During the prologue of Transformers: Dark of the Moon—director Michael Bay’s latest feature-length rolling-around-in-piles-of-money cinemajaculation—we learn a plot-crucial piece of revisionist history. The Apollo moon program, it seems, was a direct response to indications that something had crashed on the moon in 1961. When the Apollo 11 astronauts make their landing in ’69, their rover explorations include a top-secret mission to investigate the wreckage of a spacecraft—one that carries a powerful piece of Autobot technology.
If you can imagine a way of conveying this information in a few efficient minutes of exposition, you are not Michael Bay. Because Michael Bay—ever reliable in his Michael Bay-ness—is going to turn that prologue into 10 minutes of cinematic throat-clearing, including showing Nixon congratulating the astronauts, mission control cheering and Walter Cronkite smiling giddily. And that, in a nutshell, is what makes Bay’s Transformers movies so consistently slam-bang mediocre: There appears to be no part of his filmmaking DNA that signals him when it’s time to shut up.
So here we are again, with Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) now a college graduate who can’t find a job despite having, in his words, “saved the world twice.” But trouble is bound to find him once Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) rescues the former Autobot leader, Sentinel Prime (Leonard Nimoy), from that moon-crashed spacecraft, and he discovers a terrible conspiracy hatched by Decepticon head honcho Megatron (Hugo Weaving).
For a little while, the new blood in Dark of the Moon provides hope for more than incrementally less suckage than previous Transformers movies. Sam’s new girlfriend, Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), certainly offers nothing more than a body on which to drape form-fitting clothes, but there’s also John Malkovich (as Sam’s finicky boss), Ken Jeong (as a paranoid engineer who knows too much), Alan Tudyk (as the bodyguard/assistant to John Turturro’s manic ex-government agent, returning from Revenge of the Fallen) and Patrick Dempsey (as a billionaire playboy). Every one of them gets at least one solidly entertaining moment—which is about as much solid entertainment as Revenge of the Fallen offered in its entirety.
But that’s also a bunch of additional stuff to shove into a Transformers movie made by a guy who never understands that it’s OK to leave some stuff out. While Ehren Kruger’s screenplay may be slightly more streamlined than Revenge of the Fallen, it’s still bursting with stuff that’s generally pointless, like a scene in which Sam gets romantic advice from his parents, or nudging references to Nimoy’s Star Trek work. And Bay is never so shameless that he won’t be sure to find room for a scene in which Sam and another guy are caught in a bathroom stall together, because nothing is more crowd-pleasingly hilarious than the possibility that someone might be gay.
If there’s anything pleasantly surprising in Dark of the Moon, it’s that Bay actually constructs what may be his first coherent action sequence ever, in which Sam and his military pals including Lennox (Josh Duhamel) and Epps (Tyrese Gibson) are attacked by a python-like Decepticon while in a precariously tilting Chicago skyscraper. Bay actually allows time for the geography of humans in peril to create tension. It’s disorienting in a Transformers movie not to be … disoriented.
Yet that’s only a snippet of a final hour that plays like the latest tedious variation on hoo-rah alien invasion tales like Battle: Los Angeles and Skyline, full of ominously hovering ships and street-level carnage. Yes, Autobots and Decepticons tear into one another with occasionally slow-motion ferocity. Yes, it’s sort of cool-looking occasionally, the kind of stuff that prickles at the inner little kid who digs trucks and robots and trucks turning into robots and fighting other truck-robots. But after 2-and-a-half hours, it’s less like the robots are slamming into each other, and more like they’re slamming into you.
Those who defend Bay’s Transformers and other similarly monotonous action spectacles often chide detractors with a call to “lighten up.” That’s a valuable sentiment, but it’s pointed in the wrong direction. It’s Bay whose more-isn’t-even-close-to-enough approach to filmmaking feels leaden and in desperate need of lightening, a sense of when to pare down and find focus. In keeping with its opening sequence, Dark of the Moon is yet another Michael Bay movie in which any given 10 minutes would almost certainly be better as only three.
TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON
Shia LaBeouf, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Josh Duhamel