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By Jason Apuzzo. The Transformers series is basically a high-speed, whipsaw collision of three things: 1) the venerable, 1950’s-based alien invasion genre, with its subtext of American freedom-fighting in the face of overwhelming technological threats from abroad; 2) a Hasbro toy line; 3) the retro-80s/MTV sensibilities of director Michael Bay.

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This unusual and unexpected combination of elements have proven extremely successful at the box office over the past four years, but like any successful franchise, the Transformers movies are also more than the sum of their parts. The movies are fun, epic in scale, earthy in their humor, cheekily conspiratorial in their politics, playfully fetishistic in their focus on cars and girls, and keenly attuned to the sensibilities of the moment – what’s cool and what isn’t – in the same way the Bond films were in their heyday.

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But the films offer a bit more than that, actually.  Like Michael Bay’s best work – Pearl Harbor comes to mind – the films are unbending in their affection for the things that make America special: our independent streak, our fighting spirit, our passion for technological innovation. The films also radiate middle class values: the value of hard work and sacrifice, of remaining loyal to friends, and the importance of family – even when your family drives you insane.

The high-class, professional girlfriend.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon doesn’t necessarily add anything new to this formula that wasn’t there in the first two films. The familiar elements are all there in the first half of Dark of the Moon, but what Bay adds in the film’s second half are action sequences so gigantic and complex in scale – and amplified by astonishingly detailed 3D imagery – that one can only really compare them to Avatar or to certain moments in the Star Wars prequel trilogy. And the sum of all this ultimately is quite arresting and entertaining … but sometimes a bit overwhelming.

So let me just blurt it out here and say that as much as I liked the film, it also felt a bit excessive. The first two Transformers movies I first saw on DVD, on a portable player, in a situation in which the action in my field of vision was tightly contained, and the audio channels compressed down to classic L-R stereo. Watching Dark of the Moon in 3D on a big screen in 7.1 sound – with the film’s rapid fire dialogue, multi-layered conspiracy plotlines, and mind-shattering action sequences – left me feeling liked I’d just spent 2 1/2+ hours behind a jet engine … while reading Stephen Ambrose. It was a lot to take in.

Michael Bay’s directing style might best be described as palimpsestic, like something out 17th century Baroque painting or drama: dense, tightly packed plotlines are unfolding as comic one-liners shoot at you rapid-fire, while imagery of complex machines hurtle through space in balletic, gravity-defying maneuvers … right as Rosie Huntington-Whiteley is turning a corner in an outfit that makes her look curvier than Jessica Rabbit.

And you have about .3 seconds to take all that in before the next shot.

Not a millimeter of the frame nor a single audio frequency is wasted in Dark of the Moon. Every moment is packed to the gills with detail – and frequently with references to other films. It’s a unique style that I’ve come to like from Bay – the style of a muralist, rather than a portraitist – and a style that assumes the audience is capable of absorbing an ocean of detail. But sometimes, as when you’re looking at a huge mural in a museum, it can be a bit overwhelming.

This isn’t a complaint or a criticism, so much as an observation: Michael Bay seems to be inaugurating a different kind of filmmaking in the Transformers series, a type of complex, information-rich filmmaking style that assumes his audience can go back endlessly on DVD/Blu-ray after seeing the film and actually figure out what the hell happened, and savor all the details (and there are plenty to savor; especially if you like Osprey helicopters, or Rosie Huntington-Whiteley’s legs). Because I liked Dark of the Moon, I recommend you do that – because on first viewing it’s quite a lot to take in.

Dark of the Moon begins with a great sequence that essentially re-writes the Cold War space race between America and the Soviet Union as a secret competition to discover what alien spacecraft had crash landed on the Moon, circa 1961. (It’s the second summer film this year to re-write the Cold War, following X-Men: First Class.) There are some wonderful recreations during this sequence of the Kennedy- and Nixon-era White Houses, of Cape Canaveral, and of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. Dark of the Moon, more than the other Transformers films, is really suffused with the romance of our space program and a pride in its achievements – to the point that Buzz Aldrin gets a major cameo, and we even get a Shuttle launch mid-way through the film. Bay obviously loves this stuff, and it’s not hard to understand why; it’s the natural extension of the car- and military-fetishism the series already indulges in. Forget Cameros or assault rifles; you don’t get any more macho hardware than a Saturn rocket, or the other massive technology NASA throws around.

