The ultimate Hollywood movie pitch would have gone something like this: let’s get some giant alien robots, who can change into a variety of cars, planes and other machines, bring their eon-long war to Earth. A young teenage boy befriends one of these robots, and assists the Autobots in their battle against Megatron and the Decepticons. Cue massive destruction and special effects. Sure, that’ll work! Michael Bay’s epic trilogy of transforming robotic lifeforms comes to a conclusion with 2011’s Dark of The Moon, the blow-out finale to what has been, effectively, a massive financial success for Paramount Pictures. In this Smackdown, take a look at each of the three films and see which one truly does deliver more than meets the eye!
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Dark Of The Moon is the most recent Transformers movie to be released, and is by far the most accomplished in terms of production design and scale. The finale of Michael Bay’s involvement with the robotic saga comes to a blistering conclusion with the near-obliteration of Chicago, and the resolution of Sam’s isolation from his Autobot pals. Yes, Sam’s finished college, and is out in the workforce looking for a job – something he’s finding difficult while he’s living with the gorgeous replacement for Mikaela, Carly. He’s also a little angry at being frozen out of contact with Bumblebee and the Autobots, since their missions with the US military to locate and prevent Decepticons rising up once more has taken precedence over the young mans friendship. He’s resentful that he saved the world twice and can’t tell anybody, and is also resentful of the slimy way Carly’s boss rubs his nose in Sam’s inadequacy. So when an ancient Cyberton technology is discovered on the moon, and the trap laid by the Decepticons (and their jaw-dropping accomplice) is sprung, the world exiles the Autobots in advance of the Decepticon menace sweeping down to take our resources. The plot, such as it is, isn’t as convoluted as Revenge Of The Fallen, and frankly, it doesn’t matter at all whether Sam gets a job or not; no, where Dark Of The Moon succeeds as a piece of entertainment is delivering the genuine smackdown between the Autobots and the Decepticons which has been hinted at in the previous film, but never really delivered.
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The Awkward Middle Child
2009’s Revenge Of The Fallen was critically mauled upon release, thanks mainly to a curiously leaden storyline and some overblown action beats. Written in and around Hollywood’s Writers Strike of 2007-08, Revenge Of The Fallen has proven to be the weakest of theTransformers films, due to a lack of character development and an obfuscation of all that made the original film so awesome. Michael Bay’s sequel mantra is “bigger and better is better when bigger”, I think, because he took everything great about the original film, removed everything which didn’t work, and amped the results up to 11. As a result, we get a film filled with action, but bereft of heart and soul, a dirge of a film with barely any love about it. Sam’s off to college, leaving Mikaela back home to mind her father’s garage, and while he’s doing that, Optimus Prime and the rest of the Autobots are hunting down rogue Decepticons still hiding out on Earth. A new threat is rising, however, with the oncoming advance of a being known as The Fallen, one of the original Cybertronian robots who turned against his brothers for his own ends. The Fallen has come to Earth to locate the whereabouts of a device capable of obliterating Earths sun and converting that power to energy for the Fallen to rule the Galaxy. Or something. The convoluted plot is overshadowed by an over-reliance on technical effects and gargantuan set-pieces, but there’s heaps of explosions and giant fighting robots.
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The Defending Champion
Released in a blaze of anticipation and fan-boy hype in 2007, Transformers brought the famed toy franchise to the big screen with state-of-the-art special effects and Michael Bay’s enthusiasm for explosions. Sam Witwicky discovers his link to a long-running war between the Autobots, led by Optimus Prime, and the Decepticons, led by the cruel Megatron, and assists the Autobots with their mission. Along the way, he still finds time to romance the local hot chick, Mikaela (Megan Fox) and buy his first car – even though that car turns out to be one of the Autobots in disguise. End-of-the-world storytelling, city-leveling action, and some of the most eye-wateringly cool CGI ever committed to the screen bring the 80’s animated series to life – Michael Bay delivered one of the most anticipated films of the 00’s with style and class.
