Transformers: Dark of The Moon is supposedly the end of the live-action Transformers movies – or, at least, the end of the series as currently envisioned. Director Michael Bay, who’s never been a particularly big fan of the assignment, has intimated that this is his last go at bat, while star Shia LaBeouf has supposedly called it quits as well (co-star Megan Fox having jumped ship after the second one). Of course, in the New Hollywood, nothing is ever truly over – there will be more Transformers movies, in one form or another. But now that this particular iteration seems to have breathed its last I figure it’s as good a time as any to give it the same once-over that seemed to go over pretty well for Green Lantern last week.
This time, though, my concerns are less about flaws in filmmaking (which are readily apparent, even in the trailers) and more about unanswered questions. For example …
What Do the Decepticons Want, Again?
Transformers always had a fairly simple setup for its good-vs-evil business: The Decepticons wanted to strip the Earth of its resources for fuel; the Autobots weren’t so much down with that. In the movies, exactly what the evil plan is – or the reason they’re sticking around on Earth – changes multiple times, often in the same film.
In the first film, everyone shows up on Earth because they only just figured out that Megatron and the Allspark are being held here. The Allspark itself, incidentally, also changes usage a few times – from scene to scene it provides unlimited power, turns regular machines into Transformers, or kills you if you’re a robot and you put it in your chest. The fact that Megatron has been held by a rogue government agency for decades is apparently a big deal.
But in Revenge of The Fallen, it turns out the Transformers have been here since the dawn of history. One of them mentions his ancestor being The Wheel (heh) while another has been hiding in a government museum disguised as a military jet (because no one would ever check that). Also, the Decepticons now want to blow up the sun, because they’re running out of fuel needed to make baby Decepticons (huh?). This is also where we learn that only a Prime can kill The Fallen, but for some reason just about anyone can kill a Prime.
Now, in Dark of The Moon, motivations and history change yet again. The Decepticons haven’t just been here for decades, they’ve been actively working with human collaborators. Why wasn’t “let our nearly all-powerful leader out of his ice prison” on the agenda before? We’re not told. Supposedly Megatron and Sentinel Prime were both headed for Earth to arrange a clandestine surrender/team up, which sort of makes sense since all that ancient tech from Fallen is here, but that never comes up. We finally get a belated repetition of the “steal your resources” motivation – but it’s a trap! The resource they want is humanity itself, a slave labor army to rebuild Cybertron.
The Transformers, on average, are several stories high, made of solid steel, capable of assuming multiple mechanical forms and – despite that whole stillborn hatchling thing from Part 2 – have no trouble conjuring up more of themselves. Megatron’s body is crawling with little repair drones, and he and Starscream are raising a littler of Decepti-Tots in Africa for some reason. What exactly are any number of squishy, flesh-and-bone slaves 1/10th their size going to do in the fixing of a planet built around such creatures? This is like me attempting to build a skyscraper with a legion of hamsters – it’s not gonna happen.
Do We Know the Transformers Are Here or Not?
The Transformers are a secret in the first film – “robots in disguise” and all that – but by the end it’s hard to imagine they’ve stayed that way. The big battle has torn a large American city to shreds, (presumably) killed hundreds and was witnessed by thousands. No way in hell could that be covered up, especially since the only part of Men in Black the series’ “Sector 7” concept didn’t rip off was the mind-erasing Neuralizers.
Yet in Part 2, not only has the whole thing been somehow covered up, it’s still being covered up! That’s pretty hard to swallow,especially since the scale of things has gotten significantly bigger. The Autobots are now part of a covert (in the universe of these films, “covert” means “right out in the open”) military squad that goes around blowing up Decepticons in the most showy, difficult-to-cover-up fashion possible.
By Part 3, the cover up seems to be over, though the world doesn’t seem to have changed much in reaction to the knowledge that aliens are living among us disguised as cars. Also, much of the plot hinges on Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) feeling insecure because no one knows how much he helped save the world twice, but given that in Revenge of The Fallen, Megatron puts a bounty on Sam’s head and broadcasts it to every human being on the planet, it’s somewhat unclear why no one knows that.
Oh, and speaking of which …
Why Are the Robots Still “In Disguise”?
Alright, to recap: As Dark of The Moon opens, the Transformers are so widely known that no one so much as bats an eye around them anymore – save for one hypothetically nifty sequence where Optimus Prime and Buzz Aldrin (the actual Buzz freakin’ Aldrin!) exchange solemn platitudes of respect, one larger-than-life childhood role model to another (dear god, to think of this scene in a better movie).
So why do they still spend most of the film dressed up as cars? And why is it always the same cars? If you’ll permit me one “check the source” digression – the original point of the disguise gimmick was that they had to take the form of vehicles they roughly resembled in size and shape. The films do away with this concept (now any Transformer can be pretty much any vehicle) and by Part 3 have done away with their own prohibition on fudging the question of mass, as Laserbeak is seen taking the form of computers and wall decorations less than half his size.
