The midtown-Manhattan crowd — real people, not movie reviewers, except for this one — stood patiently in line for a 12:15 a.m. screening of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the third in Michael Bay’s ear-, eye- and block-buster series based on the line of Hasbro robot toys. When the feature began, a half hour late, the audience showed its fondness for the material by saluting each appearance of the friendly yellow car-bot Bumblebee, not with rowdy shouts but with courteous applause, as if after a sharp volley at Wimbledon. A few whoops greeted the 3-D IMAX leveling of Chicago. And when the movie ended, about an hour before dawn, the admirers let out a few decorous cheers. They sounded less like red-meat fanboys than connoisseurs at a wine tasting.
The critics’ reaction has been more tentative. They decried the first Transformers (2007) and its sequel Revenge of the Fallen (2009), which together earned more than $1.5 billion at the worldwide box office. They charged Bay with failing all conventional (perhaps archaic) tests for coherence of storytelling and mise-en-scène. He sends the camera scampering in virtually every shot, even those lasting a split second, and he seems to think that matching them — locating a fixed point of view, a law that directors have followed since the earliest features — is for wimps. Reviewers of the first two films got so vexed by Bay’s eroticized violence, his car lust and carnage, his nonstop aural and cinematic assaults, that they saw his success in apocalyptic terms, as the end of movies as we once loved them and the triumph of a virulent new strain: robotulism. T3 screenwriter Ethan Kroeger mimics the typical critique of a Bay film when he has John Malkovich, as the hero’s epicurean boss, say, “You fall into a life-sucking abyss. It’s a visual and therefore visceral betrayal.”
With T3, many reviewers have retreated from their previous horrified stance to baffled resignation. I’m with them. I acknowledge that, for good or ill, Bay is the soul of a new machine, the poet of post-human cinema, the CEO of Hollywood’s military-entertainment complex. T3is the movie equivalent of an ’80s thrash-metal concert (not Megadeth but Megatron), with bits of spoken exposition inserted into the action scenes like the lead singer’s mumbled comments between songs. And yes, for Bay to give Optimus Prime and the other good Autobots blue eyes and Megatron’s evil Decepticons red eyes smacks of aesthetic fascism, but in a helpful way: how else are novice viewers to tell them apart? It’s all part of the director’s grand, lubricious vision — what we might call Bay-watch.
Plot synopsis: Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), blah blah, Optimus and Megatron knocking heads again, new Autobot named Sentinel (voiced by Leonard Nimoy), secret government project run by a bossy woman (Frances McDormand, more or less playing Hillary Clinton if she ran the CIA, and if you hate Hillary Clinton), new girlfriend Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, whose generic blond sexiness makes her both a fembot and Playboy Femlin), big bot battle that devastates downtown Chicago (notably the aptly named Wacker Drive), blah blah, bring in the U.S. military and somehow let Sam command them to save the world — if he can first get Carly out of that Decepticon car that is trying to fondle her with its grabby tentacles.
To the first two movies’ clinking, clanking, clattering collections of caliginous junk, T3 adds what has become a go-to staple of Hollywood fantasy: the retro-conspiracy theory. Recent films have invented Jews who killed Hitler, X-Men who solved the Cuban missile crisis, Watchmen who insured a third term for Richard Nixon and two aliens, in Paul and Super 8, held captive since the ’50s in Area 51. Bay’s movie plays on suspicions about the U.S. moon landings, already voiced in Peter Hyams’ 1978 Capricorn One and soon to be elaborated on in the speculative horror film Apollo 18. T3 proposes that an alien race, the Autobots, crash-landed on the moon before we did and that the discovery of the crash stoked America’s Apollo expeditions, whose astronauts found the Autobot remnants on the dark side. The real Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, plays himself, either to validate the claim or to pick up what I hope was a fat check for a few days’ demeaning work.
T3, like Super 8, has Steven Spielberg in a guiding producer capacity, and his involvement with the two films shows how neatly he has bifurcated aspects of his early films. J.J. Abrams, Super 8‘s writer-director, ran variations on the awe and aw-shucks sci-fi tone of Close Encounters and E.T., while Bay updates the monster and destructo-fest elements of Jaws and 1941. When T3 escalates into soldier mode, Bay also appropriates bits of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and War of the Worlds. But he’s an equal-opportunity ransacker of movies. He throws in images of JFK, Nixon and Barack Obama, à la Zelig and Forrest Gump; stocks his bot bestiary with “cute” critters that cross Muppets with Gremlins; gives one of the bad bots a toadying, Gollum-like sidekick; borrows Army reconnaissance tropes from The Hurt Locker; convenes a reunion of Coen-brothers cast members McDormand, Malkovich and John Turturro; lets The Hangover‘s Ken Jeong pad his career-long résumé of grotesque Asian Americans; and includes nearly as many toy-auto product placements as Cars 2.
The Coenheads seem to have enjoyed their payday; and Alan Tudyk registers momentarily as a gay German (all stereotypes intact). But acting is irrelevant in such a venture, since it consumes precious seconds of a 2 hr. 37 min. tower of testosterone. Playing on the violent auto-eroticism of American males, with their vehicles both as sex objects (adolescence) and as smashable playthings (infancy), T3exists to bump chests and chassis and to blow stuff up. In these endeavors it can be almost enthralling. You’ll see a sensational highway chase in which Optimus reconstitutes himself to catch the falling Sam, and skydivers in bat-web suits, and a skyscraper calamity that is cool enough to evoke the Tower of Pisa more than the World Trade Center on 9/11. Militia types will also enjoy the spectacle at the Lincoln Memorial, where Megatron, high on power, pulverizes the huge sculpture to make room for himself on Abe’s marble seat.
Critics are also irrelevant to Transformers: Dark of the Moon. This review isn’t meant to send people to the movie or keep them away. In fact, the scorekeepers at the various sites that rate critics’ enthusiasm for a film shouldn’t even try to elicit a Pass or Fail grade from me on T3. I’m a fascinated, stupefied outsider. Just mark me Present.