Transformers: Dark of the Moon may be the ultimate Michael Bay movie. Featuring skull-rattling action sequences, state-of-the-art special effects, over-heated set pieces and a severe lack of anything pretending to be intelligence or modesty, Transformers 3 comes off like a hyperactive kid’s afternoon playtime; a golden-age alien invasion flick as directed by Toy Story’s Sid, the boy who tied rockets to his action figures so he could watch them explode. At any rate, it’s a huge improvement over Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. That unfortunately isn’t improvement enough.
Equipped with the shiny new toy of 3D, Bay hones his own diabolic craft and sets to the purpose of capturing some of the most extensive cinematic action ever witnessed by human eyes. Yes, the man loves his explosions, and this was never more obvious than in the last installment of the franchise, where the frantic director threw every kind of concussive force he could at the screen; deafening, sonic waves, ground-shaking laser blasts, and in a severely wrong-headed move, several odious bursts of robotic flatulence. A titan of moronic and ill-advised blockbuster bloat, Fallen ham-strung the goodwill Bay had accrued with the first film, an enjoyable, if flawed, B-movie hiding out as an expensive A-movie. What he and Ehren Kruger do with the third installment is streamline and consolidate their ambitions. They haven’t made a shorter film–this is the longest of the three by a few minutes–but they have moved everything that isn’t a visual or visceral assault on the senses into the background. In essence, Bay found a way to build a better bomb.
Although it spends about an hour and fifteen minutes forebodingly ticking away, when this thing finally does go off, it’s cinematic chaos that argues to be seen, even if enjoyment passes you by. There’s plenty of Bay’s disaster-painting in the final third, but before that there’s more that meets the eye; a ludicrously silly conspiracy story involving downed Cybertronian space craft, interstellar gates, and a sublimely nutty scene where the real Buzz Aldren meets with Optimus Prime and tells him the truth of why mankind went to the moon all those decades ago.
Krueger wraps the foundations of the previous two pics into this one, and Moon’s primary arc emerges from the narrative wreckage of Transformers 2. The All-Spark, the Matrix of Leadership, all just MacGuffin’s leading up to the sacred cargo housed on the dark side of the moon. Optimus Prime and his Autobots fear it’s power, while the outcast Megatron (losing his mind in a podunk backwater in Africa) and the remaining Decepticons race to harness it for no-doubt nefarious purposes. Enter several new robots, the most significant of which is Sentinel Prime (Leonard Nimoy) who looks like some kid took their Spock action figure and melted legos on top of it. Sentinel was the pilot of that starship and holds the secret to restoring the home-world of Cybertron. His exodus from the burning planet in the film’s prologue is one of snazziest visual moments.
The humans of Transformers have never been very interesting, but here they seem more perfunctory than ever. Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) may have saved the world twice and have a secret medal from Obama, but none of that translates to the workplace and now that he’s out of college he needs a job. Of course, that should be easy for Sam since he’s apparently managed to grab a full degree in a mere two years, quell an alien attack, and nab a major hottie in Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whitely), all while being a major spaz. LaBeouf doesn’t seem to know what he’s supposed to do, so he either adopts a quizzical scowl or just starts screaming and shaking, like Jerry Lewis on speed. Huntington-Whitely replaces the glossy sleaze of Megan Fox and while her acting ability amounts to blinking like a lighthouse S.O.S., she’s more natural in the physically taxing action scenes. When in doubt, she just does her model schtick and lets Bay’s camera put its damn dirty paws all over her. None of it as flagrant as the last go-round, where Bay made Fox’s curves so abstracted it was akin to looking at the rolling dunes of the Arabian desert. Whitely is more concerned with being an action hero herself; now it’s like a toy-line crossover with Barbie showing up to help the Autobots kick some Decepticon tail.
Also along for the tail kicking are all the returning heroes from the previous films; Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, John Turtorro and new faces in Frances McDormand, Patrick Dempsey, Alan Tudyk and John Malkovich. It’s always strange to see Coen Bros alums like McDormand, Malkovich and Turtorro riding the Bay train, but if they are going to drop in for a paycheck, one wishes he’d fine something genuinely quirky for them to do. Once the destruction started seeping into Chicago for that last hour of rowdiness, I was hoping to see John Goodman, maybe as a working-class trashman whose garbage truck has just revealed itself as a powerful player in the robot war. That at least, would be something of note. But no, none of these characters are people as much as they are a machine’s idea of what people would be like.
That probably explains why the robots fare better for the most part. And while there may be less robots here overall, Bay has certainly managed to diversify the Transformer line-up. Sure, there’s Optimus Prime, Ironhide, Megatron, and Starscream, but now there’s also a revamped Shockwave with his own malicious drill that looks like a graboid made out of saw blades, and the Wreckers, a motley group of Brit thugs that work for Optimus. Imagine Ray Winstone crossbred with a propane tank and you have the idea. The designs are also fresher and cleaner and cinematographer Ami Mokrir creates compositions where the robots can spread out and fill the frame without the visual incoherence associated with the previous Transformer outings. For the first time in the franchise, I got the impression this was an actual race of beings, and it was easier to identify their individual foibles and details. Still, what was true before is still true here; Bumblebee, with his novel voice patterns built from pop culture fragments, is the most striking and engaging creature on display. The scene where he’s being chased by a pack of robotic wolf-beasts, and transforms from a car to a robot, grabbing a screaming Sam as he ejects, and then back again, is a masterpiece of effects and timing, and perfectly evokes the 80’s namesake.
Visually praising Dark of the Moon is easier, and that’s where the real juice of the film lies. The script is a behemoth of inelegance and dense, chugging drive. But Michael Bay is driving this particular beater and he pushes it to the max, right before driving it off a cliff, with the audience strapped right in. There are moments where a team of soldiers are skydiving through the ruined canyons of Chicago’s business district, dodging alien spacecraft as they go, that is as immediate and as visceral as the early world of silent filmmaking. This is escapism that you eventually need to escape from. When the heroes are sliding down the front of a crumbling skyscraper I was transfixed by the illusion, alert to the reality on-screen, even if I wasn’t emotionally engaged.
Dark of the Moon is all Bay, jettisoning some of those Spielberg touches (he’s a producer afterall) that were apparent in the first film. Ultimately, there’s no heart here and this entire juggernaut feels like it has been modified to the point of amoral voyeurism. We don’t question the stereotyping, don’t blink at the misogyny, and happily munch popcorn through scenes of terrorism, genocide and graphic murder because the filmmakers have purposefully leeched the human impact of those events from the experience. This isn’t a movie where just turning off your brain is required, it’s insisted upon. Start firing up those neurons and you won’t make it far. Just sit back and take in the ride. Its a movie about robots, seemingly made by them too.
Do androids dream of electric sheep? No, they dream of Michael Bay movies.
Read my other reviews over at PopCulture Ninja.