Michael Bay. The mere mention of the name is instantly polarizing. His unapologetic odes to spectacle and excess have split theatergoers into two camps: those that indulge in his brainless adrenaline rides with unabashed glee, and those that feel his work behind the camera is single-handedly destroying the art of cinema. In films like The Rock, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, Bad Boys, and most recently the Transformers franchise, Bay has developed a reputation as a master of loud and ludicrous action set pieces, but his frequent inability to deliver compelling characters or an engaging storyline has earned him a name of ill repute amongst the cinema cognoscenti. Yet time and time again, the masses queue up to gorge themselves on his trademarks: fast cars, dazzling explosions, overly-dramatic slow motion camera pans, gratuitous T&A, military fetishism, and crash-edited action wizardry.
Why then, is a director so adept at spectacle and kinetic camerawork, so inept at basic storytelling? Is it the fault of hack screenwriters? Poor casting choices? Or is it something else? Does a film – regardless if it’s a “check your brain at the door popcorn flick” or not – have a responsibility to the audience to provide a coherent plot and likeable developed characters? In Michael Bay’s case, that answer seems to be an emphatic “NO”, as evidenced by his latest Magnum robot Opus/giant middle finger to “film snobs” around the world – Transformers: Dark of the Moon. This third installment is not so much a movie as it is a two and a half hour assault on the senses; an un-checked display of empty bombast and juvenile humor that bludgeons the audience into dazed, slack-jawed submission by the end of its exhausting run time. It’s a pointless mess, a film that goes nowhere and has nothing to say.
The “plot” of this (or any other) Transformers movie is a lesson in irrelevance, but suffice it to say that recent college grad Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) – fresh off of twice saving the world from enslavement by giant robots – is having a tough time balancing dating an impossibly gorgeous supermodel and landing a job that allows him to “matter”. Eventually, certain encounters at his entry-level job at an Aeronautics company once again embroil him in the conflict between the noble Autobots led by Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) and the evil Decepticons, led by Megatron (Hugo Weaving). This time the giant robots are racing to unlock the secrets of some MacGuffins on board an ancient Autobot starship that crash-landed on the Moon, which was discovered and subsequently covered up by NASA after the 1969 Moon landing.
It’s not just hyperbole when I say that there is absolutely nothing enjoyable about the first hour and a half of this movie. The shifts in tone from scene to scene are staggering. Bay builds up very dramatic, dire stakes in the opening sequence featuring the 1969 Moon-landing and the discovery / cover-up of the crashed Autobot ship, then completely sabotages any weight or momentum with painfully unfunny and out-of-place lowest common denominator comedy. It’s unfathomable to me why a screenwriter would choose to juxtapose the Autobots looking to prevent the Decepticons from another potentially world-ending plot with sequences of Sam bumbling his way through job interviews, visiting his girlfriend’s workplace and getting jealous of her boss, dealing with his insane co-workers at his new job, or interacting with his cringe-inducing parents. LaBeouf spends most of the first hour of the film acting like a complete jerk and screaming at other characters for no apparent reason. His bizarre performance here can only be attributed to the fact that he loathes the franchise that put him on the map and has publicly gone on record as saying he doesn’t plan on returning for any future sequels.
But at least LaBeouf had a reason for his terrible, manic performance. There is no excuse for venerable, respected actors like Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, and John Turturro flailing around Bay’s set, chewing scenery and acting like complete buffoons. All three actors are completely wasted in this film, and seem to be present only for Bay to show off the fact that he can get Oscar-winners to deliver embarrassing dialogue to a tennis ball on a stick that will be replaced by a CGI Optimus Prime later.
As for the other “performances” in the film, vacuous Victoria’s Secret lingerie model Rosie-Huntington Whiteley replaces the vacuous Megan Fox as Shia LaBeouf’s love interest, which is an improvement only because Whiteley delivers her stilted dialogue with a British accent rather than a bored Valley-girl accent, giving her some false credibility. With her glossy eyes, bee-stung lips, and impossible curves, she exists solely for Bay to indulge his adolescent predilection for extended shots of bronzed, glistening supermodel flesh.
The lone bright spots of the film are Ken Jeong doing his usual psychotic creeper shtick as a former NASA engineer involved in the Moon Landing conspiracy. His confrontation scene with Sam in a men’s bathroom – while completely superfluous – was some inspired comedy. Alan Tudyk, a genre fan favorite from his work as Wash on Firefly, also used his talents to somehow make an effeminate German computer hacker/butler into a memorable and enjoyable character. Excellent voice work by Peter Cullen, Hugo Weaving, and Leonard Nimoy (as Sentinel Prime, leader of the Autobots before Optimus) is also wasted because the Transformers themselves simply don’t get enough screen time to shine. However, that is a good thing in the case of the Wreckers, a group of NASCAR Autobots that speak in gruff Australian accents. While not as racially offensive as the “twins” from the previous installment, they were still rote, one-note stereotypes, as were most of the secondary Transformers.
Something very strange happens after that first 80 or so minutes of Dark of the Moon as it slogs to its conclusion. Another, entirely different film kicks in – an hour-long cacophony of spectacular destruction and chaos the likes of which have never been seen before, as the Decepticons and Autobots attempt to obliterate each other in the streets and on the buildings of Chicago. This marathon of metal carnage is destined to go down in history as one of the most ambitious and technologically astounding action set pieces of all-time. Marauding Decepticons brutally disintegrate terrified humans running through the streets; seemingly endless numbers of missiles, rockets, grenades, and machinegun rounds are discharged; dazzling, thunderous explosions rip through the streets, enormous spaceships light up the sky like Fourth of July fireworks with their weapons; buildings buckle and collapse as the human characters slide through them and cling to support beams, NAVY S.E.A.L teams emerge from the rivers guns blazing; and of course, the giant transforming robots clash with one another in a symphony of metallic annihilation. All of this is rendered in gorgeous CGI by Industrial Light & Magic, and very effective 3D.
In fact, the 3D in Dark of the Moon is some of the best I have ever seen. Bay takes the ball kicked off by James Cameron’s Avatar crew and runs down the audience’s throats with it, the highlight coming in the form of a jaw-dropping, vertigo-inducing sequence of military base jumpers in “flying squirrel”-type flight suits plummeting through the steel canyons of Chicago that thrilled me like nothing I had ever experienced on a movie screen before. However, when that exhilarating flight was over, common sense rushed back into my body and I realized that, exciting as it was, it was ultimately meaningless since I didn’t care about any of the flying soldiers, the transformers themselves, or anyone else involved in the noisy carnage. It truly was a lot of sound and fury that signified nothing.
If the first Transformers film was a sleek, supersonic aircraft soaring off into the sky on its maiden flight, and Revenge of the Fallen was the engine exploding in mid-air, sending the craft into a dizzying nose dive; then Dark of the Moon is the spectacular ball of flame erupting from the jet’s devastating crash to Earth. One can only the hope the next pilot to board this vehicle has a steadier hand on the yoke.