Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon (United States, 2011)

June 28, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon Poster

In the wake of widespread criticism of the second live action Transformers movie, Revenge of the Fallen, director Michael Bay admitted dissatisfaction with the screenplay and blamed it on the writers' strike. So what's the excuse this time? If anything, the script for Transformers: Dark of the Moon is worse than that of its predecessor. In the future, maybe Bay should abandon using a screenwriter altogether and just fill up 90 minutes with disconnected images of robo-carnage. That would serve two purposes: eliminate the need to watch actors embarrass themselves trying to outshine the hardware and elide excruciating dialogue, exposition, and "character development," all of which are inferior to what one finds in the average Pink Panther cartoon.

Bay makes the Transformers movies for 14-year old boys. I suspect he's one at heart, which gives him insight into the mindset of his target audience. I remember what it was like to be a 14-year old boy but I'm not sure I would have been more enamored with this movie at that age than I am today. Maybe it would have struck a chord when I was eight. That's when I watched Japanese monster movies which, technological advances in special effects aside, are not all that different from Transformers. In those movies, men in rubber suits pounded on each other. In Transformers and its sequels, CGI robots wreak the same kind of mayhem as Godzilla and friends. The average Japanese monster movie didn't have much of a plot either (aside from the obvious - stomp Tokyo), but it managed to get the job done with about an hour's less screen time.

It's pointless criticizing the action/destruction sequences in Transformers 3. Those are the "money shots" of this strain of cataclysm porn. People pay for extreme special effects. They want to see these Rockem-Sockem robots mash each other into the ground while Shia LaBeouf yells loudly in the hope that a big voice will compensate for his small stature (at least compared to the Transformers). In the biggest battles, I had some trouble figuring out the difference between the good guys (Autobots) and the bad guys (Decepticons), largely because (a) I'm not a Transformers fan (so the nuances escape me), and (b) things were moving a bit too fast. Aficionados will no doubt chortle at my ignorance. As a lapsed Trekkie (maybe not so lapsed, after all), I can provide a catalogue of the Star Trek references in Transformers 3: a clip from "Amok Time", a mention of the Enterprise, and the biggest of all - Leonard Nimoy (providing the voice of Sentinal Prime) delivering this gem: "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." I'd love to know who was responsible for that: Bay, screenwriter Ehren Kruger, or Nimoy.

Having willingly conceded that the action scenes deliver what they're supposed to deliver - with Chicago standing in for Tokyo - I turn my attention to the things that bloat what could be a lean, mean 90-minute CGI highlight reel into a 157-minute soul-sucking behemoth. The first problem is too much exposition. Especially during the first half, it never stops, with action scenes serving as punctuation for gabfests. Maybe Transformers fans care about or can follow the idiocy being spouted, but I didn't and couldn't. I'm not going to discuss how bad the so-called "science" for this movie is because films of this sort don't care about things like that despite being mistakenly placed in the "science fiction" category. (Properly, this is fantasy.) Then there are the scenes that attempt to develop the character of Sam Witwicky (LaBeouf) and are written with the intelligence and insight of a precocious fourth grader. Why does Bay insist on eating up screen time with sequences featuring Sam playing house with his new girlfriend, Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley or her waxwork facsimile), receiving relationship advice from his parents, and getting jealous of Carly's handsome boss (Patrick Dempsey)? Is it because he equates "epic" with "long running time" and therefore pads things out to achieve that aim?

The story, which requires more than a "willing suspension of disbelief" to swallow (an infusion of a mind-altering substance would be a good start), begins in the 1960s when men travel to the moon to investigate a crashed Transformers space ship. 40-plus years later, Optimus Prime (voice of Peter Cullen), having belatedly learned of this discovery, takes a salvage team to our nearest celestial neighbor. They return with the dormant remains of Sentinel Prime (Nimoy), who is resurrected by Optimus. Sentinel is the inventor of the Transformers' greatest weapon, which can be used to help or destroy humanity. The Autobots champion the former, but the Decepticons, led by a crippled Megatron (Hugo Weaving), have other plans. Old friends, like Sam, Lennox (Josh Duhamel), and Simmons (John Turturro), are joined by new ones, like Mearing (Frances McDormand) and Brazos (John Malkovich), to provide a human face to the resistance movement against the Decepticons as the evil metal creatures use Chicago as their base for an all-out assault on the planet.

The words "been there, done that" apply. Transformers 3 is not substantially better or worse than Transformers or Transformers 2 because it's more of the same. There are battles. Things blow up. Human actors give inferior performances to machines. An attractive woman is unabashedly presented as a sex object. More things blow up. A city is leveled, with the destruction lovingly crafted and presented. And, in the end, it comes to a smashdown between Optimus Prime and Megatron, but we wouldn't have it any other way.

LaBeouf, who appeared to hit a low in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, has sunk to greater levels of incompetence here. It's hard to call his posturing and screaming "acting." Maybe this is the only way he felt he could compete with the Transformers, but it shreds Sam's already paper-thin character. He's whiny and annoying and I wished one of the big robots would step on him. His new girlfriend is played by British model-turned-line reader Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, who accomplishes the unthinkable of making Megan "Bay is Hitler" Fox look like a talented thespian. It's a cliché to remark that Carly has less personality than the most insignificant Transformer, but it's true.

There are some real actors in the cast, including John Turturro, who has somehow managed to keep his sanity and reputation while doing three of these movies. He is joined by a slumming Frances McDormand and John Malkovich, both of whom must have failing bank accounts in need of a quick cash infusion. In all fairness, Tuturro, McDormand, and Malkovich recognize they're appearing in crap; it shows in the "nudge nudge wink wink" nature of their performances.

Bay's flip-flopping on the issue of 3-D has led to widespread speculation about how effectively it is used in Transformers 3. After initially voicing opposition to it, he changed his position after discussions with James Cameron. Transformers 3 employs a mixture of native 3-D and post-production conversion. To his credit, Bay has avoided many of the common missteps, including the most pervasive (murky, muddy images), but there is still motion blur during intense action sequences. The most curious thing about the 3-D, however, is how innocuous it is. In many scenes, the 3-D approach does a remarkably good job imitating 2-D. People wearing the glasses are apt to forget that Transformers 3 is in 3-D not because they're immersed but because the 3-D is so flat and unremarkable. That's more than a little disappointing because the closer a Transformers film can come to an amusement park ride, the better.

Transformers 3 is unlikely to change any minds regarding the franchise. The brilliantly cut trailer makes it look like this might be the first entry into the series to tell a compelling story, but that hope is dispelled fairly early in the proceedings. It should be remembered that Bay's movies, with their high energy action sequences and top-of-the-line special effects, always translate into good trailers and TV commercials. But what's appealing in two or three-minute bits can quickly become tiresome when it goes on and on and on... Transformers 3 is like Transformers and Transformers 2 only bigger, longer, and louder. It's up to each individual to determine whether that holds appeal or is another cause to bemoan what the summer blockbuster has become.

Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon (United States, 2011)

Run Time: 2:37
U.S. Release Date: 2011-06-29
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity,Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1