Transformers: Dark of the Moon is a terrible movie. We all knew it would be, and I’m imagining that there is no one who could make a good argument that it’s anything but terrible. Objectively speaking this is a poor movie with a poor script, poor characters and great special effects. Everyone reading reviews of Transformers 3 already knows these things; at this point it’s racial memory and our children will be born with the innate understanding that the Transformers movies are terrible.
But what you want to know is whether or not Transformers: Dark of the Moon is the kind of terrible that’s worth your ten bucks. You know that the film will be weighted down with unbearably bad ‘character’ business centering on the despicable Shia Labeouf, and you know that there will be a surfeit of ham handed, unfunny comic relief. You know that the story will make no sense and that huge elements of the plot will be unmotivated by logic or reasoning. In fact, you’re not even convinced there will be anything resembling a plot in this film. But what you want to know is whether or not the action in Transformers: Dark of the Moon outweighs all of the bad stuff that you expect from this franchise.
The answer is no. The action does not make up for what is wrong with Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Before I get to the stuff about ‘acting’ and ‘story,’ which is really only of interest to the elites these days, let’s talk about the big action set pieces, and specifically the mother of all action set pieces, the big battle in Chicago, which is an hour long or something.
The battle of Chicago is not good. It’s got good parts, well-constructed beats that work in a generic spectacle fashion. But the entire sequence has no narrative; there’s no cohesive throughline to the action bringing us from moment to moment and set piece to set piece. The structure of this massive sequence is generally our characters get into danger, narrowly escape with their lives, walk down an alleyway and get into new peril. Each instance of peril works on its own, but is often nonsensical in the larger context. Characters become split up without motivation except to make sure only the needed characters are imperilled. Characters teleport in and out of scenes - Bumblebee shows up to make a last minute save and then just is gone in the next set piece. The entire sequence feels as if a dozen random ideas for action scenes were smashed together and nobody bothered to figure out how to make them flow from one to the other. It’s like a randomly constructed roller coaster.
If you’re okay consuming an hour long action scene piecemeal, like a dinner made up of so many M&Ms, then you’ll like this sequence. But to me the sequence offers its own metaphor for its failure; the evil Decepticons invade the city of Chicago (why? I cannot tell you. Not one moment of the film has previously taken place in Chicago and as a strategic position it makes zero sense for them) but they do it off screen. We’re told they’re invading, we see a couple of explosions and people running in the streets and then that’s it, Chicago is invaded and half-destroyed. Where’s the shot of the Decepticon fleet suddenly appearing in the sky, the shots of the crowds looking up in awe and terror? Where’s the invasion? Where’s the beef?
The other problem with the battle of Chicago is that I could not muster up a single reason to give a shit about what was happening. Sam Witwicky might be the least appealing lead character in a successful franchise, and he has no supporting characters to take up the slack. There is not a single character in Transformers: Dark of the Moon I like or care about - except maybe Tyrese, but that’s just because I like Tyrese. Why isn’t he the main character here? Why isn’t there someone I don’t hate at the center of this movie?
Anyway, the battle of Chicago action scenes work as sheer spectacle, scenes where you say ‘Wow, that must have taken an extraordinary amount of computing power!,’ and scenes where you say ‘Wow, that was a large explosion!,’ but on no other level. One sequence has our heroes jumping out of the windows of a leaning high rise and riding down its exterior, and it looks terrific. I just didn’t care if everybody fell off or if they saved themselves.
Part of that is because all of the characters are useless, but part of that is also from the dichotomy at the heart of the Transformers series: these robots don’t need people. And Michael Bay seems to hate these robots. It’s weird to watch a movie titled Transformers that has an hour long battle in the ruins of alien-invaded Chicago and realize that the good guy Transformers are like, barely in it at all. The huge majority of the sequence is spent with humans running around escaping Decepticons. There’s a bunch of giant good guy robots with missiles and energy weapons out there, but the movie is focusing on a kid and a ragtag group of military guys who are, for some bizarre and illogical reason, humanity’s only hope.
In terms of screen time the Chicago battle is a minority of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and it feels like a completely different movie from the first 90 minutes - the tonal shift is remarkable and amateurishly executed. Most of the rest of the film is spent in excruciating scenes featuring Sam Witwicky and a cast of six or seven comic relief characters. Consider that: most of the characters in this movie who are not robots are comic relief (although four out of the nine or so Autobots are comic relief. Fucking hell). And not subtle comic relief, or the kind of comic relief that snarkily comments on the movie, but rather goonish and ham-handed avatars of childish silliness, characters who make Kevin James’ upcoming Zookeeper look like an Ealing Studios farce.
