“Michael is actually an auteur in the true sense of the word. Every movie he makes reflects his personal creative vision. You may like it, you may not—but those movies are him without compromise.” This is how actor Ben Affleck described the work of his Armageddon director, Michael Bay. He’s a man that has long been chronicled as a tyrant, demanding everything about his movies to be “awesome.” For better or worse, Bay’s films reflect his own distinct vision. Moments into any one of them, it’s clear that you are watching “a Michael Bay film.” That’s the way things have gone with the Transformers franchise. Bay has, with mixed results, taken a popular line of toys and made them into his own wild, larger-than-life summer event series. And with Transformers: Dark of the Moon, he has placed upon the franchise a massive exclamation point. Like its predecessors, it’s got plenty of problems, but when it comes down to delivering some jaw-dropping, technically precise spectacle, we are once again reminded that there’s no one who can do Transformers quite like Michael Bay.
I remember 2007 quite vividly. It was June, I believe. Possibly July. There I was exiting a press screening where myself and a small number of others had just been bombarded with Transformers. There was an electric energy about the entire experience. For the first time since Jurassic Park at age 10, I had seen something on the big screen that brought me a true sense of awe. A red and blue semi had transformed into a walking, talking, platitude-spouting beacon of freedom and righteousness. And it was real. In that moment, Michael Bay and the digital wizards at Industrial Light & Magic had created something unique and truly inspired. In that moment, he was the perfect man for the job.
Two more films and four years later, I remain convinced that Michael Bay is the best man for the Transformers franchise. What came from a series of toys with mythology rooted in a short-lived children’s cartoon has morphed into a worldwide phenomenon. Not because it has a rich legacy from which great stories have been drawn, but because it was handed to a man that could make it larger than life. Even in the franchise’s darkest moments, Transformers has always delivered scope. And in his third act, Bay has given us scope unlike anything we’ve seen before.
In a purposeful twist of self-awareness, Dark of the Moon begins not with a continuation of the last film, Revenge of the Fallen, but seemingly with a continuation of the first Transformers. We’re back on Cybertron, where we’re being shown another scene from the robot civil war. Once there was a weapon that would have won the Autobots a decisive victory, explains the booming voice of Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), but it was lost to outer space. We come to find that said weapon ended up on the dark side of Earth’s moon, and became the catalyst for the American/Soviet space race. One poorly CGI’d appearance by John F. Kennedy and a few more bits of exposition later and boom, main titles.
From here, it’s a story we’ve seen before. Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is working on another life milestone, trying to get a job and become a contributor to society, all while trying to maintain the affections of a girl well out of his league (newcomer Rosie Huntington-Whiteley). Some attacks happen and just like that, Sam is reunited with the Autobots on their quest to stop the Decepticons from overtaking Earth and enslaving humanity.
For the first hour and forty-five minutes of Dark of the Moon, we get story. There are two very cool action sequences, one of which introduces Shockwave, the franchise’s most immediately intimidating bad guy. But for the most part, it’s story. The space race, Chernobyl, it’s all been part of the Decepticon plan since whenever, it’s not explained very clearly. Thankfully there’s enough filler diversions to make much of the story irrelevant. Ken Jeong shows up for a few minutes to be ridiculous. John Malkovich shows up and cranks crazy to 11. Rosie Huntington-Whiteley is attractive in a skin-tight dress. Sam lives with two little Autobots, one of whom is the Steve Buscemi-bot from the second film. That’s about all we get from the film’s first and second acts.
It’s all evidence of the way Bay and his team have made Transformers films since the first time out. With the first Transformers, Bay had a story from writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. And it wasn’t a half-bad story. In fact, it was coherent and would eventually become one of Bay’s most perfectly-paced films. With Revenge of the Fallen, the script was the victim of a shortened pre-production period. Hastened by the writers strike, Bay delivered unto his writers an outline of action beats. They filled in the rest with humor and “character development.” Ehren Kruger also helped fill-in Revenge, and thus began the tug-of-war between his sensibilities and those of Kurtzman and Orci. In his solo-scripted effort on Dark of the Moon, Kruger proves to us a few things. One is that he could care less about continuity. His script treats continuity much the same way it treats the fact that Megan Fox is no longer Sam’s girlfriend. They just broke up, there’s nothing else to it. He also proves that he is yet to master the art of subtlety. Then again, he is writing for Michael Bay. So when the humor in the script is baseline at best, it’s not something we should meet with great shock.