Always on the run: Shia LaBeouf flees a hostile work environment.

As soon as this opening sequence is over … we basically get a Victoria’s Secret commercial, as we’re introduced to a half-dressed Rosie Huntington-Whiteley flouncing around as Carly – Shia LaBeouf/Sam Witwicky’s new live-in girlfriend. (More on Ms. H-W. below.) So how do they handle the whole Megan Fox thing? We learn that Megan/Mikaela dumped poor Sam sometime after the last film.

Hey, these things happen.

Worse, though, we learn that even after saving planet Earth twice, poor Sam can’t get a job in our new Obama economy. This part of the film features one of the best of-the-moment gags of the whole series, one that easily makes up for the Bush-twinkie scene from the first film. Basically, Obama dismissively gives Sam a medal and a slap on the shoulder for saving Earth, and ushers him out of the White House. It’s hilarious, and got a big laugh in the audience I was in. Sam is naively convinced that a medal from Obama will be his key to success, will open doors in the new economy! … only to discover that this trinket from our ‘popular’ President is completely worthless. No one will hire him.

This gag is repeated several times during the film – with Sam thinking his trinket from Obama will open doors, only to find that nobody cares. The gag perfectly distills how public attitudes have changed, re: The One. (And let me tell you something: now that Obama is a pseudo-punchline in a Michael Bay film, he’s toast.)

Girlfriend problems.

So Sam’s having trouble getting a job, which is making him unbelievably neurotic due to the fact that his girlfriend works for slick millionaire playboy Dylan Gould, as played to the hilt by Patrick Dempsey (“McDreamy” from Grey’s Anatomy). Gould is impossibly rich and put together, has an exotic car collection, and has already started calling Sam’s girlfriend cute little nicknames (like “The Duchess”) – so Sam is panicking that a second all-star hottie is about to slip through his grasp. Plus, his parents show up in town and start driving him nuts. Don’t parents always show up when you’re having girl trouble?

This, for me, was easily the best part of the film – it’s always the best part of the Transformers films – when we’re focused on the main characters, and especially Sam with his big heart and volatile temper. If I have a complaint with Dark of the Moon, it’s that I wish Bay would’ve trusted these moments more – and spent less time with the robots. Shia LaBeouf has his nebbish-tough guy persona down pat at this point (he reminds me of Dane Clark, from back in the 1940s), and is able to breathe endless life into these moments so that you’re really pulled into his character and problems. The problems of the robots, by contrast, are never as interesting and always seem the same, film after film – and you sort of wonder if they’ll ever just leave the poor kid alone so he can finally do something with his life. How many times does Sam need to save the world or Optimus’ ass before he can get his life on track?

Meanwhile, the Autobots are off disarming the Iranian nuclear program (hooray!), and Josh Duhamel and his NEST commandos are off on a mysterious mission in the Ukraine … where we learn that the Chernobyl accident (more Cold War history) was actually instigated by mishandled Autobot technology – who knew? – and that people associated with the Russian and American space programs are now being assassinated by the Decepticons. The reasons for this are so complicated that it would require Francis Fukuyama to explain. (Basically it involves traitorous humans conspiring with the Deceptions over several decades. The UN is referenced here in passing.)

Suffice it to say that we are now in the Second Act of the film, a portion dominated by Frances McDormand as a tough-as-nails/Hillary-style bureaucrat in pantsuits (boring), John Malkovich as Sam’s quirky boss (seen it before) … and the great John Turturro as Agent Seymour Simmons, who again nearly steals a Transformers film. (Why doesn’t Turturro get cast in more films?) We learn that crazy Agent Simmons – arguably my favorite Transformers character – has transitioned into being a best-selling author of alien conspiracy books, and we even see him hawking one such book during an interview on The O’Reilly Factor! It’s great stuff. Kudos to Bill O’Reilly for making this a funny, archly self-deprecatory scene … although one has the uncomfortable feeling that hawking alien conspiracy books isn’t all that different from what sometimes happens on Fox News.

