Monday, July 11, 2011
If there's one thing I can say about the "Transformers" film franchise-- it's predictable. If you've seen one, you know what you're getting into if you decide to see the next one. Which is great for me in that I don't need to write a traditional film review for a film like this-- my opinion is unlikely to be necessary.
That said, the latest movie in the franchise, The Dark Side of the Moon did surprise me a little bit by it's inclusion of darker themes. However, any improvement this franchise might have achieved by growing up a little is undercut by the determination to also pander to the youngest audience members who are more interested in watching live action-figures than seeing a movie with a logical story line.
"The Dark Side of the Moon" picks up the story of Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBouf), who is now a college graduate in search of a job. Inexplicably the likable, but slightly nebbish guy, has found another incomprehensibly hot girlfriend (Rosie Huntington Whiteley) to take for granted. Struggling to find a job that "matters" Sam frequently bemoans the fact that he has saved the world twice but can't get a better job than working in the mail-room for Bruce Brazos (John Malcovich). In a plot-skipping coincidence Sam's new job brings him into contact with a former NASA employee Jerry Wang (the hilarious Ken Leung from "The Hangover") who has some information about Autobot technology NASA recovered during the iconic first U.S. mission to the moon and proof that humans are conspiring with Decepticons to take over the planet.
Passing on the information to Sam proves fatal for Wang and in the ensuing aftermath Sam witnesses the return of the Decepticons and rushes to tell the Autobots, now working for Charlotte Mearing (Frances McDormand), the Director of National Intelligence. Mearing rebuffs Sam's information which forces Sam to recruit his former nemesis and Sector Seven field agent Seymour Simmons (John Turturo). The plot starts chugging along at this point as Sam begins to put together the pieces of the mystery surrounding technology retrieved by both American and Russian cosmonauts. That information leads Optimus Prime to head a mission to the Moon where he finds the former leader of the Autobots, Sentinel Prime (Leonard Nimoy) and five pillars that form part of a space bridge to Cybertron. But the illusion that the pillars are safe from the Decepticons is short-lived as Sentinel Prime soon reveals that he had formed a secret alliance with the Decepticons during the war on Cybertron and that he intends to use the pillars to bring Cybertron to Earth and rebuild the planet using slave labor from Earth.
Once the movie establishes its factions of good guys and bad guys it moves into almost non-stop action mode and seems to turn into one frenetic chase scene after another. But I would be lying if I didn't acknowledge that this particular "Transformers" movie has some of the most compelling moments in the whole series. The audience can't be surprised by the transformation of the robots anymore and we're used to the massive destruction the huge machines leave behind, so the story has to deliver as it can't solely rely on the CGI anymore-- and in some respects it does. The story takes a considerably darker turn as the battle turns from being just between the Autobots and the Decepticons as the bad guys start targeting humans and the body count rises. For a while we see what a full-blown invasion movie looks like Transformers-style.
However "Transformers 3" has the same problem, to a lesser extent, that "Transformers 2" had-- what audience are they targeting exactly?
When the first Transformers movie came out I went and saw the movie beforehand to make sure it was appropriate for my kids to go see. It was loud, harmless fun so we took our kids and they loved it. When the second one came out we let the kids watch it with the presumption that it would be similar to the first and were somewhat dismayed by the more juvenile aspects of the script including humping dogs and the increasingly frequent potty-mouth of Sam's mom. But we figured that we survived movies with some racy content when we were kids ("Grease" comes to mind) thanks to the fact that it was completely over our heads. But, again, Michael Bay changed the rules on me and took the violence to a new level by showing people getting blown up (bones flying and everything) which had me frequently checking to see if my kids were getting alarmed (Inexplicably my daughter fell asleep).
Normally I would be championing a film that, as the third in a series, strives to evolve; and in a way I still want to give the movie some praise for making the effort. But there is a huge incongruity in a film series that also includes so much childish appeal. You have heroes that look like over-sized Tonka trucks that often act like the children's toys they are. Much of the set-up includes over-the-top slapstick humor that doesn't necessarily jibe with the second half of the film. It isn't that the various elements can't co-exist, but such wild swings in mood can be a bit jarring.
The other challenge that comes with watching "Transformers 3" is that the suspension of disbelief required is so great that it's an almost overwhelming obstacle. The least challenging thing to believe is that Sam Witwicky could get an even hotter girlfriend this time around-- and that's saying something. The action sequences in this movie are loooooong. One particular set piece takes place in a high rise building that is first nearly cut in half (but the top half remains standing) and then is chewed up by an enormous Decepticon from the bottom up. The heroes are tossed around like dolls, thrown in and out of the building and basically stalked by monsters who have no reason to be coy when they could just open fire and be done with it. The visuals are great, but don't necessarily make any sense. The Transformers are so massive that you just can't credit the amazing survival of the humans who come into contact with them-- much less the fact that they so often come through completely unscathed.
One of the most enjoyable elements of "Transformers 3" is the supporting cast. John Malcovich is always fun, though I would have loved to have seen more of him. Frances McDormand is given a good amount of screen time, and does appear to have fun; though she doesn't quite have the scenery chewing flair that you might expect of a top-flight actress slumming it in an action flick. But Alan Tudyk has got to get the award for being the main scene-stealer as Dutch, the German sidekick to John Turturo's character. Much has been said of the lovely Rosie Huntington-Whiteley-- mostly to knock her acting skills. But I'm actually going to say that I found her to be much better than Megan Fox-- and did we really think she was hired for her acting skills?
Many have said that "Transformers 3" is the best of the franchise and I might be inclined to agree. But overall I'm not sure what that's worth when it comes to a series that is likable in a bull-in-a-china-shop kind of way. I've often thought that there were a lot of missed opportunities when it came to these movies because films don't often get the chance to explore the idea of friendly aliens coexisting with mankind; and there is really no attempt to try to capitalize on what could be the foundation of a half-way thoughtful idea. Instead the trend continues in which the plot vacillates between silliness and violence, with some crude sexuality thrown in for good measure. There are some genuinely fun moments and it goes without saying that the third installment of the series is significantly better than the second. I will admit that I was sucked into the film and did enjoy it; but I also spent a decent amount of time cringing at some of the things being presented by film makers who had to know the audience was going to include children. Next time, and you know there will be a next time thanks to the box office receipts, I preview the movie first.