I've never been a particular fan of Bay, Armageddon annoyed me so much the internet doesn't have enough Picard facepalm pictures, and the least said about Pearl Harbor the better. However, for a director who excels at action scenes and explosions whatever his other flaws he was pretty much born to direct a film based around a principle which boils down to giant robots beating merry hell out of each other as things explode.
Many fans weren't happy, but Transformers fandom is so fractured that one fan left by himself for any length of time would likely start an inner argument over what colour scheme for Armada Prime was best. But it still managed to connect with the greater public more than any version of the franchise, even the original cartoon/comic/toys combo didn't reach so many countries and age ranges.
That first film is, for my money, still the best overall, and that's simply down to its through-line of the Bumblebee, Spike and Mikaela interaction. Getting your first car and serious girlfriend is something most people can relate too, and it gives it a heart the other two films can't quite manage.
Revenge of the Fallen was a mess, a glorious mess none the less. Effectively trying to take everything that worked in the first film and ramming it up to 11, it's a film that manages one of the greatest fight scenes in movie history during the forest sequence (“I'LL TAKE YOU ALL ON!”), has lots and lots of great moments but sags in the second half and the ending is nowhere near as engaging as the centrepiece in the woods.
Third film Dark of the Moon promised to get back to basics, but even if it's not as extremely OTT as the previous entry “basic” is not a word that really exists in Bay's vocabulary. So it's once again more of the same but bigger and larger. And in 3D.
The films plot is neatly split into three acts. The first see the Autobots and Sam separately uncover a conspiracy to hide the truth about first contact the the Transformers, and find long lost Sentinel Prime on the moon with the techno-pillars he constructed to make a giant space bridge.
The second has Sentinel brought to Earth and revived as Sam uncovers even more info that leads to Sentinel and love interest Carly's boss both turning out to be working for the Decepticons and ends with the Autobots being ordered off Earth by the US government after being given a promise from Sentinel that Earth will be left alone if they do, only for the ship they're on to be destroyed by Starscream.
The third and final sees the Decepticons take over Chicago to set up the space bridge that will bring Cybertron to Earth and let them take the humans up to rebuild it, and Sam and Epps (coming to rescue Carly), NEST and the not at all dead Autobots all converge on the City where a massive battle ensues, and Prime is ironically saved by a pissed off Megatron who feels usurped by Sentinel, Optimus then finishes them both off before declaring the war over.
That's a fairly concise summary, but lets face it, these are not what you can call plot heavy films. In terms of looking at it a bit deeper, lets start with the script.
One thing that's perhaps surprising considering that this is very much a visuals orientated series, is that you can tell that two main writers on the previous films, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, have departed. Whilst stylistically it's in keeping with the previous entries there's a difference in how the source material is used.
The last two films took bits and bobs from all over the history of Transformers, most obviously in the last film's use of the obscure (outside of fan circles) character of the Fallen as lead villain alongside a very lose adaptation of an early Marvel comics story where Buster Witwicky had the Matrix in his mind.
This time however, Ehren Kruger, writing solo after being the third man behind the Revenge of the Fallen script, keeps it simple and effectively merges two different multi-part stories from the best remembered and most widely seen pre-Bay version of the franchise, the original cartoon.
From the three part The Ultimate Doom we get a plot to bring Cybertron into Earth's orbit to make stealing and transferring our resources there much easier . Ironically the silly kids cartoon is not only the only one of the two to acknowledge the devastating gravitational effect this would have on Earth, but also provides a more thorny moral issue for Optimus as Cybertron is still an inhabited planet. One cliffhanger even has him complete the transfer himself as Cybertron would be destroyed if he didn't. Movie Prime has the choice between the six billion people of Earth and sacrificing a dead world, a much easier decision.
The second TV story to be raided is the two part Megatron's Master Plan, where a rich tosser turns out to be in league with the Decepticons and the Autobots are forced off Earth in a spaceship that is then promptly destroyed but [SPOILERS!] they all survive and come back to save a city that's been taken over by Megatron. This is actually done much, much better here. In the cartoon Optimus merrily agrees to leave Earth forever in a completely genuine way and leaves in a spaceship built by the Decepticons without expecting any sort of trap.
The only real left-field choice in the film is including Sentinel Prime as the new lead villain. A character who was created by Simon Furman for the Marvel comics where the full extent of his appearances was being dead in Optimus Prime's arms in one panel (and he wasn't even named till a few years later). The name had been reused for Optimus' immediate predecessor in various other continuities, including a popular version in the Animated cartoon, but he's still relatively obscure in the grand scheme of things.
