BLOGS

<i>Transformers: Dark of the Moon</i>: Oh, the Humanity!

In the run-up to the release of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the third entry in the feature film franchise based on the old Hasbro toy line, director Michael Bay has been telling anyone who'll listen that the new film won't commit the sins of its predecessor, the widely loathed Revenge of the Fallen. From where I sat though, Dark of the Moon played like more of the same: a largely incoherent assembly of eardrum-shattering, chaotically-choreographed action sequences that are occasionally interrupted by hilariously campy dramatic moments and painfully unfunny bits of "comedy," as well as a few randomly inserted slow-mo money shots of one of the interchangeable CGI-robots actually transforming in a desperate attempt to make the audience think they're having a good time.

To be fair, there are a few obvious differences between the two movies. For one thing, Megan Fox is no longer flashing her cleavage, legs and hair like some kind of show pony as the love interest/arm candy of returning hero Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf). That role is now filled by Victoria's Secret model Rose Huntington-Whitelely and the best thing you can say about her performance is that she approaches the movie like one of her lingerie shoots. (Our first glimpse of her is a close-up of her perfectly-toned ass in tight panties, which tells you everything you need to know about Bay's attitude towards her character.) And where Fallen sent the Transformers abroad to wreck famous locations around the globe, the majority of the destruction in Moon takes place on U.S. soil, with D.C. and Chicago both getting trashed in the ongoing battle between the good-guy Autobots and the evil Decepticons. (One would think that, given the title, the moon would play a bigger role in the movie, but it simply serves to set what little story there is in motion and then ceases to be a factor for the rest of the super-sized 157-minute runtime.) Otherwise though, Moon feels like less of a continuation of Fallen than a glorified repeat.

I suppose some kind of plot synopsis is in order, so here goes: It's been about four years since the last Transformers throwdown that left Egypt's great Pyramids smoldering ruins and sent Decepticon leader Megatron into hiding. Optimus Prime and his merry band of Autobots are serving as robotic soldiers for the U.S. government, attacking foreign hot spots -- like a random "Illegal Nuclear Site" in the Middle East (I'm not kidding, that's exactly how the location is identified onscreen) -- so that our human forces don't have to. Meanwhile, Sam is pounding the pavement in D.C. searching for a job, his college diploma in one hand and a medal of honor from President Obama in the other. Like so many university graduates though, he's having a hard time finding a steady gig, which annoys his overbearing parents (Julie White and Kevin Dunn, reprising their roles as the most annoying Mom and Dad in movie history) and causes a rift between him and his gainfully employed girlfriend Carly (Huntington-Whiteley). After a full day of botched interviews, Sam finally lucks into a mailroom position at some kind of a phlebotinum-producing technology company headed up by alpha male Bruce Bazos (the always bizarre John Malkovich, doing some kind of Dubya-meets-Rush Limbaugh impression).

Since Transformers-related trouble is never very far away, no sooner has Sam started his new job than he once again finds himself a Decepticon target. In his latest bid to regain power, Megatron has conspired to lead the Autobots and their human allies to a ruined ship on the dark side of the Moon, where they discover the lifeless body of their former leader, Sentinel Prime (voiced by Leonard Nimoy), who carries with him a powerful device that can transport the ruined Transformer homeworld Cybertron into Earth's orbit. Always a trusting soul, Optimus revives Sentinel only to pay for that choice when his fellow Prime reveals his true intentions. As for Sam, he has his own betrayal to deal with -- it seems that Carly's hotshot billionaire boss (Patrick Dempsey) is in league with Megatron and he kidnaps the girl in order to force Witwicky to spy on his robot pals. Eventually, all of the characters end up in the Windy City for the grand finale in which a small legion of Autobots takes on the better-armed Decepticon forces while Sam mounts a seat-of-his-pants rescue mission to save Carly.

Since this is likely Bay's final Transformers outing, he focuses all his energy on making the siege of Chicago -- which eats up roughly an hour of screentime -- the loudest, busiest, most freakin' awesome set-piece he's ever directed. He gets the first two things right. The volume is cranked up to 11 and virtually every frame is filled with exploding buildings, robots and people. It's blockbuster action done on a giant, budget-busting scale, but here's the thing: none of it is actually all that exciting.

In fact, as the battle goes on (and on... and on... ), the spectacle becomes less... well, spectacular. Bay's status as an action maestro has always been a topic of much debate, with his fans hailing his admittedly impressive ability to build kick-ass, splash-page-like beats into bigger set-pieces, and his detractors correctly calling him out for poor geography and jumbled editing. Bay had too much money and technology at his disposable to not come up with a few of his patented killer moments, most notably a great bit where Sam is riding shotgun in his best friend/personal vehicle Bumblebee and the Autobot throws his rider free just as he transforms into his robot self to avoid a Decepticon attack. Then just before Sam becomes street pizza, Bumblebee catches him and pulls him to his chest as he switches back into car form. Did I mention that all of this happens in slow-motion? It's a terrific beat, one that's sure to get audiences cheering, but frankly, it's also the kind of standout moment that the final battle could use more of. Bay exhausts his bag of tricks relatively early in the Chicago siege and then allows the sequence to grind on in a repetitive jumble of explosions and gunfire. At a certain point, he even gives up trying to keep track of where the various characters are supposed to be in relation to each other, instead just allowing them to turn up when they're needed regardless of whether they were previously down the block or across town.

Watching the Decepticons casually obliterate Chicago's screaming citizenry, something that has always bugged me about the Transformers movies snapped into focus. Over the course of these three films, Bay has steadily seemed to lose his interest in humanity. Granted, he was never one for deep character pieces, but his earliest films -- particularly 1996's The Rock, which remains the best thing he's ever directed -- derive much of their charge from the clashing personalities of the flesh-and-blood people at their center. Likewise, the first Transformers famously hung its spectacle around the all-too-human story of an eager boy getting his first car. This one pretends to be about Sam's entry into adulthood, but it's all too clear that Bay and screenwriter Ehren Kruger could care less about him and the rest of the human characters. They're merely cannon fodder to be moved in and out of the various Transformers' lines of fire. The movie's complete disinterest in anything resembling human emotion isn't just off-putting, it's downright depressing.

Perhaps realizing his director's attention is elsewhere, LaBeouf seizes the opportunity to turn in his weirdest, most obnoxious performance to date. Stalking around the screen, shouting -- rather than speaking -- much of his dialogue, Sam often comes across as mentally unhinged. It's as if the actor is actively trying to turn the audience against him so he'll never have to make one of these movies again. I felt his pain. When the credits finally rolled, I found myself breathing a sigh of relief that our long national nightmare of having to endure another Michael Bay-directed Transformers movie may well and truly be over. Happy Independence Day.

Never mind Michael Bay vs. Megan Fox, here are the most infamous public brawls between movie stars and directors.

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