Review: ‘Transformers: Dark Of The Moon’ wraps up with best of series

Let’s start with this:  for the first time since “Avatar,” I am going to recommend that you find the biggest and best 3D theater you can find and buy yourself a ticket, because “Transformers: Dark Of The Moon,” especially seen in IMAX 3D, is an overwhelming sensory experience.  The sound mix alone is more exciting than anything in the billion-dollar-bore of “Pirates 4.”  This is gigantic action we’ve never seen before, and Bay’s reaction to shooting and cutting his film for 3D is to get better at what he does.  It raised his game, and as a result, I feel like we just saw a dare thrown down by one of Hollywood’s biggest action specialists:  “Top this.”

Just for reference, here are links to my reviews of “Transformers” and “Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen.”  That should give you an idea of what I carried into the theater with me when I sat down to see the new film.  And if you don’t feel like reading both of those pieces, I’ll sum it up quickly:  I think the first film is a lot of fun, and I think the second film is a big mess with some remarkable visuals.  They’ve both got their problems, with the second film basically serving to magnify all the first film’s issues to a disturbing degree.

“Transformers: Dark Of The Moon” is easily the best film in the series, and there’s a solid hour-long action sequence in Chicago that uses everything Bay’s ever done before, but all blended into one exhausting push to save one girl in the midst of a war involving two planets.  It’s the personal story on an apocalyptic scale that Bay loves to try to tell, and that other guys like Emmerich and Cameron and even Spielberg love to do.  And this is the best version of it that Bay’s made so far.

It is also the best job the series has done so far of turning the robots themselves into lead characters, something the first two films avoided for the most part.  In the first film, Optimus Prime and Bumblebee had their moments, but they were still secondary to the human characters in every way, and the second film didn’t really give anyone, human or animated, anything to play.  This time out, I actually felt like the robots made a strong impression, and if there are more of these films after Bay leaves the series, then he’s laid out a pretty strong template here for others to imitate moving forward. Finally, it feels like the war makes sense, and the stakes make sense, and it all matters.  Sentinel Prime is a great addition to the series, and Nimoy plays him perfectly.  It’s a real performance, and as a result, it makes the rest of the Transformers feel more real.  Cullen is very good in this one, and the rest of the robot cast manages to impress as well.  Even the weird little robots, and there are two of them living with Sam (Shia LaBeouf) grew on me over the course of the film, especially when you see where they wind up.  The Decepticons are way nastier in this one, and so when Optimus Prime and the Autobots unleash hell… AND THEY DO… it is so deserved and so worthy of one cheer after another that it almost becomes audience participation.

The film opens with a rapid-fire look back into an alternate history, something that worked well for “X-Men: First Class” this summer as well, and we see the space race of the 1960’s from a different perspective.  I like how Bay uses the “Forrest Gump” technique so we get cameos from the real JFK and the real Richard Nixon, and as soon as the opening is over, we get the main title and BAM, we’re into the story of Sam Witwicky, the human lead of the franchise.  One of the things I liked about the first film was the way it took a very natural milestone in the life of a young man, the purchase of his first car, and turned that into the backbone of the movie.  The second film never figured out what human story to hang all the action on, but it looks like they were trying to use the transition from high school to college.  This time, we’re looking at the moment where a young man is out of school and ready to start his life, and the frustrations that come from wanting to find a way to make a mark on the world right away.  LaBeouf has gone from gawky kid to young man over the course of the series, and in this film, Sam finally steps up and becomes a hero by choice, not by circumstance.  He is determined to contribute something to this ongoing conflict, and his choice to be involved is very different than the way he gets roped into things in the first two films.  He could walk away and let the military handle things in this one, but that’s not who he is now.  He’s invested in this fight, and he feels like he has a role to play.

Part of what motivates Sam in this movie is the need to impress his new girlfriend Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), and while I think Megan Fox takes an unfair beating from people when they write about her, I’ll be the first to admit the series does not miss her at all now that she’s gone.  Huntington-Whiteley turns out to be a very winning on-screen personality, charming and sweet, and she seems well aware that Michael Bay is shooting her like a car in a car commercial.  She definitely plays up the physical side of things, but I think she’s going to appeal to women in a way that Fox never did.  She reminds me of Cameron Diaz in “The Mask,” an actress who doesn’t really show off any range, but who gives a natural, winning performance and who is up to the challenge of this particular picture.  There’s a famous quote about Fred Astaire’s most famous dance partner, “Don’t forget, Ginger Rogers did everything Astaire did, but backwards and in heels,” and I kept thinking of that during the Chicago sequence, when Rosie has to keep up with the boys in some of the craziest action scenes of the year, and she manages to do so wearing the biggest high heels I can imagine.  She makes it all seem easy, and I predict she’s going to be cast in more films immediately once people get a look at how she handles herself here.

