Aside from the horribly inept, yet inexplicably popular, 1999 action movie, The Boondock Saints, Michael Bay’s first Transformers film is hands down the most overrated “guy” picture out there. If my experiences are any indication, men from all corners of the country hold that film up as an example of how action films should be, and for the life of me I cannot figure out why. It’s loud, overblown, overlong and convoluted, among other things. It may not match the abomination that is Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (which made my worst of the year list back in 2009), but it’s still a decidedly bad movie. It appears the third time’s the charm, however, for director Michael Bay. Transformers: Dark of the Moon is easily the best film yet in the series and although it’s far from amazing, it rectifies many of the previous films’ shortcomings, making it one of the most pleasant, if ultimately unfulfilling, surprises of the year.
The film begins with a history lesson, but it’s a little different than what you learned in school. After being informed by American scientists that something of mysterious origins has crash landed on the moon, President Kennedy gives his famous 1961 speech promising to take a man to the moon and back safely. The catch is that the mission is to investigate the crash site, where Buzz Aldrin and company find an alien spacecraft from the planet Cybertron, the home planet of the Transformers, carrying cargo of unknown capabilities. Meanwhile, in present time, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is living in Washington, DC with his new girlfriend, Carly (Victoria’s Secret supermodel, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), and can’t find a job, despite saving the world twice and receiving a medal from President Obama. He soon finds out that his unemployment is the least of his problems, though, when the Decepticons find the cargo on the moon and threaten to use it to destroy Earth.
Based on that plot synopsis, it would be easy to conclude that the story here is just as inconsequential as they were in the previous two films, but that’s not necessarily the case. It’s still rather ridiculous (as is the whole concept of alien robots from outer space, in fact), but it works here for one reason: Bay takes the time to develop it. For about an hour and a half, Dark of the Moon does a decent job of building its characters and allowing the story to flow naturally through dialogue. The romance between Sam and Carly, mercifully replacing the Megan Fox character from the first two films, is delicately handled and genuine. Huntington-Whiteley is a beautiful young woman with a surprising amount charm and comes off like a natural acting opposite the always amusing LaBeouf. Thanks to this, their chemistry rings true, which makes the later scenes of peril that much more tense because you’ll have invested so much in their relationship together.
There is some good humor too, much of which stems from their relationship and Sam’s jealousy towards Carly’s flirtatious boss, Dylan (Patrick Dempsey), but Transformers: Dark of the Moon is nevertheless a darker film than its predecessors. I hesitate to call it a more mature film, however, because cinematic maturity comes with favoring story over explosions, but after that initial hour and a half, it devolves into another mind-numbing action picture. Like most Michael Bay movies, it begins to resemble something similar to what a 13 year old boy would do if given a camera and $200 million to play with. The story hits a standstill, the characters stop developing and the promising set-up is undermined by flavorless stupidity. It’s like Bay shot the movie in order, eventually got bored with all the talking and decided it was about time to blow stuff up. One of my chief criticisms of the original film was that the final action scene, as impressive as it was, went on for far too long, an exhausting 45 minutes. Well, in Dark of the Moon, the final action scene hits closer to the hour mark. Bay is a master at staging these types of scenes, there’s little doubt about that, but he needs someone to tell him when enough is enough. His refusal to edit them down to a manageable length does nothing but weaken an otherwise impressive finale.
What makes Transformers: Dark of the Moon still work in spite of those stumbles is that the events leading up to the mindless action are better handled. Although it still suffers from some of the same problems that plagued the previous films, many of them are fixed. There are no more offensive, stereotypical Transformers, no wrecking ball testicles, no small robots humping anyone’s legs and the acting is all around better thanks to a terrific supporting cast that includes veteran Frances McDormand, the personable Alan Tudyk and John Malkovich in a delightfully off-kilter role.
Of course, Transformers: Dark of the Moon is just as shallow and empty-headed as its older brothers, but it’s competently handled and more coherent. And given the track record of this franchise, that’s about as good as it’s going to get.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon receives 3/5