In 2007, I left a screening of Michael Bay’s Transformers feeling like an exhilarated schoolboy who had just happened upon his father’s nudie mag collection (or, to translate for today’s teenagers, had just discovered that the household broadband wireless connection would soon be uncapped). It was a movie almost exclusively comprised of money shots: fast cars, robots, explosions, Megan Fox stretching. Sure, the plot didn’t make a lot of sense, but neither does The Maltese Falcon and everyone loves that flick. And yes, it had a silly sense of humour, yet that only made it seem more endearing, like a precocious toddler angling for our attention with fart jokes. Ignoring those lesser elements, there was something about the film that appealed to teenage boys beyond regular blow-em-up actioners; perhaps it was the involvement of executive producer Steven Spielberg, or perhaps it was the presence of the awkwardly charming Shia LaBeouf, or perhaps it was just a perfect storm of joyful, adolescent anarchy. Four years, two sequels, a pair of racist robots and a conservative estimate of one billion robot punches later, I have to wonder if my enjoyment of that first instalment in the Transformers franchise was merely the result of low expectations (seeing ‘Based on the Hasbro Toy Line’ in the credits is hardly faith-inspiring).
The first sequel, 2009’s Revenge of the Fallen, saw Bay’s sensibilities brought to their logical, terrifying conclusion. It was louder, dumber and explodier, and far far far from endearing. The lame jokes remained, but they grew cruel and unsettling. The action sequences were ineptly constructed; it seemed as if Bay were twirling the camera so furiously as to transform the viewer’s central nervous system into a pile of custard. Above all, it was heartless. Dark of the Moon, the third and – we pray – final instalment, is not much better. A little better, but not much. Although the offensive comedy has been pulled back, the film is still psychotically unfunny. Our director, as well as screenwriter Ehren Kruger, weirdly insists on a number of misplaced sex jokes and moments of slapstick that never ever land. Also, the characters are uniformly unlikable (and, for some reason, bright orange); even Shia LaBeouf, the only connection this franchise ever had to humanity, has become an abrasive and unpleasant protagonist. That being said, Dark of the Moon features the trilogy’s best action set pieces, most iconic visual moments and offers a VFX extravaganza the likes of which may never have been seen before on screen. But what good is watching all that money on screen when there’s no human element or emotional resonance to make it count. Must it be one or the other? Can we no longer have heart and spectacle?
The film has a tantalising premise, but you have to wade through banal Transformers lore to get through it. Once upon a time, the Autobots (goodies) and Decepticons (baddies) battled for supremacy on the planet Cybertron. The Autobots lost, and fled to Earth, but not before sending an ‘ark’ containing the secret to their planet’s salvation into the cosmos. It crash-landed on the moon in the early 1960s, and the United States and Soviet Republic kicked off a space race to see who could reach it first (yes, that’s why they did it). Cut to 2011, and the Decepticons – led by a scarf-wearing Megatron – have finally figured out the location of the ‘ark’. It is up to the Autobots, including Optimus Prime and Bumblee, as well as trusting human Sam Witwicky (LaBeouf), his girlfriend Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, ousting Fox), Army Colonel Lennox (Josh Duhamel) and the U.S. Secretary of Defence (Frances McDormand), to stop the Decepticons from … doing whatever it is they’re planning to do.
There are plenty of other cast members who deserve a mention, including Tyrese, Patrick Dempsey, Alan Tudyk and John Turturro, but explaining their characters would only mean delving into the film’s labyrinthine and often incomprehensible plot. John Malkovich and Ken Jeong even pop up in the picture’s first half; their roles are kind of large, but what specific part they play in the mechanics of the story I have no idea. Anyway, all these people are just there to make the robots look big when they’re punching each other, and big they indeed look. I will admit the flick has its fair number of impressive hero moments, particularly in the final hour. There are air-gliding sequences that may induce gasps, and a beautiful moment in which Bumblebee grabs Witwicky and transforms into a car, reminiscent of a similar scene in the classic 1980s animated feature. Instances like this remind me of that joyful abandon I felt in the first. There is an appeal to seeing phenomenally expensive special effects and hundreds of skyscraper-leveling explosions on the big screen. But sadly, at a soul-sapping 153 minutes, those moments are few and far between, and they are outweighed by the eye-gougingly Bays-ian flourishes that pervade every other scene. NB: the very first shot after the movie’s title appears on the screen is of Huntinton-Whiteley’s posterior. Come on Michael; at least pretend you hired her for her acting talent.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon opens in Australian cinemas June 30, 2011