I really wanted to love Transformers: Dark of the Moon. I am a fan of thinking that you have to approach movies with the right mindset to enjoy them. For an expensive summer movie action flick, you know going in that you probably have to check your brain at the door. Don't look for plot holes, don't look for characterization, and don’t try to make sense of the motivations for the bad guys. While you hope it isn’t always the case, Dark of the Moon is that type of movie. Just sit back with your popcorn and enjoy the spectacle that the movie’s director Michael Bay is a master at creating. Bay brings his best as a top action director but with it is the usual pluses and minuses where everything is in service to the visual instead of the story and characters. The problem is Transformers is capable of more than just being a visual experience.
The story by Ehren Kruger is straight forward and follows the formula from the previous films. It opens with more background on the Transformers’ civil war and how it ended up tying into the 1960s space race. It tosses in another history revision with the Chernobyl nuclear accident as a means to introduce and explain why a certain Decepticon character may not have been available for Megatron's previous two attempts at world conquest. Instead of an All Spark or Matrix, this time is a important piece of Space Bridge transporter technology. The villain, who will remain nameless for spoiler reasons, is the main focus causing all other Decepticon characters both new and old to be sidelined for most of the movie. Once again the Autobots on the verge of defeat rally behind the leadership of Optimus Prime as they attempt to stop the Decepticons from enslaving the world to rebuild their dead planet of Cybertron with the city of Chicago as the final battleground.
There are many things done right with the usual Bay eye for action and visuals. The movie is wonderful eye candy, especially in the last 45 minutes for the Battle of Chicago. The destruction is huge with clashes between the Autobots and Decepticons that should get even non-Transformers fans excited. ILM and Digital Domain brought their best and it shows in every frame of Transformer action and destruction. If anything those fights are often a little too brief and makes you wish they could have gone at it for more than a few swings.
The 3-D in the movie is impressive and immersive, especially in a dangerous flight through the Chicago skyline by NEST as Decepticons try to shoot them down. While Bay did cut back on his usual filming style, his version of cutting back is still excessive by most standards. Often times the best visuals were when he pulled back and allowed the camera to be still, letting the scene carry the moment. However, for every one of that you got a half dozen moments of the typical Bay style that nearly ruin the fantastic visual effects and fight sequences.
If given a choice, see this movie in 3D even though you will likely have to deal with the "sunglasses" effect anecdotal evidence indicates theaters ignored Bay's bulb brightness pleas. The sound effects and score are loud and up to the task as expected. If anything, Michael Bay's continued distrust of a strong musical score to provide the emotional impact he wants to a scene caused some visuals to have less punch than they could have.
The actors do their jobs without a problem, keeping you in the movie. Rosie Huntington-Whitely as Carly provides additional eye candy as the replacement for Megan Fox and does just fine as sexpot/damsel in distress. The role was insignificant enough I don't even think you can judge her acting skills by it except to say she didn't ruin any moments. Patrick Dempsey joins the cast as a suave, rich boss of Carly that has a hidden agenda. He plays the role just right with enough to convey his power without bringing it over the top. Shia LaBeouf does Sam with his usual skill.
New supporting cast members include Frances McDormand (CIA director Mearing), John Malkovich (Sam's boss) and John Turturro (Seymour Simmons, now rich book author) pretty much come in and cash their paychecks as their roles are not exactly a stretch of their acting skills. The voice acting is solid as always with Peter Cullen bringing the usual gravitas to the proceeding even in situations that don't normally track as typical Optimus Prime behavior. Leonard Nimoy's as the voice of Sentinel Prime makes him a near equal to Cullen in the gravitas department, also selling his character's motivations with skill, including the ubiquitous Star Trek related line that had a whole different meaning in this movie.
The comedy moments remain a problem but this time around there was a lot less misses in large part thanks to Shia's comedic timing. Alan Tudyk (Firefly) as Simmon's assistance brings his usual unappreciated comedic genius, making the best of a pointless role. The Autobots Wheelie and Brains replace the infamous Twins as the Transformers comedy team, with each voiced by Tom Kenny and Reno Wilson who had voiced the twins in the previous installment. Provided with better material, both do a much better job with their moments. The less said about Ken Jeong's brief part the better.
At two and a half hours the movie is too long. In an effort to save his efforts on the final act, the first hour and half can drag at times as the story moves from plot point to plot point. Thirty to forty minutes could have been easily cut and still connected the necessary dots if the script remained as clever as early promise of the secret moon landing mission.
False dilemmas are created for very little payoff and often with no real point to the overall story. Sam wants to work with the Autobots but denied by Mearing who doesn't seem him as up to the task, calling him "a Messenger" not a warrior. Sam has to prove her wrong with Simmons help to make connections the CIA was incapable of that took about 15 minutes of story. That is fine except it all became moot in the very next scene that followed with a betrayal and death. There are a lot of scenes that occur for no other reason than to either poorly moves things along or just for the spectacle it provides.
The visual of an office building collapsing with the human heroes trapped inside was exciting but it added nothing to the story except that Michael Bay probably thought it would look cool (and it did) but at the expense of bringing the conflict between the Autobots and Decepticons to a halt for the audience. What were they doing while the humans were sliding down a building? Apparently doesn't matter because the visual effects look good.
When Bay did make cuts they often come at the expense of the story. One moment Optimus Prime needs his trailer for his flight pack, later he suddenly comes flying to the rescue. Bumblebee saves Sam yet again, the next he is a prisoner along with other Autobots that somehow got captured. Having the visual of the office building was more important than the story of how those other events occurred.
The problems with making decisions that don't service the story but the visual extend to the characters. None of the human and Transformer characters is giving any meaningful character arcs. A lot of additional Transformers were added to the "cast" but while they are cool looking mass of robots, they were never defined as individual characters. Some really didn't serve any purpose except to provide another car for Bay to show off. A major character dies, but you wouldn’t know. Fans in the audience will probably react more than the characters on screen do. Not because they probably wouldn’t but because once again the visual of massive “bayhem” must win out.
The Decepticons suffered the most indignities. Megatron is sidelined for most of the movie. Shockwave, while visually powerfully looking, did little but stand around and stare (even in slow mo for one scene) while his giant metal worm did most of the work. Except for Laserbeak who could transform into whatever the story needed him to be, none of the others served any meaningful purpose except provide awesome combat visuals. Instead of having a single villain doing impressive and frightening things, you have three bad guys that do very little but talk and act as cannon fodder. The scale of the threat is not conveyed by the actions of the main Decepticons but by the visual of a devastated Chicago as minions scours the streets and show exactly what a Decepticon gun does to human flesh.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon suffers for the same reason the entire franchise has - the limitations of Michael Bay as a director. Again and again, given a choice between making a better story, a better character or a better visual - the visual wins out to the detriment of character and story. It is possible to service all three but Michael Bay doesn’t seem to know that. Bay doesn't question if the visual is needed. He doesn't care if the action sequence advances the story or the character. He just wants it to look cool. The movie is chock full of visual candy. Whether it is a slow camera move on Rosie’s body or the frenzy of multiple Transformers fighting each other, there is much to enjoy looking at with the 3D bringing it to another level. There is just very little to engage your brain or make you care what happens to the characters on the screen. Success or failure doesn't matter, nor who dies except you will have fun talking about how they died. A transformer as a concept and universe of characters is capable of much more but that potential remains untapped. This is one of Michael Bay's best efforts at creating a great visual experience but as a storyteller he still has a lot to learn. 3/5