Silver Screen: Transformers: Dark of the Moon *1/2
Michael Bay’s third Transformers movie is hyperkinetic and overstuffed even by his own extreme standards. Of course, it’s impossible to imagine Bay listening to anyone on this point unless they were his coke dealer, or a set of thirteen-year-old Brazilian triplets, or a car. Bay is a market-confirmed success for whom the confirmation of the market is all that matters, a kind of auteur of shallowness who undeniably makes the kind of movies a majority of moviegoers want to see. He seems less like an artist or a human being than some kind of grim inevitability, an American golem unwittingly conjured out of money and chrome and sunglasses and disdain. Writing anything about it at all is infuriatingly futile. Might as well go throw rocks at clouds.
Even Bay retroactively criticized his own Transformers II: Revenge of the Fallen, although kind of in the way you might complain about overexerting yourself from having sex with too many swimsuit models in one day. It’s hard to say what exactly he thought was wrong with the first sequel, because the latest one is essentially more of the same.
Once again a flailing, blabbering, wide-eyed Shia LaBeouf plays Sam, a hapless doofus caught up in a struggle between the Autobots (good robot cars) and the Decepticons (presciently named, bad robot cars). Once again Sam has been cast aside by the powers that be despite stopping yet another robot apocalypse. The Autobots, meanwhile, are working on a special all-sentient-vehicle military team coordinated by some familiar soldiers (Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson) and overseen by a humorless bureaucrat (Frances McDormand).
Philosophical, moralistic semi-truck Optimus Prime is stunned to learn that the American government has long been aware of a downed Autobot ship on the moon, a lost vessel containing a superweapon that could bring about (you guessed it!) the apocalypse. But when Prime and his pals launch a mission to retrieve the cargo, little do they know it’s part of an elaborate conspiracy by the Decepticons.
This is all a complex excuse to send a handful of human characters sprinting through ruined cities to watch giant, computer-generated robot figures fight with fists and oversized anime swords and laser guns. Those bits are intermittently fun. Say what you will, Bay has an eye for operatic action sequences, and he crafts a couple of doozies here, most notably the destruction of Chicago followed by a chase through the smoldering guts of a collapsing skyscraper. These scenes are pretty dazzling, and nearly worth the price of the ticket.
But many of the battles scenes are blurred, frenetic, and incomprehensible. Even when Bay switches to slow motion to capture the action-- which he does with maddening frequency-- it’s almost always impossible to tell which teeming mass of robot parts is fighting which, much less who is the good guy and which one is winning.
What drags Dark of the Moon down is the crazed overabundance of subplots and strained attempts at comic relief, which lead to the bloated two-and-a-half-hour running time. John Turturro returns as a zany conspiracy theorist, and though utterly inessential to the story, he gets a load of screen time. The same goes for Kevin Dunn and Julie White as Sam’s Midwestern-caricature parents. Add to this mix Ken Jeong in an out-of-the-atmosphere-above-the-airspace-over-the-top performance as a whiny Decepticon puppet, John Malkovich as a finicky industrialist, Alan Tudyk as a computer-literate personal assistant with a wacky accent, and an inexplicably accented vaudevillian mini-robot duo-- not to mention sidestories involving the moon landing, the Kennedy assassination, Richard Nixon, and Barack Obama, plus Bill O’Reilly and Buzz Aldrin playing themselves-- and you’ve got, well, you’ve got way too much. That’s no doubt what Bay set out to do, and yet the final product is such a frenzied hash of pop culture and idiotic pandering that it absolutely overwhelms the simple pleasures of big-budget action.
The only moments of clarity come when characters repeatedly move boxes marked with huge CISCO labels, or when Waste Management trucks and dumpsters roll into view, or when the minor Autobot with the Target logo on his chest digitally gallops into frame: Oh, yeah, this is just a bunch of flashing lights trying to sell me shit.