It’s an embarrassing thing to admit, getting beat up by an eight year-old, but that’s just what happened a few hours after seeing Transformers: Dark of the Moon, when my inner child finally won its epic battle against the rest of me in a no-holds-barred cage match. Yes, as I was forced to admit whilst pinned to the floor in a deadly fit of “Why Do You Keep Hitting Yourself,” I really liked watching the latest Transformers. It would be easy to fall into the trap of calling it “bad-ass” or “kick-ass” or any of the other “blank-ass” hyperboles that are currently a part of the vernacular, but I think I can avoid it. Being “the best Transformers by far” is a dubious honor at best, but at least it amounts to a solid thumbs up.
When we last left Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), everything was really kind of confusing so let’s just forget all about it. Megan Fox left him off-screen between films, so now he’s shacked up with yet another sexy but only ambiguously interesting love interest in Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, effectively playing the same role as Elle MacPherson in Batman & Robin and making about the same level of impression. Sam is in the exact same position as every other recent college graduate these days: overeducated, under-experienced and incapable of landing a job. What he really wants to do is keep saving the world alongside his Autobot buddies, but the new ballbuster in charge played by Frances McDormand refuses to let him come in and play. But then the Decepticons target Sam in an elaborate but almost miraculously comprehensible plan to destroy humanity and save the dying planet Cybertron, and Sam’s soon back in the thick of it, getting his butt saved by action figures that walk like men and drive like maniacs.
I’m worried about Shia LaBeouf now. His performance in Transformers: Dark of the Moon is one of the most unhinged performances I’ve seen in recent years. I’m not sure what exactly LaBeouf was going for, but if the goal was to make the audience question his sanity, then mission accomplished. LaBeouf’s elaborate histrionics and elastic temperament finally make him feel at home in the truly bizarre world director Michael Bay has crafted over the course of this trilogy. Rather than make the human world a recognizable place suddenly invaded by fantastical alien robots, he has repeatedly chosen to populate this alternate reality with implausible drama queens with a tendency to mug harder than a street thug trying to meet a quota. At least the most annoying characters sit this one out. No twins, no Ramon Rodriguez, and even Sam’s parents – who I always kinda liked, if I’m being honest – have their screen time slashed dramatically. John Malkovich shows up for no reason whatsoever other than to challenge Bumblebee to a fistfight and then wind up on the floor, tickled into submission by a giant robot. Unforgettable, if completely pointless. The Transformers movies are practically Michael Bay’s answer to The Coen Bros., although they’re usually more Intolerable Cruelty than The Big Lebowski, and it’s taken three whole movies before I’ve finally been able to accept them as at least some version of reality.
But the real question this time out, to paraphrase the great Max Bialystock, is where did Michael Bay go right? All the pieces are there which so grievously frustrated me last time, but now it feels like Michael Bay’s learned a modicum of restraint. Of course, Michael Bay’s version of restraint looks an awful lot like anyone else’s unbridled insanity, but at least he’s got the pacing right this time. The first half of Dark of the Moon feels as breezy as an unfurnished basement, if you know what I mean, before the action completely ramps up in the second half of the film, which is dominated by an extended battlezone sequence that’s more Black Hawk Down than anything else. Not that it has the dramatic heft or thematic consequence of Ridley Scott’s war classic, but Bay does a fine job of following disparate units of characters as they set about their task of stopping what we’ve always wanted to see all along: a full-blown Decepticon invasion of Earth. Bay pulls out some of his best action sequences in over a decade here, with tension-tightening and sometimes awe-inspiring set pieces that are as implausible as they are entertaining. That there’s a plot hole so big that it should literally tear the whole world in half before the day could be saved is a concern for smart people, so turning off your brain is advisable and in this case pretty darned rewarding.
Somewhere towards the end Transformers: Dark of the Moon starts taking itself really seriously, which is both odd and refreshing given the franchise’s history of nonsense comedy and even more nonsensical fight scenes. As the Decepticons invade we see dozens of human beings murdered on screen, and several Autobots and Decepticons meet tragic ends that – somehow – are actually worth caring about. One new character who gets little screen time, which probably contributes to his rooting interest, is executed in cold blood whilst begging for mercy, which is pretty sobering. And the very end of the film finds Optimus Prime taking actions which would normally send a hero en route to corruption and villainy if they had taken place in the first act. Bay glosses over this though. It’s like he wanted to end the franchise once and for all, regardless of character development. And he does. I doubt this is the last we’ll see of Transformers on film but the effect of the violence is so debilitating that it throws a pall on anything that might follow. This is dark territory we have entered, and we have made our new home here.
Is that a good thing? Probably not. The narrative inconsistency and single-minded action still keeps Transformers: Dark of the Moon from ever achieving greatness. I guess the best you can say is that it’s “hardcore,” which is pretty much what the target audience always wanted (my inner child included). Bay shot the movie for IMAX 3D and despite an early tendency to cut between panning shots – which is jarring as hell in 3D, quite frankly – it’s very pretty. It’s fitting that we have to put on glasses because Dark of the Moon is all about the spectacle. For a big, dumb summer action movie that’s all we can ask for, and it’s just about all we get. And that’s okay… once in a while.
Crave Online Rating: 7.5/10