Sporadically exciting, but consistently stupid and condescending, the third entry in the billion dollar+ franchise has Optimus Prime and co. dealing with the reemergence of one of their long-lost bretheren on, you guessed it, the dark SIDE of the moon. The fact that the filmmakers didn’t have the balls to give THAT title to the movie, simultaneously referencing the classic album and actually MAKING SENSE, is indicative of the soft, unimaginative way Michael Bay and Steven Spielberg have rendered this series. The plot, as in the last two, is completely superfluous. We, again, have some “relatable” nonsense with Shia LaBeouf’s Sam that doesn’t involve any robots or sci-fi; in the first one, it was getting his first car, in the second, it was going to college and leaving the nest and this one, he is boxed out of the Transformers government duties, and looking for a job in the recession-era market (ho, ho!). Watching a montage of Shia flubbing his way through job interviews while the film completely ignores the activities of the titular robots is inexcusable, unnecessary, and rather depressing, considering how much potential the robots’ presence has. The new Transformer, Sentinel Prime, is brought back to Earth in order for main baddie Megatron to build some sort of space-bridge that will transport their home planet of Megatron to Earth. And by transport Megatron to Earth, I literally mean drop Megatron right next to Earth’s orbit which, I suppose, would not have any sort of gravity-related effect on the Earth’s resources the evil Deceptacons intend on plundering (like what? ore? they are robots!). There are many other extraneous subplots and deviations, including John Malkovich’s weird boss character, Frances McDormand’s CIA agent, a showdown in a Russian Bar, a 20 minute period where the Autobots pretend to leave Earth (whoops, *spoiler alert*) simply for dramatic effect, and a excruciatingly lame, “I feel like just a boytoy” relationship between Sam and his “new girlfriend” (a.k.a. hastily written and cast replacement for Megan Fox), a former British ambassador-turned-curator’s assistant (???). The characters are remarkably inconsistent, hollow shells, the script never finds a balance between its over-the-top theatrics and “relatable, down-to-earth” sensibility, and the humans interactions with the robots, down to the Marines’ remarkably persistent and pointless machine gun fire (Josh Duhamel’s character actually says “The vibrations jack up their circuits” to justify the marines’ constant cannon-fodder presence in these movies…I nearly spit out my soda), are poorly thought out, schizophrenic, and freaking stupid.
So what works in the movie? Well, for one, the same thing that worked in the first two: the goddam Transformers themselves. For some reason, even though they have ended up being a remarkably minor element of the franchise, (most of) the giant robots have consistently been handled with a certain degree of care and effort, both in terms of character interaction and special effects. The Amos and Andy minstel-esque robots are gone (although smaller, more minor stereotype-based characters abound, most glaringly pairs of Italian-American and Australian-accented robots), and there are no robot balls or urine, um, I mean oil leaks. The relationship with Bumblebee (the yellow, mute car that girls love) and Sam has, once again, been taken seriously, Megatron is once again voiced, with relish, by Hugo Weaving, and Optimus Prime remains the easy highlight of the franchise with his growlingly good-natured voice and pitch-perfect transformation scenes. Leonard Nimoy, in an excellent throwback to the animated Transformers: The Movie, lends his voice to the proceedings, giving Sentinel Prime more dignity than the script could muster him, even if they made him say “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” at a crucial moment, as well as adding a groan-inducing foreshadow using footage of him as Spock. The action is, in my opinion, the best of the franchise (although, to be fair, the two fellas I saw it with preferred the fisticuffs in the first and second, respectively): to accommodate the image-dimming 3-D (which, btw, is the best use of the format I’ve seen since How to Train Your Dragon, but still may not justify the extra dinero), Michael Bay has bumped up the brightness of his shots, has focused more on wide shots than tight, intense close-ups, and, most gratifyingly, altered his traditional quick-cutting tendencies into a more elegant, confident pace, allowing the majesty of the spectacle to take full reign, as it should. Bay’s consistently-improved handling of the action in these films gives me hope for whatever big-budget spectacle he decides to helm next (is it too much to hope for Bad Boys 3: Robots Take Miami?).
