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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon 3D



3D Autobots Wage Their Battle to Destroy the Evil Forces of 3D Decepticons

Transformers: Dark of the Moon opens with a joke, a rather entertaining knee-slapper the movie tells with a somber straight face: that America's space race of the 1960s which culminated with the Apollo 11 mission was a response to an Autobot ship crashing on the dark side of the moon (spare us your Pink Floyd jokes) in 1961. Neil Armstrong's "one small step for man..." was a giant leap into the mangled remains of the spacecraft ("the Ark", which was the name of the Autobot ship that brought the Transformers to Earth in the 1984 cartoon). Director Michael Bay has fun channeling Oliver Stone, matching JFK's first ten minutes nearly shot-for-shot, mixing archive footage of John F. Kennedy, Walter Cronkite, and Richard Nixon with stand-in actors, sometimes in the same frame. This revisionist history lesson turns out to be a gas, but it doesn't take long at all for Dark of the Moon to slam-bang right into its patented brand of Bayhem.

Four years have passed since the events of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. With the Decepticons dormant since the Fallen fell, the Autobots have basically become robot G-men on wheels, spearheading worldwide "secret missions" (as secret as giant robots blowing everything up can be) the government publicly denies sending them on. Though sometimes the Autobots go off reservation. As their long time liaison Josh Duhamel says, "the Autobots are like teenagers", they like to go out at night once in a while. On one of Optimus Prime's nights sneaky-sneaking around Chernobyl, he discovers something that pisses him off: a device from the Ark, long believed lost when the Ark exploded after leaving Cybertron during the war. The humans Optimus has been protecting and died once for already have been lying to him all this time. 

Soon, Optimus is moonwalking aboard the Ark and finds his predecessor as Autobot Leader, Sentinel Prime. Sentinel had left Cybertron with new technology he invented and the Decepticons wanted that would have ended the Cybertronian Wars. Optimus witnessed the Ark destroyed, but no, somehow it ended up billions of miles away, crashed on Earth's moon. Optimus revives Sentinel's spark using the fabled Autobot Matrix of Leadership (waited for "The Touch" to start playing. Didn't happen) and we discover with delight that Sentinel Prime has the familiar voice of Leonard Nimoy. (Nimoy was the voice of Galvatron in 1986's Transformers: The Movie, but Optimus and Galvatron never shared screen time so this was a nerdy treat.) Sentinel was guarding his secret new technology, a Space Bridge, which "defies [human] physics", but that's cool, since talking, transforming robots also defy physics, logic, and all kinds of other rationality.

Meanwhile, our hero Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), college graduate and two-time savior of the world, is having troubles. Dumped in-between movies by his former girlfriend, Mikaela (Megan Fox), Sam is... doing pretty damn well. He's shacked up with Carly, another incredibly hot girl far beyond his league, played by British model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. Carly conveniently lives in a warehouse with ceilings high enough to accommodate Sam's other ride, Bumblebee, and she's way cool with Sam's other robot friends, though the little annoying ones are not allowed to crash indoors. But Sam can't find a job in this economy, despite being a Medal of Honor winner, with a hilarious photo taken with President Obama to prove it. What Sam really wants is to continue working with the Autobots as their, aptly described, "Decepticon bad luck magnet", but the new National Security Chief Frances McDormand has shut him out. Despite all he's done, McDormand dismisses Sam as "just a messenger". Man, did that cut Sam deep.

In a laborious series of seemingly disconnected events full to the brim with this franchise's brand of inane comedy, Sam's antics turn out to be intricately connected to what's happening with the Transformers. Sam goes to work for John Malkovich's software company while Carly finds gainful employment for a McDreamy boss, Patrick Dempsey, who mainly pays her to pour herself into the tightest dresses possible and pose for photographs with him and his prized car collection. Sam and McDreamy hate each other, and there's little doubt when it comes to McDreamy, there's more than meets the eye. One of Sam's new co-workers turns out to be Laserbeak, the coolest new Decepticon, a bird of prey who can transform into any piece of office equipment. Laserbeak is on a rampage killing humans who were keeping the Great Secret of Why NASA Shut Down The Space Program And Never Returned to the Moon (lucky for Buzz Aldrin, who cameos and meets the Autobots with wide-eyed wonder, he was spared being murdered by Laserbeak). 

