If you’re interested in a spoiler-free review, here’s mine in a nutshell: DOTM is far, FAR better than Revenge of the Fallen, but still not quite as good as the original. The action is top notch, and the effects are stellar, as always. I just didn’t have the same kind of emotional connection this time around. Part of that is that Shia LaBeouf is kind of annoying this time around, when he was just the star-struck kid in the first film.
To defend my review, I’m going to go ahead and analyze all three films, and I’m not going to be careful about spoilers.
The Transformers films follow a very strict formula. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Most movie franchises follow a formula: Die Hard, James Bond, even Austin Powers. There’s a comfort level the audience has with that formula, and you tinker with it at your risk. But I think (with only few exceptions), DOTM is not quite as good as the original film in every aspect of the formula:
An aspect of human history is reimagined as extraterrestrial in nature — In the original film (or OF as I’ll call it from here on out), we learn that the Hoover Dam was built to hide the Allspark. Personally, I thought that was an awesome idea. In ROTF, we learn that The Fallen had landed on Earth thousands of years ago, and had humanity in his thrall until they overthrew (?) him. In DOTM, we learn that the Apollo landings (not to mention the Chernobyl disaster) were brought about by Transformers. Those ideas aren’t laughable, but I still prefer the Hoover Dam idea.
Sam is thrust into the center of the Autobot/Decepticon war — In OF, Sam merely had the bad luck of owning Archibald Witwicky’s glasses, the McGuffin for this particular movie. Someone had to have them, and it happens to be a fast-talking horn-dog with quick wits and a heart of gold. In ROTF, Sam unknowingly had a splinter of the Allspark in his jacket, and it uploaded a critical piece of information into his brain. (Why or how this was accomplished was left to the imagination.) Sam (quite reasonably) wants nothing more to do with this interstellar war, and is forced into the conflict. In DOTM, for some unexplained reason, Sam really wants to get back into the fight. He yearns for the opportunity for heroism, despite the fact that he has no significant knowledge or skills that would be useful. He is, finally, brought front and center because of his friendship with Optimus Prime.
The Decepticons try to get important information from Sam — The scene in ROTF in which a character known as The Doctor extracts the important knowledge is kind of laughable. And also, seemingly, unnecessary. They stole the larger piece of the Allspark from the government. Would that piece not have the same information that Sam’s little shard had? The interrogation of Sam in OF by Barricade is, OTOH, fantastic: “Are you eBay user name LadiesMan217?!” The extortion of Sam’s cooperation in DOTM, getting him to talk to Optimus is kind of creepy (since it’s explained by a human traitor) and the little Decepticon watch is a fun idea… but they ruined it with Sam’s silly antics with the watch, and the fact that the plan simply didn’t work.
John Turturro makes a funny second act entrance — In ROTF, Simmons is working in a deli. Really? He had no further value to the United States Government, even though he helped save the day with the Secretary of Defense standing next to him? In DOTM, he’s cashed in and written a best-selling book about the aliens. That’s kind of silly, but also very real. But I still prefer his first appearance: “I’m with Sector Seven.” “Never heard of it.” “And you never will.”
Autobots try to be funny — In DOTM, Sam has a couple of tiny little Autobot friends who are pretty funny, but largely disposable. In ROTF, “The Twins” are really, really not funny, and border on racist. (Though, personally, I didn’t see it as racist, just dumb.) But in OF, Bumblebee makes Sam and Mikaela’s first date hilarious, Ironhide almost shoots a chihuahua for peeing on him, and the scene of the Autobots hiding from Sam’s parents still makes me laugh.
Earth is put into peril — The peril in ROTF is just stupid. The Decepticons have a machine that can blow up the sun. Why would they have such a machine? And why would they activate it? The peril in DOTM is a little more reasonable. They want to use Earth’s resources (both labor and materials) to rebuild Cybertron. But they plan to bring the entire planet here? Okay, but why bring it so close to Earth. The two planets would crash into each other from the pull of gravity. Bad planning, Megatron. The original film still has the best peril: the Allspark can turn all of our machines into living creatures. We saw it happen with a Nokia cell phone, a soda machine, an XBox and a Cadillac. That was both funny and scary, not to mention original.
Sam’s Parents — Along with everyone else, I hated his parents in ROTF. Did we really need to see a high Julie White? They were funny in the first one. “We can call it… Sam’s happy time.” But they were more like actual parents in DOTM: they were embarrassing, but provided wisdom for Sam.
Tie: OF and DOTM
I could go on and on: Megan Fox vs. Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. The effects. The climactic battle scenes. But in every case, I prefer the first film to anything in Dark of the Moon.