Last week at work I won tickets to an advance screening tonight of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the third film in Michael Bay’s trilogy of films based on the popular Hasbro toys and the mid-80s cartoon series.
Growing up as I did in the 1980s, I watched the cartoon religiously. The Autobots, the Decepticons, the Dinobots, Rodimus Prime and Galvatron — these were things from my childhood that stand out as important and fun. When Bay’s first Transformers film came out about five years ago, I didn’t see it. When the sequel came out, I didn’t see that one, either. Now, the third, and in 3D, no less, and it took a free ticket from a contest at work to get me to see it.
So what this this Transformers movie virgin think of Transformers: Dark of the Moon?
To my chagrin, there was no Rodimus Prime (though I’ll come back to that), there was no Galvatron. There weren’t even any Dinobots. There was no Unicron, no Quintessons, but fortunately no Junkions. Yes, the last Transformers movie I saw was the unimaginatively titled Transformers: The Movie, and Dark of the Moon does not, in any way, shape, or form, carry on from that cinematic masterpiece.
The first half hour is pretty cool, if scientifically stupid. Transformers: Dark of the Moon posits that the United States went to the Moon to recover a downed UFO, which happens to be a ship that had escaped the Cybertronian War. Intercut with footage (real and recreated) of the Apollo 11 mission, we get a “secret history” of the manned space program. Unfortunately, the script seems to think that the Sea of Tranquility is on the far side of the moon (hence, the movie’s title), even though in scenes in the film the Earth is very clearly hanging over the Apollo 11 Lunar Module.
The climax of the movie bothered me, and driving home I realized why. It’s not just the climax. It’s the whole damn movie. Transformers: Dark of the Moon is Doctor Who‘s “The End of Time” (Russell T. Davies/David Tennant’s swan song), as if written by Eric Saward, a la “Resurrection of the Daleks” and “Attack of the Cybermen,” with additional robot action. Saward never named his characters, and except for Sam and Carly, I have absolutely no idea what any human character in the movie was named. There’s a fuckton of death and destruction with absolutely no point, just like a Saward story. And Megatron’s plan here is exactly what Rassilon’s plan in “The End of Time” was.
It’s a long movie. I think it runs about two and a half hours. The last hour and a half is Stalingrad-esque battle in the streets of Chicago. It. Doesn’t. Stop. It also doesn’t make a lot of sense — beyond the level of property damage the city takes, the destruction of that many Transformers would have released so many heavy metal toxins into the air and water that the city and its environs would be rendered uninhabitable for years, if not decades or centuries. The city had already been abandoned by the human population; the United States military would have been better served by low-yield tactical nukes on Tomahawk missiles to take out the city center.
The plot hangs together fairly well in the first hour, which exists mainly, I think, to get the characters into place for the Battle of Chicago.
I think the film spends too much time in the first hour dealing with Sam’s job situation, first his inability to find a job into today’s economic climate, and then the insane boss (John Malkovich, slumming for some reason) who ultimately hires him. The time that the film wastes on that could be spent on characterization, especially of the Autobots, who really never pass beyond the cipher stage. Yes, characterization is on the Eric Saward level, too.
(I’ve just realized that Michael Bay’s Transformers movies are like big-budget Uwe Boll movies — Boll gets the casts that he gets because he only needs an actor for a week or two, so it’s a quick and easy paycheck. A lot of the roles in Transformers: Dark of the Moon are just three or four scenes max, so an actor like Malkovich could do the work in a week, take the quick paycheck, and he’s done.)
The Autobot that really needs the characterization work is Optimus Prime. Here’s the situation — Optimus Prime’s predecessor as Autobot leader, Sentinel Prime, is discovered on the Moon, and he’s restored to life. Optimus Prime feels unworthy of leading the Autobots, because Sentinel Prime was such an iconic leader. In many ways, Optimus Prime here reminds me of Rodimus Prime in the third season of Transformers, comparing himself to his predecessor and trying to pass the baton of leadership back. This plot thread, with Optimus and Sentinel Prime, could have been deep, nuanced, emotional drama, much in the way that Rodimus Prime was characterized. Unfortunately, except for one scene with the two Primes watching a sunset, there’s no relationship there at all.
Sentinel Prime, by the way, is voiced by Leonard Nimoy. And he quotes Spock’s death scene midway into the film. It’s funny how much Nimoy now sounds like John Huston.
I don’t feel that the heroes sacrificed anything for their victory. I didn’t feel their struggle. Again, this goes to poor characterization.
I haven’t said a lot about the Decepticons, because they honestly don’t factor a great deal into the film. Which is weird to say, because they do take over Chicago and level the city, but there really don’t factor as characters. Megatron is really backgrounded, there is no Starscream (which seems like a total lapse), and while Soundwave has the main face-time there just doesn’t seem to be any character there. It’s like the Decepticons are more a force of nature than they are characters, and maybe that’s why the film is curiously unmoving — it’s hard to get emotionally invested when the heroes are fighting against an ever-present nameless and faceless evil.
I suppose Michael Bay could make a sequel to this, but I don’t know why anyone would want to. It feels complete. I was impressed that Bay managed not to make the film a piece of jingoistic porn, like Armageddon was. Except for the robot-on-robot battles, the film was directed fairly well. The robot-on-robot battles suffer from the problem where it’s nearly impossible to tell what’s going on. (It doesn’t help that the Transformers are virtually indistinguishable when they’re fighting.)
Oh, and I think I have to take points off, because at no point does Optimus Prime say “Autobots, roll out!”
I feel like I’m being a lot more critical of the film than it deserves. It’s not a ground-breaking or earth-shattering film, and I found it enjoyable on the level that I can enjoy Star Trek: Voyager or Moffat-era Doctor Who — if I turn my brain off and don’t think about it, just letting it flow over me on a purely visceral level, not expecting any character work whatsoever, Transformers: Dark of the Moon is positively entertaining. Yes, it would have been more entertaining if there had been Dinobots and Galvatron and Rodimus Prime (who is, frankly, the greatest Autobot of them all), but we can’t have everything in life.