What is the Great Secret? Hard to say, exactly. Dark of the Moon lost me with its confusing details. (Luckily, I never gave a shit anyway.) Mainly, McDreamy's company has been collaborating with the Decepticons for decades and they stole most (but not all - why?) of the Pillars that make the Space Bridge from the Ark. Then they were responsible for shutting down all further lunar missions. The Decepticons were doing this with the humans in a wildly forward-thinking scheme, despite their leader Megatron being frozen in stasis underneath the Hoover Dam until 2007, as we witnessed in the events of the first Transformers. And yet, Megatron, who lumbers around with obvious brain damage, which he covers up with a tattered shawl, takes full credit for this plan all along. Well, of course he would. Never mind that making sense. Soon, the Decepticons activate the Space Bridge and bring legions of ugly, interchangeable gun metal grey Decepticons to invade and hold Earth hostage. The Decepticons demand the humans renounce and banish the Autobots. Someone even says "the Autobots don't have a ship" when we just saw Optimus Prime use a ship to go to the moon like an hour before

The Decepticons also engineered events so that Optimus would find and revive Sentinel Prime. Why do they want this? Because Sentinel Prime was also a Decepticon collaborator all along! Sentinel and Megatron struck a deal before he left Cybertron. But then why did the Deceptions attack the Ark and cause it to crash land on our moon? Sentinel's heel turn was actually foreshadowed early in the movie via Wheelie and his ugly little sidekick watching an episode of Star Trek on TV, "the one where Spock went nuts". Sentinel even utters Spock's most famous words, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few", but Sentinel perverted Spock's credo into a dreadful metaphor for human slavery. (Sentinel also got it backwards: there are many more humans than there are Transformers.) After reviving Sentinel, Optimus bends the knee and offers Sentinel the Matrix of Leadership, but Sentinel refused it. Why? Is Sentinel evil, misguided, or just a crazy old robot coot? Probably all of the above.

While all that's going on, McDreamy reveals his McSteamy evilness and takes Carly hostage. They hole up in that bastion of evil, Trump Tower in Chicago (excellent product placement), and watch helplessly as the Deceptions tear Chi-town a new one. (With all of those gigantic robot ships blowing up Gotham City, Batman wisely decided to stay out of it. But the League of Shadows must have been high-fiving and going apeshit.) Sentinel activates the Space Bridge to fulfill the master plan, to bring the planet Cybertron into Earth's atmosphere (defies the laws of physics, indeed)! When the titanic planet Cybertron materializes beside our tiny blue orb, in a visual startlingly similar to the series finale of Smallville, what Earth needed most wasn't Optimus Prime but Tom Welling's Superman to fly up there and push Cybertron away.

Sam leads a rescue mission into Chicago, with his old robot-killing buddies Duhamel, Tyrese (it takes almost 2 hours for him to show but man, was I glad to see Tyrese!), a slew of soldiers, and the Autobots, in tow. "I'll kill you," Sam promises McDreamy when he absconds with Carly. "We'll kill them all!" Optimus Prime declares before rolling into Chicago. And they make good on those gruesome threats. Boy, do they. Dark of the Moon's third act of all-out destruction in Chicago is the most viscerally satisfying sustained action Michael Bay has delivered in his Transformers trilogy. Bay goes for broke: Decepticons kill Autobots, Autobots kill Decepticons, Decepticons kill humans, humans kill Decepticons, humans kill humans. It's a blood and energon bath. 

The score card tallies impressively for the good guys: Sam and Duhumel personally kill Starscream, though they really should have died in the process instead of emerging unscathed. Humans and Autobots tag team the destruction of Shockwave, the Decepticon cyclops who controls the robot version of the worms from Dune. Optimus Prime is busiest of all; despite Sentinel cutting off his arm Darth Vader-style, Optimus finally unleashes his inner Clint Eastwood. Optimus executes Megatron and pops a cap in Sentinel Prime - like a boss! One shall stand, two shall fall. As for Sam, he finally experiences the joy of murder when he does what all men have wanted to do for years and crushes McDreamy with his bare hands. When Sam and the Autobots are finally done killy-kill killing, the movie just stops, with Optimus Prime's voice over putting all that carnage into perspective, or something. 