What this recycling does is give the film a much more focused and linear plot, whilst Revenge of the Fallen had lengthy lulls here things progress, with most scenes at least adding something to move events forward (even if there's still some random stuff, if anyone can explain to me what the point of Sam's boss coming to look at Bumblebee and growl at him I'll be grateful).
The pre-titles sequence that opens the film is more than a little annoying. We do get some excellent Cybertron set flashbacks showing Sentinel Prime depart Cybertron in the Ark, but the sequences mixing real newsreel footage and newly filmed material explaining how Apollo 11 was a giant conspiracy to get someone up there to look at the crashed ship don't really work. Especially as everything contained within them are recapped when the real Buzz “Second comes right after first” Aldrin shows up in the film proper. You could have cut this sequence, placed the Cybertron flashback during Optimus' later explanation of who Sentinel is and add a much shorter NASA recap to Aldrin's story without losing anything in the film. And, more importantly, ensuring the viewer isn't so ahead of the characters in working out the plot.
However, once we're into the film proper we're back in more familiar Michael Bay territory as we're introduced to new leading lady Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) by having her scantily clad arse wave about in front of the camera in a massive close up. In 3D. This turns out to be her best side as she goes on to give a truly terrible performance, not helped by a posh totty characterisation which see her spend most of the film screaming “SAAAAAAAAAAAAM” very loudly without any of the proactive strength Megan Fox brought to Mikaela in the previous films.
There's also a sense of the film setting up for a Samless future for the series, he spends less time with the Autobots than before, has a mostly separate subplot and is no longer joined at the hip with Bumblebee. There's a real sense, despite his insistence on doing the right thing and getting involved here, that he's ready to move on to a safer life.
Of the other human characters, Simmons is as fun as ever and ably backed up by his camp but deadly German butler Dutch, whilst surprise human villain Dylan Gould is nicely smarmy and, best of all, isn't betrayed by his Decepticon masters at any point. Epps also gets his largest role to date, despite being now retired from NEST, as part of a road trip with Sam to round up some other retired troops to help with Carly's rescue.
Sadly Lennox is reduced to just shouting very loudly despite being involved in some cool stunt sequences, and 24 fans will be disappointed that Glenn Morshower (playing...err... General Morshower) only manages to get about three lines that could have just have easily been given to other characters.
The Autobots continue the trend that Optimus and Bumblebee are the leads and the others are just for support, but everyone does much better for quick sketch characterisation than in the second film. Ironhide is especially awesome during the Mexican stand off and this being almost immediately followed by his murder at the hands of a supposed friend completely changes the film, creating a sense than anything can happen and no one is safe, the shot of his head melting (in a nod to the cosmic rust from the cartoon) is genuinely disturbing.
Of the new characters, Que (based far to heavily on Q from Bond) is a rather charming eccentric old inventor who gets an even nastier death, and the Wreckers, though completely unlike their comic namesakes, are brilliantly fun and one of them gets to say “Nazi wanker”, which is surely a line we've all being waiting to hear from a Transformer. With Brains making an excellent comedy partner to Wheelie and Sideswipe getting more than one line this time that only leaves red Ferrari Dino as the one with the short straw.
[EDIT:: It has since been pointed out to me that the line is apparently "Nancy Wanker". Though I prefer my version and should clearly be writing Hollywood blockbusters...]
Bumblebee is effectively the same as ever, expressive, funny and borderline psychotic, with the only real change being that he's obviously more keen to rejoin the Autobots full time.
Optimus however, is more world weary and determined than before. There's little of the dry humour or parachuting out a plane into battle just because it looks cool here. He's in a desperate situation where he's betrayed by his mentor and on the brink of outright defeat that could result in the devastation of Earth, he throws himself full force into overcoming impossible odds and ending the Decepticon menace once and for all. Whilst this means he's a little less fun than in the previous films Peter Cullen still pulls out all the stops on the vocal performance and he remains the franchises one great iconic character.
The Decepticon side of things is much simpler, Megatron and Starscream are still the main representatives of evil with a couple of mainly mute helpers and a lot of drones. I must admit to not initially liking the broken and despondent Megatron who is almost a sidekick to the real villain, but the more I've thought about it in retrospect the more and more I've come round to it. This is exactly what an egomaniac who repeatedly loses as much as Megatron does would end up like. It's almost post modern in its approach as you can't easily see a Superman film dealing with the fact Lex Luthor is useless when it boils down to it, and means Megatron winds up as someone you feel almost sorry for.
It's just a shame the scene that makes him man up and decide to take back what was his is a conversation with Carly, a bizarre sequence where two characters who've never met talk like they know each other (between that and Carly's new job being with cars you suspect an early draft with Mikaela in it didn't get rewritten very much).
