At the center of these Transformers movies are the perfect metaphors for describing them, huge incompressible shape shifting junk heaps that occasionally assemble into aesthetically pleasing vehicles. Aren’t these movies essential just that, occasionally pleasing junk? Directed by Michael Bay at his what was then his most excessive, the first movie, from 2007, might be his best movie. It’s a triumph of machinery, both the creatures and the Hollywood mechanisms of their birth, the kinds of gleaming metal and kinetic action that Bay has always focused on. Here they become the goofiest, most explosive expression of his style, his canted angles and saturated colors that turn every shot into a music-video/advertisement hybrid, popping each shot with the crisp vibrancy of slick commercialism. The controlled chaos fell into disproportionate anarchy with the sequel, 2009’s Revenge of the Fallen. That film, though still capable of fleeting moments that are visually striking, was tonally incoherent and offensively stereotypical on most every level.
Here we go again, with Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which splits the difference between the two approaches to the same material. This time, it’s in 3D, which at least serves to slow down Bay’s typically rapid-fire editing, if only by a few blinks per shot. The spectacle has to wait, though. For a good hour, perhaps even 90 minutes, Bay spins his wheels with crude humor, offensive stereotypes, and endless, elaborate setup.
Shia LaBeouf, having saved the world twice, is out looking for a job, jealous that his glamorous girlfriend (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, a former Victoria’s Secret model in her first acting job) is getting so much attention from her sleazy boss (Patrick Dempsey). The job search is a bit of a stall while the robots gather up the plot points that will lead to eventual mayhem, though it gives screen time to a self-amused John Malkovich, and a small role for Ken Jeong that is both racist and homophobic at the same time. As for the elaborate romantic setup, it never really pays off, unless you’re so inclined to count the huge close-up 3D shot of Huntington-Whiteley’s rear end walking up a flight of stairs that serves as her first appearance.
Meanwhile, the Autobots (those are the good guys) are still working with the military, led by Josh Duhamel, to sniff out Decepticons (those are the bad guys) but also blow up terrorists for some reason. The movie joylessly gives us an unintentionally hilarious description of said terrorists’ hideout as “Illegal Middle Eastern Nuclear Site.” Phew. As long as it’s illegal. That’s a sequence that wouldn’t look too out-of-place in Team America: World Police.
Taking a break from working for America, the Autobots just uncovered some top-secret stuff about the true reasons behind the U.S./Russian space race of the 60’s and the nuclear meltdown of Chernobyl. I’m normally untroubled by seeing alternate history in pop sci-fi (this summer’s X-Men uses the Cuban Missile Crisis to good effect) but here it comes off sleazy and uncomfortable, especially with waxy CGI presidents (Kennedy, Nixon, and even Obama) mixed in with the tweaked historical footage. Later, the movie will take visual cues from the Challenger disaster and 9/11. Ugh.
Moving on, there’s a lot to slog through. Buzz Aldrin cameos playing himself, staring up at Optimis Prime, the leader of the Autobots while admitting that, yes, there is indeed an ancient hibernating transformer (Leonard Nimoy) buried on the moon. Bill O’Reily has an interminably smug cameo needling John Turturro’s grating ex-government official. (I pause here to note that the reliably funny Alan Tudyk plays Turturro’s assistant). Frances McDormand collects a paycheck as an Intelligence chief interested in letting the ‘bots find and collect the long-dormant tech off of the moon. In a movie called Transformers: Dark of the Moon we get far too few Transformers and very little moon for all of this time. The movie is scene after scene of humans setting up what we all really want to see: stuff blowing up real good. The first film was actually a competent teen comedy that shifted effortlessly into a goofy sci-fi explosion of action, but after those giant robots have been slamming around writer Ehren Kruger has had no idea how to make just normal people interesting. To be fair he didn’t write the first movie, just the bad second two. All this human setup would be excusable in smaller, more economical doses, or if the robots’ plots made any sense whatsoever.
I won’t take this opportunity to dissect the many ways the logic of the various robot plans do not work. Instead, I will reflect on the fact that giant, largely indistinguishable robots are roaming the planet causing all kinds of ruckus and they’re still supposedly a secret. These creatures are also apparently intuitive geniuses, able to predict the plans of their enemies to an astonishingly accurate level. Take a scene wherein some rolling metal robots emerge to attack Shia on a highway, which leads to a striking 3D composition in which a car unfolds into a Transformer from around its passenger, beats back debris, then turns back into a car with the passenger returned safely to his seat. It makes not a lick of sense and I couldn’t tell you what this brief action sequence accomplishes in terms of plot or who did what to who and why, but it sure looked good for that brief moment.
For all I really disliked about the endless set-up, I was shocked to find that the pay-off almost, almost, made up for it. The action in the last hour or so moves to Chicago where Decepticons are taking over the city for some reason. Humans, after standing by powerless, and Autobots, after cowardly hiding while humans were massacred, roll into town to fight back. The resulting distended urban warfare action set piece is surprisingly effective. It’s well paced and mostly comprehensible, or at least there are clear goals that must be accomplished for the good guys to win. Chicago is thoroughly cluttered in the process. There’s a nifty Decepticon that’s like a metal Sarlacc pit on wheels. There’s good use of 3D to enhance huge drops and dips between skyscrapers. It’s dumb, loud summery sound and fury, and it works on a brute force level. One nearly great sequence with a teetering skyscraper, for example, has nice cliffhanger inventiveness. Bay may often make awkward, frighteningly tone-deaf films, but, when he’s using his eye for forcefully effective action imagery, I’d rather see a pure Michael Bay film than someone else trying to crib from his bag of tricks, like the thoroughly awful Battle: Los Angeles from earlier this year.
I didn’t end up leaving the theater completely hating Transformers: Dark of the Moon, but it’s only because the last hour distracted me from the opening 90 minutes. Upon reflection, dissatisfaction settles in along with the convoluted plot’s sheer idiocy and memory of the horrendous human plot with its endless failed attempts at humor. So, just good enough to very nearly distract from how bad it is, there’s a backhanded compliment for you.