The film is an ugly journey through Michael Bay's adolescent id
The second Transformers movie, Revenge of the Fallen, was, as any viewer who failed to repress the experience will recall, astonishingly awful: a script of unsurpassed inanity, a pair of crude, jive-talking robots, a running time best measured in geologic terms—I could go on. (And did.) The latest installment in the epic tale of good Autobots, bad Decepticons, and Shia LaBeouf, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, improves on its predecessor in almost every obvious way. (Apart from length, that is: it clocks in at a brutal 157 minutes.) The plot—which posits that the midcentury U.S.-Russian “space race” was actually an effort to recover lost Autobot artifacts from the dark side of the moon—is much sharper. The special effects are more impressive, and the action considerably more intense. The movie even manages, in stark contrast to such summer duds as Green Lantern and the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie, to make effective use of 3D.
Yet despite these manifest improvements, there is something so sour and unpleasant about the new film that it left me almost nostalgic for the innocent idiocies of its predecessor. As its title hints, perhaps unwittingly, Dark of the Moon is a journey into the angry, adolescent id of director Michael Bay. I, for one, could not wait to get out.
Let’s start at the beginning. Following a Kennedy-era prologue, the first shot of the movie is a closeup of the barely-pantied bottom of Rosie Huntington-Whitely as she ascends a flight of stairs. This is the second shot as well; the third, opting for expository variety, shifts to the front and works its way up her torso. Now, it is true that Huntington-Whitely has a fine bottom, as one might expect from a
veteran Broadway character actress former Victoria’s Secret model. But Bay’s lens leers so emphatically, almost pornographically, that this opening can’t help but come across as a statement of his philosophy of gender. This is, after all, the man who fired previous franchise eye candy Megan Fox for being insufficiently sexy, which is a bit like firing water for being insufficiently wet.
Huntington-Whitely plays Carly, the new squeeze of returning hero Sam Witwicky (LaBeouf), which means that her narrative functions—apart from a scene near the end, in which she goads a Decepticon by calling it a “bitch”—alternate between being ogled and being held hostage. It’s a bit of a challenge to capture just how retrograde the film is on this score. Bay clothes Huntington-Whitely in a series of short dresses and, as often as is practical, films her from floor level, as if his camera were a mirror hidden in the shoelaces of a horny 12-year-old. Early on, a pint-sized Autobot, fresh from rooting around in her underwear drawer, pauses to peer up her skirt; shortly after, John Malkovich (in perhaps the most embarrassing performance of his career), tilts his head a full 90 degrees to stare ostentatiously at her ass. In what evidently constitutes a pun these days, it is Huntington-Whitely who is center screen when another character, commenting on the case a medal came in, gushes “What a gorgeous box.”
In keeping with this view of women’s proper role—Sartre, with whom Bay has more in common than one might imagine, would have called it the etre-pour-autrui—the director also supplies us with a pretty Latina who is ushered briefly onscreen to be berated for her “hoochie” outfit, and a hard-nosed National Intelligence Director (Frances McDormand) whose authority is gradually usurped by a renegade male agent (John Turturro) to the point where she ends up, literally, across his lap. A few circa-1980s gay gags are thrown in for good measure, notably a lisping German named “Dutch” (played by the far-too-good-to-accept-such-material Alan Tudyk). But credit where it is due: Bay has at least abandoned the outright minstrelsy of streetwise Autobots Mudflap and Skid. (There are two poodle-sized imbecile-bots thrown in for comic effect, but they are, so to speak, race-neutral.)
One might argue that this is merely par for the course for Bay, and one would not be entirely wrong. Where the director truly begins to break new ground is in the character of Sam, who is—how to put this delicately?—an asshole. Gone is the eager, All-American boy of the prior movies, his enthusiasm curdled into a mixture of entitlement, self-pity, and belligerence. (Yes, he does rather seem to suit the political moment.) As the film opens, Sam is unemployed, a circumstance he accepts with decidedly less equanimity than he did his near-fatal travails in the previous two films. He’s angry at the employers who don’t hire him, at the girlfriend who has a good job, and at her smarmy boss (Patrick Dempsey), who, like everyone else in the film, eyes her with undisguised cupidity. Most of all he’s angry, as he gripes on countless occasions, that he hasn’t gotten enough credit for already saving the world twice.
The Transformers, too, have gotten surlier since their last outing. In particular, the Decepticons all seem to have sprung leaks in their mandibular hinges: their mouths ooze, slobber, and spray with a salivary vehemence that would shock H.R. Giger. I hadn’t seen such grotesque machinery since Pontiac discontinued the Aztek in 2005. On the battlefield, the brutality has been ramped up considerably, with Transformers good and bad alike spattering blood-like fluids as they are stabbed and dismembered. In one scene, an especially sanguinary Decepticon announces “We will kill them all!”—no wait, that’s a quote from Optimus Prime, heroic leader of the Autobots. How about the one who screams “You die!” as he savagely tears through his adversaries? No, that’s Optimus, too. And the bit near the end of the film, when someone flamboyantly executes a downed and helpless Transformer with a point-blank shot to the head? You guessed it, also Optimus. (The otherwise enthusiastic crowd at the screening I attended seemed a bit taken aback by this, with the few half-hearted claps quickly petering out.)
The last third or so of Dark of the Moon involves a battle for the city of Chicago that is notable in the extremity of its violence: screaming, fleeing civilians are blown to bits; the camera glides over toppled buildings and a busload of human corpses. The 9/11 echoes only grow louder once Sam and sundry commandos arrive on the scene—as, for instance, when our heroes, trapped on the upper floors of a smoldering, glass-and-steel skyscraper, are forced to jump out the windows. One need not consider such freighted imagery sacrosanct to feel that it probably doesn’t belong in a movie inspired by a bunch of Hasbro toys.
Indeed, Bay seems almost completely to have lost interest in the goofy premise undergirding the franchise—that legions of massive extraterrestrial robots would bother disguising themselves as backhoes and muscle cars in the first place. There are a smattering of de rigeur Transformations throughout the movie, but in this installment the mechanized protagonists spend less time morphing into mundane vehicles than they do piloting otherworldly ones: floating dreadnoughts the size of city blocks; a giant, burrowing contraption that looks like a cybernetic sandworm. The latter has stuck with me both as pure visual spectacle—it is a minor triumph of CGI—and as emblematic of the movie as a whole: massive, inexorable, and utterly devoid of humanity.