Sequels, as they say, usually suck. Unless you’re James Cameron, most people’s attempts at sequels usually fall flat on their faces, with lackluster results at the box office – even Spielberg has had his fair share of sequel-debacles. So it came as no surprise to anybody that Michael Bay’s hurried sequel to 2007’s Transformers, Revenge of The Fallen, was a bloated, frenetic display of action mingled with a terrible plot and confusing narrative. I say this with the utmost respect for Bay as a filmmaker, because anyone who knows me, or has read my previous thoughts on Bay’s work, would appreciate that I am actually a fan of the man. While Transformers was one out of the box, the writers strike midway through Revenge’s pre-production stage, as well as a (what seemed to me) quite hurried release schedule (Revenge Of The Fallen was released in 2009, only two years after Transformers blew box-office records away), resulted in Revenge Of The Fallenfalling into that oft-despised sequel trap of being less than the previous films’ success. Fans and critics alike still showcase Revenge Of The Fallen as the prime modern example of what’s wrong with Hollywood these days, as the rush to maximize profit against creative quality dilutes the pool overall.
Transformers was always going to be successful, thanks largely to the built-in franchise audience (mainly adults who’d grown up watching the 80’s cartoon as kids) and the you-beaut digital effects, which actually allowed transforming robots to look photo-realistic. Explosion-director extraordinaire Michael Bay, who’d built his career on massive destruction and widescreen epic action films, was seen by pretty much everybody as the perfect man for the job, and, with Steven Spielberg producing the film, the virtually critic-proof blockbuster delivered on the promise – giant robots walk amongst us, and bring their age-old war to Earth. One of the key elements, in my opinion, toTransformers‘ success, was the casting and performance of Shia LaBeouf as lead human, Sam Witwicky, the young lad who purchases his first car only to discover that it’s actually a transforming cybernetic life-form. LaBeouf is the films’ “everyman”, the character we’re meant to identify with, even if he does mysoginistically chase after the hottest girl in school (Megan Fox) – La Beouf plays the role well, delivering the much-needed soul and humanity to a film brimming with robotic, weapon wielding beings standing taller than most houses. Bay constructs his film with the wide-eyed wonder of Sam’s first encounter with the Autobots, mixed with the teen-romance angle brewing in the background. Eventually, though, humanity must give way to gargantuan Autobot vs Decepticon action, as resident Decepticon leader Megatron, held captive beneath Hoover Dam, breaks free to obtain the powerful Cube – the energy source for the transformers. The film delivers large-scale action, as well as just enough humanity to remain heartfelt, rather than becoming simple another empty, soulless Hollywood blockbuster.
Revenge Of The Fallen, as I mentioned earlier, became the benchmark, nay, the poster child for all that was horrible about sequels. A disastrous pre-production, in which the Hollywood writers strike delayed the scripting process, and a final script so utterly devoid of the warmth and humor of the original film, ensured Revenge Of The Fallen became the nadir of the entire franchise. Bay went with more action, often at the expense of coherent plot development, and added in a plethora of new, stupid characters – Skids and Mudflap became the main focus for hate campaigns online. Much like Jar Jar Binks in the Star Wars prequels, Skids and Mudflap were jive-talkin’ comedy relief who were as comedic as self-immolation and as much relief as medieval torture. Their offensive cliched characterizations put a lot of folks offside, and alienated those who assumed that most of the Autobost and Decepticons would retain their alien personality – after all, the Transformers are from another world, and I doubt semi-racist 40’s mannerisms would go over to well on Cybertron. Sam’s journey to college was handled with the wit and humor of a Roman Circus: introducing Leo Spitz (Ramon Rodriguez) to the cast as yet another useless human involved in the “plot” was simply pointless – his character does nothing except yell, scream, run and look astonished the entire time. The titular Fallen, voiced by Tony Todd, is made out to be all conquering and super-powerful, and yet for all the threat and bluster, the final brawl with a souped-up Optimus Prime seemed to last about sixty seconds before Good triumphs over Evil. The killing of Optimus Prime early in the film was a great story point, since we were caught off-guard and made to think about the fact that anybody in this film could be next to die – the payoff, however, simply isn’t strong enough – Prime’s resurrection at the end of the film is given short thrift at best. Sure, the action in Revenge Of The Fallen is epic, to say the least, and the additional robotic effects on-screen are simply astonishing in their complexity and skill – yet, the films central plot isn’t strong enough to hang on the visuals.
