Someone’s probably already written a doctoral thesis about how Hollywood action movies — with their oiled muscles, bombastic explosions, and big, big guns — are all about male performance anxiety. But I can't think of a film quite so vividly about the Problem in Daddy’s Pants as "Transformers: Dark of the Moon."
From the obsession with sleek, gleaming cars of various eras to the dildo-shaped weaponry that everyone’s chasing after to the vagina-dentata robot that’s basically a big opening lined with spinning rows of blades to the way the camera all but date-rapes model-turned-“actress” Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, one feels compelled to give screenwriter Ehren Kruger and director Michael Bay a reassuring pat on the back while whispering, “It’s OK, it happens to everybody.”
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Heck, the movie even starts with hero Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) whining about the fact that he’s living off the generosity of his girlfriend Carly (Huntington-Whiteley) because he can’t find a job, even after saving the world twice and earning a hero’s medal from the president.
And “whining” isn’t an overstatement — Sam literally mewls like a petulant schoolgirl over the fact that his good buddies, the Autobots, are out on missions for the government while he schleps around in an old beater going on pointless job interviews.
When Sam finally gets hired by aerospace industrialist Bruce Brazos (John Malkovich, sporting a silver mane and an orange tan), he soon finds himself plunged back into the action.
Back in the early ’60s, you see, an Autobot escaped the war with the evil Decepticons, carrying a weapon that might have turned the tide, but unfortunately he crashed on the dark side of the moon. The entire Apollo program turns out to be an elaborate ruse staged solely for the purpose of doing recon on the crash. (Buzz Aldrin, for unfathomable reasons, pops up as himself.)
And then … look, just trying to think about the plot is making my "Transformers" headache come back. Suffice it to say that there’s double-crossing, and clanky robot battles, and inappropriately phallic weaponry, and the destruction of Chicago, and traitorous humans, and the spectacle of Shia LaBeouf getting all teary when it looks like a bad robot is going to execute Bumblebee, the nice robot.
"Transformers: Dark of the Moon" relies on director Bay’s usual jumbling of images and soundtrack bombardment, but while it’s headache-inducing, that’s at least a slight improvement over the migraine machine that was "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen." Kudos to Kruger for creating a plot which, moronic though it is, at least makes some level of sense and strives to be a little more ambitious than “go to the place and get the thing.”
And "Dark of the Moon" is not without its occasional moments of pleasure, most notably watching real actors like Malkovich, Frances McDormand (as a no-nonsense intelligence chief), John Turturro (reprising his ridiculous role as a paranoid former agent) and Alan Tudyk (as Turturro’s Dutch sidekick) overact with the glee of movie stars slumming on the old Batman TV show.
When they’re off-screen, alas, you’re left with the likes of LaBeouf, Huntington-Whiteley (whose white jacket remains unstained in the face of Armageddon), the perpetually stoic Josh Duhamel (who has displayed a sense of humor in other movies, just none with "Transformers” in the title) and — most painfully — Tyrese Gibson, whose every utterance is an affront both to acting and to human speech. That this guy has prominent roles in not one but two cash-generating franchises (see, “Fast and the Furious, The”) is all you need to know about the decline of show business.
Michael Bay talked a lot about how he never wanted to make a 3D movie until he visited the set of "Avatar" and came away converted, and that kind of talk raised some hope that the demands of 3D might actually force the director into some kind of visual coherence for a change. And unlike "Revenge of the Fallen," where we never get to see one solid robot fist connect with one solid robot head, the battles between these metallic behemoths do register with the human eye, at least before the hyperkinetic editing takes its toll.
But these CG creations seem strangely weightless. Even when they’re throwing around actual cars, the robots don’t have that sense of gravity that makes them seem like real, three-dimensional creations. (If Bay devoted his soundtrack more to crunching metal and less to awful pop songs and the dreadful score composed by Steve Jablonsky, that might have helped.)
Perhaps the film's signature shot occurs late in the film, when Huntington-Whiteley stares at the camera — blank-faced and jaw agape — while mortars explode and SUVs flip in the air behind her. It’s one of the film’s many unintentional laughs, sure, but after hours of sonic and visual cacophony, most of the audience will probably have that same glazed, shell-shocked look.
For all the bombast, alas, “Dark of the Moon” remains a joyless and decidedly impotent exercise that all the metaphorical rocket launchers and bazookas in the world can’t fix.