When the human characters, with the exception of serious scream queen Shia LaBeouf and his model girlfriend, seem silly and over-acted, it’s no surprise. John Malkovich, Frances McDormand and John Torturro are not bad actors, but they aren’t stiffs, either. We can tell that they are having fun. They are acting alongside a bunch of CGI robots, after all. As for LaBeouf, he continues to bring charm to the character of Sam. He doesn’t get enough credit for his work in these films, as much of it is lost between sub-literate dialogue and big action. But he is charming and for the first time in the series, he dives in and becomes an action star. Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, to her credit, mostly stays out of the way and becomes for Dark of the Moon what Michael Bay had always wanted Megan Fox to be in previous films: a part of the background. There’s no telling whether or not she could have been anything other than an object for which Sam needs to fight, but when one of her first scenes includes the director panning up and down her tightly clad figure while two characters talk on-screen about a beautifully designed automobile, I think we get the message.
All that said, Kruger and Bay do spend some time wedging in a few winning story moments. Most of them revolve around the involvement of Leonard Nimoy, who voices new Autobot Sentinel Prime. A little Star Trek reference here, another one there. If you’re paying attention, it’s not subtle, but it works to show that at least someone is paying attention to what’s happening in between all of the explosions. Also improved significantly over Revenge is the pacing. It takes an hour and forty five minutes to get to the big action, which we’ll talk about in a moment, but it moves quickly. Kruger takes the characters we know, adds a few fresh faces, sprinkles it with cheese and cooks it quickly enough to get us to the main course.
At the hour and forty five minute mark, Michael Bay takes over and once again tells his audience, “I don’t care about all that crap, lets blow some stuff up.” The result is an hour long action sequence of mind-bending effects and massive scope unlike anything we’ve ever seen. The Decepticons lay waste to Chicago, setting up a final battle with humanity and the Autobots that proves to be Michael Bay’s most ambitious work to date. This is the exclamation point on the entire series.
It doesn’t really matter how the movie gets here. What matters is that it gets here quickly enough to avoid losing the momentum the film works so hard to maintain. As we watch humans being vaporized and Decepticon airships taking down the Chicago skyline, there’s a real sense of dread in the air. The stakes have been raised to a level unexpected in this tale of toy soldiers, a fact that makes the big battle all the more visceral.
Enhancing the visceral nature of the big action sequences is Bay’s use of 3D. Since Avatar, audiences have become wise to what makes good 3D and what makes bad 3D. The best use of the format includes a commitment to delivering depth. When Dark of the Moon shows us soldiers jumping out of a plane, using wing-suits to get in under the formidable Decepticon defenses, we feel every bit of the depth. We see down the side of a building and we feel as if we’re falling with them. The 3D elements of Dark of the Moon offer us a window to a great battle that’s raging on an expansive American landscape. It looks spectacular in every sense of the word.
In the end, we could probably talk circles around Transformers: Dark of the Moon. I liked it, that’s the bottom line. But I liked it because of what it represents: the id of Michael Bay and his Transformers vision come full circle. It’s a big, bombastic action film that delivers spectacle like nothing you’ve ever seen. It’s cinema’s most technically maniacal filmmaker playing with 3D like a dazzling new toy. It’s big giant robots waging war in one of the most imposing American cityscapes. It could have used a little more thought, or some subtlety, or about 20 minutes of additional cuts, but that’s not the movie Michael Bay wanted to make. He’s got a corny sense of character and a grand sense of showmanship, and that’s all represented in this movie.
What I would ask is this: what do you really want from your Transformers movie experience? If you’re in it for a deeply engrossing story or intellectually stimulating ideas, you’re not going to find it. That’s not here. And that doesn’t make this a bad movie. It holds it back from being a great one, but it sure doesn’t make it terrible. It might not elevate the way we envision it could with a better screenwriter or less ego-maniacal director, but is that really the Transformers movie we want? If given the choice, I’ll take the one with the most impressive final action sequence I’ve ever seen on the big screen. I want the one directed by the guy who brings a Tomahawk missile to a knife fight. I’ll take the one directed by the crazy person. I’ll take the one that represents all that is right and wrong about a franchise that has delighted, disappointed, disoriented and dazzled us in equal measure. Because it’s exactly the movie it aspires to be.
It’s a Michael Bay movie.
The Upside: Impressive visuals, incredibly detailed sound design and a closing action sequence that will make you believe in 3D, America and the existence of life after death.
The Downside: Its human characters are silly, its humor is cheesy and it takes an hour and forty-five minutes to get to the really jaw-dropping stuff.
On the Side: The “dark of the moon” is defined as a phase (approximately three days) when the light of the moon is obscured, and thus absent (i.e. a no-moon time), and precedes the new moon and the beginning of a new lunar cycle. Symbolically, it represents a time of inner stillness and contemplation, and preparedness for a new beginning.