The third film in the Bay-directed franchise, subtitled Dark Of The Moon, has as many issues as Revenge of The Fallen, most of which revolve around the films first hour or so – Sam grumps about getting a job, grumps about his super-hot girlfriends sleazy boss (rightfully so, as it turns out) and grumps about not getting to spend any time with his Autobot pals. The dual narrative between Sams plight and that of the discovered Cybertron weaponry known as “the pillars”, teleportation devices capable of transporting material across the vast ocean of space and time, rumbles along with a smattering of awesome action sequences and dire, half-chuckle “comedy” (and I use that term lightly – the horribly unfunny Ken Jeong makes an appearance, ruining about fifteen minutes of this film in the process!) before it gets to the point. And the point is the Decepticon invasion of Earth – with the USA ground zero being Chicago. yes, the Decepticons lay the smackdown on Chicago but good, ruining the city with advanced weaponry and a ferocity I don’t think we’ve seen in the previous films. People are obliterated by the score here (in the previous films, they’ve largely remained unaffected by the robotic skirmishes, at least as far as bodycount goes), buildings are damaged and destroyed, and it all goes a little War Of The Worlds for a while, until Optimus Prime and the Autobots show up. Then it’s a frenetic, explosion-y action sequence like you’ve never seen before, as Michael Bay cuts loose in only the way he can.
All three films in this franchise have their issues, that’s for sure. Plotting and character development plays an obvious second fiddle to the dynamic, astonishingly well rendered robots of the title, while director Michael Bay seems to have eschewed careful, solid filmmaking for a razzle-dazzle, nothing-can-stop-me frenetic zeal that borders on ADD. Bay’s never been one to display restraint, mind you, so expecting him to start now is like asking the Titanic not to sink after striking an iceberg. He delivers what people want – robots transforming and fighting each other (and, sometimes, us too) for control of our world. The actors are not the point of this, I’m sorry to say, and for those who think Sam’s character is the focal point of the franchise need to remember what happened to him in Revenge Of The Fallen. After a pretty decent arc in the original Transformers, Sam’s character is relegated to that of a secondary observer in Revenge, since the film accumulates excessive characters like Paris Hilton does paparazzi. In Dark of The Moon, Sam has a meatier role, at least in terms of screen time, but his character turns into a bit of sour-puss, a trait which rapidly comes across as annoying rather than the intended “endearing”, I think. His new girlfriend, played by Victoria’s Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, is the replacement for the Spielberg-fired Megan Fox, and although she has plenty of time to look pretty and stuff, her role is merely eye-candy and “damsel in distress” for the majority of the time – quite the mysoginist is Michael Bay, given his penchant for floppy, doe-eyed female characters with no interest value outside a pretty bum and bust.
The original film had one thing neither of its sequels quite managed – heart. The pivotal arc of Sam in film 1 was the driving force, and main reason for, the success of the film, outside of the visual effects. Our interest in Sam’s plight wanes more and more with each sequel. John Tuturro, perhaps the second “main” character in the saga, gives his all as the Sector 7 agent (then fired, then filthy-rich publisher of a dirt-dishing autobiography) agent Simmons, and while he goes a little crazy in Revenge, in DOTM he seems to have calmed a little, becoming a functionless bit-player forced to watch on behind the scenes. It’s a bit of a comedown for the character: I’d like to have seen him given a bit more of a fitting send-off than he got, so consider me disappointed. Aside from these two, the rest of the casting in these films exists just to fill out the roster aside from robots. Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson play the eponymous “military types”, inserted into the franchise to justify all of Michael Bay’s military porn shots – Revenge Of The Fallen feels more like a recruitment advertisement for the army and air force than a commercial film. Jon Voight appears in Transformers as the Secretary Of Defense, and he’s about the only one on-screen who realises that this is all one big joke. He’s replaced in Revenge Of The Fallen for a no-name National Security Adviser, and inDark of The Moon by a new NSA played by Frances McDormand. Only McDormand finds her feet amongst the robots in Dark of The Moon.
