Is Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the third cinematic iteration of Hasbro's undying toyline, better than Revenge of the Fallen, the witless, charmless sequel from two years ago that I've previously said I'd sooner stick an icepick in my ear than watch again? Sure. But let's not mistake that to mean it's anything close to good. Like its immediate predecessor, Dark of the Moon is loud, dumb, and dull. It's as much an assault on the senses as it is on the intelligence, and as trilogy-cappers go, this latest explode-a-thon from director Michael Bay -- notwithstanding its brilliant use of 3D -- is wholly unsatisfying and wholly unexceptional.
As we join the proceedings this time around, we find that Shia LeBeouf's Sam Witwicky has gone from slacker high school student in the first flick (which I liked, remember?) to slacker grownup in this one. Unable to find an identity for himself separate from the thrill and importance he had when assisting the Autobots in their prior world-saving adventures, Sam lurches awkwardly from job interview to job interview (to job interview... to job interview...) before finally landing a gig in the mailroom of eccentric CEO John Malkovich (already picturing the addition to his house this movie will buy him -- right next to the addition that Jonah Hex bought him last year).
Career problems aside, Sam has done okay girlfriend-wise, with the vacant, dead-eyed Megan Fox being shown the door between entries (equating your boss with Hitler tends to do that) and replaced by the slightly-less dead-eyed (but still vacant) Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, whose character development begins and ends with her British accent, and who marches through her paces as the latest piece of Michael Bay eye candy (just witness her big intro shot if you doubt me). Now, if you're reading this and wondering why I'm spending so much time chronicling the travails of Sam Witwicky, unemployed loser, then your reaction mirrors mine as I was watching.
It's almost as if Bay is so embarrassed by the characters on the masthead that he feels the need to overcompensate by populating the films with coteries of uninteresting human characters lacking all spark (not to be confused with AllSpark) or personality. How else to explain knowing as much about Tyrese Gibson and Josh Duhamel's generic military men now as we did three movies ago? Even John Turturro, whose role in this series started with being peed on by a robot and went downhill from there, is wheeled out once again without being given anything to do that would justify his presence.
When we finally do catch up with the heroic Autobots, we learn that not much has changed for them. They're still led by the noble Optimus Prime (still voiced by the still-great Peter Cullen), still hiding in plain sight, still working in concert with the US government, and still tracking down the evil Decepticons who've secreted themselves all over the planet. When they discover an ancient piece of Transformer technology in human possession, the Autobots soon learn of a human-robot conspiracy whose tendrils stretch back several decades, and which includes Richard Nixon, JFK, and the Apollo 11 astronauts (with "Buzz" Aldrin himself gamely traipsing out for a cameo).
While the story by Ehren Kruger (tagging in for previous writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who are no doubt busy readying the next Star Trek) is what it is, and you're either onboard with it or you're not, the really insufferable part is that we have to sit through nearly an hour of Sam awkwardly dealing with his girlfriend, Sam awkwardly dealing with his parents, Sam awkwardly dealing with his job, and Sam awkwardly dealing with his girlfriend's boss (McDreamy himself, Patrick Dempsey -- hmm, wonder if there's more to him than meets the eye?), before his story intersects in any substantive way with that of the 'bots.
By the time things actually get going, the filmmakers are practically daring us to muster enthusiasm for the unfolding plot about revered Autobot leader Sentinel Prime (voiced by Leonard Nimoy -- quick, see if you can catch all the clever Star Trek references!) whose ship crashed on the (dark of the) moon in the '60s, and who carries with him the key to ending the war between the two robot factions. Before long the Decepticons, led by the devious Megatron (Hugo Weaving -- whose voice I could actually make out this time) get involved, and things comes to a boil in an hourlong onslaught of man-on-machine, machine-on-machine, and machine-on-building violence that reached such a cacophonous level of white noise that it actually lulled me to sleep for a few minutes near the end there.
Now, just to give a small piece of credit where it's due, the decision to shoot in native 3D is the single best creative choice Bay could have made for this film. The technology is splendidly deployed here, in some ways even eclipsing Avatar for sheer richness of visuals. More importantly though, it forces the famously outré director, who's never met the ordnance he couldn't fetishize nor the starlet he couldn't objectify, to subdue his trademark hop-skip-jump cutting style that's simply incompatible with its use. The inadvertent side-effect, however, is that we're forced into a Catch-22 where the only worthwhile way of seeing the movie is in 3D, but then you're paying the higher ticket prices for...this.
When does one explosion sound any different from all the rest? When does all the competing bombast just cancel itself out? At one point during that seemingly unending final action sequence (wherein my hometown of Chicago is laid to waste), just after one nondescript robot has destroyed another nondescript robot in a hail of computer-generated pyrotechnics, my friend turned to me and asked, "Hey, was that so-and-so?" and all I could muster in response was a half-hearted, "Yeah. No. I guess. I dunno." And that pretty much tells you where my head was at as I staggered out of the theater, ready to put this movie franchise out of my mind and out of my life.
This was crystallized for me near film's end, just before a conclusion that manages to be both frustratingly interminable and confusingly abrupt, when one of the primary heroes, confronted with a villain who is badly wounded and begging for mercy, picks up his weapon and calmly dispatches him with a single, fiery blast. This prompted the crowd in my screening room to burst into applause, while I wondered if I was the only one who found something decidedly unheroic about that. Back when I reviewed Revenge of the Fallen, I mentioned that I could feel myself aging right out of the target demo as I watched. Well, if there were any doubts then, Dark of the Moon has now laid them to rest. It's over, Prime. D