Saturday, June 28, 2014

Stubs - Second Opinion: Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011) Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Josh Duhamel, John Turturro, Tyrese Gibson, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Patrick Dempsey, Kevin Dunn, Julie White, John Malkovich, Frances McDormand. Staring the voices of: Peter Cullen, Hugo Weaving, Leonard Nimoy. Directed by Michael Bay. Screenplay by Ehren Kruger. Based on the Hasbro action figures. Produced by Don Murphy, Tom DeSanto, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Ian Bryce. Run Time: 154 minutes. U.S. Color. Science Fiction, Action

With the fourth installment of the most successful toy-inspired film franchise about to be released on the big screen, and in the case of IMAX, bigger screen, we thought it was a chance to take a last look at the third in the Witwicky trilogy, Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011). The review at the time of its original release can be found here.

While the welcomed departure of Megan Fox allowed for the franchise to move forward, she is not the only thing that was wrong with Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), which while not as well received critically, still managed to outperform the original live-action film, Transformers (2007), at the box-office. Some connected to the production would blame the writer’s strike, which disrupted the rewrite of the script, with the film’s shortcomings, but it was probably more to do with having a set in cement release date, even if the film wasn't quite ready for public consumption. With profitability attached to summer blockbusters, there is no way a studio can afford any delays in getting the product out the gates.

Dark of the Moon starts with the premise that the Apollo moon landing was a government conspiracy to explore the lunar crash site of an alien spacecraft. In this case, Sentinel Prime’s (Leonard Nimoy) spaceship, shot down in the last days of the war for Cybertron between the Autobots and the Decepticons. On board the ship are pillars which, used together, can create a space bridge for teleporting weapons, troops and supplies. NASA doesn’t know what’s found when the astronauts get to the site.

The moon landing was just a government conspiracy.

The conspiracy idea never gets shaken as those connected with it, including Jerry "Deep" Wang (Ken Jeong), a programmer who works at the same company Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) lands a job in the mail room at. Wang is acted out in Jeong’s usual over-the-top anything-for-a-cheap-laugh-style (better suited to the Hangover films), but he is not the first over-the-top character Witwicky comes into contact with, nor is he the last. Pretty much every human character is portrayed as a caricature, from Sam’s first boss, Bruce Brazos (John Malkovich), to his parents, Ron (Kevin Dunn) and Judy (Julie White), to old nemesis, now turned ally, former agent, Seymour Simmons (John Turturro). Include in there Seymour’s personal assistant, Dutch (Alan Tudyk), and Charlotte Meaning (Frances McDormand), the Director of National Intelligence, and you pretty much have all the main “human” characters. All have done better work in other films, so this is not a high point in their acting careers with the possible exception of paychecks.

The only humans who are in any way believable and likeable are the Army personnel, led by U.S. Army Lt. Colonel William Lennox (Josh Duhamel), and retired U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sergeant Robert Epps (Tyrese Gibson). Dylan Gould (Patrick Dempsey), who is working on Earth for the Decepticons’ cause, is also, sadly, quite believable, but I wouldn’t say likable. He represents all that we think is wrong with the rich and privileged in that they will do anything for their own success and survival despite what happens to the rest of us. Gould is the embodiment of the financial top 1% all those protests were about a few years ago.

Replacing Fox as Sam’s love interest is Rosie Huntington-Whiteley as Carly Spencer, who works for Gould managing his large car collection. A model, Dark of the Moon marks Huntington-Whiteley's first film acting gig and while she is good and good-looking, one wonders why her savvy and successful character would settle for Sam except for as a plot device.

Sam (Shia LaBeouf ) saves Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) from Gould and the Decepticons.

In this film, Sam is portrayed by LaBeouf as angry, whiny and feeling like he is owed something for past events. He either seems to be screaming in anger or screaming in fear throughout most of the film before finally stepping up to save Carly’s life. While he is not quite the messenger in the previous films that Meaning makes him out to be, I’m not sure he is deserving of the special treatment he thinks he is. Nor is he deserving of his parents’ disappointment at not having landed a job on their time table, while they drive around the country in their oversized RV.

Frankly, I’m happy to see the Witwickys in the rearview mirror of this franchise as the films always seem to stop dead when they are on screen, especially the parents. They are supposed to be comic relief, but this film is crammed full of such characters that it makes the few who are not stand out as approaching normal.

The big switch-a-roo in this film is that Sentinel Prime, who is brought back to life by the well-meaning Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), is actually working with the Autobots' nemesis, Megatron (Hugo Weaving), not to end the war as much as to ensure that Cybertron survives. The film toys around with, but never actually resolves whether or not Sentinel Prime would have turned the tables on Megatron and ruled as the leader of the Decepticons.

All throughout his reign over the franchise, director Michael Bay has been tweaking fan expectations. While the special effects have been really great throughout, it seems at times that corporate interests and Transformers mythos have been at odds. As an example, the cars the Autobots transform into have been open to the highest bidder. Bay's Transformers film have also added characters to the universe as well as bathroom humor. Who can forget Bumblebee urinating on Simmons in the first Transformers and I’d like to forget Jeong pulling plans out of his underwear in the toilet stall in the men’s room in this one. One can hope that closing the door on the Witwickys will lead to a different and more uplifted approach to the humor and to the storytelling.

Come for the robots and stay for the action, Bay's strong suit.

I’m told that four years pass between the end of this film and the opening of the fourth installment, which I will let tell me what happens rather than speculate. I can’t believe I’m actually writing this, but I have to imagine Mark Wahlberg will be a huge improvement over LaBeouf as lead actor. I think that says something more about LaBeouf overstaying his welcome than it does about Wahlberg, as a lead actor, or myself as a viewer.

While every die-hard Transformers fan and their families has no doubt seen this film already, one would imagine they will flock to see Age of Extinction. But here is hoping, as a more casual observer and viewer, that they someday make one film that is just about the robots. These are the more interesting and compelling characters. No one is playing with a Witwicky action figure. They are what the people come to see and why they keep coming back.

All we need and all we want are the Transformers.

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