If there is any sliver of decency in this universe, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the third entry in the most crass, vile and offensive big-budget franchise in Hollywood history will be its last. If it is any better than the series' previous installment, that is only because it sublimates its racial, gender, political and aesthetic travesties into an even longer, more interminable celebration of reactionary ideals. For a series predicated on the idea that some things are more than meets the eye, the Transformers movies represent one of the least varied, consistently shallow sagas to ever hit the big screen: Transformers 3, like its predecessors, is a masturbatory affair, perhaps even more so than the execrable Revenge of the Fallen. Whatever shred of humanity existed in these films is obliterated, leaving only an unadulterated tribute to He-Man masculinity in response to hysterical conservative perceptions of the Obama era.
Sam (Shia LaBeouf, whose increasingly greasy look in each film he does suggests he hasn't showered since Even Stevens got canceled) saved the world and brokered an alliance between man and Autobot, but no one will give him a job out of Ivy League college. The poor guy has to settle for an absurdly large D.C. apartment and being supported by his disposable new girlfriend, Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), whose car-collecting boss, Dylan (Patrick Dempsey), openly flirts with her in front of Sam, further emasculating our hero. Compounded by the American government having locked Sam out from communicating with the Autobots, he needs a complete world invasion of Decepticons to let him prove his manhood, raising the question of just how many people need to die for Shia LaBeouf to feel comfortable about his dick size.
The film opens with the most crass, avaricious distortion of historical footage since Forrest Gump to turn the moon landing, a genuinely awe-inspiring event that continues to provoke wonder and human pride today, into a front for investigating a spaceship crash. Turns out, Prime's predecessor, Sentinel, crash-landed on the Moon 40 years ago, carrying with him an important weapon that would have decided the Civil War on Cybertron. Now, the Autobots must retrieve the deactivated Sentinel Prime and the device before Decepticons discover the ship.
That's all the plot background you need, really. However, those who continue to absolve Bay as someone who caters to experience over story sure are ignoring the endless pile-ons of narrative threads and convolutions that affect all the Transformers films but this 155-minute slog most of all. Dark of the Moon is really no different from its predecessor, only bigger. But that increase is all proportional, so while the climactic war for Earth might be on a larger scale than what came before it, it takes up about the same percentage of screen time.
Ergo, we get more individualist hokum as all government officials are yet again portrayed as feckless, spineless bureaucrats holding back Sam and the Autobots from getting the job done. We also have to sit through Sam's usual relationship drama, albeit this time with a character simply dropped into the franchise and given no development; Bay's idea of character establishment for Carly is a tracking shot closed in on H-W's ass as she walks up a staircase to greet Sam. And we also get endless exposition, told-not-shown mythology for a bunch of goddamn toys that eats up at good hour and a half of the 2.5-hour movie.
Bay might have subtracted some of the more onerous aspects of Revenge of the Fallen, but he's only found all-new ways to make the same dumb movie. Bay frames so many shots from low angles that after a certain point it seems less an affectation to stress the heroic properties of the Autobots and Americans than the result of getting rid of the tripod for budget reasons. The 3D looks good but is still nothing more than an add-on, and one can only make out snippets of stereoscopic depth because of the usual editing and compositional clumsiness. In fairness, Bay does lengthen the shots, though it seems the average shot length of his action moments has gone from .8 seconds to one whole second. (An integer? Oh, Mr. Bay, you spoil us with your 24 frames!) And when a shot is held for one of a seemingly unending series of slo-mo shots, the constantly moving parts of incoherently smashed together Transformers turn what are meant to be moments of gasp-inducing wonder into headache-causing confusion. ILM had their job cut out for them with Tranformers, animating hundreds of moving parts on each robot, but I've come to regard their work as something similar to overzealous scientists in outbreak movies: they were all so eager to see if they could make something so frame-collapsingly complicated that they never bother to ask if they should.
