Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011) poster

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)

Rating:

USA. 2011.

Crew

Director – Michael Bay, Screenplay – Ehren Kruger, Producers – Ian Bryce, Tom DeSanto, Lorenzo di Bonaventura & Don Murphy, Photography (3D) – Amir Mokri, Music – Steve Jablonsky, Visual Effects Supervisor – Scott Farrar, Visual Effects – Digital Domain (Supervisor – Matthew Butler) & Industrial Light and Magic (Animation Supervisor – Scott Benza), Special Effects Supervisor – John Frazier, Production Design – Nigel Phelps. Production Company – Paramount/Hasbro/Di Bonaventura Pictures.

Cast

Shia LaBeouf (Sam Witwicky), Rosie Huntingdon-Whiteley (Carly Spencer), John Turturro (Agent Seymour Simmons), Patrick Dempsey (Dylan Gould), Frances McDormand (Secretary of Defense Charlotte Mearing), Josh Duhamel (Lieutenant-Colonel William Lennox), John Malkovich (Bruce Brazos), Tyrese Gibson (Chief Robert Epps), Alan Tudyk (Dutch), Ken Jeong (Jerry Wang), Kevin Dunn (Ron Witwicky), Julie White (Judy Witwicky), Lester Speight (Hardcore Eddie), Ravil Isyanov (Voshkod), Glenn Morshower (General Morshower), Bill O’Reilly (Himself), Buzz Aldrin (Himself)

Voices

Peter Cullen (Optimus Prime), Hugo Weaving (Megatron), Leonard Nimoy (Sentinel Prime), Jess Harnell (Ironhide), Frank Welker (Shockwave), Charlie Andler (Starscream), Robert Foxworth (Ratchet), James Remar (Sideswipe), Reno Wilson (Brains), Francesco Quinn (Dino), George Coe (Que/Wheeljack), Tom Kenny (Wheelie)


Plot

Following graduation, Sam Witwicky has moved to Washington D.C. to live with his new girlfriend Carly Spencer. Despite having saved the world twice, he is experiencing difficulty getting a job. He is eventually hired as a lowly clerk at Accuretta, only to see a colleague attacked by a Decepticon in the office. Meanwhile, Optimus Prime learns from the new Secretary of Defense that a crucial segment of an artefact known as the Pillars has been retrieved from The Ark, a Transformer spaceship crashed on the Moon, and that the real reason for the Apollo moon landings was to investigate the crash site. Sam joins with Agent Simmons in investigating to find that the Decepticons have been methodically eliminating members of the American and Russian space programs. The Transformer Sentinel Prime is brought back to Earth from The Ark along with the five Pillars, which will allow the opening of a stargate. The Autobots then discover that Sentinel Prime is secretly in league with the Decepticons. The US is forced into an agreement with Sentinel Prime to banish the Autobots. They are placed on a shuttle and sent into space, only for the Decepticons to then blow the shuttle up. Under Sentinel Prime’s guidance, The Decepticons rapidly enslave the Earth, intending to materialise their homeworld Cybertron in orbit via the Pillars and use humanity as a slave race to rebuild it. It is up to Sam to venture into the devastated war zone of Chicago to rescue an abducted Carly and stop Sentinel Prime’s plan.


Transformers: Dark of the Moon was the third of Michael Bay’s Transformers films. Transformers (2007) was one of the top-grossing films in the world when it came out. It was a live-action adaptation of the animated tv series The Transformers (1984-91), which in turn was spun off from a 1980s mass-market toy phenomenon that was centred around the novelty of robot toys that could rearrange into various vehicles. Bay’s reinvention of Transformers was designed to play into his love for epic scale action and copious mass destruction. It also made Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox in particular into hot names. Bay followed this up a couple of years later with Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), which offered more of the same thunderously noisy mass destruction, although by this time most audiences had become tired of Bay’s single-dimensional bombast, not that that stopped Revenge of the Fallen from becoming the second highest-grossing film of its year.

All of Michael Bay’s films are so absurd as to be laughable. They seem made by a testosteronal fourteen year-old boy with access to a mega-million dollar budget. Bay is a director who has never restrained himself from an opportunity to blow something up. Almost everything in the Transformers films is subordinate to massive displays of hardware and epic-scale mass destruction – it is nothing for the action scenes to go on for 20-40 minutes at a time. Amidst this, human considerations are reduced to less than a single dimension. In particular, Bay has a bad habit of regarding the women of the Transformers franchise as akin to inflatable rubber dolls – they seem to have no purpose other than to drape themselves in provocative poses that stir the hormones of said fourteen year-old boys. Beyond that, Bay waves an ardently patriotic American flag with numerous scenes of military hardware going into action, soldiers preparing for battle, cuts away to the American flag flying and the attitude that the US military (aided by the Transformers) are the rightful policemen of world affairs (here the Transformers are even seen engaged in helping the US military root out nuclear weapons in unspecified Middle Eastern countries) – not to mention a lengthy list of thanks for cooperation on the end credits to various divisions of the US armed forces.