Remember how irritating John Turturro was in the last film? He’s pretty much the highlight of the new movie, and he’s no less irritating. Perhaps the most irritating character is played by Community’s Ken Jeong, who is doing the exact same schtick he does in every single role. “You messed with the wrong Wang!” he says in a hip hoppy inflection and nobody laughs. There’s a big section of the movie, like five or ten solid minutes, that’s just given over to Jeong. When I watched Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen I spent most of the movie wanting to kill myself, and the Jeong scenes in Dark of the Moon brought me back to that same dark place. It is indisputable that Jeong is the nadir of the film, which is too bad because I like the guy. He just needs to not be bringing the exact same schtick to every single role that he plays, varying only by degrees of comic Asian accent.
John Malkovich is also pretty irritating as yet another comic relief character. And however horrible and life-draining Jeong is, at least his character has some sort of a plot function. I don’t understand why Malkovich is in the film at all (I understand why he took the role, which certainly paid well. I just don’t understand what the purpose of the character is). Sam’s horrible parents return, but at least they’re in the film to give Sam some (drastically stupid) advice. Malkovich’s character could be excised from the film completely and impact nothing except the hideously bloated running time.
Malkovich is playing Sam’s boss in this film, and the first act is given over to the conceit that Sam can’t find a job. Even the character seems to find this hard to believe, that his Autobot buddies wouldn’t help him get some sort of liaison gig in NEST, the Decepticon-fighting military unit with whom the Autobots hang out when they aren’t engaging in extracurricular activity against unlicensed Iranian nuclear reactors (seriously). So we get lots of ‘comedy’ and ‘character’ stuff about Sam looking for work despite having a ‘hero medal’ that Obama gave him, and then when he gets a job we get lots more comedy (including a scene where Ken Jeong throws Sam in a toilet stall before pulling off his pants. Comedy!). It’s just so tedious.
Even Shia LaBeouf seems exasperated with what’s going on. Sam has never been a character who I would consider likable, and Shia has never been an actor about whom I’ve ever felt warmly, but this film is a nadir for both character and actor. I actively despised LaBeouf throughout, as his entire bag of acting tricks in this movie consists of yelling and being a snotty bitch. And the script doesn’t even give Sam much to do with the Transformers; he has one full scene with Optimus, and the few scenes he has with Bumblebee mostly consist of him dressing the robot down. Maybe the reason why the Autobots didn’t help him get a job is because they can’t stand the kid.
He has a new love interest this time around, Victoria’s Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, and she made me miss Megan Fox throughout. The character feels like a poorly considered course correction from Fox, replacing a bad girl character who dominated Sam in a sexy way with a boring, empty submissive girl who is completely sexless. Don’t get me wrong, Huntington-Whiteley is superhumanly gorgeous (even if I think her lips are artificial), but there’s no sex there. There’s no heat. Megan Fox feels like the kind of girl who wants to fuck, even a scrawny dweeb like Shia LaBeouf. Huntington-Whiteley gives off all the sexual energy of Madeline Khan at the train station in Young Frankenstein, far too concerned about the state of her dress or make-up to ever get it on.
Which is what makes her safe. I suspect that people didn’t like Fox in the last two films because while she invited the male gaze she also rebuffed it, while Huntington-Whiteley, an underwear model, feels safe to ogle. Fox is actually a more present actor than Huntington-Whiteley, whose best quality in this film is that she’s inoffensive and doesn’t get in the way.
There’s a lot going on in Dark of the Moon - I haven’t touched on Alan Tudyk, who plays the only comic relief character who isn’t totally grating because he’s at least capable (but gay, so the fact that he’s capable is actually part of the joke. Silly gays!), or Patrick Dempsey, who plays a villain whose involvement in the story is mind-bendingly complicated (he gets Shia his job at Malkovich’s company, which is where Ken Jeong, who is a human helping the Decepticons, gives him vital information the Autobots are too stupid to figure out on their own, but I can’t tell if that was part of his evil plan or just a truly awful use of coincidence by the script). Then there’s Francis McDormand, who is actually pretty good in this movie, an honestly herculean feat. She’s certainly given nothing in the script or by Michael Bay that would allow her to be good, and so her success is achieved simply through personal willpower. McDormand may take the check to be in a sucky movie, but she will not be sucky within it, and this is why we love her.
And I haven’t touched on the robots. I don’t really know what to say about them; they remain as generic and anonymous as ever, and robots kept getting killed but I didn’t know who they were. By the end of the movie I had a very hard time telling Starscream apart from Soundwave apart from Shockwave, although Megatron was easy to pick out because he wore a delightfully silly cowl. A couple of Autobots die in this one, but I’m not sure who they were. James Remar is credited as the voice of Sideswipe, but I’m unclear if I ever heard him speak.