Flying into Chicago.

Anyway, Act Three of the film is given up almost exclusively to what is one of the most breathtaking action sequences you’ll ever see – as the alien Decepticons invade downtown Chicago (a refreshing change from the usual alien invasions of L.A. and New York) – as Bay goes into overdrive with toppling buildings, base jumpers, and epic robot carnage, all in exquisite 3D. This is where the Michael Bay style of filmmaking is either going to grab you – or leave you somewhere in the rubble, enervated. I felt a little of both. The action at the end of the film is extraordinary, seamlessly blending 3D live action with cutting-edge CGI and miniatures – all in sequences choreographed perfectly, as if in chess moves by Bobby Fisher.  Of particular note is the sequence involving the base jumpers, who take off over the skies of Chicago as burning helicopters fall around them … and fly through the city’s cavernous downtown … only to arrive at a toppling skyscraper, about to be targeted by the new Decepticon baddie, Shockwave. At one point our heroes are actually sliding down the side of the building … and I won’t tell you how they get out of the situation, except that I’ve not seen action this dynamic since Avatar.

So has Bay ‘topped’ Avatar here, in terms of the breadth and variety of action on display in the climax of the film? Yes, he may have – but possibly at too high a price. I could’ve used less action, and more time with the characters – because I had the sense that this was probably the finale of the series, and I wanted to see Sam and his parents one more time, and get a sense of what his life would be like ahead with his new girlfriend …

The U.S. military innovates, fights back, and saves the day.

… and on that point, a few thoughts about Ms. Huntington-Whiteley, who makes her film debut here. I thought she was surprisingly good, especially given the pressure she was under in replacing her famous predecessor. She comes across as feisty and decisive, and is fully Megan Fox’s equal in the looks department. But let’s face it: she plays ‘the girlfriend,’ and I suspect that’s what she’ll be playing for the foreseeable future until she proves she’s got the chops to do more. But so far, so good.

As for the rest of the cast, they’re all good – especially Tyrese Gibson. Leonard Nimoy voices Sentinel Prime, lending the character a gravelly voice and gravitas, and look for the inside-baseball Star Trek references in the film.

So what’s the bottom line? I liked Dark of the Moon, without necessarily loving it. I can believe it will look better on a second viewing, probably on a smaller screen. Otherwise, the modern gold standard for the alien invasion genre is still probably Independence Day, but the Transformers series as a whole is richer and more interesting to me. I like the themes and values of Bay’s films, how human and vulnerable his characters are – when they have room to breathe – and the level of action, sexiness and relevance in these films currently exceeds that of the once-great Bond franchise (which Michael Bay should immediately be given). With that said, I don’t think Dark of the Moon is the best film of the series as some people are saying – because the magic of the first film was unique, especially in introducing the characters and their world. But Dark of the Moon rounds the series out nicely, and I’ll buy the DVD/Blu-ray the day it comes out … possibly so I can figure out what the hell happened in Act 2. I know something important was being said about the end of the space race, while the Victoria’s Secret supermodel was sashaying around in 3D in a miniskirt – and a robot bird was morphing into a photocopier – but I can’t remember exactly what it was.

Posted on June 29th, 2011 at 8:59pm.

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16 Responses to “LFM Review: Transformers: Dark of the Moon

  1. Vince says:

    That review is as epic as the film appears to be. I’m going to see it on Thursday night, and then I’ll reread it, so I can contribute more.

    Just wanted to compliment it — great job, Jason.

    • Jason Apuzzo says:

      Thanks, Vince, I appreciate it. I think Bay deserves more discussion and analysis than he generally gets, so I wanted to be fair to his work.