Though Dark of the Moon's visual effects are the best of the franchise, with the Transformers themselves looking the sharpest they've ever looked and fighting each other more coherently than ever, the coolest action didn't necessarily involve CGI robots colliding. The sequence where Duhamel leads his strike team to fly across Chicago wearing "wing suits", as they thrillingly soar past and between skyscrapers and evade Deception missiles and lasers, is a jaw dropper. Also amazing was the building-falling-over sequence, as our human heroes scramble not to plummet to their deaths, sliding down the sides of buildings and evading Decepticon interlopers. 

In Real D 3D, Dark of the Moon's action was astounding. People raved about Avatar (not me) and its 3D, but Dark of the Moon was the best live-action 3D movie spectacle I've ever seen. The colors were bright throughout the movie. The picture clarity was ideal. The movie looked beautiful. And the action was unreal to behold. Bay embraced 3D with stunning (and sexy) results, delivering eye-popping moments like Sam launched out of Bumblebee in mid-transformation, hanging in mid-air, and then landing back inside Bumblebee. For once, 3D really delivered above and beyond (proven low) expectations.

When it comes to physical comedy, Shia LaBeouf is the new, but much angrier and unhinged, John Ritter. In what he promised is his final outing as the star of Transformers, LaBeouf delivered a tour de force performance. He's like the Tasmanian Devil; a whirlwind of laughter, fury, fists-flying, and even gob-spitting. One can joke how Optimus Prime is irreplaceable, but it'll be an enormous challenge for whomever inherits Transformers from Michael Bay to find someone who can anchor these overblown spectacles the way LaBeouf has with his manic, what is he doing?, style of acting.

Megan Fox's departure left a Megan Fox hole in Transformers that Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and her curves were game to fill. Bless her. Huntington-Whiteley easily slides into the sexy girlfriend role and acquits herself with winsome warmth and vulnerability. Most importantly, fuckability, the main virtue Michael Bay cast her for. Huntington-Whiteley seemed not to mind Bay's camera sliding on the floor behind her, aimed straight up at her sumptuous posterior, as Fox reportedly did.  In referencing her absence, Fox got off surprisingly easy; Wheelie just said "she was mean", compared to how he humped her leg and called her a "crazy bitch" in Revenge of the Fallen. Sam's mother still remembers Fox fondly as a "world-class hottie".

Still, I missed Megan Fox. The big difference between Fox and Huntington-Whiteley, besides their hair color, accents, and the length of their surnames, is that Fox's character Mikaela was never a damsel in distress. She never needed rescuing or to be dragged by the arm across an exploding battlefield. When the Decepticons were about to execute Bumblebee, Carly urged Sam to stay safe and not save him. This is in stark contrast to how in the first Transformers, Mikaela strapped a damaged Bumblebee to a tow trick and they zipped around blasting Decepticons. In Rosie's defense, she does get a piece of business where she cons Megatron into thinking his new buddy Sentinel Prime will betray him, which leads to Megatron's doom. So that's something. But in the final analysis, Rosie, you're lovely, but sorry, Megan Fox rules.

Nearly everyone else from the prior Transformers returned for Dark of the Moon, including Julie White and Kevin Dunn as Sam's goofball parents, Glenn Morshower as "General Morshower", and still the reigning world champion of Transformers scenery chewing, John Turturro as Agent Seymour Simmons. Challenging Turturro's status are newbies Malkovich, McDormand, Alan Tudyk as Turturro's bizarrely violent gay assistant, and Ken Jeong, boldly carrying any charges the movie may spark of racism and homophobia onto his shoulders as the crazy Asian guy whom Malkovich catches seemingly having gay sex with LaBeouf in a men's room stall. By the third act, Turturro and McDormand, whose characters are ex-lovers, seemingly just go into business for themselves and compete in trying to crack the other up.

Now that Michael Bay has delivered arguably his best Transformers film (for sure, it isn't his worst) and he and Shia LaBeouf are expected to walk away from the franchise, where does Transformers go from here? Can the franchise get even bigger, louder, more spectacle-laden? Should it? Perhaps the logical next step is to scale down. The Autobot and Decepticon characters have played second fiddle to the human characters for three straight films. Maybe Transformers 4 could simply be an intimate character study - Optimus Prime and Megatron sitting at a diner, talking, trading wits. Hey, is Woody Allen interested in directing Transformers? Woody, have your people call Optimus Prime's people.