Transformers: Dark of the Moon boggles the eyes and muddles the brain. In the third and presumably last installment of the monumentally successful franchise, director Michael Bay goes all out to make what has to be the most action-intensive movie in Hollywood history. The last hour of this long (150 minutes) picture is one huge set piece of destruction and mayhem — Chicago decimated by a war between giant robots — done on a scale you’ve never seen before. When the carnage is over, you’re left wondering how the city survived the filming.
You also leave the theater thinking you might have suffered a tiny bit of brain damage. Bay, who had promised to atone for the mess of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, has talent to burn in terms of craftsmanship, and he comes up with scenarios — such as a skyscraper that slowly breaks in half, causing the people inside to slide around as it gradually topples — that are undeniably jaw-dropping. You can’t believe your eyes. Even better, Bay milks the sequence for all it’s worth, letting it go on for a good 10 minutes. It’s a remarkable and exciting chunk of filmmaking — genuinely awe-inspiring.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon has a lot more of that stuff. There is a new Decepticon — one of the bad robots, as opposed to the good Autobots — that burrows beneath the ground like the sand worms in Dune. He is a gigantic, seemingly undefeatable villain, and the computer-generated effects (courtesy of Industrial Light and Magic) are utterly seamless. The technical feats of the film should not be taken for granted — they are too good — and the movie, which was mostly shot with 3D cameras, is eye popping in the best way imaginable (Bay also delivers his requisite highway-chase sequence, a trademark of all his movies, and it is thunderous). With this movie, Bay is throwing down a gauntlet: Just try and top this.
But, oh, what a hollow experience Dark of the Moon is! Bay is so afraid of boring his audience, he pitches every scene at the same high volume right from the first shot, and the effect is exhausting. When Sam (Shia LaBeouf), three months out of college and looking for work, is going on job interviews early in the film, the scenes are paced so rapidly and cut so quickly that the effect is oppressive. LaBeouf has also never seemed quite so arrogant and full of himself; this once-likable young actor has let his success go to his head, and the result is repellent: Sam has lost all his charm.
The movie surrounds him with equally shallow, unengaging characters who sport unnatural tans and are constantly shouting at each other. Sam’s new girlfriend Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), replacing the exiled Megan Fox after she said some bad things about Bay, is ridiculously beautiful and wholly unbelievable. Their relationship is supposed to form the core of Dark of the Moon, but you never buy them as a couple for a second. Bay casts his actresses based on their looks, not talents, and the tall, statuesque Huntington-Whiteley comes off as a Playboy bunny with a perpetually dazed look. When she’s standing next to LaBeouf, she appears to be a high-priced call girl who has been hired by a dork.
The plot of Transformers: Dark of the Moon revolves around a discovery Neil Armstrong made on his 1969 moon landing that was kept secret from the public: The remains of Sentinel Prime (voiced by Leonard Nimoy), the former leader of the Autobots during their war with the Decepticons. Both sides of the giant robot squads on Earth want to reach him, and when he is brought back to Earth and resuscitated, the movie does deliver some juicy twists (the script was written by Ehren Kruger). The robots get a lot more screen time in Dark of the Moon, and they eventually take over the movie, at the expense of protagonists such as Frances McDormand’s no-nonsense government security agent. McDormand is such a good actress, she is able to craft an actual character in the middle of all this nonsense. But in the film’s last hour, she, along with the returning John Turturro as a former FBI agent and John Malkovich as Sam’s new boss, are relegated to the sidelines and practically forgotten. Patrick Dempsey gets more to do as a wealthy entrepreneur with a secret, but if you stop to think about his character’s motivations for just one second, you realize how utterly ridiculous they are. The usually funny comedian Ken Jeong shows up briefly in a critical role, but he overacts so breathlessly I could barely understand anything he was saying.
You can see Bay’s attempts to invest the movie with human protagonists worth caring about, but he’s too preoccupied with his mechanical toys to pay them much mind (Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson are once again relegated to faceless soldiers), and Bay’s attempts at humor are embarrassing. Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which boasts some impressive 3D work (including a stunning parachuting sequence that tickles your stomach like an amusement-park ride), is much better than the previous sequel, Revenge of the Fallen. But the movie still plays as a demo reel for what contemporary CGI work is capable of achieving. Bay simply gives you too much eye candy — too much of everything — until you start to feel beaten up. The picture is destined to make a fortune, but it leaves you completely empty and drained instead of exhilarated. Bay is his own worst enemy: He wanted to make the biggest, loudest, most spectacular sci-fi action adventure ever, but his creation got away from him. Transformers: Dark of the Moon isn’t a movie; it’s a monster.
Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, Patrick Dempsey, Frances McDormand, John Turturro, Ken Jeong, Peter Cullen (voice), Leonard Nimoy (voice).
Director: Michael Bay.
Screenwriter: Ehren Krugen.
Producers: Ian Bryce, Tom DeSanto, Lorenzo di Bonaventura.
A Paramount Pictures release. Running time: 150 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, intense action.Opens Tuesday night at area theaters.