But despite this, The Autobots are still driving around as whatever car/truck they first took the form of – even during black ops missions where they are ostentatiously out-of-place and a different form would benefit them. This odd manifestation of robo-vanity doesn’t seem to plague Megatron, who is on his third new form – a big rusty poacher’s(?) truck, presumably to blend in with his campsite on the African plains. Oh yeah, and if the “Decepticons = Scary Dark Foreigners” angle isn’t made explicit enough by all this, New Megatron wears a headscarf. (And before you say it, yes, I know that the ostensible reason for it is to cover up his head wounds, which makes little-to-no sense.)
Oh, and come to think of it, in Part 2, the Decepticons have an agent that can disguise herself (itself?) as a 100%-convincing human female. And “she” doesn’t seem to be some kind of special deal – just a random underling! If they can do that, why is the car/truck/plane thing in play at all?
Why Is Optimus Prime Basically Useless?
Optimus Prime is the dominant figure of the Transformers marketing, reigning over each trailer, most of the posters and the majority of the merchandising key art. The real reason is pretty banal: He was the main character of the cartoon and comics, so inseparable from the franchise that Peter Cullen’s iconic voice is the sole remnant of the original series to be carried over largely unmolested.
But in terms of just the movies themselves he’s a loser, a poor excuse for a leader and deathly dull, yet the swelling soundtrack and sweeping low angle cinematography keep insisting that we’re supposed to be in awe of him for no discernable reason.
Think about it: He’s not the main character, Sam is. And he’s not even Sam’s best pal among the Autobots, that’s Bumblebee. He spends a lot of time lecturing the humans about keeping him in the loop, but remains behind the curve among every major story event of the series. He never even wins a major fight without an assist – Sam kills Megatron in Part 1, he requires Sam’s magical resurrection save and Jetfire’s gear in Part 2, and in Part 3 he can’t kill Sentinel Prime until Megatron hooks him up. Heck, even before that, he’s waylaid from the fight because he got tangled up in some ropes. Really.
What’s the Point of All This?
The Transformers franchise has always flirted with a certain amount of portentous message mongering. Optimus Prime’s somber warrior ethos platitudes, delivered in Peter Cullen’s rich growl, are probably what made the character such a memorable father/hero figure for Gen-X youths, and Megatron’s merchandising was often emblazoned with his philosophical motto “Peace Through Tyranny!” And despite the gut reaction to dismiss any notion of meaning in a Michael Bay movie based on old action figures, the fact remains that anything that has a story (even a thin one) also has a theme – however unintentional it may or may not be.
So what, exactly, is Transformers selling?
The U.S. Military has a curious omnipresence in the series. Some of this can be chalked up to practicality – Bay is a stickler for details when it comes to hardware, official army personnel and equipment have to be formally okayed by The Pentagon, and that “okay” is frequently denied for films that depict the armed forces in anything other than a glowing light. It’s said that Independence Day was largely denied use of real hardware because The Army did not like the story details involving the Area 51 cover up – supposedly, this why the Transformers conspiracy story uses the fictional “Sector 7” agency. But it extends into the thematic realm in the way The Autobots, supposedly the main characters, are constantly eclipsed in big action scenes in favor of human soldiers. An entire subplot in the first film is dedicated to a military unit fighting Decepticons in the desert, which serves almost no purpose other than to reinforce that the U.S. Army kicks just as much Decepticon ass as Optimus Prime does.
Revenge of The Fallen, certainly, seems to wear its vaguely Neo-Con leanings on its sleeve. A snively Government bureaucrat – a total dweeb, to contrast with the bad-ass manly men uber-heroes who get to carry guns, wear fatigues and chill with The Autobots – raises the (fairly logical, when you think about it) point of whether or not the Autobots staying on Earth is actually inviting Decepticon attacks. Optimus shuts him down, gravely intoning “What if we leave, and you are wrong?” When the film came out, presidential power in the United States had recently shifted from a regime that could politely be called “combat enthusiasts” to something slightly more contemplative, and similar arguments were taking place about actual, non-robot-oriented military activities. That scene seems to make it clear which side The Autobots were taking.
Dark of The Moon, meanwhile, could be interpreted as doubling down on the same sort of message. The film’s big twist – that Sentinel Prime and Megatron weren’t both heading to Earth to fight, but for Sentinel to surrender/team-up in order to end the war and save what was left of Cybertron – is a prelude to the same decision being made by the humans. The Decepticons order humanity to exile the Autobots, on the promise that doing so will lessen Earthling casualties. It is, of course, a lie – and Prime returns to lead a Troop Surge and teach mankind a lesson: that “The Enemy” can never be trusted, given ground and especially not negotiated with, the only solution is to “take the fight to them!” and wipe them out wholesale. If you’re picturing a single happy tear sliding down Donald Rumsfeld’s cheek, you’re not alone.
Am I saying that Michael Bay, Hasbro, etc. intentionally set out to make a film that uses fictional stand-ins to advocate for aggressive, unending offensive war fighting? No, I’m not, but the implications are in there, and hard to miss whether intended or not.
Can Ken Jeong Do Any Other Characters?
Comedian Ken Jeong, late of The Hangover, has an expository/comic relief cameo. Do you suppose he plays a hyperactive nut with boundary issues who spits out hip-hop flavored dialogue with a caricatured Asian-American accent and mannerisms?
Gee, how’d you guess?
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.