The Autobots aren’t here for the good of humanity; they’re here for the good of America. We catch up with them attacking a nuclear weapons facility in an unknown Middle Eastern country (probably Iran). Luckily, the Transformers’ political ideology closely mirrors our own, with Optimus Prime regularly spouting off declarations of freedom. Absurdities aside (and this film can be as dumb as it is big), this is the most massive summer movie you have ever seen, and it throws near-perfect action scenes at you like it’s no big deal for two and a half hours. The movie has serious story problems, and we’ll get to that later, but the fact remains that this is one of the best action movies ever made, both for its eye-watering visual effects and the choreography of destruction. To top it off, the 3D is actually really good, shot with the same cameras as Avatar, though not quite as effective. The movie has shades of James Cameron in it, but while Michael Bay has become the best action director around, he can’t squeeze a drop of emotional connection out of his characters, as Cameron could with ease. The movie is definitely too long, and a lot of fat could have been trimmed from the first and second acts, because by the time you walk out you will be exhausted.
Transformers 3 goes out of its way to connect Cold War historical events with the Autobots. The film opens on Cybertron, to show off the 3D effects on a Millennium Falcon rip-off and a charming maquette presentation of the war. The tiny robots marching across the honeycomb planet’s surface come through with perfect clarity and depth, and a halo of missiles chasing the doomed spacecraft speaks to a careful sense of design seen throughout the movie. The recreation of the Apollo landing is well done, and the soaring music tries to capture the patriotic fever pitch the film is so nostalgic for. The moon scene, using original footage (looking great in a large format) and excellent recreations of the lunar landing, makes for a stunning opener. Aside from some awkward presidential recreations (you would expect JFK’s assassin to be revealed as a Decepticon, his Presidential limo an Autobot), these scenes set things up nicely.
In an effort to create a character that disenfranchised male audiences can relate too, Shia LaBeouf’s Sam Witwicky is always presented as a hapless everyman trying to make his way in an unfair world. Megan Fox, fired (and for the better, as her onscreen contempt for the last film was painful) for daring to speak against Bay and his misogynistic directing, is replaced with the hotter and higher class Rosie Huntington-Whiteley playing Carly Spencer (Bay probably scooped her up from one of his million dollar Victoria’s Secret commercials). While Megan Fox played a hot girlfriend who was more than a little white trash, Whiteley is all upper crust with a British accent and no blue jean cutoffs or motorcycle shops. The idea of Witwicky dating this impossibly beautiful model is more outrageous than the Transformers themselves. Whiteley handles herself well for her first role, though she isn’t given any tough acting jobs other than to encourage her boyfriend and stare in slow motion. Bay, staying true to himself as an artist, introduces her with a lingering close-up of her ass in panties, and proceeds to ogle her body in a variety of sheer dresses and outfits. LaBeouf continues his ubiquitous spastic and exasperated presentation of the Witwicky character, which is near perfect by now, but wearing a little thin.
The first act is definitely shades of the last Transformers film, pretty much universally hated, even by Bay himself (blaming the problems on the Writer’s Strike) and gives a quick succession of humorous character introductions, some with no consequence, and some central characters. John Malkovich is actually the funniest of these characters, his botoxed and tanned interpretation of a corporate schmuck is spot on, though he is gone by the second act. Kim Jeong is hilarious as usual, but his strange undeveloped character is gone too. Even Sam’s parents make their usual uncomfortable sex talk appearance, though they have been pared down. You get the feeling a lot was left on the cutting room floor, and we’ll see a lot of deleted scenes involving these characters. Patrick Dempsey does a fair job as the rich asshole threatening to steal Sam’s girlfriend with his money and power. The class-conscious script does a lot to pit underemployed Witwicky against the moneyed interests that stand in his way, the movie trying to appeal to its poor audience, mirrored in a later scene where ex NEST troops leave their tiny ramshackle homes and cheap hotels, and take their pickup trucks to fight the Decepticons.
To avoid major spoilers, it is best to break the rest of the movie down into the best action scenes. In Chernobyl, Shockwave’s earth-devouring worm monster jumps through abandoned warehouses like a dolphin as Optimus drives alongside to intercept. This scene is probably the most Cameron in nature, the 18 wheeler form of Optimus looking very threatening against the bleak color palette of a rusted Russia. The movement of the monster through the background is flawless animation. Delivering on an idea started in Matrix: Revolutions, a highway chase down the Washington Parkway shows Decepticons swiping cars aside into full barrel rolls and crushing them at full speed. These Rastafarian Decepticons provide the best vehicle action we’ve gotten in a long time. The slow motion shot of Sam flying through the air relied on a full body scan, but while it isn’t perfect, it doesn’t look awful, either, and that’s a step in the right direction. A shuttle flight gone wrong is notable for its atmospheric point of view and a film treatment that makes it look like you’re watching it live on TV. The destruction of the shuttle is almost disturbing in its realism and similarity to the spacecraft we’ve lost through the years.
The Chicago finale is so long and so intense it’s hard to break down, though we see a conscious effort to show human soldiers taking an equal role in the combat with the Autobots. The most standout scene is of NEST teams wingsuiting out of Ospreys as they are destroyed. These slow motion shots are rendered so perfectly, and the action is so clear, that they deserve special mention. The flight to the ground, a feat performed by real stuntmen, is nearly as intense, especially a flight through a hole in a fallen skyscraper. The destruction of a skyscraper, cut in half by Shockwave, and the escape of the heroes inside, is gigantic and surprisingly consistent.
As for the robot on robot action, it is what we’ve come to expect from these films. Optimus Prime is a murderer, and he does plenty of awesome moves in slow motion, but we’ve seen this before; it’s par for the course. Aside from Whiteley nearly being involved in some unfortunate Decepticon tentacle porn, and a moderately creepy Laserbeak, these are the same bots we’ve come to know. Optimus ultimately comes off as an asshole in my opinion, and Megatron doesn’t get much in the way of screen time. When Cybertron appears in the atmosphere, we get a small taste of what Unicron may have looked like (I suspected Unicron would eat the Moon when I first heard the title of the movie), but he won’t be around until Transformers 4 or 5. An unwillingness to kill anyone, or any important Autobots, prevents any emotional impact, but also keeps the children in the audience from crying over Bumblebee’s corpse.
The movie is absolutely massive, the effects are as good as they can be, and the entertainment keeps happening for the entirety of a very long movie. The 3D doesn’t look like shit, and I’d say that’s a win too. A lack of any real emotional resonance and any stakes to speak of (regardless of the single human skull rolling down the street) keep this from being a great movie. It is hard to mix the giggling levity of the first act with the intended dirge-tinged doom of the final act. However, in a rare moment of stunning realism, our Congress quickly signs over the planet to the Decepticons and exiles the Autobots (I can’t think of a truer representation of our idiot leaders). Story and character problems aside, there are no racist robots, and the movie is much, much better than the first two. The movie is great on its technical achievements alone, and a great action movie is hard to come by these days.