A special effects carnival not meant as a history lesson
Wandering around in my local Best Buy with my two kids, I often find myself planted in front of the latest 3D television set. A reel runs on a loop showcasing the glorious effects the flat panel delivers. Sometimes my kids and I watch the loop twice.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon is lot like watching that endless loop—for over two hours straight. It’s a carnival of top-drawer special effects on top of effects, punctuated by incoherent attempts to develop a story that only provides a feeble excuse for another hurricane of effects. Ultimately, the movie makes absolutely no sense. When the final battle that overcomes the entire city of Chicago takes place, viewers over the age of 12 will likely lose interest—numb from the orgy of computer-generated thrills. This Transformers sequel is bigger and more explosive than the last, but certainly no better.
Dark of the Moon begins on the mechanical planet of Cybertron. The war between the Autobots and the Decepticons has reached a climax. The Decepticons seem to have gotten the upper hand when a ship, suitably called the Ark, disappears. That ship crash-lands on our moon, and we learn that the US/Russian space race was primarily a cover for investigation of the Ark. Now, here’s where things get a little strange. Using archived and newly created faux news footage, we learn that Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong actually explored that ship while walking on the moon. In fact, the real 81-year-old Aldrin appears in the movie playing himself and meets with Optimus Prime, leading NASA history buffs to no doubt bristle.
Flash-forward to our time, and hero Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is living in Washington, D.C. He’s finished college with some unnamed degree and even gotten a medal from President Obama. But for some reason he can’t find a job. Is it the economy? Or is it that his taste for action and his unbridled arrogance prohibit him from landing at the top? Similar to others of his generation, he’s not content starting in the mailroom. Sam has also picked up an impressive new girlfriend named Carly (Megan Fox replacement and Victoria Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley). Even though he’s landed this amazing girl and they live in a freakishly spacious apartment, Sam is restless and unhappy. After all, he’s saved the world twice and nothing else, not even the mailroom, could ever compare.
Meanwhile, somewhere in the desert, a severely damaged Megatron (voiced by Hugo Weaving) hatches a new diabolical plan. And that plan just might give Sam a third chance to save his planet. You think?
What passes for story feels very much like all the characters from the first movie are playing parodies of themselves. Everyone, especially LaBoeuf, is over-acting in a feeble attempt to match the over-the-top special effects that surround them. This means that nothing in the film can be taken the least bit seriously. But this also means that when battles take place and things like the entire city of Chicago are destroyed, the viewer observes the well-constructed realistic images with detached interest. I couldn’t have cared less what happened. And why Chicago? Did Blagojevich have something to do with it?
And this is a pity, because there are some witty and entertaining bits and gags in the script that could have worked, had they been given time to breathe. But instead of wanting to expand and build the Transformers mythology, Michael Bay seems intent on tearing it down in one huge explosive conclusion. Fans get a lot of what they will be paying for. Lots of Autobot/Decepticon fighting. Endless transformations. Shots of Ms. Huntington-Whiteley’s perfect backside. Ken Jeong and John Malkovich chewing scenery. Frances McDormand playing tough and being “romanced” by a ridiculous John Turturro while being protected by a scary and tweaked Alan Tudyk. And the list goes on and on. The only thing that’s missing is a point to it all.
A sad attempt to pull everything together is built around a character named Sentinel Prime (voiced by Leonard Nimoy). And early in the film, we see archived footage of a much younger Nimoy playing Spock in the original “Star Trek” series. Later as Sentinel, Prime’s dialogue gets ever more silly. I believe he actually says “the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many.” I couldn’t believe it. It’s an exact rebuke of probably the most significant line of dialogue ever uttered in the Star Trek universe. In the 1982 film The Wrath of Khan, Nimoy, playing Spock, says right before his death, that logically the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. Many tears were shed in the dark by Star Trek fans the world over.
Obviously, the Dark of the Moon writer, Ehren Kruger, knows that he’s mocking Star Trek, but he’s not making some Naked Gun parody here. Perhaps even more disturbing is when the real Buzz Aldrin plays himself and says that he is “honored” to meet Optimus Prime, who naturally says the honor is all his. Does this cheapen the moon shot and our space-race history?
Unlike Watchmen, which uses real historical events to construct a parallel universe that is never meant to be ours, Transformers blurs the line, and the effect might be to confuse young viewers about historical events. It might not surprise you that former Transformers beauty Megan Fox allegedly lost her job on this film and was replaced by Huntington-Whitely for recklessly comparing director Michael Bay to Hitler. But such political correctness is called into question when a movie like Dark of the Moon, which is meant to play broadly and appeal to young people uses and even perverts history. It shouldn’t shock us then that those kids grow up with little understanding of the depth and meaning of past significant historical events and figures. Aldrin, who has been parodied before, certainly doesn’t want his legacy to be that embarrassing scene with a robot, does he? I’d rather remember him walking on the moon. But alas, since that footage isn’t in 3D, the time has come when that landmark accomplishment isn’t exciting enough for today’s youth. It’s ho-hum next to Megatron and Optimus Prime duking it out.
Perhaps the saving grace here is that “Dark of the Moon” is so ridiculous that anyone over the age of 12 is not likely to take it as a history lesson. But that isn’t a reason to see the movie. The collection of special effects on display here are destined to be added to that 3D reel at your local Best Buy.
Jonathan W. Hickman is an entertainment attorney, novelist (The Taster), longtime film critic, and co-director of the 2009 political documentary feature, Crashing the Party. Episodes of his cable television show, The Film Fix, can be watched online at http://dailyfilmfix.com/