For those of you just tuning in to the Transformers franchise -- this thing has been all over the map. The first movie was pleasing to middle-schoolers, '80s cartoon geeks, and existing fans of PG-13 action movies. The second one was similarly passable to super-fans, but fell victim even further to the earlier movie's flaws, like poorly edited action sequences and a butt-load of convoluted plot assumedly added to fill up an unnecessarily protracted runtime. Well, with the third film in the franchise, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, director Michael Bay -- while admittedly hateable for taking movies about giant robots so god-dang seriously -- has redeemed the series, and then some.
Before we go any further, let's make something clear: lost cinephiles in argyle sweater vests and berets who wander into Transformers 3 while looking for an Ingmar Bergman festival will not be converted into action fans. This is still a movie made for people who are interested in paying money to see giant robots that turn into cars fight with other giant robots -- that turn into jets. Does this premise appeal to you? Awesome! Please continue reading.
The movie begins with a prologue sequence, which sets up the story. A race of mechanical aliens called Transformers, ousted from their own planet, Cybertron, inhabit the Earth, blending in with human society when they so choose by changing from their massive humanoid-robot forms into cars, trucks, planes, etc. The good ones are called the Autobots, and as we learn in a voice-over narrative by leader Optimus Prime (still voiced by the original voice-of-God actor from the cartoon series, Peter Cullen) over a cool Charlie's Angels-style intro montage, now they work with the U.S. military, offering protection to human society from the bad Transformers, the Decepticons, who are always trying to enslave humanity for one reason or another. We also get a crazy alternate-history of the Apollo 11 space mission, in which we learn that the whole program was created to retrieve a powerful old Autobot named Sentinel Prime, voiced by Leonard Nimoy (!), who's been hanging out on the lunar surface in sleep mode since he crash-landed there trying to flee a war with the Decepticons back on Cybertron.
This is as good a place as any to talk about how sweet the visual effects are. The CG is impressively real and completely seamless, whether we're exploring Sentinel's Space Jockey-style digs on the moon, or watching fake archival footage of JFK meeting with Robert McNamara through the use of...animation? Look-alikes? You can't really tell, and that's the whole point. The gap is closed on the suspension of disbelief (well, visually at least) as well as the Uncanny Valley. Additionally, the Transformers' character design and the way the bots are filmed is a hundred times clearer than in previous films. Fight sequences in the earlier movies often seemed inscrutable, with the camera jerking too awkwardly between nearly identical animated foes, all rendered in the same gunmetal gray, and impossible to tell apart, let alone track throughout an entire combat scene. But this problem is addressed in Dark of the Moon. The camera takes a careful, measured view of each scene, and animated characters are given ample screen space to brawl -- with their identifying characteristics in full view, so the melee doesn't become a mishmash of titanium-colored movement.
Perhaps Bay made his action sequences more comprehensible because it was clear how jumbled they were in the last movie, but it's also likely that he took such care because Dark of the Moon was choreographed and designed from top to bottom as a 3D movie -- and that's a good thing. Though the market has become saturated with titles where the 3D effects were added after the fact, noticeable in only a few shoe-horned moments, Transformers 3 is meticulously crafted to make rollicking use of the technology at every turn, with increasingly inventive modes for keeping it fresh, like escorting some flying-squirrel-style paratroopers on a drop through the Decepticon-besieged city of Chicago, or following the heroes as they scramble from one end to another of a vivisected all-glass office building, fighting gravity and evil robots as the top half of the building slides off of the other like the Leaning Tower.
The 3D is also used to great effect in our introductory scene for Victoria's Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, who first appears onscreen as the camera follows her butt up the stairs in stunning three dimensions. Huntington-Whiteley is as adequate an actress as her predecessor, Megan Fox, and despite some weird continuity issues with her shoes (who changes from one pair of heels to another while infiltrating an NSA building?), she does a perfectly fine job as the resident hot girl in the series. Likewise, cast members such as Hugo Weaving, John Turturro, Josh Duhamel, and, of course, Shia LaBeouf turn in fine performances alongside a mammoth number of cast mates like John Malkovich, Frances McDormand, Patrick Dempsey, Alan Tudyk (Wash from Firefly in a scene-stealing supporting role), Buzz Aldrin, and Ken Jeong (from The Hangover), not to mention top-tier voice actors Tom Kenny, Frank Welker, Charles Adler, and, of course, Cullen. If that sounds like a lot of people, that's because, once again, Michael Bay has two and a half hours to fill, and he can't spend all of it on golden-hour car-commercial shots of dirt roads winding through California hillsides at dusk.
But you have to hand it to Bay: even though no movie based on a toy/cartoon franchise needs to be this long, he was determined to prove that he could fill his prescribed runtime with so much cool stuff that you never get bored, and even though he's kind of a jerk for doing that instead of just cutting 40 minutes, he still accomplished his goal. He's made one of the best 3D movies to date, and certainly the best film in this series. We have to give him credit for that -- or we can just give the credit to Optimus Prime.