Chances are, if you have any interest in seeing the latest Transformers film, you’re primarily interested in knowing if it’s better than the terrible second installment. The answer is, emphatically, yes.
The first Transformers movie surprised audiences by being much better than it needed to be. It had a unique feel, generated by the script’s mad pinballing from dimwitted comedy, to touching coming-of-age story, and intense action that felt almost disturbingly realistic at times. It’s the movie that gave us a robot urinating on a manic goofball who just happened to be the chief agent in charge of what must have been the most important secret project in human history, but also showed us a remarkably realistic battle between American armed forces and a huge cybernetic scorpion.
The second movie simply drowned in its absurdity, going off the rails with an arbitrary script filled with characters that didn’t make sense even by alien-robot-turning-into-sports-car standards, and a plot that felt like it issued from a room filled with monkeys and typewriters. The new film, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, gets back into the series’ comfort zone. At their best, these movies represent the id of a 14-year-old boy captured on celluloid, and boys that age pay some minimal attention to the rules of the real world, even as they wonder how many they can get away with ignoring. The second Transformers movie was the product of a spastic eight-year-old’s imagination, and even kids that age can only take so much of it.
Our hero, Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf), is the incarnation of what a 14-year-old boy imagines the life of a charmed nerd might be like, as he makes his way through high school in the first movie, college in the second, and now that awkward search for a first job in the new film. Sam’s still a sharp-tongued, boyish-looking kid with a tendency to erupt into manic rants under pressure. He still has an unreasonably hot girlfriend, as the troublesome Megan Fox is seamlessly replaced by the equally unreal Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, playing Sam’s British sweetheart Carly.
The movie makes it clear her character is an upgrade, because she’s sweeter, more articulate, and remarkably successful. When I say “remarkably,” I mean she and Sam meet-cute when he’s receiving a medal at the White House, and she’s working for the British Embassy. Later she gets one of those jobs that involves a huge paycheck and elegant dinners with the boss, but very little actual work, and comes with a fully loaded $200,000 Mercedes as a perk.
Sam, on the other hand, has a comical series of misadventures trying to find a job, using nothing but the expensive college education the government thoughtfully bestowed upon him as a reward for saving the world several times. The human segments of the Transformers film work best when they feel like a comical exaggeration of the real hopes and fears 14-year-old boys harbor about the near future. The first and third movies do this fairly well, although the new movie almost loses its tenuous grip on that essential kernel of reality by sending Sam to work at a company run by John Malkovich and Ken Jeong.
We even get a kind of dark-side look at 14-year-old wish fulfillment gone wrong, in the form of Patrick Dempsey’s oily Dylan, who is Carly’s boss, and Sam’s rival for her affections. Dylan is incredibly rich, good-looking, cool, and witty, but he’s bad, because he hasn’t suffered like Sam has, and he lacks the hero’s awkward emotional honesty and Playstation-generation nerdy core. Dylan is what the popular kids in junior high might dream of growing up to be, as the good life is handed to them on a silver platter by their equally arrogant elders. I mean, screw that guy, right?
There’s a wee bit of playful political subtext here and there, as Sam discovers that receiving a medal from Barack Obama might not be a career enhancement in corporate America. (In Washington, D.C.? Really, Michael Bay?) When Dylan expresses his opinion about evil Decepticon leader Megatron, current events the producers could not have foreseen transform it from a throwaway funny line into a show-stopper. For a much more subtle political jab, pay close attention to the type of truck Megatron disguises himself as.
As with the earlier films, the Act I human story abruptly comes to an end when the Transformers clear their throats and take over the movie. Actually, “abrupt” is probably the best word to describe these pictures. They have short attention spans.
Sometimes that’s annoying, but sometimes it really works, and the third act of Dark of the Moon is one of the greatest spectacles ever brought to the screen, as our heroes breathlessly run, jump, slide, and soar through the utter destruction of Chicago. Carly does it without a gun, and while wearing high heels. I think that counts as female empowerment in Michael Bay’s world.
Actually, Carly also gets an important moment in which she becomes more than eye candy, and makes a crucial contribution that fits in perfectly with her character’s personality and background. Oh, that’s right, I thought, they established that she used to work for the British Embassy. Of course she has actually been listening to what the aliens are saying, and knows a little something about diplomacy. Someone on Bay’s writing team might just have won parole from his arrested adolescence.
There’s an incredible amount of swashbuckling packed into the last hour of the movie, and it mostly feels exhilarating instead of exhausting. Much of it comes from good-guy Autobot leader Optimus Prime, voiced by the redoubtable Peter Cullen, who has been doing this character for longer than most of the audience has been alive. Optimus is such a likable character that he should have a career beyond the Transfomers films. Based on box-office returns, I think he could open a rom-com better than Tom Hanks at this point. Hook him up with Sandra Bullock playing a lady trucker coming off a hard divorce, who climbs into the wrong Peterbilt at a truck stop one night and begins the ride of her life, and I think you’d have the perfect date movie.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon is much sillier than it needed to be, but it’s also filled with incredible sights that justify those ridiculous 3-D ticket prices. Go for the three-dee, and you’ll get to ride along on the most heart-stopping aerial troop insertion ever filmed. It’s so good you’ll forget that wing suits don’t work the way Michael Bay thinks they work. Optimus even has a few things to say on the subject of independence, and when the Autobots join American troops to stand before a tattered American flag, it feels like they belong there. The Fourth of July weekend really should have belonged to Captain America, but the Transformers took good care of it for him.