By now, I think we all know what to expect from one of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies. Big robots, juvenile humour, things exploding, and Shia LaBeouf. But since this is now the third (and most likely final) chapter in Bay’s Hasbro triptych, he’s been faced with the tricky task of upstaging himself.
Dark Of The Moon, therefore, means even bigger robots, extra, sticky helpings of juvenile humour, and more things exploding than ever. Oh, and Shia LaBeouf again, of course. And just to underline that this third movie is epic, in uppercase, in bold type, Dark Of The Moon is in 3D.
Unfortunately, because Dark Of The Moon is bigger than the previous two, it’s also even longer – from portentous beginning to solemn end, it clocks in at 154 of your Earth minutes. That’s only a shade shorter than Andrey Tarkovsky’s philosophical space opus, Solaris, and even longer than Terrence Malick’s similarly beard-stroking cosmic drama, The Tree Of Life.
Having sat through all 154 minutes, it’s still not obvious to me why Bay and his team of crack filmmakers made the film so exhaustingly long. What makes its length doubly mystifying is that we all know that, sooner or later, a whole load of evil Decepticons are going to appear, and that the virtuous Autobots will eventually have to get round to punching their heads off.
Yet it takes Michael Bay what feels like an eternity to get to that robot-on-robot action. For the first half of the film, Bay constructs a needlessly intricate web of characters old and new, establishing motivations that will later prove meaningless.
The set-up, which you’ll probably have the gist of if you’ve seen a Dark Of The Moon trailer or two, is this. NASA’s 1969 trip to the moon was a pretext for getting its hands on alien technology, which crash-landed on the dark side of the lunar surface. Having hauled some of it back to Earth over a series of missions, the US now holds the key that could unlock a full-scale Decepticon invasion.
Meanwhile, unlikely hero Sam Witwicky (LaBeouf) has a new girlfriend, Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley). It’s barely explained where Sam’s previous girlfriend, Mikaela went, and it’s made obvious early on that Carly’s here for two reasons: to look pretty in dramatic scenes, and to scream and look anxious during action sequences.
After an urgent pre-credits sequence that takes in conspiracy theories, two iffily-portrayed US presidents and dormant robots, Dark Of The Moon then coasts along for what feels like an eternity.
There are some feeble attempts at comedy, one of which is odiously homophobic. John Turturro reprises his role as Simmons for no apparent reason, along with several other decent actors in flimsy parts. Frances McDormand joins the cast as the US Secretary of Defense, while John Malkovich shows up as a perma-tanned businessman who, in one of the film’s more bizarre scenes, challenges Bumblebee to a kung-fu fight.
It all drags on for far too long, and as the film ticked past its one hour mark, my attention began to wander.
It doesn’t help that Sam’s character’s a noisy, aggressive and generally dislikeable character. We’re meant to care whether or not he’s going to end his three-month long period of unemployment. We’re meant to care about his relationship with Carly, who’s caught the eye of wealthy car collector and boss, Dylan. The problem is, we don’t. We just want to see giant alien robots invade, and then have lots of stuff explode in slow motion.
Much has been said already about the merits (or otherwise) of Rosie Huntington-Whiteley’s acting. A former lingerie model, it’s fair to say that she’s not going to win an Oscar for her performance in Dark Of The Moon, but neither is it the inept disaster that some had predicted following the first snippets of footage that appeared online a few weeks ago.
Huntingdon-Whitely isn’t a natural actress, but Dark Of The Moon doesn’t appear to have time for nuanced acting anyway. Malkovich’s performance is thoroughly bizarre. Comic actor Ken Jeong, whose appearance is mercifully brief, is even worse. Patrick Dempsey and a returning Tyrese Gibson are stock military heroes. And then there’s Alan Tudyk, whose character is called Dutch but appears to be Austrian or German.
And then, just when all seems lost for Dark Of The Moon, stuff starts blowing up. Giant Decepticon war machines begin laying waste to cities, and only Optimus Prime and his fellow Autobots can prevent them from total control.
The integration of live-action footage and CG is genuinely stunning here, and even the use of 3D is, dare I say it, extremely effective. One extended set-piece in particular, which involves giant robot tentacles, a falling skyscraper and lots of hapless humans, is remarkable.
Michael Bay may not be able to direct a dramatic or comedic scene to save his life (he’s far too restless to even keep his camera still for a few seconds), but he’s really learned how to stage a fight between big metal warriors. Having learned from the nausea-inducing shaky-cam of the first Transformers, Dark Of The Moon features some really rather good moments of improbably combat, with the kind of dismemberments and decapitations you’d expect to see in a Japanese chanbara movie.
Dark Of The Moon, then, is a film of two halves, the first worth two stars for its sea of two-dimensional characters and dull storytelling, the second worth three for its almost ceaseless, baroque action.
Of course, if you’re not interested in big brawling robots, and want a film about people you actually care about, you won’t like Dark Of The Moon, but then again, you surely knew that already.
Quite why Bay keeps us hanging on for so long before finally bringing on the explosions is, as I said near the start of this review, mystifying. But it’s fair to say that, when they do arrive, your patience will be rewarded. As Brian Cox’s character in the movie Adaptation once remarked, “The last act makes a film. Wow them in the end, and you got a hit.”
Bay’s effectively made two films in one with Dark Of The Moon, but at least he had the sense to put the decent part last, and it’s that dizzying second half that makes the tedium of the first just about worth sticking with.