Film Review: Transformers: Dark of the Moon

“Our entire space race of the 1960s was in response to an event,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Charlotte Mearing (Frances McDormand) tells Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf). That event was the lunar crash-landing of a Transformers spacecraft.

We’ve already seen this happen in the last hour – it’s how the movie begins – and yet we see the same shots repeated again in flashback just in case anybody isn’t quite following the trail of boulder-sized breadcrumbs.

    Such is the condescension of Transformers 3 toward its viewers, despite the fact that in nearly three hours of runtime it fails to muster any evidence that it possesses two brain cells to rub together.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Directed by Michael Bay
Starring Shia LaBoeuf, Josh Duhamel, John Turturro, Frances McDormand, Patrick Dempsey, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Tyrese Gibson, John Malkovich, Alan Tudyk, Ken Jeong

    Then again, its target audience is the teenage boys in the front row who laugh automatically because a robot character says “Now this is a cluster f—” before getting cut off. That would help to explain why director Michael Bay opted to begin for the third time running with a stilted expository prologue as sanctimonious as it is unnecessary.

    “We were once a peaceful race of intelligent mechanical beings,” intones Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) as he recaps and reframes the Transformers’ internecine war for this next chapter in the saga. The Autobots stand for freedom and the Decepticons for tyranny – a bit of binary logic, black and white in a human world whose flavour comes from its myriad shades of grey.

    After this unhelpful opening comes some genuinely intriguing sci-fi revisionist history – the moon landing and clandestine reconnaissance mission teased in the trailers – complete with an interview with the real Buzz Aldrin.

    But all too soon it’s back to Sam, now a college grad struggling to find employment and resentful because, having saved the world twice, he feels he is due a bit more recognition than a presidential medal which strangely doesn’t seem to impress anyone.

    Sam has a new perfect-ten girlfriend, Carly (Victoria’s Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley in her acting debut), whose boss (Patrick Dempsey) seems a little too interested in her for Sam’s liking.

    But soon Sam has lunatic coworkers (John Malkovich & Ken Jeong) and human Decepticon agents to worry about, and John Turturro is back helping out as former Sector 7 agent Seymour Simmons. None of this serves much real purpose except to allow Bay to briefly live out some personal fantasy of making a darkly offbeat Coen Brothers comedy (Turturro, McDormand, and Malkovich are all Coen alumni).

    In fact, there is hardly need for any of the people in this movie, but it’s become tradition to have Lennox (Josh Duhamel) and Epps (Tyrese Gibson) on hand despite the number of times it has been demonstrated that most human armaments are useless against Transformers.

    Somehow, all of the usual suspects get roped back into the story, which involves a Decepticon effort to take over the world using technology that from the ship that crashed on the moon piloted by Sentinel Prime (Leonard Nimoy), predecessor to Optimus.

    To say, truthfully, that Dark of the Moon marks an improvement over Revenge of the Fallen is to damn it with faint praise. And rightfully so.

    The 3D looks good, thanks to James Cameron’s involvement; the visual effects are undeniably high quality and the action scenes unassailably comprehensible – but just because you can discern the combatants doesn’t mean you have any idea which ones are good or bad, and even then there is nothing to say you care one whit about the outcome.

    The wing-suit high-diving near the film’s climax – an hour-long robot battle royale that annihilates most of Chicago – is robbed of its awe factor by the context of interstellar warfare that completely eclipses not only the stunts, real and CG-assisted, but human involvement altogether.

    Did nobody ever tell Bay about Transformers: Beast Wars (which did without homo sapiens entirely)?

    The highlight, to give a sense of the scale of the fracas, is the strangulation of a full-sized skyscraper by a massive machine that looks like the Lernaean Hydra had a baby with a lamprey-like Chunnel digger. Our heroes, of course, are inside.

    The heart of the first Transformers movie was Sam’s relationship with Bumblebee – a boy and his pet dragon for the space age. That is wholly evacuated from this sprawling, hollow display of pyrotechnics, poor taste, and thinly veiled bigotry.

    Rosie is singled out to be told she’s sexy in nearly every scene, by nearly every character –  including Sam’s mom, who stops by like the deus ex machina of inappropriate humour to ask about Sam’s physical endowments and offer him a self-help book for the bedroom.

    The objectification of Huntington-Whitely is so concerted and incessant that it could pass for a satirical critique on leering masculinity. But in Bay’s universe, even the secretary of state has to endure comments on her caboose from Turturro, who ends up barking commands at her as though she’s his secretary for no apparent reason other than she’s female.

    Rosie ultimately gets a smidgeon of narrative agency, but only by catalyzing a ridiculous, over-the-top – but still somehow obvious – plot point, which is to say just another scene in a Bay movie.

    Plot, politics, relationships, physics, simple logic, history, disaster and security protocols, nothing is safe from Michael Bay. It all goes under the bus, and then the bus explodes, and then while exploding it morphs (ludicrously) into a 10-storey robot firing a giant gun, and then the robot too explodes because that’s the way “Bayhem” goes.

    Sure, the Trojan War had its major ebbs and flows, but here the changing tides of combat make no sense. One minute an army has apparently limitless resources and the next it is succumbing to the remnants of the very force it just decimated, now rallying around nothing but the naked requirements of the narrative.

    At the same time, to Bay’s credit, it can at least be said that within the framework he has established you will believe everything you see, and “in glorious 3D” if you so choose. For better or for worse, the money is up there on the screen.

    If you go in to see Dark of the Moon purely for the special effects and an adrenaline rush, you will likely feel you got your money’s worth. But that is the best-case scenario, and even then you’ll be doing your higher brain functions an enormous disservice.