Guns, Drugs & Energon: Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2009)

Michael Bay-lieve it or not, they’re still making Transformers movies! Last week saw This week sees the release of Transformers: The Last Knight, the fifth installment of the decade old Blockbuster franchise based on some Hasbro toys. Join Max Robinson and Patrick Stinson as they brave the dubious racial caricatures and ever-increasing plot devices, and mighty robots of The Gobots The Transformers.

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Patrick: Here we go with the third Transformers film, or as I like to say, the second of the “of the” movies. There is a real feeling of pulling out all the stops here—that after Revenge of the Fallen’s garbage quality they weren’t going to get a chance to ride again, so they might as well blow up everything, kill everyone, and make the whole thing as cool as possible. And you know what? It really works for me. Max, your thoughts?

Max: Watching this movie, you’d naturally assume this was the end of the road for Michael Bay and these Transformers movies. That may have been the case originally but, as we know, ol’ Mike Armageddon went on to somehow make at least two more of these things. There’s definitely a weariness to this movie, from Sam Witwicky’s kind of depressing “adult loser trying to make it in the workplace” plot to the fact that even Megatron seems just insanely depressed. But unlike Revenge of the Fallen, there’s a lot of good bits to be had in this movie among the robo-carnage that’s the series signature. Bay goes big with this one and, to an extent, it pays off this time.

Patrick: I would go further. There is a basic level of competence in structure that was totally absent from RotF. The general theme of being lost in one’s life is expressed for Sam Witwicky and for the Transformers. There’s lots of good bits of planting and payoff. The plot of the film is straightforward and makes sense, only yielding to a little bit of snarling at the very end. Honestly, I think most of the people who vocally hate this movie are focusing on the visual style and the tone. While you may not like it or find it appropriate for a cartoon spinoff, the decision to go dark is a very deliberate one and executed well. Unique in the series, over and over characters are betrayed by entities they trusted, with horrifying results.

Max: This movie is DARK. The first two movies go hard on jokes and gags and Dark of the Moon gives us poor Ironhide literally disintegrating and robot Leonard Nimoy getting executed for crimes against the Cybertronian state after turning against his former protege and teaming up with Megatron. There’s even a level of insidiousness to the movies requisite “everything you knew is wrong” reveal: Humans (led, OF COURSE, by former 80s teen movie star/Grey’s Anatomy hunk Patrick Dempsey) have been working with Decepticons to kneecap human space exploration for decades. Not that their on-screen relationship was any great shakes, but there’s even a kind of unintentional bleakness to the fact that Megan Fox’s Mikaela gets written out of this installment in favor of a new love interest (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley).

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Patrick: While the replacement of Mikaela with Carly is considered a positive by some, to me it is one of the movie’s few major areas of missed potential. Here you have Sam’s girlfriend, who was always deprived of opportunities compared to Sam, surpassing him on the job market and rubbing elbows with a billionaire. At the height of her exhilaration, it’s revealed to be a cruel ploy and everything she has is based on Sam after all. “She is here because of you.” Imagine the power of working-class Mikaela seated in that servant-filled Chicago penthouse, and imagine her turning the Decepticons against each other from her captive position. All the writing for the character essentially goes to waste. Carly is by no means bad, but you can really see the copy-paste job done with her character.

Max: So many characters in this movie sort of feel like they’re just existing without much use to the plot. The non-Bumblebee/Optimus/Megatron Transformers are CGI ciphers and even the great Frances McDormand is relegated to a pretty one-note defense official role that never really pays off. The exceptions to this are Dempsey’s scene-chewingly evil human partisan Dylan Gould, Nimoy’s surprisingly affecting Sentinel Prime and (my favorite part of the movie) the aforementioned depressed Megatron, who wears a big tarp cloak over his disfigured face and lords over animals in the Sahara like trash royalty in exile. Dark of the Moon is kinda all over the place in this respect.

