The colossally destructive, almost comically long final battle sequence of Michael Bay’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Paramount Pictures) culminates in at least a temporary vanquishing of the earth-invading Decepticons by the more human-friendly Autobots. But the entirety of the film stands as proof of robotic life’s inevitable triumph over Homo sapiens. Faced with this quantity of hardware, this degree of technical sophistication, this goddamn many robots, organic life doesn’t stand a chance. We might as well amuse ourselves with tales of the war between two fictional robot races, now that Michael Bay has taken over the world.
It’s been a slow colonization, with each of the three successive Transformers films ratcheting up the onslaught. In the first, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), a high-school kid in love with his car, discovers that the black-and-yellow Chevy Camaro, Bumblebee, is really a giant sentient robot from the mechanical planet Cybertron. Sam gets drawn into the war between the planet’s two exiled races, who eventually trash downtown L.A. in their struggle for intergalactic domination. In the second film—well, pretty much the same thing happens again, except that Sam is now a college kid who’s definitively landed his dream girl (Megan Fox, who was fired from the franchise after jokingly comparing Bay to Hitler) and the monuments sacrificed to cosmic war are the Great Pyramids.
With Dark of the Moon, Bay takes the more-is-more aesthetic of the first two movies up another several notches. Forget about critic-proof; this movie is critic-obliterating. It’s a tank that flattens everything that gets in its way, including the audience. There is something awe-inspiring about Bay’s sheer commitment to scale—augmented now by that state-of-the-art anti-audience weapon, 3-D. But marveling at its grotesque gigantism doesn’t make this two-and-a-half-hour-long movie any less dull.
The dullness kicks in almost immediately after the appealingly loopy cold open, which posits a paranoid alternate version of the moon landing. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin have secretly been sent to investigate an alien spacecraft that’s crashed on the lunar surface. (The real Aldrin appears in a cameo later in the film, somewhat surprisingly given the astronaut’s history of run-ins with moon-landing conspiracy theorists.) The craft’s occupant is Sentinel Prime (voiced, pleasingly, by Leonard Nimoy), an aged Autobot leader thought dead in the war that destroyed their planet. The alien is brought back to Earth, where he eventually meets up with his successor Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen, who’s been voicing this character ever since his early days as a TV-cartoon hero.). After some nattering about who should possess the Matrix of Leadership (which is not a managerial manual but a kind of airborne power-conferring crystal), the two Primes join forces to foil what has to be one of the worst-thought-through evil schemes in movie-villain history: something about towing the planet Cybertron close to Earth and enslaving the human population to rebuild it, as if it were an offshore oil rig?
Sam, now a recent college graduate, has been unable to find a job, so he’s living off the ample salary (and other ample gifts) of his English girlfriend, Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, a Victoria’s Secret model whose blank moue recalls Guess? Jeans model and onetime Mickey Rourke paramour Carré Otis). Carly works for a car-collecting billionaire (Patrick Dempsey) who may have even more nefarious plans afoot than just stealing Sam’s girlfriend. John Malkovich, Ken Jeong, Josh Duhamel, John Turturro, and Frances McDormand also mill in and out as … people who react to the giant battling robots and, less often, to one anothers’ lines.
Call me carbon-based, but I can’t for the life of me keep straight which of the warring vehicle-based automatons is which: Megatron, Starscream, Ironside, Ratchet, the millionaire, his wife. (Do female machines exist on the planet Cybertron? Never mind; don’t answer that.) These massive machines duke it out in the foreground while tiny people—some in high-tech wingsuits, some in high heels and tight jeans—scurry through the wreckage at their feet. The endless action climax includes a falling-skyscraper scene that casually plunders 9/11 for visual references (floating scraps of paper, falling office chairs) without paying the obligatory tax of pathos or political allegory such scenes usually demand. At one point, a character refers to downtown Chicago, where the alien battle is taking place, as “Ground Zero.” Ten years after the fall of the Twin Towers, the attack, like the moon landing, has become a source of stock historical references.
Occasionally, a nifty action idea bobs to the surface, like some business involving the leads’ slide down the outside of a sharply canted glass building. (In this movie, even a brief nod to the laws of physics counts as subtlety.) But everything is soon pounded to rubble under the Volkswagen-sized fists of Bay’s mechanized heroes and villains. Somewhere deep into the perhaps 40-minute-long crescendo of action that ends this movie, I began to experience a dazed sense of submission, a cowed respect for our new CGI overlords. Other sci-fi franchises—the Terminator series most notably—pit vulnerable but canny humans against soulless time-traveling robots in a struggle for supremacy. Transformers takes the struggle to the next, posthuman level. On Earth as on Cybertron, and certainly at the box office, the robots have already won.