Even by Bay's standards, the disregard for acting here is horrific. Huntington-Whiteley makes Megan Fox look like Meryl Streep: she says her lines as if reading cue cards without her contacts in. I'm worried about sounding paternalistic here, but frankly, this isn't her fault. She has no experience and no charisma, but that's what Bay wanted, and it's not like she has much of worth to say anyway. Bay met her while shooting Victoria's Secret commercials, and this may be the first case where more was demanded from her for a lingerie shoot than acting in a big-budget film: the women in Axe Body Spray commercials have more meaningful lines than Huntington-Whiteley does here. Saying she should have known she was just there to be hot and to get suitably dirtied up is akin to saying she was "asking for it," and at this point I feel sorry for anyone who has to work with both Bay and LaBeouf.
Besides, why pick on her when she appears in a film with a whole host of people who ought to know better? Frances McDormand and John Malkovich join fellow Coens alum John Turturro, who unfortunately returns once more to speed-talk his way through pompous, histrionic lines. Malkovich coasts on autopilot, taking off from his forcefully smug condescension to reach a cruising altitude at manically infatuated with robots. McDormand's performance is better, but she fares worse for being the bureaucratic punching-bag who keeps a leash around the Transformers' wrecking-ball testicles until she realizes that she should have let them run rampant after all. Ken Jeong appears to add another Asian stereotype to his C.V., also hinting at aggressive homosexuality for a couple more yuks. The best actor here is Buzz Aldrin, brought out of retirement to excuse Bay's tacky appropriation of one of the true feats of American exceptionalism. Aldrin, a true American hero who has experienced the true awe of space travel and exploring the unknown, has to paint a look of overwhelmed reverence on his face to talk to a pocket of air to later be filled in by an unimaginatively humanoid alien. Now that is a performance.
And so, Dark of the Moon is another arduous foray up Bay's vas deferens, a wantonly destructive paean to distorted, boot-in-your-ass American shit-kickerism. Autobots never fight more than 50 yards away from a American flag billowing behind them, and they even seem content to kill Arabs for Uncle Sam. Hell, Megatron, who keeps coming back from total annihilation because the source material has a dearth of other standout villains, even wanders around the desert wearing a cowl over his half-destroyed, almost leprotic face like an Arab terrorist organizing a sleeper strike. And finally, we have Sentinel Prime, the revived Autobot leader who clearly becomes an Obama stand-in, surrendering to our enemies. Of course, the only group to whom Obama has actually capitulated are Republicans, but Bay paints Sentinel as a weak appeaser letting terrorists come in and destroy the world just so he can say he brokered a deal for the greater good.
Bay loves a good apocalypse under Democratic presidents, forcibly tearing apart any liberal globalism so America alone can triumph in the end and prove reactionary politics the only true virtue. Of course, in real life, America flourished in peacetime under Clinton and Obama had bin Laden shot in the face, while Bay has done nothing more than make obscenely expensive, morally bankrupt commercials for General Motors. So let me modify an earlier statement with its obvious true meaning: the human race does not face extinction so Sam Witwicky can feel better about his masculinity but so Michael Bay can feel like a big man. Like Bill O'Reilly, who appears in the film, Bay is loud, obnoxious, and posturing; he uses the achievements of others to promote his own cult of personality and disguise how little individual might he truly demonstrates. In a sense, Dark of the Moon stands as Bay's masterpiece, the auterist statement to make irrelevant the idea of auterism as the predominant measuring stick for film as an art form. It is the Tree of Life of shit, a career-summarizing monument that definitively proves Michael Bay is not merely an awful director but a repugnant human being.
Addendum 6/30: The more I think about this film, the more I find it incredibly disturbing that the carnage of the final act, in which Chicago (incidentally Barack Obama's home turf) is ripped apart by Decepticons in the absence of Autobots, who essentially hide to teach humans a lesson about not respecting them. Tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of people die, just so we'll appreciate our robo-allies. That is profoundly messed up.
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