The replacement of Megan Fox as Sam’s love interest hit the internet and media streams about a week into production of Dark Of The Moon – apparently she said something derogatory about Michael Bay to the extent that producer Steven Spielberg had her summarily sent packing – and much hullabaloo was made of her replacement in Dark Of The Moon – young Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. Would she be as wooden as Fox, or would she bring both sex appeal and acting talent to the screen for her debut feature film? Sadly, she only brings sex appeal. Her chemistry with Shia LaBeouf is tenuously believable at best, although I think I spent more time wondering if her lips wereactual transformers than I did watching her “act”. She’s hot, sure, but her mouth looks like it’s some sort of skin condition which is gradually taking over her entire face. Her kiss with Sam at the end of the film looks more like a hippo trying to swallow a lynx.
Where all three films shine (more or less) is in the visual effects, and let’s face it, trying to critically dissect films like this is an exercise in pointlessness.The Autobots and Decepticons are, in a word, spectacular, and Michael Bay gives as much time to them as he possibly can. During the course of the saga, whole buildings crumble, suburbs are reduced to rubble, and gargantuan street brawls seem the order of the day. The arc of the three films as a while seems to be that with each passing frame, the stakes, the scale, the carnage all gets larger and larger. Dark Of The Moon takes the franchise to new heights as far as world-leveling obliteration, whereas the original film was a more intimate affair by comparison. The result of this increasing scope is directly disproportionate to the nitty-gritty plot and its depth of development. As the explosions get bigger, the narrative becomes less clear, if it was important at all in the first place. This is less a criticism of the franchise than a simple observation. Again, I reiterate that anybody expecting some sort of complex human emotional plot is watching the wrong film. This is a film series about giant robots beating the snot out of each other, and they do, more and more in each film.
The major problem with the two sequels, over and above the aforementioned “humanity” factor, is the somewhat baffling lack of a decent central villain. In Transformers, Megatron was the focus of the Decepticon rage, while in the second, that focus shifted to Megatron and the Fallen… and in Dark Of The Moon, Megatron’s almost obfuscated of his duty as Decepticon leader by the frustrated and usurping Autobot betrayer [authors note: I run the risk of spoiling the film with this pretty major plot point, so consider the phrase “Autobot Betrayer” my only option in describing DOTM’s key villain!] – in essence, Megatron is relegated to second tier player in the two sequels, leaving the villainous role open to all and sundry… it’s a vacuum neither Revenge or Moon can overcome. The Fallen’s story arc is confusing to say the least, and his motivations seemingly change from scene to scene, while in DOTM, the Autobot Betrayer has his motivations stem from an alien and aloof background story which, somehow, doesn’t quite ring true. It’s as if the scriptwriters wanted a betrayal, but couldn’t figure out a decent motive for it. If there’s a major fault with the original film, it’s a somewhat slow middle third – an extended period stuffing about with the guys from Sector 7 is painfully obtuse at times, and I tend to hit the fast-forward button on the BluRay player when these bits arrive.
The end result of Bay’s foray into the world of 80’s pop-culture is one of a mixed bag. The first Transformers film, as action-packed and humanly epic as it is, is actually dwarfed for visceral impact by the third installment. Dark Of The Moon does what Revenge Of The Fallenshould have done – taken the existing franchise world, expanded it, and given us something new and exciting, while delivering a character-driven plot filled with the robot-on-robot action we crave. The final hour of Transformers was something I considered to be among the best action sequences ever – ever, mind you – until I witnessed the staggeringly amazing final hour or so of Dark Of The Moon. Sitting back and trying to decide which of the two best Transformers films (let’s face it, Revenge Of The Fallen isn’t even in the hunt) is the best is actually quite a task – my decision is based on a single point: how much humanity did each one contain? Which film did I connect emotionally with more than the other? In the end, while it might be the new kid on the block, Dark Of The Moon doesn’t quite have the same kid-finds-his-first-car-is-a-robot soul that Transformers did. DOTM might deliver one of the better action films of recent decades, but the more complete package resides with the original. Transformers, by a Bumblebee hair.
And what could be better than seeing one of the Transformers movies? How about seeing all three in one spectacular, all encompassing, Smack-filled trailer?!
Transformers: The Trilogy Ends