Well ladies and gentlemen, he did it. He suckered me in. He got me, hook, line, and sinker. The 'he' I'm referring to here, for those who don't know, is Mr. Fast-Cuts Explosion Esq. himself, Michael Bay, and the film is Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Although I guess, after giving it a moment of thought, it's not that surprising as to why. The first Transformers (2007), though initially irritating, has grown on me a little, though it's still not something I'd rush to pop into the DVD player when I wanted something fun. Despite plenty of drawn-out, annoying crap, the first film actually works the best in terms of being empty, enjoyable summer entertainment. The same cannot be said, however, of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009). While I don't hate that movie with the same passion as some (I believe I gave it a "C-"), it's not exactly good. And in spots, it's also unbearable (the world is looking at you, Julie White). And after ROTF, I was convinced that I was done with this silly, bloated, Bay-tastic franchise. And then the trailers for Dark of the Moon came out, and I have to confess: it looked kind of cool (giant robots AND Frances McDormand? What could possibly go wrong?), if only for the promise of the supposedly spectacular final showdown set in Chicago.
So, how does Dark of the Moon fare in trying to restore a passable reputation to the franchise? Meh. Yes, 'meh,' is actually the best response I can give here, as I'll explain. What the latest Transformers may lack in (completely) ridiculous plotting and insufferable stereotypes (from the robots, no less...), it makes up for with stuff. Yes, stuff. Running just shy of two and a half hours, the conclusion of Bay's trilogy, goes out nearly on a whimper in comparison to the finales of the first two films, despite a promising (albeit silly) start. The film opens with a flashback, detailing more of the war between the Autobots and Decepticons, and how they first came to our planet. As it turns out, an escape ship crash-landed on our moon, setting in motion the space race to find out what the hell landed out on the big rock in the sky.
Now, historical silliness aside, the opening is actually the one interesting part of the movie, and creates a fun enough scenario to set things up (even though it pretty much contradicts ROTF's origin story, wherein the first space robots touched down on earth thousands of years ago). Cut to the present day, and we return to "hero" Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), who's having trouble finding a job, despite having saved the world twice (his words, not mine). That is, after we're introduced to his new girlfriend Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) with a ridiculous ass-hugging shot as she walks up some stairs. Maybe Mr. Bay and Zack Snyder should collaborate on a film entirely devoted to cheap shots of women in skimpy clothing, with extra doses of racism and slow-motion. I smell a franchise!
But I digress. As it turns out, Dark of the Moon, for all of its standard Bay-isms, actually held my attention pretty well. Whatever the faults of Mr. Bay's style, including his insistence on shots that never last longer than 5 seconds, he can hold your attention with his pacing, where so many other bloated CGI spectacles fail and become very boring very fast. That is, to a point. After the film's first hour (maybe not even that), the film just sort of jumps from scene to scene all so that it can reach its big finale. It's not horrible or incompetent, but considering how little the writers have done to build up the characters (while constantly introducing huge new supporting casts), there's not much to care about. However, to jump back to Zack Snyder, at least here there are actual stakes, seeing as this is taking place in "reality," and not some inane and contrived fantasy within a fantasy. And, to the film's credit, the special effects are excellent, and there's a pretty intense sequence involving our human heroes sliding around a skyscraper that's leaning on its side. Other portions of the finale are less interesting. More impressive than any of the fighting, which is merely flashy and loud, is how convincingly Bay and co. managed to make Chicago look like a war zone (although, to be fair, the Autobots and Decepticons are easier to distinguish this time around). Also, Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) is supposed to be the badass incarnate among the Autobots, so why on earth does the film let him get stopped for 20 minutes by some dangling cables? Was that the best obstruction they could think of in a war-torn metropolis?
As far as performances go...well, let's keep the descriptions short. LaBeouf has dropped the "Nonononononononononono's!" from his vocabulary, although this doesn't stop him from shrieking repeatedly on several occasions. Ms. Huntington-Whiteley, replacing Megan Fox, is merely eye candy, neither bad nor good, and I don't quite understand the reviews that claim she makes Megan Fox look like Judi Dench in comparison. Girls, relax, you're both equally vacant and useless. John Turturro returns as the paranoid Seymour, finally with less embarrassing results (what happened to you, Barton Fink?), and Frances McDormand is almost fun as a hard-nosed government agent (I'll admit, the line about the different purses kind of made me laugh). John Malkovich shows up for a brief period of time and, well, you know, does his usual thing. Tyrese and Josh Duhamel are back. Oh, and Ken Jeong is in there for five minutes to do his part in further reducing Asian Americans to obnoxious caricatures in American cinema, by doing the same thing he always does: acting insufferable and shrill. Congratulations.
Dark of the Moon, though perhaps a step up from ROTF, fails because it doesn't take a big enough step in the right direction. For whatever flash the effects and stunt work may provide, there's simply not enough to care about, either in this film by itself, or in the total effort of the trilogy. Bay's latest is not awful, worst-of-the-year cinema, but it isn't particularly good or enjoyable either, even if it does scale down some of the mistakes from the previous entry. But before I end this review, I should bring up one thing: you'll notice that after I talked about the film's set-up, that I didn't go any further into describing the flow of events in the plot. See the film, and you'll understand why; there's simply not much to talk about.