Another element of the movie that kind of saves it from being unwatchable during its miserable, turgid first act is an appearance by Senor Chang himself, Dr. Ken Jeong. As coworker of Sam’s who may or may not be (oh, I give up, who IS) related to the Transformers, Jeong instantly increases the wattage of the film, instantly replacing the memories of Sam‘s rough time in today’s economy with images of him pathetically hiding behind coworkers, straddling Sam in the bathroom, and, in one of the film’s finest moments, taking a stand against the Decepticons (that part I would not DARE spoil). I have heard people complain that his presence is juvenile, and near-racist, unfitting with the rest of the film; I disagree, and think that if the series had kept the humans as lively, fun, and larger-than-life as the robots, as Dr. Ken is, the 2-and-a-half-hour running time of these films would go by a lot quicker. The two other performances that nearly equal Jeong’s in terms of humor and watchability are John Turturro’s, once again scoring consistent laughs as the ridiculous, flailingly commanding Agent Simmons, and Alan Tudyk’s, once again putting on a hilarious accent, as Simmons’ bodyguard, Dutch. Their entrance into the picture keeps the human element of the story from completely falling apart (until the ending, where they are relegated to the sidelines, albeit with a Strangelove-esque getup for Simmons), and turns the aforementioned Russian bar scene into the best humans-only scene of the franchise. The other actors don’t fare so well against the big-budget effects; aside from Kevin Dunn and Julie White, once again appearing as Sam’s daffy parents, the rest of the cast, including McDormand, Malkovich (who really should’ve just said no), Patrick Dempsey, astronaut Buzz Aldrin (ugh), along with returning hunkalunks Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson (who was SO much better in Fast Five that it hurt), is embarrassingly out of touch with the material, and add nothing but wasted time to the film.
But the most egregious element of the casting, and one that extends to the whole mindset behind these franchise, is that of Sam’s love interest, Carly. The worst thing I can say about Rosie Huntington-Whitely, the Victoria’s Secret Angel who makes her acting debut here, is that she made me REALLY miss Megan Fox’s presence in the series. While I cringed at every moment the theater audience would cheer at revealing shots of Megan Fox’s remarkably overhyped body, as well as when the films tried to take her moments with the Transformers seriously, at least I got the feeling she was actually trying to create a character out of the contrivance; not here. This chick is a blank face, merely a body for Michael Bay (and his audience) to leer at and oogle, without any hint of emotion, nuance, character, or consistency. To say she is a bad actress would be an insult to SAG card wavers everywhere, because she is NOT an actress; Bay has seemingly given her just as much direction on this 160-minute film as he did in his 60-second Victoria’s Secret commercial. But that is indicative of where the attention was held during the making of the whole series: the body, not the heart or the mind. These films look terrific, and play great to international audiences, but lack any of the sort of attention to character or humanity that could’ve made these films classics. The “Spielbergian touch,” that is to say, the Shia LaBeouf side of the franchise, with its attempts at family-driven humor, boyhood fantasy, and sunlight-bathed love scenes, has hurt the series, rather than help it; by keeping the attention on Sam Witwicke, and not on the Transformers, the “human” element of the trilogy renders the film a sort of $700 million con, disguising an elongated journey into manhood as a no-hold’s-barred, huge-budget robot smackdown. Michael Bay has not helped matters with his fetishizing of the military, from their hardware to their semper-fi attitude, injecting them into the franchise, even though they have never proven a millionth as effective against the Decepticons as the handful or so Autobots (although the Marines have their series-best scene in this one in a toppling glass building, where they scale windows to accommodate the barrage of Decepticon missile fire). While they managed to get, basically on the basis of their names alone, huge budgets for these films right from the getgo, and have provided some excellent robot-on-robot fighting scenes and, occasionally, a rewarding match of robot tenacity and human-based humor, their respective sentiments, preoccupations, and ideas at what translates to globally acceptable blockbuster cinema have made this huge franchise, ripe with potential, into a decent, adequate, but hilariously overblown and overlong trilogy.
Slightly Recommended for fans of the first two films, Michael Bay’s PG-13 rated fare (more The Island and Pearl Harbor than The Rock or Bad Boys), Ken Jeong (who, although being in the film for less than 10 minutes, instantly kickstarts this thing into something interesting), and, of course, sex, guns, and stupid, pointless Shia LaBeouf man-boy drama. I would see this over X-Men: First Class, or Green Lantern, if that’s not your thing, but not over Thor, Super 8, or CERTAINLY not Fast Five, which, I can’t freaking believe, remains the best movie of the summer (down to it’s superior use of hot cars, hot women, a bland leading White Boy, and Tyrese).
P.S. This follows in the tradition of X-Men: First Class of films that open with a scene that the audience has literally already seen: in that film it was the Holocaust opening from X-Men 1, and in this one, it is the same scene depicted in the nearly-unrelated teaser for the film (where they walk on the moon), only wayyyyy longer. Why can’t more movies be like Fast Five, down to its quick, graceful, wordless opening?