Director Michael Bay’s conclusion to the iconic robot trilogy “Transformers” lives up to summer-blockbuster expectations, using stylized special effects to mask a thinly developed plot that, while much more understandable than its predecessor, is unable to surpass the 2007 hit that started it all.
Like the previous summer hit “X-Men: First Class,” “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” features a clever appropriation of American history, asserting that the true intention of Apollo 11’s mission to the moon was to investigate the crash site of what turns out to be former Autobot leader Sentinel Prime (voiced by Leonard Nimoy), who fled the robots’ home planet Cybertron in order to protect a valuable new technology from the antagonistic Decepticons. The findings of Apollo 11 disappeared into the recesses of classified government intelligence, only to reemerge in the present day when the Decepticons begin searching for the long-lost ruins, which may hold the key to restoring Cybertron. Human protagonist Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), now a job-hunting college graduate we can all relate to, gets sucked back into global conflict when his Autobot friends become locked in battle against the Decepticons with the fate of the Earth at stake.
Reprising his role as the neurotic, accidental mediator between humans and robots, LaBeouf flaunts his fast-talking comedic ability like a frat-boy version of Jesse Eisenberg, but compared to the other films in the franchise, has relatively less material to work with. Surprising and often humorous cameos include John Malkovich, Frances McDormand, Patrick Dempsey and Ken Jeong, but in the end, most of the human characters feel unnecessary. Going back to its Hasbro roots, Transformers is, at heart, a story about robots in disguise and, whether intentionally or not, Bay’s latest film reflects this. For despite the efforts made at interweaving the human and robot narratives, by the end of the climactic battle sequence, it seems quite clear that the real star is Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen).
While many have been panning model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley’s acting chops as the Sexy Girlfriend, a franchise staple, I found her comparable to Megan Fox, who starred in the first two films. But whereas Fox’s tomboyish Mikaela was semi-plausible as a romantic interest for the socially awkward Witwicky, Huntingon-Whiteley perpetually looks like she stepped out of a Victoria’s Secret ad, thus rendering the relationship almost farcical. And if rumors about Fox’s departure in conjunction with Bay’s demands for an overtly sexual performance are true, then I don’t blame her. Huntington-Whiteley is consistently objectified and exploited, being leered at not only by the camera but also by every single male character including the Decepticons.
In true Michael Bay fashion, quick-cutting action and grand explosions abound, which I would argue make the 3D viewing experience worth the extra cost. While the humans and their world still look slightly less than perfectly realistic, the CGI and the transformers themselves are simply stunning. Live-action, 3D cinema technology may not have quite hit its stride yet, but Bay makes highly effective use of it.
An instructor once told me that sequels rarely trump the original and are almost always made for financial gain. While this is almost certainly true of “Transformers,” the film never pretends to be more than what it is. Just sit back, relax and let the high-budget, fast-paced action wash over you.