REVIEW: Transformers: Dark of the Moon Is Straight-Up Michael Bay, for Better or Worse

Movieline Score: 7

Now that nearly every action or comic-book movie wants to be as big, loud and spectacular as a Michael Bay movie, there's something refreshingly straightforward -- homespun, even -- about an actual Michael Bay movie like Transformers: Dark of the Moon. The picture wears its ambitions on its whirring, rumbling, clanking, heavily CGI'ed sleeve, and it pretends to be nothing more than it is: a honking, 40-karat piece of entertainment that will cost you dearly if you take your family to see it in the theaters, especially when you factor in that 3-D surcharge. Yet Dark of the Moon, the third installment in the unkillable Transformers franchise, shouldn't be seen any other way. Bay doesn't care about your soul, he just wants your money -- but he at least makes sure you go home feeling exhausted and spent rather than vaguely dissatisfied. It's a fair exchange.

To explain the plot logic of Dark of the Moon would require my going back in time, conceiving and giving birth to a child, waiting for that child to first master basic verbal skills and then reach the age of 10, at which point his deftness at untangling excessively convoluted story mechanics would prove immensely useful to me in my job. That's not something I have the time to do right now. All you really need to know is that the mechanical (but also thinking and feeling) fold-up vehicle thingies known as Autobots, exiled on Earth from their home planet of Cybertron, find themselves at war with the Decepticons -- so what else is new? Only now some new secrets about the Autobots' past have come to light: Before the fall of Cybertron, the Autobots' leader, Sentinel Prime (voiced by Leonard Nimoy, channeling John Huston), had tried to ferry some planet-saving secrets to safety but ended up crashing on the moon. Using commingled real and fictional footage, Bay shows Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (who also shows up later, as himself, in a cameo) happening upon the Cybertronic moonwreck, and if they felt even the slightest twinge of disappointment that Hasbro got to the lunar surface before they did, they don't show it. Still, they must keep their discovery secret, until recent college graduate -- but still jobless -- Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) stumbles upon it.

Sam is now living in Washington with his leggy, flaxen-haired girlfriend, Carly, who resembles nothing so much as an Abercrombie & Fitch model. (She's played by Rosie Huntington-Whiteley who, as it turns out, actually has been an Abercrombie & Fitch model.) Bay's camera ogles Carly shamelessly -- her gorgeous, upside-down-heart buttocks get one hell of a 3-D entrance -- but he's toned down the crassness level considerably from that of the 2009 Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. (Megan Fox's character is nowhere to be seen, and although those little Autobot creatures who attempted to hump her leg have returned, they appear to have learned marginally better manners about how to behave around a woman.)

Dark of the Moon was written, if you could call it that, by Ehren Kruger, though what he really had to do was come up with clever ways to fit in old, familiar characters (Autobot, Decepticon and human) while introducing a handful of new ones. (Kruger was also a co-writer, with Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, of Revenge of the Fallen.) Pleasingly stalwart Josh Duhamel is back as top-secret special ops guy Lennox, once again being all that he can be. Tyrese Gibson shows up toward the end, but just barely, as Sam's old pal Epps. Kruger and Bay invent a cute little backstory for eccentric retired agent Simmons (John Turturro) and Frances McDormand's Nearing, the Director of National Intelligence (or somesuch). Patrick Dempsey shows up as Carly's ultra-slick, ultra-rich, ultra-sleazy employer. Ken Jeong and John Malkovich (whose head, by the way, looks amazingly Oz-like, floating in 3-D space) also wander through the gargantuan story landscape in smallish, underformed roles.

But who cares about the humans? Sam's chief sidekick Autobots, Optimus Prime and Bumblebee, also return, and it's a good thing, because the Decepticons are back as well, meaner, scarier and more heedlessly destructive than ever. The action in Dark of the Moon is, quite literally, all over the place: the moon, Washington, Chernobyl, Chicago -- nobody in Michael Bay's world can sit still for a minute. The movie's first half is agreeably low-key, particularly by Bay's standards. His attempts at lightness are endearing, like a child wearing a fedora, but they still count for something: He has some shoot-em-up fun in a scene involving Simmons, some Russian mobsters and Simmons' protective geek assistant, Dutch (played by the often-underappreciated Alan Tudyk). And I think Bay was kidding when evil, imperious Decepticon Megatron is greeted somewhere in the African desert by a herd of trumpeting elephants. Or maybe he wasn't. But I giggled either way.

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  • Gilgamesh37 says:

    God I love reading your pieces, even if they're movies I'm not intending to see in the first place. Thanks, Stephanie.

  • The Cantankerist says:

    "...he at least makes sure you go home feeling exhausted and spent rather than vaguely dissatisfied. It’s a fair exchange."
    Ah, no, it's not.

  • Patrick McEvoy-Halston says:

    Re: "There’s no use fighting Michael Bay; he only laughs as I pummel him with my tiny fists. The only thing to do is to succumb, and bring a few Excedrin in case you need them."
    Next time, try springing out your preferably brilliantly-distracting cell-phone and absorb yourself in text-messages. It's a puny screen against broadcast bluster, but you're also borrowing on audience disrespect and disconnect so prevalent and awesome, fightback against it registers as a rebel stirring against an empire: what your puny fists couldn't muster, cell-phone peevishness might just enable. Someone might complain, but it would only signify your victory, and have you laughing back at them, Michael Bay, and over having now much less need for Excedrin.

  • KevyB says:

    Too bad there aren't enough intelligent moviegoers left... we could all flood some arthouse film as a protest as to how imbecilic and Bayesque summer movies have gotten.

  • Trace says:

    You know, somehow I doubt throwing up your hands in resignation is a good way to enjoy a movie...

  • Julie says:

    Nah, intelligent moviegoers can't afford to see any movies anymore.

  • Pete says:

    If you dont know how to make a decent movie just fill it with action and special effects to hide the flaws. Its the michael bay method and many more are following his strategy 🙂

  • Roxy says:

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