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Patrick: Sentinel Prime is a GREAT character, and on your first watch the way he twists the knife on Our Heroes is vicious. However, more evidence that the creative team doesn’t “get” the potential of the Transformers characters is at hand with the way that Shockwave is used as a simple Red Herring. If you take even a cursory look at the depth and breadth of the character of Shockwave, you could make him the villain of a film SERIES, let alone one film. In Dark of the Moon he has ONE LINE. (And of course, Leonard Nimoy gets another part rather than the guy who IS Evil Spock.) Not only are most of the Decepticons cannon fodder, all of the “big name” Decepticons are treated as if they are cannon fodder. While the war movie feel of this flick is a great choice, the franchise is about the dueling of great larger-than-life personalities, and many fans gave up on the series here because the door was seemingly slammed on ever getting that.

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Max: It’s a bummer that we finally get a sizeable appearance from Soundwave in one of these and he’s a fairly generic henchman. He doesn’t even get his cool monotone voice! Your point about the draw of Transformers is dead-on and the weird thing is that we do and don’t get that here. Noticeably, the best part of the movie is the strange dynamic between Optimus, Sentinel, and Megatron. The next two Transformers movies struggle with having another villain in addition to Megatron and how that throws the plot out of whack, but here having Megatron get reduced to second banana status after Sentinel Prime reveals he’s working with the Decepticons makes for a kind of interesting conflict towards the end. Carly doesn’t actually do much in this movie but her one big moment is Bugs Bunny-ing Megatron into kicking Sentinel Prime’s ass and inadvertently saving the day.

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Patrick: I want to talk about that ending, because I don’t know how many people realize how close it was to being very, VERY different. In the version of the movie that was leaked (widely, and early) by tie-ins, after Sentinel is defeated, Optimus and Megatron form a truce and the Decepticons fly up to rebuild Cybertron. In the final film, Megatron is killed and Cybertron is destroyed. A two-minute change of voice and animation creates a vastly different status quo. Imagine how different movies 4 and 5 would be! Now, my speculation as to why this was done is that the destruction of Chicago is so visceral that Megatron had gone too far for Optimus to accept him. When I shared this with my wife, she said that while she preferred the earlier ending intellectually, she’s not sure she could have accepted it emotionally. I mean, people CHEERED in the theater at the end of this movie.

What is unfortunate about it is that the Murder Prime personality that got memed after RotF was now cemented as absolutely a deliberate choice by the creative team. Among the people who were honestly disturbed by this were longtime Optimus voice actor Garry Chalk, who told me at TFCon 2011 that he simply wouldn’t have delivered those lines and can’t watch Optimus acting like that. These characters matter.

Max: The thing about Dark of the Moon is that Bay and co. take the carnage as far as it can possibly go, to the point that this is a TRANSFORMERS MOVIE where human beings are exterminated en mass and Chicago is completely destroyed. We get a fun bit where our heroes are basically trying not to fall to their death atop a skyscraper but the whole third act of this movie is BLEAK. So, with that in mind, having Optimus execute the two people responsible is distasteful but also…what else could they do here? It’s not hard to see why we get a soft reset after this, the franchise drastically needed a tone realignment after the concussive robot 9/11s that make up the last third of the film.

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Patrick: The tone was not sustainable, but it works here as a splash of cold water after the cavemen-and-supernovae dumbshit ride of RotF. Having now seen The Last Knight, I rate this as the second-best Transformers film…and my personal favorite of the bunch. If you like Transformers, and you don’t hate movieverse Transformers, there’s just so much for you to chew on here. Apollo 11 found the Ark on the Moon! Buzz Aldrin meets Optimus Prime! “So, your car has a job?” The Wreckers show up and kick ass! Barricade gets face time! John Malkovich is completely bugshit insane! And Shia LeBeouf, bless his heart, has never been more funny, more physical, or more genuine. If this is his swan song in the franchise then he went out high.

Even if it sucks rotten Energon that he fucking kills Starscream.

Max: I’m less hot on this one but it’s definitely head and shoulders over RotF (what wouldn’t be?). Dark of the Moon, to me, feels like a significant moment for Summer Blockbusters. Aside from maybe Man of Steel two years later, no other big action movie I can think of comes close to this scale of destruction and mayhem. Which, frankly, is a good thing. And, believe it or not, Bay wrings some genuinely interesting blood from this rock in the next two films!

Patrick: Painted into a creative corner, some pretty interesting story gets unleashed from here.

Next: A New Beginning! Marky Mark, dead Autobot playing cards and a dubious third act in China.

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