There is one interesting visual image in Transformers: Dark of the Moon (hereafter simply referred to as Transformers 3) that briefly stands out in a sea of robot characters based on toys and human characters who might as well be robots. A writhing and rampant robot-reptile devourer, a hydra made of hardware, a sinuous and snarling buzzsaw-beast occasionally shows up, and it is a vision of such power and freshness that even the weariest moviegoer—and by the time director Michael Bay and screenwriter Ehren Kruger are done with you, you will be weary—will sit up in their seat and take note with awe.
That, however, is five to ten minutes of Transformers 3‘s 2 hour and 20 minute gargantuan length; the rest of it is a jumble of something like characters in something like a plot that apparently has a beginning, middle and end. Again, tribes of warring robots, the good Autobots and the evil Decepticons, continue their endless war against each other in their place of exile, Earth, as established by the two previous films and the cartoons, comics and toys that inspired them.
Stating that Transformers 3 is better than Transformers 2 is something akin to stating being stabbed is better than being shot. The decision to gimmick up Transformers 3 into 3D means that, for technical reasons and to attain some kind of continuity of motion in the dimensional projection, Bay’s usual microsecond cuts are expanded to seconds; it’s still wham-bam-thank-you-whoever-you-are film-cutting, but it’s Dogme-style slow editing compared to the previous Transformers films. (The 3D doesn’t just slow down the editing; like Avatar and Green Lantern, the use of 3D helps films that would otherwise look waxen and immobile with CGI overload seem even vaguely like film and less like the very large cartoons they in fact are.)
Michael Bay himself knocked Transformers 2 on-the-record—we were rushed by the strike, we know critics didn’t like it—but this film makes you feel like the parolee you just saw repented lifted your wallet. Bay still has no interest in what makes a story—character, plot, action—preferring instead to create set-pieces and fill the time around them. It’s bad enough that the comedy relief invariably is not funny (or is offensive, like when Ken Jeong’s quick supporting moment combines both racism and homophobia), but what’s worse is when Bay fills interjects comedic relief into scenes that are already intended as comedic relief.
Bay has no interest in character: For all the sheen and slow-mo director Michael Bay drapes on every scene of Rosie Huntington-Whitley, her curves and planes are visually more in keeping with automotive engineering as opposed to anything like human sensuality. Shia La Beouf’s Sam Witwicky is, as ever, the appendix of this rotten corpse—small and vestigial, dangling off the colon of the enterprise to yell “Optimus!” or “Bumblebee!” in slowed-down footage. Bay also cares not one whit for plot; after an armada of evil robots is teleported to Washington D.C, they then decamp to Chicago—a 12-hour drive, even for robots—for no stated reason whatsoever to unleash a world-ending plot they could have begun anywhere. I half expected series nemesis Megatron to state that Chicago would be the Decepticon throne because they, like Bay, were offered tax breaks and city managers agreeable to their needs.
But it’s not just the ineptitude of Transformers 3 that baffles; it’s the contradictions. We’re clearly expected to know, or care, about these characters from the backstory of the cartoons—but then the films skip fan-service mythology like a culmination to the leadership clash between Megatron and Starscream. These are at heart films for children, with their robotic clashes and toy-based pedigree—so why is the script loaded with vulgarities like ‘shit’ and ‘bitch’ and, worse, images like a bus full of corpses and civilians having the flesh blasted off their bones by sci-fi weapons until their bony skulls clatter in the gutter? And if these films were intended for adults—and I would argue that seeing Bay do a hard sci-fi saga of high-tech war could, in theory, be interesting—then why is it based on a line of robots that become cars and change back to lecture the audience on human rights? Why do huge, hulking metallic robots spin-kick and tumble with the speed, grace and agility of pre-teen gymnasts? I can swallow the idea of robots the size of trucks and planes clashing clumsily like sumo, but not the idea of them fighting flowing fast like Bruce Lee.
It’s also hard to overlook the politics of the Transformers films. When Optimus Prime (voiced, as ever, by Peter Cullen) says “Now ... we take the battle to them!”, it’s hard to not blink at the bizarreness of the lies of the Bush administration’s rationale for the war in Iraq ringing out in baritone from a talking truck with a sword. (Before anyone yells about the idea that there could be nothing less political than the Transformers films, note the number of military agencies thanked for the use of personnel and material in the end credits—I don’t know about you, but I don’t like my tax dollars being used to help Michael Bay make what is essentially propaganda for profit.)
Bay’s directorial style—where the fights and stunts and explosions get bigger and bigger and bigger—has been called “Bay-hem,” a name-brand promise of might and muscle on-screen, splendor and spectacle. And you could argue that by synching 80s nostalgia with millennial effects, the Transformers films are in their way an American institution. But, like many American institutions—Wall Street, the War on Drugs, the Armed Forces—the might and the money and the muscle has become brainless and bloated, forgetting what it was originally intended for in the wasteful pursuit of self-perpetuation. Bay’s a talented director—but no director can make up for not having a script, or for not caring the script he has is horrible and senseless. I wouldn’t have minded seeing a little Bay-hem on the big screen in Transformers 3; aside from one memorable image that livened up battles I didn’t care about between characters I barely knew, all I got was idiocy, tedium and expense in the pursuit of Bay-nality.