Thursday, 30 June 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon [Review]

Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Shia LaBeouf lives a fairly abnormal life. You or I might wake up, grab a bite to eat and head off to the daily grind. But LaBeouf enjoys no such frivolities. Seemingly a typical day for our hero consists of waking up, being faced with impending doom and giant transforming robots, before ending in a haze of barrel-rolling gunfire and smog in a bland American cityscape. He wakes in a daze, a typically beautiful woman thrusting cuddly toys in his general direction, and rests in blood, sweat and tears. Such is the life of Sam Witwicky, the recurring protagonist of the Transformers series, who never breathes a minute of screen time without a word; indeed, without a shout, scream or frantic dash in some general direction, Michael Bay must not consider his main character pivotal enough.

But this is to tell a familiar tale with Bay’s Transformers films; a tale told only too often, as criticisms ran abound of the first two instalments. While these were perhaps deserved of the second film, Revenge of the Fallen, such comments were harsh of his first efforts. While there were flaws, these were not detrimental - and as an action piece, it held well. Much is true of Dark of the Moon, for its achievements far outshine its limits to the point that the series has again become enjoyable, rather than the lacklustre and excruciating attempts of the first sequel.

The plot of Dark of the Moon is loose yet formulaic; once more, the Decepticons have returned, much to the dismay of humankind and the Autobots. This time they’re after a series of ‘pillars’ that will help to create a link between Cybertron and Earth, so that a new planet might be created for the transforming bots to inhabit, with humanity as its slaves. In and around this underlying theme we’re introduced to the granddaddy of the Autobots, Sentinel Prime (played superbly by an instantly recognisable Leonard Nimoy), taken to, yes, the dark side of the moon, and witness a couple of clever twists and turns - something of a first for the series. And while some plot points may seem overly confusing - characters might sometimes disappear between shots and reappear somewhere else with no explanation - everything’s tied together a bit tighter than before.

The main problem for Michael Bay is one he has failed to overcome since Revenge of the Fallen: the introduction of vast amounts of new characters, and the subsequent underplay of many of them. Falling particularly foul of this error of judgement is Sentinel Prime; arguably the central point of the film, Nimoy’s aged bot is discovered on the moon in the film’s montaged opening scenes, but featured less heavily as the film goes on. The never-ending, hour-long ‘finale’ sees almost no mention of Sentinel until the closing minutes, aside from the odd flicker to a hastily delivered one-liner. Similarly, returning antagonist Megatron is much less of a threat than in previous films; wounded in the second instalment, his presence feels unnecessary and wasted.

Recurring human characters are few and far between - poster boy LaBeouf is back (and predictable as ever), as are his parents and a handful of army boys - but the newbies are more than welcome. Gone is the dull, overrated and overshadowing presence of Megan Fox; here are the alluring, contented and so very British tones of fresh-faced Rosie Huntington-Whiteley as Carly Spencer, Sam’s new love interest. Of course, a few cheesy romantic lines pursue, but not so that they detract from the film’s wittier moments - exemplified by the genius casting of John Malkovich as Sam’s dictatorial employer.

But Transformers stands, primarily, as an action film - it’s neither the plot nor the characters that will draw you to it; rather, the massive and amazing setpieces. And in this respect, Dark of the Moon doesn’t disappoint. Particularly memorable during the Chicago stand-off in the film’s closing forty-five minutes is the struggle of Sam, Carly and a band of soldiers to make their way through a skyscraper while it is simultaneously demolished by the writhing tentacles of Kraken-like Decepticon Soundwave. Such setpieces do carry their misgivings, however - clichés run in heavy frequency, with the near-death experience running in full force. By the final stand-off between Autobot and Decepticon (and apparently this time final means final - Bay has stated this will be his last Transformers outing) you’re left with the expectation that some other plot device will be right around the corner to stop everything once again, and prolong things for just a little bit more, in a film that’s already an obtuse two hours and thirty minutes long, bloated with its own exuberance (but arguably one that can afford to be, given its grandiose and superb special effects).

Luckily, though, this absurd length and overwhelming amount of intense action sequences is no longer marred by the traditional direction of Michael Bay: where in the previous two instalments, you might have struggled to comprehend most of the combat scenes even after a third or fourth viewing - such was the frantic camerawork of Bay - here the pace is toned down, and a clearer sense of events can be grasped. One or two moments still fall foul, especially when minor characters are duelling; often it’s much easier to understand who’s fighting who when the participants are the likes of brightly-coloured bots Optimus Prime and Bumblebee. But even when the screen’s plastered with monotone Decepticons, the action is perfectly pitched to accommodate the audience rather than to blur straight past comprehension.

The third of Bay’s Transformers escapades, then, easily outshines its immediate predecessor, and almost bests the original. Still succumbing to the same flaws that held back the first, however, Dark of the Moon runs a little short of being the perfect action film; an abundance of clichés and overly complex plot see to that. But an amalgam of memorable setpieces, an occasionally witty script and a toned down approach to the intense camerawork combine to make Transformers: Dark of the Moon still one of the best action films you’ll see this year.

See also: Transformers (2007), Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

Dir: Michael Bay
Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Peter Cullen, Leonard Nimoy
Paramount Pictures, 154 mins, 29/06/11

Synopsis: The bots are back for a third outing, as a Cybertronian spacecraft is discovered on the moon. Thus commences a race between the Autobots and Decepticons to find its secrets...

Photo: TFW2005


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