If the world needed another epic cinematic clash between Autobots and Decepticons (and that’s a Megatron-sized if), it certainly gets one in “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.” A considerably better modulated, more bearable experience than “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” Michael Bay’s latest gift to little boys and aspirin companies everywhere places ever more advanced CGI wizardry in service of an orgiastic pileup of crushed metal and cataclysmic mayhem. Climaxing with an hourlong setpiece that lays waste to most of Chicago, Paramount’s 3D tentpole should leave the summer B.O. competish in roughly the same condition.
Having himself expressed dissatisfaction with 2009’s hugely successful but widely reviled “Revenge of the Fallen,” mass-demolition maestro Bay has made conspicuous improvements with this third entry in the live-action franchise adapted from Hasbro’s popular toys and cartoons. Scripted by “Fallen” alum Ehren Kruger, “Dark of the Moon” boasts a more cohesive story, a more varied rhythm and a fresh target-audience lust object in the form of British model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, stepping in for the equally full-lipped Megan Fox.
Most notably, to maximize the benefits of the stereoscopic format, Bay seems to have placed a slightly higher value on visual coherence, holding the frame longer than usual, demonstrating more continuity in the editing, allowing the viewer to savor the cars’ 3D-enhanced transformations in tantalizing slow-motion, and including enough wide shots to allow for a more generous, less claustrophobic view of the action. The result may still be a big, bloated spectacle, but it’s a big, bloated spectacle you can just about follow.
After a prologue recapping the civil war that destroyed the Transformers’ home planet, Cybertron, the film launches into an unexpectedly stirring recap of America’s space program during the ’60s (assembled from archival footage and brief re-enactments processed to look retro-grainy). In short order, pic spins an intriguing counter-narrative to the 1969 moon landing, positing a top-secret NASA mission to investigate the remains of Sentinel Prime, once the leader of the Autobots and something of a father figure to Optimus Prime (voiced again by the gravelly Peter Cullen).
Meanwhile, hints of renewed activity among the evil Decepticons are just the thing to lure young Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf, more cranked up than ever) back into battle. Currently jobless in Washington, D.C., living with hot g.f. Carly (Huntington-Whiteley), and temporarily abandoned by Bumblebee, who’s off on exciting Autobot missions, Sam jumps into the fray and soon butts heads with national intelligence director Charlotte Mearing (Frances McDormand, bringing her usual no-bull attitude to the proceedings). Mearing in turn butts heads with Optimus Prime, who wants to revive Sentinel Prime from his ancient slumber.
Bad idea, as it turns out, paving the way for what looks like a crushing defeat for the Autobots. Pic pauses for a sobering moment of pre-apocalyptic dread, capped by the image of a single tear streaking down LaBeouf’s dirt-smudged cheek, before turning its attention to Chicago, where the Decepticons, no doubt having heard of the city’s superior tax credits, have set up their stronghold.
This climactic sequence, which occupies more than a third of the film’s 154-minute running time, amounts to some kind of exhausting tour de force; it just keeps going and going, punctuated by extended setpieces that occasionally stimulate the adrenaline. The most arresting of these finds Sam, Carly and various familiar faces in combat fatigues (Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson) trapped in a collapsing skyscraper; d.p. Amir Mokri’s camera weaves vertiginously in and out of the teetering building as the serpentine Shockwave, one of the Decepticons’ nastier creations, goes in for the kill.
Yet even as it showcases a new degree of directorial control, “Dark of the Moon” remains a live-action cartoon, more a delivery mechanism for testosterone and axle grease than a satisfying dramatic experience. Even LaBeouf’s pluck and Huntington-Whiteley’s carefully ogled derriere cannot lend much human interest to a scenario in which men and women are consistently dwarfed by the surrounding mayhem. Now as before, the cars are staggering feats of technical engineering diminished by the story’s insistence on saddling them with petulant human motives and clunky voiceover; three movies in, this franchise still can’t find anything more interesting for them to do except shout menacing catchphrases before ripping out each other’s cyber-guts.
The roles of FBI agent Simmons (John Turturro) and Sam’s parents (Kevin Dunn and Julie White) are appreciably reined in here, while John Malkovich and Patrick Dempsey deliver effective if one-note support as Sam’s new boss and romantic rival, respectively. Sound mix is topnotch, and Steve Jablonsky’s score supplies the requisite emotional surge even as its pulsing rhythms suggest a more bombastic variation on Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s theme for the recent Batman movies.
Pic makes more sophisticated and consistently noticeable use of 3D than most recent blockbusters, though foreground objects are often distractingly cut off by the edge of the frame. As reported in Variety, Paramount is releasing enhanced digital 3D prints in about 2,000 RealD theaters, hopefully nailing the ideal level of image brightness on display at the screening attended.