The latest film in the Transformers franchise starts promisingly with an alternative history/conspiracy plot about the Space Race and the 1969 NASA moon landing. What unravels is then a familiarly convoluted and busy spectacle film about yet another clash between the rival robot alien Transformers involving their human allies, with Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) once more coming to the rescue on the side of the Autobots. Director Michael Bay and his production team have put an extraordinary amount of work into the CGIs, 3D and sound design, which may have been extremely effective if he calmed down his trademark rapid editing to allow the audience to actually focus on what is going on. Unfortunately this rarely happens. There are a couple of good scenes later in the film – an exciting skydive and an inventive sequence set inside a building about to topple over – but they are too little too late and then followed by an unengaging lengthy finale that obliterates any good faith.
In other words, Bay has delivered another empty spectacle that is overlong and mostly tedious. For a film centred on action set pieces it contains a lot of dull exposition and the humour is either cheesy or very simple innuendo, based around the fact that Sam’s new girlfriend Carly Spencer (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) is attractive in the most conventional sense. And we’re not talking fun, cheeky ‘Nice beaver’ à la The Naked Gun innuendo here either, we’re talking about stuff that Benny Hill would have dismissed as banal. The performances are yet again on the same level as pantomime theatre with lots of shouting, Gilmore Girls-style rapid dialogue and characters making ‘amusing’ asides to themselves.
If nothing else Transformers: Dark of the Moon may one day becoming a teaching tool to demonstrate how ideology is expressed through mass entertainment cinema, in the same way that English students are encouraged to read tabloid newspapers to learn about persuasive language. The hyper-conservative agenda in this film is so pronounced that it almost renders parodies like Team America: World Police redundant. Like the previous films in the franchise, it positions the military as the good guys who know what’s best while the government characters are all bureaucrats who stand in the way of what needs to be done. Soldiers are good ol’ country boys while the government, which in this film is firmly identified as the Obama Administration, gives in to the enemy to allow ‘them’ to take over the planet. Not only does this film resurrect old Cold War red menace paranoia to paint the villainous Decepticons as Commies, but it also evokes a lot of contemporary xenophobia towards a vague notion of what lies in the Middle East. The final touch is just how gleefully and violently the Autobots kill their enemies. Since when were the good guys so driven by revenge and a desire to extract as much suffering on the bad guys as possible?
Maybe this is all meant to be a self-reflexive exercise in superficial spectacle. Just as some commentators have argued this is the case for Sucker Punch, perhaps they will also for Transformers: Dark of the Moon using the way it repeats the famous Jurassic Park ‘Objects in mirror are closer than they appear’ visual gag as evidence. Early in the film when John Malkovich’s character makes a crack about a visual and visceral betrayal, it does sound like a deliberately self-aware moment. Is it all an elaborate post-modern joke? Otherwise, we have to accept that Transformers: Dark of the Moon is little more than a ‘leave your brain at the door’ film for audiences with the dubious ability to stop themselves from thinking. The problem is, such films still need to be exciting, engaging and entertaining and not boring, annoying and embarrassing.