Has it ever been observed that bad things come in threes? It's certainly been proven here, if not before. The overall scuttlebutt I'd heard regarding this third installment in the pointless Transformers franchise was that it was "best of the three, but still bad." I can't even muster the charity to call this the best of anything.
It starts well, or at least as well as could be hoped for, with a reenactment of the Apollo 11 moon landing, now reimagined as a clandestined mission to discover the nature of an apparent crashed spacecraft on the lunar surface. It's unquestionable that part of the scene's general coolness is co-opted from the very genuine coolness of the 1960s NASA program, which achieved wonders far beyond anything this film has imagined using far more primitive technology. There's a sense of grand mystery that we know will not pay off, and indeed it doesn't, as the film swiftly moves on to present-day scenes of jokey robots cutting up in silly accents and ostensible hero Sam Witwicky complaining about his job prospects. Megan Fox is no more, and her detractors might see her replacement in the series as one of its alleged improvements, but for the fact that new girl Rosie Huntington-Whitely serves the same purpose as nearly all girlfriends in action flicks, which is to get captured and threatened, and show the audience her shapely ass before we're actually introduced to her face. Michael Bay's classy cinema marches on.
The plot, such as it is, involves attempts to retrieve crucial technology from the moon crash site, with which Decepticon leader Megatron hopes to build a huge teleportation device for use in enslaving mankind. This paper-thin story for some reason takes two and a half hours to tell. The first half of the film is aggressively irritating, the second is eye-rollingly ham-fisted and obvious. Character scenes in the first half are angular, jagged and ugly in construction, cutting across the narrative intrusively and with all the grace of freight trains blundering in perpendicular courses across five-lane interstates. Angles, performances, scripting and editing conspire to indicate that each and every speaking individual is insane, and that the order to roll camera was consistently preceeded by an order for everyone present, actors and crew alike, to roll naked in huge mounds of cocaine. Cartoonish attempts at satire on office politics abound, which is what everyone needs and expects in a film about giant robots beating on each other. With supporting players including John Tuturro, John Malkovich, Frances McDormand and Alan Tudyk, this might be the most thoroughly wasted cast since Con Air.
The second half is basically non-stop action, proving, just in case it needed to be proved, that "non-stop action" is not by any means an automatic compliment. Bay has no instinct for when he's being cheap and clunky. One wonders if he practiced his art in years past by shooting those melodramatic military recruiting ads they used to run in front of theatrical presentations, where Marines fought CG lava monsters and the like. One gets the sense that a good half of the finale could've been assembled from bits and pieces of previous Bay efforts; does any single film need quite this many shots of helicopters backlit by the setting sun? There's almost a sense of desperation here, as the script piles on the references in an attempt to achieve geek cred by proxy, with nods to everything from Army of Darkness to Star Trek II, with Leonard Nimoy reprising his most famous line. And really, Highlander? Did they really think that they were doing themselves a great favor by adding a Highlander quote into this looming catastrophe? When not being referential, the script is full of statements like "Decepticons, defend the pillar!" (If he wasn't specific, the Autobots might defend the pillar by mistake.) At least Bay seems to have realized the value of wider angles, as it's now mildly easier to keep track of the geography as the robots flop about like overdesigned bear traps attempting to mate, though the transformations themselves are as ridiculous as ever, and the robots performing them still mostly indistinguishable from one another. More than once a battle concluded with me being totally unaware of which side had emerged the victor. At least in the cartoon, lame as it was, you could tell the bots apart at a glance.
There is one significant factor, which emerges at the end, which might motivate me to deem this the best of the series: the strong implication that there might not be another. Please, Michael Bay, don't make this another case of false hope.
-review by Matt Murray