Leonard Nimoy does the voice of Sentinel Prime, yet another ancient Transformer on whom the whole plot hinges. Nimoy’s fine, but what he’s doing here is an afternoon in a voice over studio. It’s not much different from doing a video game voice. Nimoy’s a professional, and he does a professional’s job, but he’s delivering junky lines from the mouth of a character who has no motivation or logical reasoning behind his actions. I can’t really get into it because it’s all ‘spoilers,’ but nothing about the Sentinel Prime storyline makes sense when you begin to give it even the smallest amount of thought (and it makes even less sense when you attempt to fit it into the larger film continuity. These movies are obsessed with discovering ‘hidden history’ again and again, but they just keep making everything more and more complicated and contradictory).
Then there’s Optimus Prime. Why are we supposed to like this guy anyway? He’s a shitty leader - he spends half the film moping about his mistakes, and I personally blame him completely for the destruction of Chicago - and he’s shit in a fight. Once again he gets his ass handed to him in this movie. The only thing Prime is any good at is delivering semi-sensical platitudes. Honestly, fuck this character.
There are large parts of Transformers: Dark of the Moon that feel like a parody. I’m never quite sure what Michael Bay’s intentions are with this film, and I suspect that he kind of hates it. There’s certainly no love for the characters or the mythology or the themes of the movie, and he pushes the robots out of the way at the end to shower glory on Navy SEALS and Marines, which I guess is nice for our armed forces. The special effects are stunning, and every time you see a sub-par ILM FX shot in another movie, know that it was because they were using all their processing power to make this film. It’s as state of the art as you can get, and the way Bay melds practical locations with virtual robots is masterful. And there’s some nice design work - the opening sequence, set in the final days of the war on Cybertron, looks like a 1980s science fiction book cover come to life, all painterly and awesome.
But the movie is bad. There’s no denying the craftsmanship of the final action scenes - as individual sequences - but they don’t add up to anything. There’s no emotional heft, no dramatic gravity, no excitement to them. They’re joyless works of technical perfection devoid of meaning.
Yes, this is better than the last film. It has a storyline that can be followed, for one, which is a huge improvement. And the strictures of 3D means that Bay has to hold shots longer and take more care in his construction, leading to action scenes with more coherence and that look better. But it’s still terrible, and not being as terrible as a movie that is among the worst I have ever sat through isn’t much of an achievement. I found it easier to sit through this movie, and I enjoyed myself in parts, and I don’t hate it. It’s impossible to hate this film simply because it is exactly what you expect, and to hate it means that you thought it could have been something else. I don’t fully understand why so much time and money can be spent on impeccable special effects but almost nothing spent on the script, but that’s the scenario you come to expect with this shit.
That said, why does it get a pass? People forgive films like this saying that they like to sometimes go to the theater and turn off their brains, but it isn’t like our current movie landscape is otherwise lacking in spectacle. Transformers: Dark of the Moon isn’t the only big dumb action movie in a movie world made up of slow Pinter adaptations. This kind of garbage is Hollywood’s dominant mode of expression, and this isn’t some oasis of fun in a desert of overly serious Oscar bait. But what’s worse is that this summer has seen a number of big, dumb movies that are worlds better than what Bay gives us. Fast Five shits all over Transformers in every category except for scale of action. Somehow other movies manage not to be two and a half hours long, manage to have characters that are likable, manage to have stories that are engaging and also have fun action. Why, at 300 million dollars, is this too much to ask from a Transformers film?
Transformers: Dark of the Moon is the Michele Bachmann of cinema. Despite all of its staggering flaws it will have its supporters, and its success is part of a trend of accepting less and pretending it’s more. Just because someone is loud doesn’t mean they’re smart and just because a movie has a lot of action doesn’t mean it’s fun. Fun isn’t just calculated in pixels on screen but in actor charisma and character warmth, in stories that surprise and thrill, and in action that is motivated and has a point that is either narrative or emotional.
I don’t hate Transformers: Dark of the Moon. It’s no Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, for one. And about twelve hours after seeing it the movie has begun completely evaporating from my mind. But I don’t understand how anyone can actually like the movie, and it’s hard for me to tell you it’s worth any of your time. I want to be flip and say you should buy a ticket for something else and sneak into Dark of the Moon at the film’s 90 minute mark, but I can’t even recommend that. And who am I kidding anyway - this is a movie of inevitable badness that you will inevitably see.