  2. shinsnake says:

    Sounds almost exactly how I expected it to be. I haven’t seen the third one yet (gotta wait until Sunday! You believe that?), but I imagine you’re right about the first film still being the best film in the trilogy. As much as we Americans love our fight against tyranny, perhaps our greatest joy comes from discovery. We’ve never seen the Autobots or Decepticons on the big screen in full CG glory before, so when Sam is amazed by the sight of Bumblebee standing up in the middle of a junkyard signaling something unknown in the space beyond, we too are amazed about what we’ve just discovered. In fact, to illustrate the point, if you ask my wife or daughter or son what my favorite scene from the first Transformers is, they will immediately respond “when the soldiers are walking down the alley in the city and the helicopter Decepticon transforms in the middle of the air and then drops to the ground.” There’s nothing especially story driven, nothing to do with a great action piece, but the way it’s done, we haven’t seen on screen before and I get as giddy as a nerd does some times. So again, there’s that discovery aspect.

    So while I will probably come back to this movie again on BluRay and even the second one, I will probably return to the original more often, to try and remember what it felt like when I discovered my childhood so expertly blown up on the big screen.

    Of course, those sentiments could be completely unique to me and maybe the complete antithesis of what other people feel about the films.

    By the way, I’m unable to convince my wife and kids to see it in 3D since they get headaches from them. Is it worth going back and paying another $12 to see it again in 3D? Does it add that much that a second viewing in 3D would be worth it?

    • Jason Apuzzo says:

      Shin – I agree with you completely about the first film. And more generally, I think it’s always difficult to capture the magic of discovery in any kind of sequel – which is why we cherish films like The Empire Strikes Back or Godfather II or The Bride of Frankenstein, films that enrich the original experience more than they try to top it.

      It seems to me like it would be a crime not to see Dark of the Moon in 3D – it’s really made for that, so you might want to catch it yourself first in that format. You’ll need to see it again anyway just to figure out everything that happened …

  3. Michael K says:

    “It’s hilarious, and got a big laugh in the audience I was in.”

    We are talking about LA?? hee, hee If an LA audience loved that gag, where I am sure the One beat McCain by what 99% to 1%, then that is the best sign he might lose in 2012.

    • Jason Apuzzo says:

      As I said in the review, Bay is a shrewd guy whose films have a keen sense of what’s cool and what isn’t – and I think he senses that Obama isn’t looking too cool right now …

      Thanks for checking in, Michael!

  4. Curtin/Dobbs says:

    Great Review!
    Bay should do an epic pro-America Vietnam war or Iraq war movie.
    Remember how crazy the critics got over the recent and relatively tame THE KINGDOM?
    Or how Phil Donahue and others blew a casket in the wake of the 2nd RAMBO movie?
    Or how the “elites” had to subvert ” 2 4 ” ?
    Imagine what would happen with a full-throttle pro-America war movie from Bay!

  5. Vince says:

    I pretty much agree with all of that — I think you really nailed down what makes these films resonate to the degree they have: the humans … and maybe this strange combination of screwball comedy and surprisingly edgy sci-fi.

    The foundations set by the first film can’t be discounted. The sense of discovery and wonder that I still get from seeing that is the same I get when I first opened one of those toys when I was in third grade. I also think that sense of menace from the very first sequence still sets the tone for two sequels — this is a dangerous world.

    You’re also right about the formula, which I think gives the film it’s sense of familiarity. Sequels should definitely expand and introduce new things, but they should also feel like you’re going home again. I think this is handled well by the invention of the NEST team, its growing roll from fighting alien threats, to taking on real-world threats … like Iranian nuke facilities — amazing.

    That’s cool, and it really shines a light on the spot-on worldview of these films, but what gives them its collective backbone is the Sam’s arc. Obviously we see him progress from high school to college to the workforce, but underneath that is what will make you go back and see the films again. All at once, Sam’s journey is of family, faith and love; and simultaneously finding strength, letting go, and ultimately self discovery. It’s borderline Joseph Campbell stuff — I mean, he also finds he has a hidden destiny.

    Great call on the Trek stuff. I always thought Spock’s line in II was a little creepy when taken out of the self-sacrifice context … the whole good of the many over the good of the few — or the ONE — never connected with my Reagan DNA. That’s why it was so cool in this film.

