The two hours and 34 minutes of Transformers: Dark of the Moon are loaded with unimaginable violence, but only one spasm left the audience at the theater where I watched it speechless.
They cheered the robot-on-robot slugfests, rendered in terabyte-straining slow motion and splashing Decepticon blood (oil?). The destruction of Chicago — complete with the skulls of vaporized passers-by rattling down Michigan Avenue like so many soccer balls — received a good number of OH SHITs. But when Megatron walked right up to the Lincoln Memorial, pounded Abe to pieces, and plopped down on his chair? No one knew what to say.
That the damage done to Honest Abe was the product of a robot civil war can be viewed as irony, or at least what passes for irony in a film as unironic as this one. But it's also a reminder of how ballsy Michael Bay's Transformers series is — exploiting America's iconic tragedies for maximum impact. This time around, we have bodies falling through the air over a wrecked city declared “Ground Zero”; heroes intoning, “Let's roll” before strapping up and heading into battle; even a gorgeous re-creation of the 1986 Challenger disaster, right down to that lopsided fireball blooming over the ocean.
The best part of this third installment, in fact, takes another signature moment in American history and repurposes it: According to Dark of the Moon, the Apollo program was established by JFK to investigate an Autobot ship that crash-landed on the moon in the early 1960s. (There's even a Kennedy cameo, though he's spared a revisionist Dealey Plaza in which the Lincoln Continental turns into Megatron.) The prologue's moon-landing sequence (in glorious 3-D) is an exceptional reminder that for all Bay's blowhard douchebagginess, he's a masterful maker of images.
The loving 3-D shot of Rosie Huntington-Whiteley's unearthly ass that immediately follows is an exceptional reminder that he's still a blowhard douchebag, and that the rest of the movie is unlikely to meet the level of its first scene. Amid the windy speeches, fiery explosions, exposition dumps, and product placements, there are a few treats to help the intelligent moviegoer — drawn to Dark of the Moon by peer pressure or kitsch factor or an insatiable desire for overstimulation — through the ordeal.
Of course, there are the supporting actors. There really should be some Oscars for the secondary players in Michael Bay films, because no one outside of maybe Woody Allen lets his below-the-line stars run so wild. Ignore Huntington-Whiteley (who replaces Megan Fox) and Shia LaBeouf, who are just there because the movie needs a hero and a fuck-doll to inspire him. Instead, enjoy the Bayian riches of the A-plus backups, including Julie White as Shia's wisecracking mom, John Turturro as a madcap ex-spy, and a bronzed John Malkovich as a — I don't even remember, he plays some asshole at the company where Shia gets a job, and is good at it. Best of all is Frances McDormand as a brusque intelligence chief; she took the job, she told GQ, because her teenage son begged her to, and because it allowed her to play silly scenes with her old friend Turturro, with whom she hasn't appeared, absurdly, since 1991. (One would assume it also paid well.)
Plus there's Santiago Calatrava's gorgeous wing of the Milwaukee Art Museum, here made into a vintage car showroom. And 3-D sparks from destroyed choppers floating into the audience. And Buzz Aldrin! And, best/worst of all, the psychosexual nightmare of Huntington-Whitely trapped inside a Decepticon, being fondled by robotic tentacles — a queasy and innovative mélange of violations, straight out of some kind of Cronenmanga I'd sure like to read.
The plot? Come on, are you really going to do this to me? I didn't even bother to see Transformers: The Second One, although it is possible I watched a great deal of it, without sound, on the airplane screen of a passenger sitting a row ahead of me that one time. Something about the moon and a space-time bridge and a new Transformer, Sentinel Prime, who is basically Optimus Prime's dad (although they're robots, so it's unclear how that works). Sentinel is voiced by Leonard Nimoy, appropriately sepulchral. A bunch of robots fight a bunch of other robots, and you can't tell which are the good robots and which are the bad robots because they all look alike, you robot racist.
The people who you think might be evil turn out to be evil. Humanity triumphs. Optimus Prime gives a speech. Chicago burns. Your brain cells perish by the thousands, their howls of agony lost to the cacophony inside your skull. Vast quantities of money, roughly equal to the GDP of Tonga, travel from America's wallets into the coffers of Paramount. Rosie Huntington-Whiteley's ass returns to its home planet to report that Earth is ripe for the plucking. Enjoy it while you can!