The (cough) conclusion of the trilogy: “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”

July 1, 2014

[And that brings us to the first not-terrible installment in the franchise, Transformers: Dark of the Moon.]

I’m trying to think of some pithy intro here, but, hey, it’s the new Transformers movie. I mean, if you get trampled by an elephant and end up with a compound fracture of the femur, the doc who looks after you doesn’t drop a witty bon mot before he yanks on your foot until the bone slides back in through the flesh and then resets it, does he? I don’t really know. That’s never happened to me, but I bet he doesn’t. No, he just does it. If he’s smart he gives you a slug of whiskey first. The point I’m trying to make is,, we both know this is going to hurt. Might as well get on with it. So: Transformers: Dark of Moon. The good news is that it’s probably the best of the three movies. The bad news is, that’s a little like saying last night’s prison rape was the politest gang-sodomy you’ve ever had. The praise is indeed faint.

One piece of good news: the plot isn’t as needlessly convoluted as Revenge of the Fallen. There’s no cube, shard, or Matrix (well, one small scene). It pretty much centers on a secret Autobot spaceship that crashed on the moon. And on that ship, there was a Leonard Nimoy-bot (Ei-ei-oh!) And the Nimoy-bot had some magic technology (ei-ei-oh!), which the bad-guy robots (every time I actually type the words Autobot or Decepticon I feel myself crossing some Rubicon of immaturity) want to get their metallic claws on because it can transport shit through space like a big ol’ MacGuffin—er—wormhole.

Of course, this is a bloated summer blockbuster, so we can’t expect the plot to be that easy, right?  Now, initially, we get off to a good start showing a very cool-looking battle on the Transformers home world of…Transformicon (or whatever. I don’t remember the name, and that’s a good thing). Then we cut to a very cool alternate version of the moon landing in which we learn that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldren were really investigating that alien crash and bring back some technology (which is actually cooler than what they really did up there–mainly just dick around in the world’s longest and most expensive victory dance).

But then we cut to present day and the ass of Shia LaBeouf’s latest spank-mag-covergirl girlfriend (Rosie Huntington-Whitney), and that’s when you just know things are gonna go to hell for the next hour or so.  Why? Because at some point you just know they’re going to stop showing her ass and Shia is going do stuff, and…well, that’s never good. You know, I’m not going to exonerate Michael Bay, but I’m no longer convinced the atrociousness of these movies is all his fault. There are two other culprits. One is Shia, who, cards on the table, blows rhinos on toast. He’s annoying, diminutive, not the least bit heroic, and very douchey. He blew in Indy 4; he blew in Wall Street 2…I’m just sick of the guy.

The other culprit is screenwriter Ehren Kruger (who also penned the last installment solo). Kruger has a long and undignified list of movies to his credit (Blood and Chocolate anyone) that should make any producer sic an ED-209 on his ass as opposed to letting him write a tentpole movie. And, true to form, he whiffs much of this one, too. Like Revenge of the Fallen, we basically jerk around for an hour while everyone on screen unravels the mystery…of everything we saw in the first ten minutes of the film. So we get endless scenes of people yammering (no one has an indoor-voice in this movie) things like, ”What’s going on? Why would they do that? What does this mean?” Meanwhile, you’re mentally screaming “There’saspaceshiponthemoonNASAknowsaboutthatthebadguyswant!” Over and over and over again.

It doesn’t help that Kruger (and maybe Bay) appear never to have had an idea that they discarded, so the proceedings are overstuffed to the gills with crap that have nothing to do with robots whaling on each other. Nope. Before we get to the smash-smash, we gotta put up with 1) Shia’s despondency with his unemployment; 2) his emasculation in the face of his hawt girlfriend’s job as a personal assistant to Patrick Dempsey’s rich-dude; 3) his getting a job with John Malkovich’s weird firm (with Malkovich chewing the scenery to no good effect, since he has nothing to do with anything in the movie); 4) Shia’s parents (aw, fuck….again?) visiting him and infantilizing him as they always do; 5) John Turturro—now a wealthy author—unraveling the mystery (we already know), with the help of his weird, German manservant (Alan Tudyk, who’s  a lot fun); 6) Shia dealing with his weird, conspiracy-obsessed co-worker (Ken Jeong).

Okay, do some math: how many of those things involve robots whaling on each other? How many involve Shia LeBouf? Right, you see the problem, then.

Fortunately, once Bay gets this out of the way (make no mistake, it takes a loooong time) shit gets real. The bad guys best the good guys pretty quickly (and fairly awesomely), and launch a full-scale invasion of Earth. Here, things get (almost) fun. Bay has gone on record saying he’s not going to make another Transformers movie, and you kind of get the feeling that this time around, he’s no longer an adolescent playing with toys. No, this time he’s more like a pre-teen who’s outgrowing his toys, and just smashing everything in his toy box.

The bad guys pretty much take over Chicago, laying waste to the city and gleefully killing lots of its inhabitants (this movie’s far more brutal than the last two—a point ion its favor). Their plan is to bring Transformia into Earth’s atmosphere (uh…what?) and enslave the human race to rebuild it. Putting aside niggling little plotholes like fact this would probably destroy both planets, it at least raises the stakes for the first time in the franchise. I never cared about the Cube or the Matrix or whatever, but I sure as shit don’t want to be a slave on Transformerville (I’m not mechanically-inclined, and I’m not pretty enough to be in a harem).

Bay also gleefully abandons a lot of the overripe sanctimony that made the last two such groaners. He undercuts his jingoism by showing the military as largely ineffectual, and, in one memorable scene, outright cowards that have to be shamed into fighting the bad guys by wussy, little Shia. Likewise, stalwart hero Optimus Prime is no longer the noble, principled leader, but instead screws up royally, brings destruction upon us all, and then basically transforms (heh) into Dirty Harry-bot, skipping the lofty speeches and saying instead, “Fuck it, let’s kill all these mofos!” (or words to that effect)

Bay uses the 3D technology exceptionally well here, making this film a truly immersive experience like Tron: Legacy or Avatar. The visual constraints the 3D format imposes on him forced him to slow down to action sequence, so they finally make some sense. It’s still damn-near impossible to tell who’s who in many of the fights (he didn’t make the robot designs any more streamlined, unfortunately), but gone are the seizure-inducing quick-edits and lack of any spatial logic. A couple of the scenes involving a chase through a toppling skyscraper are actually exhilarating.

Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon still isn’t a good movie. It’s way too long for no real purpose. The plot could and should have been tightened up and the run time cut by at least a half hour. Most of the human characters are still shrill and annoying, and it’s impossible not to wish that Bay’s newfound nihilistic streak had extended to killing off Shia and his parents. But it’s a pretty good movie. Half of it anyway.

So, what have we learned from this six-year season in hell? Maybe if Michael Bay—an over-financed hack—can improve upon himself, summer movies aren’t completely doomed.

Wait? They already commissioned a Green Lantern sequel? Aw, dammit…

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