Shia LaBeouf, Rosie Huntingdon-Whiteley in Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)
Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox’s replacement Rosie Huntingdon-Whiteley

Michael Bay does not vary the formula substantially when it comes to Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which is otherwise business as usual for him. Bay at least seems to be countering the accusations of racial stereotypes in the other films by this time including a broader range of Transformers that speak not just with caricatured ghetto accents but also Cockney, Scottish and Noo Yok. Michael Bay’s personal politics would appear to tend to the right wing – here he even includes a cameo from conservative Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly. He also throws in a few not-so-subtle digs at President Obama – an Obama lookalike giving Shia LaBeouf his medal, which is seen only in terms of LaBeouf registering disappointment as Obama turns his back and walks away, and this later being dismissed: “You got a medal from Obama? We’re all Republicans here.”

About the one major difference with Transformers: Dark of the Moon is that Michael Bay has canned lead actress Megan Fox and replaced her with British lingerie model Rosie Huntingdon-Whiteley. After Revenge of the Fallen, Fox, who is not exactly noted for the ability to hold her tongue or for that matter to utter anything intelligent when she does speak her mind, mouthed off in the media, calling Bay a control freak on set and at one point likening him to Adolf Hitler. Unnamed set associates then leaked statements to the press that painted Fox as a pissy, self-absorbed diva. Just prior to Dark of the Moon‘s release, Bay improbably cited the reason for her firing as being executive producer Steven Spielberg’s sensitivity over Hitler and the Holocaust. (While Spielberg did make Schindler’s List (1993), I find it hard to believe that someone who would include comic caricatures of Adolf Hitler in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) would take such offence at a mild comment like that). The more likely reason was that Megan Fox’s five minutes of fame were up. Her noticeable lack of acting talent is not something that seemed to concern Michael Bay – but more cannily people saw that the fickle celebrity press that built Fox up in 2007 had taken to savaging her by 2009 and that everything else she had been in – Jennifer’s Body (2009), Jonah Hex (2010) – had bombed. In other words, casting her seemed to welcome back a loose cannon who was difficult to deal with on set and attracted much in the way of negative publicity – a move that would be not unakin to casting someone like Lindsay Lohan, Mariah Carey or Jennifer Lopez in the film. Bay is still clearly pissed about the way Fox acted and the script contains a number of digs at her with Shia LaBeouf coming out with lines like: “She [Megan Fox’s ex-girlfriend] was mean … She dumped me, I went onto better things.”

The idea of a Victoria’s Secret catalogue model cast as the new heroine seems perfectly appropriate for Michael Bay – the very first shot that takes place in the present-day is a closeup of Rosie Huntingdon-Whiteley’s bikinied butt walking up the stairs to greet a sleeping Shia LaBeouf: “My hero needs to wake up.” Later, while Patrick Dempsey is showing Shia LaBeouf his classic cars, he comes out with lines like: “Look at the curves, elegance – like a woman,” while the camera remains focused on Rosie Huntingdon-Whiteley in a skintight mini rather than the car – it is the perpetually adolescent Michael Bay engaging in a piece of thudding Freudian symbolism that seems to be trying to hit you over the head with its obviousness. That said, Rosie Huntingdon-Whiteley, while not quite in the Oscar candidacy stakes, at least shows marginally more talent than Megan Fox and crucially can be seen trying to make an effort. Take the scene where she stands up and inspires Megatron to fight back and not let Sentinel Prime make him his bitch – could you ever imagine Megan Fox playing such a scene with any conviction?

The Driller loose in the streets of Chicago in Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)
The Driller loose in the streets of Chicago

On the basis of the first two-thirds of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, I was prepared to give the film a single star and consign as being the worst of the Transformers films yet. Nothing in this section seems to work. Michael Bay seems to have taken some of the criticisms of the earlier films to heart and cut back on many of his typical excesses. At least up until the last 40 minutes, Dark of the Moon is singularly lacking in any of the epic effects set-pieces that the other films had. While the Transformers are certainly on screen, there is no spectacular standout scenes, nothing you could point to like the Transformers roller-skating down highways, sword-fighting in fields or fighting around the Pyramids as being the big set-pieces you go away from the film remembering.