    • Jason Apuzzo says:

      Thanks, Vince, and I couldn’t agree with you more when you say: “Spock’s line in II was a little creepy when taken out of the self-sacrifice context … the whole good of the many over the good of the few — or the ONE — never connected with my Reagan DNA.” I know precisely what you mean. I love that scene in Wrath of Khan, but that line – with its quasi-totalitarian vibe – has been bothering me for 30 years! And it’s apparently been bothering Bay, as well.

      I wanted to say more about Bay’s reversal of that famous Star Trek line in Dark of the Moon, but I didn’t have time to bring it up. This is one of those sophisticated touches that Bay often doesn’t get credit for: he just took one of sci-fi’s most revered moments, and turned it completely on its head, exposing its sinister potential – almost as if it’s something he too has been stewing over for 30 years. This is part of what sets this series apart from commendable but standard fare like Battle: Los Angeles: its sense of the full flow of sci-fi history.

  6. omar says:

    Upon reading these posts, i have become more excited about seeing the new Transformers film. All of your posts have increased my enthusiasm more and more. On a side note, i noticed the comment about how the liberals subverted the show 24. If one means seasons 7 and 8 (after Joel Surnow left), i am not completely convinced that it was subverted. Allow me to quickly explain (these are items that i had from a previous post for this site on May 4 linked to the article, The Demise of Bin Laden and Cinematic Legacy of 9/11):
    .
    A. Season 7 definitely moves away from the more conservative thoughts of the previous seasons (Season 5 excepted). These are notes from older post of mine on a different website regarding seasons 7 . With season 7, I can definitely see some pandering, but I can also see where that was avoided. Allow me to explain: WARNING SPOILERS

    1. The President, Allison Taylor is portrayed as a well meaning, honorable leader, who is determined to stop a dictator from further causing harm to his people. What makes it interesting is that it is implied that Taylor is a Republican (something that is mentioned by TV Guide) President who chose to do this, While former President Daniels (Democrat supposedly) did not want to deal with the situation and comes off as less sympathetic.

    2. The reason for the initial terrorist attack is not because the United States did anything wrong, but because the U.S is taking direct action to stop the African General/Dictator (General Juma) from further terrorizing his country and its people. This goes the “its America’s fault” reasoning. In addition, Jack does get additional help form Navy SEALs to fight some of the villains this season.

    3. The very beginning has Jack Bauer defending the torture of a Middle Eastern terrorist. During this scene, the audience’s sympathies are with Jack. The more liberal minded Senator (played by Kurtwood Smith) is portrayed less sympathetically. This senator begins to gain from support from the audience, when he eventually decides to aid Jack Bauer. In addition, the audience finds out that member/s of this Senator’s staff (not some “neocon” politician) who are involved with the terrorists.

    4. Finally, in the end, Jack explains that while part of him understands that torture is wrong, he feels it is worse for people (especially him) to let innocent people die when they could have done something to stop it. Therefore, while season 7 definitely does have some liberal leanings (the Starkwood villains working with General Juma, the framing of a Muslim for terrorist activities by Starkwood, and Jack Bauer confessing to an Imam), there are areas that go against the liberal Hollywood thinking that keep it from being Anti-American.

    B. As for Season 8 (again from older post of mine from a different site):
    1. The portrayal of the Middle Eastern terrorists is not sympathetic and the equivalency card is never played (ala “The Kingdom”). The Kamistani terrorists (24’s version of Iran) commit such acts as : attempting to blow up a hospital, violently killing a protagonist on video and then downloading it on the web, torturing characters, seducing and using innocent young ladies and then setting them up to die, using a housing complex as a base of operations where they keep their kids in close proximity, and attempting to detonate a dirty bomb in New York City. The show makes it clear that this is never done in retaliation for “injustices”committed by the United States (ala “The Siege”) or because they are fighting evil with evil (ala “Body of Lies”) or because of US persecution. The Kamistani terrorists are doing this because the nation of Kamistan (24’s Iran) is on the verge of peace with the United States and the terrorists cannot let this happen. They wish to dismantle the peace process by attacking America, killing the Pro-US leaders of their country, and propping up a more radical Anti-American government in Kamistan that will continue the cycle of violence.

