TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON (2011) (**)
My one and a half star rating for the last TRANSFORMERS film was kind. I'm happy to report that the third film in the series is decidedly better, but when your #2 reminded me of something else called a #2 then "decidedly better" doesn't necessarily mean it's a good film. Hey at least this film has a plot.
Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf, HOLES) has saved the Earth twice and even received a medal from President Obama, but he's having a tough time finding a job. Even though he has no income, he lives in an amazing loft in Chicago with his gorgeous British girlfriend Carly (former Victoria's Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley). She works for the egotistical entrepreneur Dylan (Patrick Dempsey, CAN'T BUY ME LOVE). He has a gorgeous car collection and seems to want to add Carly to it as a hood ornament. Sam has no contact with the Autobots anymore because they are now running secret ops for the military, led by Lennox (Josh Duhamel, LIFE AS WE KNOW IT).
In an opening sequence, we learn that a spaceship from the Transformers home planet crashed on the moon, which spurred the '60s space race. Sentinel Prime (Leonard Nimoy, STAR TREK), in hibernation mode or something, guards valuable technology stowed away on the ship that could end the war between the Autobots and Decepticons. Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen, TRANSFORMERS) retrieves his old mentor as Sam tries to figure out what Megatron (Hugo Weaving, THE MATRIX) and the other Decepticons are up to.
For the most part the plot is straightforward. The bad guys have a plan and the good guys set out to thwart it. The Earth hangs in the balance, as the bad guys want to take over. Spectacular visual effects, invasions, death, explosions, betrayals, etc. keep the plot moving along. While it is unlikely that a two-time saver of the world would have to go work for the eccentric Bruce Brazos (John Malkovich, BEING JOHN MALKOVICH) as a mail clerk, Sam's desire to want to do something important right out of college is a common and relatable feeling. This makes us actually care about someone in the picture. And because he cares about the Autobots, we in turn care about them by default. We also have Frances McDormand (FARGO) as the national security official Mearing. That's about all the film has going for it.
While the film might have a plot with an understandable through line, it's not anything special. It's like a million other alien invasion films only with giant robots ripping each other apart. And now the third time around the "death" of these robots means absolutely nothing because they always seem to come back somehow. As for the human, they attempt to fight back, but so often an Autobot has to come along to save them. When Horace coined the term deus ex machina (god from the machine) he had to have this film in mind. Good alien invasion films know that the personal interaction of the main characters with the invasion as a backdrop makes for compelling human drama. Sam gets his motivation and then just goes into hero mode. There is no human drama here that we connect to. Not even Sam wanting to save his girlfriend because it's only going through the motions of standard damsel in distress clichés.
The film's humor is not as juvenile as REVENGE OF THE FALLEN, but it is extremely awkward. It's the kind of humor where the outlandish behavior of one character is supposed to make another character feel awkward. Here it is done so in your face that it makes the audience awkward too. We're supposed to be laughing at them, not feeling their feelings, right? Malkovich gives a Malkovich over-the-top performance, which provides some laughs, even though his character seems to be inserted from a farce. John Turturro comes back to chomp on some scenery as former secret agent turned whistleblower Simmons. And then there is Ken Jeong of THE HANGOVER fame. There are over-the-top performances and then there is Ken Jeong's performance in this film.
The final battle is epic. It goes on forever. At first I found enjoyment in the fact that the film stopped trying to be stupid… oh wait, I mean funny, but here they are interchangeable. As Sam heads into a war zone, the film attains some level of tension. But one narrow escape after another just drains the audience. It breaks credibility even more than the numerous plot holes prior do. And I'm not even talking about the gravitational absurdity of bringing another planet into the atmosphere of Earth. Characters act one way and then when their true intentions are shown, we wonder why they would have done what they did before. An ending needs to ratchet up tension, but it shouldn't do it over and over again just so it can fit in another robot on robot violence sequence. The visual effects are spectacular, but without the human element, it's just machine gods smashing each other until one runs out of gas. I ran out of gas long before the final showdown.