Transformers: Dark of the Moon is Michael Bay's Michael Bay-est movie to date, an action opus on a scale that trumps everything else this summer. It's truly epic filmmaking, but its enormity actually undermines its total impact: there’s only so much mortal danger we can watch our heroes survive before it all becomes monotonous. With the first two films totaling a staggering $1.546 billion global haul—bigger than the GDP of Belize—expect a box office blowout over its July 4 opening weekend.
Shia LaBeouf returns as Sam Witwicky, a job-hunting college graduate shacking up with new girlfriend Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) after his ex Mikaela sent him walking papers. (“She was mean,” gripes Wheelie, still smarting over the time she bad-mouthed his director—I mean, destroyed his eye with a blowtorch.) Unable to tell anyone why he earned a Medal of Honor from President Obama and intimidated by Carly’s boss Dylan (Patrick Dempsey), Sam reluctantly takes a mailroom gig at John Malkovich's faceless multimedia conglomerate in the hopes he’ll find an opportunity to “make a difference.”
But when Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) and the Autobots recover their species' “Einstein,” Sentinel Prime (Leonard Nimoy), from 50 years of hibernation on the dark side of the moon, Sam volunteers to National Intelligence Director Charlotte Mearing (Frances McDormand) to serve as a liaison between human- and robot-kind. She's not interested, but after discovering that the Decepticons also want Sentinel for their own nefarious purposes, Sam and Carly reunite with FBI agent Simmons (John Turturro) and soldiers Lennox (Josh Duhamel) and Epps (Tyrese Gibson) and find themselves at the center of a battle for the fate of earth, once again fight alongside their Autobot allies to protect the human race from certain extinction.
Love him or hate him, Michael Bay truly earns the reactions he gets from audiences. Like other true-blue auteurs such as Terrence Malick or Martin Scorsese, he has a distinctive and singular style—even working at the epicenter of the studio system with $200 million-plus budgets at stake, there's no evidence of compromise in any of his work. Unfortunately, Bay's taste (or interest) in scripts is inversely proportionate to his directorial vision, which is why his eye-popping imagery is never matched by an equal level of emotional investment, much less narrative cohesion or even basic logic.
In the 155-minute Dark of the Moon, by the time you get to the second hour of the film, you’ve already forgotten the first. There’s set-up and exposition and movement—stuff that happens in real stories—but nothing to tether us to any sort of dramatic or emotional stakes except the actors’ no doubt handsomely-rewarded determination to make characters out of one-dimensional caricatures. The Chicago sequence which ends the film is too big to call a third act—it's an outright assault of entertainment. While Bay must figure he's earned the massive-scale mayhem by saving it for the climax, the destruction is so indulgent that the thrills flatline. A good portion of that sequence involves Sam, Carly and a small regiment of soldiers jockeying for position in a skyscraper that is slowly toppling from a Decepticon attack, and they run, slide, and hang on for dear life so many times that at a certain point any potential danger loses its intensity. Unquestionably, the choreography and special effects are top-notch. I still kept checking my watch.
Bay’s stylistic hallmarks still sometimes prove amazingly effective, if not altogether believable: who wouldn’t want to live in a world where all men were potential heroes and all women brainy supermodels? (Sam's comic-relief mom pops up to warn him to hold on to this second supermodel-quality companion, as odds are he won't get a third, but if anyone could ensure Sam a trifecta of hot tail, it’s Bay.) Beyond his tableau-like casting choices, the director’s technical bona fides are unassailable, and every scene in Dark of the Moon looks more glossy and sumptuous than the last. In the previous films, the battling ‘bots were sometimes tough to tell apart (I defy anyone to show me where Optimus Prime ends and Megatron begins in the finale of Part I), but here cinematographer Amir Mokri (Fast & Furious, Bad Boys II) shoots both the humans and Transformers with a languid, fetishistic glee. The camera scales Huntington-Whiteley’s shapely, statuesque physique as frequently and as feverishly as it scans the robots’ glistening, mechanical chassis, and it’s a toss-up which is sexier. (While dimmer than some will prefer, viewers will be happy to learn that the 3D is consistently clear and unobtrusive, especially on Huntington-Whiteley’s curves.)
But ultimately, the only “there” there is visceral, unless you count corporate synergy among the film’s merits. (Counting the casting of Nimoy as Sentinel, there are no fewer than five references to Star Trek, another Paramount property, in the film.) The plot leaves as many gaping holes as the destructive wake of the wormlike Decepticon Shockwave: characters of all species move, disappear and reappear exactly when and where they're needed, regardless of what the rules of storytelling—or even the laws of physics—demand. Thankfully, LaBeouf, twitchy after two times saving the planet, is a terrific leading man, and Huntington-Whiteley a suitable substitute for the ousted Megan Fox; unexpectedly, their romance anchors the rest of the film’s cheesy-compelling relationships, and their final embrace feels like a reward for watching (if not surviving) the razing of Chicago.
As quite possibly the only champion of Revenge of the Fallen, I’m hard-pressed to say that its follow-up is a better film, but being marginally clearer and more competently-executed, it's more likely to satisfy. Dark of the Moon is without question and in every way possible the most authentically huge blockbuster of summer 2011. Will it sate Bay's longtime fans, or will even they find it to be too much Bay-hem? What's for sure is that Bay has outdone himself—and everybody else as well—but that doesn’t feel like a compliment, even for a peerless purveyor of excess.
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Peter Cullen, Leonard Nimoy, Patrick Dempsey, Frances McDormand, John Turturro, John Malkovich
Director: Michael Bay
Screenwriter: Ehren Kruger
Producer: Tom DeSanto, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Don Murphy, Ian Bryce
Genre: Action/Science Fiction
Running time: 153 min.
Release date: June 29, 2011