Starscream carries on right from where he left off in the last film, a camp cowardly git. His deeply embarrassing death is one of the highlights of the film, and whilst it's a shame we never got to see the more dangerous version from the first film again (the bit of business of him transforming amongst the jet fighters and destroying them is still one of the best uses of transformation in battle in all three films) it's an appropriately funny send off.
Whilst Soundwave gets a great reveal as Carly's car (and gets to give the Kiss Players fans something tog get excited about when he starts threatening her with his tentacles) and Shockwave has a nice worm gimmick the only other 'Con to really make any impact as a character is Laserbeak, smooth, charming and deadly he gets film's single creepiest moment when, arriving at a house to kill one of the conspirators who've been working for the Decepticons, asks a little girl if her daddies' home yet (you just know no one got out of that house alive, eeek).
Though it was also nice to see Barricade finally get the on-screen death denied him by his final scene from the first movie being cut out.
Most importantly he manages to make Sentinel's plans to both defect and enslave the entire human race to restore Cybertron seem almost reasonable, even though any deep thought will make giant logic holes appear (how successful would even six billion humans be at construction on Transformer scale?). Scenes where Nimoy and Cullen get to play off each other are they argue their ideals whilst having a massive bitch slapdown are pure cinema gold.
The effects work is stunning, with Cybertron looming over Earth in a menacing fashion even suggesting Unicron might work in the films one day. All the action scenes are equally good, ranging from a suitably moody fight in Chernobyl through to the straight down the line pop corn fun of the humans trying to survive Shockwave's pet pulling down the building their in.
The movie also manages a big tonal shift with surprising success. Up until Chicago all the films have take a similar approach to things like Independence Day where the focus has been first and foremost on cool looking explosions and destruction, with the huge loss of human life carefully ignored. Even in the first half of Dark of the Moon you have a car chase where the dozens of deaths caused don't even warrant a mention.
But in Chicago you get humans killed on camera (with a very nice disintegration effect), people running, crying and screaming. It should completely unbalance the film but works to suitably increase the tension, mainly thanks to Ironhide's nasty death being a nice clean divide between the two styles.
As a plus, the big problem of the previous films where it's often hard to tell who's who in battle is pretty much eliminated, things flow much better and there's very few “Where did he come from?” moments.
However, there are still two really odd editing moments. Firstly when Optimus gets separated from his trailer (and after fans have clamoured for it over the last four years we get to see why they never bothered with it in the first place, it cuts back on his mobility and makes him a bigger target. Cool weapons station though) we get him dramatically saying he's GOT to get it back for the flight equipment which seems to be setting up a mini action scene for him, only for him to show up two minutes later with the flight equipment without explanation. Which is a shame as a way of keeping him out of the main action for a little while fighting to get to the trailer would have been better than the subsequent tangled in wires moment.
There's also the oddness of the Autobots going from fighting like bloody minded bastards to being prisoners without explanation. Which is so confusing it actually undoes Que's rather sad execution, though the scene does rally round by making you think this is really going to be it for Bumblebee briefly.
However, minor flaws aside this is still a decent send off for Bay on Transformers. It won't convert anyone who didn't enjoy the second one, but for those who did it builds up on the momentum created over the three films to build up to a seemingly final (but of course, not so final there could never be another one) climax that feels like a worthy end.
Of course, with all the named Decepticons dead we need new villains as well, and whilst there's nothing in theory to stop them bringing back Megatron and anyone else once more, I would personally look to the Generation 2 comic for inspiration. The idea of a group of Decepticons having been off making their own Empire across the galaxy whilst Prime has been on Earth is still a good one that ups the stakes considerably, the scene in the comic where Prime realises with horror all he's been through is just a minor side show to the real Decepticon activity is something I can easily see his film counterpart doing well.
Whilst that sort of speculation might be getting ahead of myself (and no doubt any future film will be nothing like that), it does show Bay's greatest contribution to Transformers, he's given it a future. Even for fans who don't like the films, the state of the cartoons and toys we've had off the back of that first movie's success have been a quantum leap forward over pretty much everything since Robots in Disguise at the start of the century (shame the comics are still crap, but at least they've been consistently so). And Transformers as a whole is no longer than thing from the 80's that's carried on in various low key less successful forms, it's popularity is now higher than it's ever been, with a wider age range than it's even been enjoyed by. Even to the point my Mother loved the first film. After twenty years of slagging the '86 movie off.
It's an extraordinary time to be a Transformers fan, and even for non-film followers it's a golden age. And, as smug and egocentric as he may well be, it's Michael Bay we have to thank for that.