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Josh Tests His Endurance and Takes In Transformers: Dark of the Moon

July 15th, 2011
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I can’t help it.  I really love The Transformers.  As a kid, I loved the cartoon show, I loved the toys, I loved the crazy-dark animated movie, I loved Marvel Comic’s comic book series, I loved it all.  And that’s why, even after suffering through the abysmal Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (click here for my review — and in hindsight, I went VERY easy on that terrible film), I bought a ticket to see Michael Bay’s latest installment, the woefully titled Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

This third film isn’t nearly as terrible as Revenge of the Fallen, but since Revenge of the Fallen was one of the worst movies I have ever seen, that’s not saying much.

Somewhere, buried deep within Transformers: Dark of the Moon, is a good movie.  That would be a movie about the Autobots miraculously discovering their original leader, Optimus Prime’s mentor Sentinel Prime, alive and well.  But they’d gradually discover that their once-great leader had become broken by the long millennia of bitter war with the Decepticons, and that his discovery would lead to a terrible betrayal which would decimate the Autobot ranks and leave Earth helpless before a Decepticon invasion.  In the rubble of a shattered planet, a brave few Autobots and their human allies would fight desperately for some way to turn the tide and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

That would be a pretty damn good movie, I think!  That story, accompanied by Michael Bay’s clear mastery of constructing action sequences, plus the technical wizardry of the ILM craftsmen who can bring living, talking, Transforming robots to breathtaking life, could be the elements that would combine to form a powerfully entertaining piece of summer popcorn entertainment.

Sadly, Transformers: Dark of the Moon is not that movie.

First of all, Michael Bay and his writers (this time the script is credited to Ehren Kruger) seem relentlessly unwilling to allow any of the actual Transformers to be the main characters in the movie.  That was sort of understandable in the first film, in which it made sense to allow the audience to discover these crazy, outlandish characters (big talking robots who transform into planes, cars, etc.) through the eyes of a human “everyman” audience surrogate character.  But here in the third movie, every time I found myself watching scenes of Spike Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) trying to get a job, or bickering with his parents, or engaging in ridiculous physical “comedy” (and I use the term loosely) with Ken Jeong, I found myself desperate for the movie to cut back to the robots, already!

We do actually get to spend a bit more time with Optimus Prime in this film, which is good, except that this movie really exacerbates a complaint I’d had about the first two films as well: Optimus Prime, the heroic leader of the Autobots, is presented as pretty much an idiot.  When he discovers that the Americans have deceived him and withheld knowledge about an Autobot ship that crashed on the moon, his reaction is to pout and give the humans the silent treatment.  When the battle with the Decepticons is joined, late in the film, in the ruins of Chicago, Optimus swoops in — and then quickly gets himself tangled in wires hanging from a wrecked skyscraper, where he remains trapped for a huge amount of time.  This Optimus always has a platitude handy to dispense to Spike or the other human characters, but he seems pretty pathetic as a leader.

Casting Leonard Nimoy (who previously voiced the Decepticon Galvatron in the original Transformers animated movie from 1986) was genius, but sadly the character is pretty flat.  I would have liked to have seen more of his conflict or regret once he makes his fateful choice mid-way through the film, but that was not to be.

There are a lot of other robots in the movie, but once again, it’s near-impossible to tell any of them apart.  A bunch of Autobots and Decepticons perish during the film, but it has zero impact because I never got to know any of them and, even as they were getting killed off, I had a hard time identifying who was who.  In the 1986 Transformers: The Movie, one of the most shocking deaths was early on when Megatron blows away Ironhide.  That was shocking because we’d spent the entire cartoon series getting to know and love that character.  And Ironhide was just a supporting character!  Compare that with what happens to Ironhide in this film, and you’ll see a million miles’ worth of difference in terms of impact.

Compared to Revenge of the Fallen, Dark of the Moon is practically Citizen Kane.  It certainly is far more coherent than that terrible second film, and there is an intensity and forward momentum to the story that Revenge of the Fallen sorely lacked.  But it still doesn’t make a lick of sense and is wildly inconsistent with the previous two films.  The whole movie is built around Sentinel Prime’s creation of a space bridge, a device that can instantly teleport Transformers from one place to another.  But wasn’t there a Transformer in the last film that could teleport itself around at will?  In the first movie, I thought we’d learned that the first batch of Transformers had crashed on Earth a long, long time in the past — yet in this film, Sentinel Prime (Optimus’ mentor) left Cybertron and crashed on Earth in the 1950’s.  Huh?  (Also, just how many Transformers have landed on earth in our past, anyways?  Each movie we learn of more and more Transformers who wound up on Earth in the past.  Pretty weak, if you ask me.)

We get to meet Shockwave in this film, and his design is pretty awesome.  But just how did he get to Earth?  (Since, in the cartoon, Shockwave was left on Cybertron and only traveled to Earth through the space bridge, I expected that we’d only see him in this film once the space bridge was activated.  But, no, he’s magically on Earth already at the start of the film.)  When the Decepticons finally activate the space bridge, they don’t use it to bring more Decepticons to Earth from Cybertron, as I’d expected.  No, they use it to bring Decepticons from the moon to Earth.  Why couldn’t those Decepticons get from the moon to Earth on their own?  In the last movie, we saw Decepticons constantly moving from the moon to Earth and back again.  What the heck were they doing, just hanging out buried on the moon?

At one point in this film, Optimus (or another Autobot, I can’t remember) comments that the Matrix of Leadership is the only thing that can restore the “spark” to a destroyed or deactivated Transformer.  But didn’t we see the Allspark do that in the first film?  Didn’t a bunch of Decepticons bring Megatron back to life by using the parts from another Decepticon in the second film?

Sigh.  I could go on and on, but clearly already I’ve expended more mental energy on this film than any of the filmmakers did.  There’s some great action in Transformers: Dark [Side] of the Moon, but that’s about all I can say to recommend it.

If someone would actually take this property seriously, and tell a story in which we could actually get to know some of the robotic characters (and even some of the human ones), I know they could make a really kick-ass live-action Transformers film.  Sadly, I don’t see that happening any time soon…

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