When the 154-minute Transformers: Dark of the Moon finally ends, your feeling is one of exhaustion, not exhilaration. Pleased with his first effort but downright apologetic about the second Transformers movie, director Michael Bay has thrown every imaginable visual effect, CG animation and physical stunt, all in 3D, into the battle for planet Earth. Bay really needed a gag shot where one alien transforms itself into the kitchen sink.
Make no mistake: Out of a line of Hasbro toys, Bay has created a world of his own. Call it Bay World. It has its own logic, which is movie logic cubed. It has its own heroes and villains, only try to tell the toys — sorry, action figures — apart. Is the machine that favors red colors a good machine or a bad one? And once you figure that out, does the damn machine switch sides?
That a huge worldwide audience is primed for this movie hardly needs stating. But the range of those actually enjoying the onslaught of technology at the expense of human drama might be narrower than Bay, Hasbro or Paramount think. The kick of the first movie was the pleasurable shock of humans and these transformative mechanical beings interacting. The third chapter is dedicated to little more than wanton destruction.
Then, too, Bay World has always felt misshapen. When these action figures take center stage, they are so huge and the humans so tiny that they don’t comfortably inhabit the same visual space. The 3D, which is actually quite good for the most part, only exacerbates this sensation.
Bay and writer Ehren Kruger kick-start the demolition derby with a longish sequence that recasts America’s space program of the ‘60s and ‘70s as an actual race between the U.S. and the Soviets to reach the dark side of the moon, where an alien spacecraft has crashed. (For the second time this summer, following his appearance in X-Men: First Class, footage of John F. Kennedy gets mixed with newly shot footage that embroils that president in science fiction fantasy.)
What astronauts Buzz Aldrin — who later appears as himself — and Neil Armstrong brought back from that dark side suddenly becomes vitally important to the saving of the planet now that the bad robots’ invasion is under way.
Which brings the movie back to its perennial hero, Shia LaBeouf’s Sam Witwicky, who has a secret medal from the president for saving the world but can’t get a job in Washington, D.C. What he does have is the town’s hottest girlfriend in Rosie Huntington-Whiteley’s Carly. Bay has her pirouette any number of times before the camera in any number of fetching outfits to drive home this point.
There’s a lot of misplaced and misfired comedy about Sam’s job-hunting with an over-the-top John Malkovich finally hiring him and about his increasing concerns about the attention paid to Carly by her boss, played by Patrick Dempsey, who seems out to match Malkovich in the mugging department. Not to be outdone are John Turturro and Frances McDormand, whose attitudes can be characterized as this: If you’re going to be in a movie with robots, you might as well act circles around them. Chew the scenery before the action figures destroy it is their motto.
D.C. takes quite a licking — the poor Lincoln Memorial does not survive, it must be reported, and the Beltway is left in tatters. But Bay reserves near-total destruction for Chicago. The Battle for Chicago lasts for nearly a third of the movie. Or so it seems. Buildings crumble, streets buckle, humans incinerate, machines collapse and alien airships blast away at whatever is left.
What never makes any sense, though, is how LaBeouf and his hardy band of humans survive any of this. They emerge from sequence after sequence of utter chaos in full makeup with hardly a hair out of place. Talk about your action figures.
It was during this final battle that the 3D went badly out of focus, which might be a case of the poor projector getting overheated by the nonstop noise and pandemonium.
As mentioned, machines and people switch sides and transform loyalties with considerable frequency. It’s telling that a viewer isn’t going to much care. You’re not heavily invested emotionally in these robots, and only the survival of LaBeouf and his hot girlfriend seems to interest the filmmakers.
Machines grinding and slicing their way through the Chicago downtown cityscape and one building cut nearly in half and tilting like that tower in Pisa are the money shots for Bay. The kitchen sink, if you will.
The millions of man hours put into producing this techno shock and awe must be staggering. Everyone got his job done, but somewhere along the way, the movie got lost.
Opens: June 29 (Paramount)
Michael Bay delivers a techno spectacle that is spectacularly empty
Production companies: Paramount Pictures in association with Hasbro presents a Don Murphy/Tom DeSanto/Di Bonaventura Pictures production
Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Josh Duhamel, John Turturro, Tyrese Gibson, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Patrick Dempsey, Kevin Dunn, John Malkovich, Frances McDormand
Director: Michael Bay
Screenwriter: Ehren Kruger
Based on action figures by: Hasbro
Producer: Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Tom DeSanto, Don Murphy, Ian Bryce
Executive producers: Steven Spierberg, Michael Bay, Brian Goldner, Mark Vahradian
Director of photography: Amir Mokri
Production designer: Nigel Phelps
Music: Steve Jablonsky
Costume designer: Deborah L. Scott
Visual effects supervisor: Scott Farrar
Editors: Roger Barton, William Goldenberg, Joel Negron
PG-13 rating, 154 minutes