Transformers: Dark of the Moon

The third chapter of the “Transformers” mega-blockbuster, “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” represents only a slight improvement over the second one, “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” which was by far the weakest of the trilogy.

The first picture, made in 2007, divided critics: According to Rotten Tomatoes, it received 57 percent positive reviews and 43 negative ones.  The second movie, in 2009, was dismissed by most critics: One out of five reviewers gave it a negative evaluation.  (I read somwhere that even Michael Bay thought it was “crap”).

For the record: Our grades

Transformers (2007): B-

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009): D+ 

It’s too bad that exec-producer Steven Spielberg doesn’t exercise a tighter supervision over Michael Bay’s production the way he did recenty with “Super 8,” directed by J.J. Abrams; perhaps he doesn’t care.

Despite many new elements, a new screenwriter (Ehren Kruger), a new girlfriend for Shia LaBeouf (replacing Megan Fox, who is not missed at all), and an ensemble of talented supporting actors (inlcuding John Malkovich, John Turturro and Frances McDormand), “Transformers 3” is still a machine of a movie, in which the special effects, huge robots, and mass destruction not only overwhelm the slender plot and human characters, but almost crash them to the ground.

Even Shia LaBeouf, who four years ago brought a fresh face and considerable charm to his part, now seems unpleasant and unmotivated, turning in an impersonal perfromance.   He may be bored, jaded, or perhaps simply realizing that it’s not worth investing emotions or real acting, because the ultimate success of the picture depends only marginally on his presence and/or his performance.

The plot is convoluted, largely incomprehensible,  and ultimately irreleavant in this cold, metallic picture, which contains human characters that appear and disappear arbitrarily, at random, with no discernible logic or reason.  They serve as lip service so that the picture can qualify as narrative cinema rather than a loud and dumb, overwhelming sensory spectacle.

Once again, the war between the races of robotic aliens (the Autobots and the Decepticons) continues with the fate of the Earth and the human race at stake.

The beginning of the picture, detailing a conspiracy plot about the Space Race and the 1969 noon landing, with suggestions of cover up of the Apollo 11 mission, is promising in setting up expectations.  The Autobots leaders are sent to investigate the crashed spacecraft on the moon, only to find out they have been manipulated by the Decepticons.

But, alas, after the first reel, the narrative goes back to what we have come to expect of Michael Bay in general and “Transformers” in particular: a silly, aggressive fare, made for undiscriminating viewers who can’t (or refuse) to think, which takes the dictum of James Cameron (“Size Matters”) to its illogical and idiotic conclusion.

Our perky hero, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), now a college grad, works for Bruce Brazos (John Malkovich), but his job is not as involving as he would like it to be.  Sam quickly becomes involved with the Autobots with his attractive girlfriend Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, who looks and acts like a model) whose luxury car-loving boss Dylan (Patrick Dempsey, still best known’s for his role on TV’s “Gret Anatomy”) appears to have his own agenda.

Meanwhile, Captain Lennox (Josh Duhamel) and Sergeant Epps (Tyrese Gibson) from the elite Government squad NEST are also quickly on the case.

Most of Bay’s efforts seem to have gone to the complex and complicated CGIs, the serviceable 3D that is better than the norm, the elaborate sound design, and the massive but generic destruction. In fact, the movie is so loud and noisy that it’s often impossible to hear the little dialogue that it has; perhaps it doesn’t matter.

Some of the action set-pieces are exciting to watch, such as a thrilling skydive and a sequence within a building that’s about to collapse. There’s a long action sequence set in Chicago that’s quite impressive for a while, though not for 50 minutes or so of screen time.  The film’s big budget has allowed Baye to give full expression to his instincts, but visually speaking, the series of destructions he has orechestrated is not particularly inventive.  At the risk of offensing Spielberg, I suggest that you watch for comparison his 2005 sci-fi actioner “War of the Worlds,” which is not his best picture but still puts Bay’s efforts to shame in terms of thrills, graceful tracking shots, elegant transitions. 

(On a side note, in most action-disaster movies, the targets are often Los Angeles and sometimes New York City, so choosing Chicago and its landmark buildings is a novelty of sort; if it were only more imgainative).

“Dark of the Moon” unfolds as a spectacle, but it’s a hollow and tedious one, overextending its welcome by half an hour or so. (Is there reason for this picture to be two hours and 34 minutes?).  Most of the exposition is dull and the attempts at sly and witty humor fall flat, as when the characters make asides to themselves.

There’s lots of screaming and shouting around, which is not exactly acting, though you can’t fault any of the actors, the good or the mediocre ones, considering what they’re given to say and the level of noise they have to overcome.

I am not sure that it’s worth analyzing the ideology and subtext of “Dark of the Moon” seriously, or in detail. But the film propagates Cold War paranoia, and it comes across as a conservative, right-wing picture, in which the military and its officers are elevated and the government and its ineffectual and ineffective bureaucrats are degraded.

In sheer scale, “Transfrmers: Dark of the Moon” is huge, but in narrative terms, it’s mindless and dumb, and in ambition and execution, it’s just another hollow spectacle made by Michael Bay.

End Note:

It’s probably a coincidence that it’s the second time this season, after X-Men: First Class, that footage of  Kennedy is interfaced with newly created imagery embroiling the President in sci-fi fantasy-conspiracy.