In their place, Bay tries to fill the gap with character-driven comedy. All that one can say here is that Michael Bay should think twice before ever venturing into making an outright comedy. Everybody’s performance seems off and nobody seems to have any clues what they are meant to be doing. Ken Jeong is appallingly bad as a work colleague of Shia LaBeouf’s where he seems to be completely wired at the same time as trying to affect a cliche nerd role. Equally bizarre is the performance from Alan Tudyk as John Turturro’s assistant, which seems to swing between tough action hero and a bad caricature of a gay man without any clear reasons why. John Malkovich along with a bottle of fake tan has been cast as Shia LaBeouf’s boss but neither he nor the script seem to have any clear idea why he is there and all that Malkovich does is act weird. John Turturro seems to be on speed and turns his scenes into frenetically puffed-up comic posturing. When it comes to the scenes breaking into the Russian bar, you wonder what on Earth all involved thought they were trying to do. Bay also appears to have allowed Shia LaBeouf to improvise his job interview scenes, resulting in a series of excruciating comedy routines.

Although maybe the biggest part of outright fantasy that Dark of the Moon serves up is the idea that a nobody like Shia LaBeouf who is variously unemployed and then working in an entry level clerking job throughout the course of the film would manage to attract a smoking hot babe like Rosie Huntingdon-Whiteley. In terms of social status, where she is dressed in designer clothing and has men with money offering her quarter-million dollar cars for personal use, Rosie Huntingdon-Whiteley seems several whole social classes above where everyguy schmuck Shia is at. It is this crucial lack of conviction to the film’s central relationship – one that seems to exist more in some teenage guy’s sexual wish fulfilment fantasy than any reality – that creates a complete lack of plausibility in any of the scenes they have together. This, the agonising comedy routines and the lack of what we have come to expect of a Michael Bay/Transformers film makes Dark of the Moon slide down into seeming like an epic miscalculation for the greater two-thirds of its running time. There also seems something daft to some of the Transformer designs this time – leaving you wondering why robots would have such anthropomorphic features as beards, dreadlocks, an old man’s balding frizz of hair or would wear hooded capes.

The crash site of The Ark in Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)
The crash site of The Ark on the moon alongside the Apollo landing

The show is at least stolen by a couple of good performances – Frances McDormand having a field-day in a severe power-suit as a tough, hardball female Secretary of Defense and Patrick Dempsey having an equal ball playing a smoothly handsome bad guy. Amid the voicing roles, Leonard Nimoy, who also did voice work in The Transformers – The Movie (1986), turns up to lend his distinctive basso gravitas to the role of Sentinel Prime. (Michael Bay cannot resist tipping his fannish hand and has Nimoy toss in his classic line from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) – “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” at one point, although it does strike you that such a socialist phrase is an odd thing for a villain preparing to enslave the human race to be saying). The film also includes a cameo from real-life astronaut Buzz Aldrin who the film clearly holds up as a true American hero – although one cannot help but think that when Aldrin lets himself by implication be associated with a wacky (albeit made-up) conspiracy theory take on the Moon Landing that he only does his own stature a disservice.

Eventually, during the last forty or so minutes, Transformers: Dark of the Moon arrives at the action scenes. Needless to say, Michael Bay, Industrial Light and Magic and Digital Domain prove to be on top form here. There is all the epic-sized destruction with various Transformers rampaging through downtown Chicago, smashing up buildings, combating one another and the attempts to materialise the planet Cybertron in orbit around the Earth (which oddly fails to cause any of the massive tidal waves and earthquakes that a new gravity source so close to the Earth would do – surprisingly, Michael Bay seems to have missed an opportunity for more mass destruction here).

Michael Bay called the battle scenes “his homeland version of Black Hawk Down (2001)”, although more likely the idea seems to have been to conduct a Transformers film by way of the recent Battle Los Angeles (2011). The show-stopping set-piece is a sequence where the military irregulars skydive through the city in wingsuits (scenes that looks fabulous in 3D), eventually ending up in a glass-sided high-rise that a Driller is wrapping itself around and tearing down, causing everybody inside to go hurtling from one side to the other at the same time as they are being attacked by the Driller, with the group at one point plummeting down the glass on the outside and having to shoot out the windows so as not to fall to the bottom. It is during these scenes at least that Dark of the Moon is truly in its element and where the special effects approach a near work of art. On the other hand, the drawn-out battle sequence does suffer from typical Michael Bay-ism. After producing such a stupendously amazing sequence, Bay fails to leave it there and continues to drags the explosions and mass destruction on for another 30 minutes. As with most of the Transformers films, everything eventually collapse into a mass of numbing excess. At least, you cannot complain that Michael Bay has failed to deliver exactly what we expected of the film when we sat down.

Michael Bay subsequently went onto make Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) and Transformers: The Last Knight (2017) with a completely new cast.

(Winner for Best Special Effects at this site’s Best of 2011 Awards).




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