    2. This season shows that the United States does not deserve this wave of violence. CTU (which according to some sites is a special domestic division of the CIA) is shown as doing whatever is necessary to stop the terrorists and the audience is rooting for them. This season makes the argument that terrorism (The Kamistani terrorists) and enemy governments (The Russian government who has secretly been in league with the terrorists because they fear that a peace deal between America and Kamistan would further shift the balance of power to the West/ United States) must be confronted and held accountable for their actions even if the results are not pretty ones. Capitulating to the demands of terrorists and appeasing enemy governments in order to expedite government policies is viewed negatively in this season and never an option (hint hint present administration). This plays as a factor (along with vengeance) for Jack Bauer going rogue later in the season.

    • Jason Apuzzo says:

      I appreciate your time and effort on this, Omar! I can’t say much on this subject, because I never got around to seeing much of the later seasons – but I have no doubt the 24 fans out there will find your analysis intriguing. Thanks for contributing.

      • omar says:

        Thank you gain for taking the time to respon to my post Mr. Apuzzo. You have have done this on more than one occasion and i appreciate that. I saw Transformers 3 twice this weekend and realized that this film is not just a conservative/patriotic film. It is a slap in the face/spit in the eye to the the liberal ideolofy and leadership that exists today. For example (with SPOILERS):
        1. The film is pro American military (the Autobots are allied with them, not some United Nations task force (ala GI JOE)) and the it is the American military that helps the autobots save the word.
        2. The film is pro-freedom.
        3. The film is pro-American (Americans fight for freedom, and the multiple shots of the US Flag aroung the heroes and when there is talk of freedom)
        *** all of these tihings are great. However the movie goes alot further than expected.
        1. You have the autobots taking military action in the middle east, that the Obama administration may not fully know of or support, for the better of humanity (destroying the nuclear site in Iran)
        2. Your example of the Obama medal meaning nothing in the real world.
        3. Obama’s own National Intelligence Director being portrayed as condesending, dismissive, and out of her depth (like the “Great One” himself)
        4. The United Nations and the Obama Administration betraying the Autobots after all they have done for this planet and jumping to appease the decepticons.
        5. Optimus Prime showing that it is not enough to fight in defense against tyranny, but having to, in his words, “take the war to them”. (A BIG LIBERAL NO NO). In this film, you do not fight a war half-a**ed. You fight for total victory.

        All the Obama Administration, the UN, and the liberal ideology brings is death, destruction, and misery to those they are charged to protect during wartime. It is the US military (with the Autobots, Sam, and Carly) who must take charge, clean up the mess, and USE EXTREME FORCE TO TAKE OUT THE TRASH. AND THE FILM IS NOT SUBTLE IN ANY WAY ABOUT IT.

        • Jason Apuzzo says:

          You’re very welcome, Omar, and thanks for all your contributions. And I’m glad you saw the film twice! My sense is that Michael Bay may complete the trifecta here. Both previous Transformers films were the top grossing films in their year (in part due to Avatar straddling 2009-10), and I think Dark of the Moon will complete the hat trick. I don’t think anybody’s done anything like this since the Lucas-Spielberg days.

          Your analysis is certainly correct here. The Transformers films strike me as having a 1980s-style sensibility in terms of their overall patriotic attitude. I’m just so glad that audiences still respond to this stuff – provided that the filmmaker shows them a good time!

  7. johngaltjkt says:

    This movie is the prototype Michael Bay movie. Which is good and bad. I prefer to focus on the positives because Michael Bay receives far more his share of criticism than many other less talented directors working today. First, he’s a patriot and is not ashamed of that fact. He always portrays our military in heroic and professional terms. He’s also without a doubt the most talented CGI, 3D director in the world, today. The work is seamless and fluid. That’s probably the thing that I enjoy the most about the Transformer movies. Yes the story was silly, the movie loud and at times mouth dropping incoherent. However compared to a lot of movies that clearly are pushing a leftest agenda and portray our military and conservatives as slobbering murderers, I’ll take Michael Bay any day!

    • Jason Apuzzo says:

      Well put, JG. I would go further and say that the building-tumbling sequence in Dark of the Moon was more thrilling, more perfectly conceived and executed than anything in the entire 2 1/2+ hours of Inception.

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