I mentioned Sentinel Prime above, and he’s a major part of this film, the former leader of the Autobots, long trapped in the crashed Ark on the moon.  Casting Leonard Nimoy was smart, and he gives the character some gravitas.  It’s interesting… you haven’t seen much of Sentinel Prime in the ads, and that’s by design.  This is that rare Hollywood blockbuster where you really haven’t seen anything yet.  There are so many money shots that haven’t been in the trailers so far that Scrooge McDuck could go swimming in them.  The most eye-popping moments in the movie are still under lock and key, and there’s a whole lot of story that they haven’t even hinted at in what you’ve seen so far.  I’m sure some critics will spoil the story’s twists and turns out of a general irritation with the series, or out of a disdain for the fans, but I’d rather let you see it as fresh as possible. 

I’ll give Ehren Kruger credit here for building a very solid foundation to the movie, allowing Michael Bay plenty of room to deliver insane set pieces.  Yes, there is still plenty of the sort of character comedy that makes people roll their eyes at Bay’s films, but more of the jokes work than don’t, and he gets through that sort of stuff pretty quickly.  Sam’s parents, for example, are just in a few minutes of the movie, and the performances that don’t really work like John Malkovich or Ken Jeong are in and out of the movie before it’s a problem.  The returning cast members, like Turturro or Josh Duhamel or Tyrese, are well-used this time, and there really is a sense of things wrapping up.  New cast member Frances McDormand handles herself well, but I doubt this is the most demanding thing she’s ever been asked to do.  And of the new robots on both sides of the war, Shockwave makes the strongest impression.  He’s a genuine nightmare, particularly in his first appearance, and the Autobots introduce some new guys called The Wreckers, basically muscle-head goons working for Optimus, who I think work very well.  Even though this doesn’t feel like a well-constructed trilogy, this film almost manages to make it feel like they’ve intentionally built these three movies to reach this point.  Even so, I think someone could walk into this film having not seen the other two and they’d get a fairly complete experience.  No easy trick, that.

I know I’ve mentioned the Chicago section of the film several times, and for good reason.  It’s an astonishing mix of physical staging, live-action stunt work, location shooting, and visual effects, and there comes a point where I’m really not sure what was built, what was real, what’s totally fake… and it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the stakes in the film are crystal clear, the purpose of the characters is laid out carefully, and the sequence just keeps building and building until finally it comes down to three characters and a bridge, and since it’s a “Transformers” movie, I’m pleased to see that the three characters who are involved in that ending are the right three.  The focus in this film finally feels like it’s on the right things and the right moments.  If the Chicago sequence was the only great set piece in the film, I’d still say it’s worth seeing, but the movie actually features impressive sequences all the way through, including an early encounter with Shockwave in Chernobyl and a really creepy scene where a bird-like Decepticon hunts down and murders all the humans who have helped the Decepticons over the years.  And through it all, it feels to me like Bay is trying new things, both in the shooting and the cutting.  It’s not a radical re-invention… it’s still recognizably Michael Bay.  But the small differences in the rhythms of his shooting and his cutting make a big difference in the overall impact.

Technically, the film impresses from start to finish.  I love that Bay is willing to try to build something this big, this epic, and that he seems to take every sequence as an opportunity, whether it’s the opening on Cybertron or the craziest real-life-celebrity cameo I’ve ever seen (conspiracy theory nuts will lose their minds when they see it) or the way Megatron is introduced in Africa.  The film reaches, and in a summer where even the blockbusters I’ve liked have seemed curiously intimate and small-scale-for-reasons-of-budget, there’s something intoxicating about seeing someone make something so out-of-control gigantic.  Even so, there’s a control here that was absent entirely in the second film, and that never quite seemed to snap into focus in the first film.

I’ve seen the film in a regular 3D theater, and in an IMAX presentation, and they are very different experiences.  In the regular 3D theater, the FX work looks pretty much flawless, and you can take in the entire widescreen frame at once.  In the IMAX theater, you can see every single seam in the work (there aren’t many), but you can also get totally lost in the frame.  It’s a great way to really look at the details of what ILM and Digital Domain did, and I cant say I’ve ever really felt a sound mix more viscerally.  But if you’re considering sitting this out for a 2D version, don’t.  Really.  This is a meticulously designed 3D experience, and Bay impresses often and in a real-world setting that makes this more surreal than “Avatar” in many ways.  It’s so strange to see a city as recognizable as Chicago take this sort of beating, and it’s a reminder that many movies try to find cheap and generic solutions to their third acts, something you can’t accuse this one of doing.

In the interest of full disclosure, I did attend the press junket/premiere that Paramount held in Moscow this week.  I’ll have those interviews for you this week.  But honestly… two 19 hour travel days in one week is not the way to win a good review from me.  Especially when I’m flying coach.  The movie speaks loud and clear for itself.  While I’m not going to overstate the case, and while there are still some things about that first hour and a half that may give me pause, it’s a pleasure to report that “Transformers: Dark Of The Moon” feels like the film that the franchise has been struggling to produce this entire time.

“Transformers: Dark Of The Moon” opens in theaters June 29, 2011.