Before we begin, a word of clarity. The “C” on this review doesn’t actually reflect a grade. It stands for “critic proof.” The notion of actually evaluating this… this thing that has arrived in our midst is patently absurd. Do we look at a tidal wave and say “well, it gets a 6 out of 10, but full marks for upending that building?” Do we judge tornadoes based on the quality and quantity of wreckage on display? Those things aren’t criticized; they’re endured. So it is with Transformers: Dark of the Moon, a pop culture force of nature that lives by its own set of rules. To pretend otherwise insults everyone involved.
While we’re at it, here’s something for my fellow critics to keep in mind: it’s easy to talk about how films lack heart, how they need more compelling characters, and how their narratives need to reflect some aspect of the human condition. This is not that movie. If you want that movie, put The King’s Speech in your Netflix queue. This one involves giant robots pounding each other into scrap metal, and if you honestly walk in expecting anything else, you deserve whatever happens to you.
The problem with Dark of the Moon, as with the other two Transformers pictures, is that the critics aren’t the only ones who think it should involve human beings. Director Michael Bay does too. And he has absolutely no idea how human beings really act, think or feel. They don’t interest him at all; not when there’s civic landmarks to destroy or national I.Q. levels to lower. And yet he insists on packing far too much of this film with people. Talking. About dull, pointless shit with no freaking robots anywhere. We can handle the crass sexism, the horrendous racial stereotypes, the toilet humor and the action scenes that make no logical sense. That’s part of the package. But whatever you do Michael, please don’t show us any more scenes about Sam Witwicky’s (Shia LaBeouf) job woes, or why his woman (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) doesn’t understand him. It’s just cruel.
Yet for the first hour, that’s largely what we get. The fact that Witwicky hangs out with Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) and has saved the world twice – as he keeps reminding us in increasingly shrill tones – hasn’t translated into a viable job. Instead, he lives with his girlfriend (a sexpot museum curator who differs from Megan Fox’s sexpot grease monkey in no discernable way) and struggles through humiliating interviews while his robot buddies are out hunting down Decepticons. He also gets another helping of awkward sex talk from his parents, with some jealous exchanges with his girl’s boss (Patrick Dempsey) thrown in for good measure.
Show of hands: who wants to watch any of that? Better yet, who wants to see that interrupt scenes with robots on the moon and new Decepticon killers and an ancient Autobot genius (voiced by Leonard Nimoy) who may herald the end of the world as we know it? Hey, let’s break away from Prime and his buddies kicking ass to get another “family meeting” from Sam and his parents! It’ll be cool! I mean, nothing says summer movie more than the trials and travails of a young man who struggles with feelings of inadequacy and just wants a place to call- zzzzzzzz….
Admittedly, the overstuffed human cast features a few diamonds in the rough: specifically, Ken Jeong, Alan Tudyk, John Malkovich and Frances McDormand. The film tosses them to us like life preservers at a drowning man, and they keep the interminable “plot” elements from driving us totally around the bend. And once we get down to the real purpose of the exercise, the visual effects retain their usual high level of quality. We can tell the combatants apart this time, and many of the money shots actually show a little flair for a change. Dark of the Moon also makes excellent use of 3D, with a depth of field that excites the eye (especially if you see it on IMAX) and a refreshing lack of the darkness that usually accompanies the format.
If that were all there was, it might be enough. Sadly, it adds up to a comparatively small percentage of the actual running time. For the remainder, we get more off-color jokes (Jeong’s character is named Wang; get it?), appallingly bad improvisation, and exploitative shots of Huntington-Whiteley’s ass. Even Bay’s signature jingoism gets screwed up, as various human soldiers (including Tyrese Gibson’s Sergeant Epps) overtly tuck tail without the Autobots to help them. Considering how heavily the screenplay emphasizes our need to believe in ourselves, and considering that military porn is par for the course in these movies, Bay’s inability to follow through on his own stated philosophy is truly sad.
And that, in the end, finally dooms the picture. Dark of the Moon doesn’t live by the terms its detractors set, and that’s one thing. But it doesn’t live by its own terms either, and that’s something else entirely. It lacks the courage of its convictions, and can’t follow through on the appallingly amoral spectacle that remains the only criteria worth applying to it. In the face of such failings, I submit a challenge to the director. Next movie, I just want two-and-a-half hours of explosions. No dialogue, no context, no plot. Just things blowing up in an amusing way over and over again. I dare you to do it. I double dog dare you. Only then will your ethos truly reach its zenith and whatever bizarre art form you’re practicing become fully manifest. Until that day, you’re just applying half-measures… of which Dark of the Moon is the latest example.