returns to cash another paycheck as a goofy former secret government agent, this time accompanied by his fey butler, played by Alan Tudyk.  These two are responsible for some of the worst lines in the movie, but I'll give Tudyk credit for actually making me smile a couple of times.

As with the other Transformers movies, the coolest characters are still the giant robots.  We see the return of Bumblebee, Optimus Prime, Megatron (voiced by Hugo Weaving again), and Starscream, as well as some of the supporting Autobots, but only Bumblebee and Optimus get a decent amount of screen time.  Megatron spends the film with a gaping hole in his skull that is being slowly repaired by insect Transformers and I only noticed Starscream when he stopped by to chat with Megatron.  The two big additions to the robo-cast this year were Sentinel Prime and Shockwave.
If they made a fourth film, I want an Autobot with fat Elvis sideburns.
Sentinel was voiced by Leonard Nimoy and, for reasons I still can't comprehend, has a goatee.  Sure, it's a robotic goatee that probably transforms into something else (a Van Dyke, maybe?), but it's damned odd.  Anyway, I wasn't impressed with his design or the "unpredictable" twists he provides to the general plot.
I was similarly under-impressed with Shockwave.  He was the toughest villain in the movie and he was more of an ominous general that commands the big worm-looking thing than anything else.  I don't even remember him transforming into anything.  Whatever, he had a pretty sweet final scene, even if they did change up his character design significantly from the cartoon.
Shockwave: bustiest of all Decepticons!

I've never been a big fan of Michael Bay, either as a director or a producer.  At his best, he makes nonsensical action movies with meaningless catch phrases.  At his worst, he combines spectacular destruction sequences with extreme melodrama.  The Transformers series, to me, has always leaned toward Bay's worst tendencies.  Yes, the action sequences are pretty damn cool, especially for fans of the toys.  The human elements in the stories, though, are just an annoying distraction from robots punching each other.  This time around, Bay managed to make Shia LaBeouf far less likable than ever before and he threw in as much random supporting character "humor" as he could, in an attempt to disguise a paper-thin plot.  I'll give Bay credit, though.  The fight in Chicago looked pretty cool.  But there was at least ninety minutes of crappy movie before that.

It was a lot of fun to see giant robots destroy downtown Chicago, though.  As a Chicagoland native, there was a little thrill whenever I saw something I recognized getting blown up or ravaged by a giant Transformer worm thing (that transforms into...?).  The action scenes in general were all loud and fast, and (most importantly) featured giant robots fighting each other.  My complaint with the action in this movie is the same as with all the movies.  Aside from Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, and Megatron --- who are all given prominent speaking roles and are visually different from the other 'bots --- most of the fighting robots were interchangeable.  The Decepticons rarely had any colors to differentiate them from each other and the Autobots were still poorly developed, even after two previous films.
The winner of MTV's "Pimp My Autobot"
Action scenes would happen, and I would catch the gist of them (good robots vs. evil robots, right?), but there was rarely a time where I could explain who was actually fighting on screen, why, or where they were, in comparison to the other characters.  I was also a little uncomfortable with Optimus Prime acting as a vengeance machine.  He actually states that he (and the Autobots) will kill all the Decepticons.  That's awfully final and brutal for a hero, Optimus.  At the end of the movie, he actually executes a Decepticon --- the other character is begging for mercy and he snuffs them!  That's some cold shit for a PG-13 movie.
Action something something explosion

For every fight scene that entertained me or made me geek-out a little, there was about thirty minutes of truly awful movie.  The emotional weight of the story rested on sympathizing with Sam Witwicky --- who grew up wealthy and has only dated model-quality women --- as he tries to find a job where he is important.  Those are readily found in entry-level positions, right?  At least we get to see him have trouble committing to a beautiful woman for the second straight movie.  His whining about finding a job is more annoying as we see how "comically" bad he is at interviewing; the interviews were another thing --- who manages to get five or six sit-down interviews in the same day?  Apparently, someone who wears jeans to big-boy job interviews in Washington, DC.  Jackass.

There is a lot to hate about Transformers: Dark of the Moon.  The plot is dull and predictable.  The script tries and fails to be funny over and over again.  The action is often confusing; the cinematography frequently made it difficult who was fighting who.  The acting was mediocre at best.  The movie was two-and-a-half hours long, with the only fun stuff in the extended final 45-minute fight scene!  They never try to explain why the Decepticons pick Chicago as a place to stage their invasion!!  Wouldn't their evil plan cause the Earth to crash into Cybertron?!?  Most Decepticons on Earth take the form of cars; when Sam is running away from a man who admitted to working for the Decepticons, he hops into a car that was owned by that man!!!  And how bad were the special effects in the early scenes that bridged the gaps between 1960s news reels and the rest of the movie?  Worst Presidential impressions ever.

And yet, none of that really seems to matter.  This is a movie about giant robots fighting each other.  Do you really expect anything else?  From a quality film perspective, this film deserves a pitiful rating of

From the perspective of someone looking for giant robots killing each other, the movie is actually much, much more entertaining.  If you combine that love of action with a desire to laugh at Michael Bay, Transformers: Dark of the Moon gets a solid Lefty Gold rating.  Watching Chicago get ruined is pretty entertaining, but the rest of the film's awfulness more or less balances that out.

I would bump the entire movie up six stars if this scene actually happened, but sadly, it is just someone making great use of Photoshop.