Dir: Michael Bay. US. 2011. 154mins


A few minor adjustments notwithstanding, Transformers: Dark Of The Moon is very much the same bucket of bolts that audiences have come to expect from this franchise from its first two instalments. And while that commitment to consistency will surely guarantee rousing box office, one wonders when director Michael Bay’s visually assaulting but tone-deaf films will start to lose their lustre with audiences. Nonetheless, Dark Of The Moon’s undeniably impressive 3D design will surely be praised at the expense of its rather pedestrian human underpinnings.

The cartoonish portrayals of good and evil feel painfully simplistic.

Opening June 29 across most of the globe, Dark Of The Moon should be an unstoppable commercial force. This Paramount offering will face some competition from the final movie in the Harry Potter series, which opens in little over two weeks, but it seems all but certain that Dark Of The Moon will dominate box office conversation for at least a month, aided by pricier 3D screenings.

Fresh out of college, Sam (Shia LaBeouf) discovers that the evil Decepticons are preparing to strike the heroic Autobots with the use of a mysterious technology hidden on an Autobot ship that crash-landed on the moon 50 years ago. With the assistance of his beautiful new girlfriend Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), Sam teams up with the Autobots to fight their robot enemies, whose plan involves bringing their home planet into Earth’s orbit and enslaving the human race.

Dark Of The Moon is the first Transformers movie to feature 3D, and considering reports that more than half of the film was shot in 3D (as opposed to retrofitted after the fact), the sci-fi action movie is indeed a high-water mark for the technology, making superb use of the extra dimension without compromising much in terms of overall image brightness or quality. Unfortunately, the technical achievements, including predictably stunning special effects, do nothing to help Bay’s glaring limitations as a storyteller.

Though Ehren Kruger’s screenplay starts off with a clever premise – the 1960s space race was actually an attempt to learn about the mysterious Autobot ship buried on the moon – soon Dark Of The Moon becomes the exact same unwieldy combination of corny humour, over-the-top heroics, sappy romantic interludes, and bombastic melodrama that made the first two movies in the series so lumbering.

At over two-and-a-half-hours, Dark Of The Moon is almost 10 minutes longer than either of the other Transformers movies, and once again Bay seems to feel that the extended running time justifies a pumped-up gravitas that the story’s thin emotional resonance can’t begin to justify.

LaBeouf has a winning nerdiness that can be appealing, but characters matter less as flesh-and-blood entities in the world of Transformers than they do as dramatic props that can run and yell amidst booming explosions. Bay has never seemed terribly invested in Sam, and so LaBeouf’s attempts to make the young man’s adventures a sort of coming-of-age tale feel hopelessly pointless.

But LaBeouf’s is far from the only mediocre performance in Dark Of The Moon. Replacing Megan Fox, model Huntington-Whiteley (making her acting debut) is treated as a cynical sex object in ways that even Fox didn’t have to endure. When Bay isn’t shooting her as if she’s the sleek auto in a car commercial, Huntington-Whiteley is left to her own devices, which leaves the novice looking very uncomfortable, particularly when Carly is put in mortal danger throughout the film’s second half.

As for the supporting cast, it’s a collection of familiar faces from the earlier films (such as John Turturro) and new cast members (John Malkovich, Frances McDormand) who seem to have been encouraged not to take any of this seriously. But rather than giving Dark Of The Moon a lively spark it so badly needs, these respected actors merely go through the motions, trying to be funny in broad, grating ways.

With each new Transformers film, Bay continues to up the stakes, putting Earth’s future more in the balance and threatening the safety of the Autobots. But while the design of the robots remains sleek, Bay has never figured out how to give them much personality, even in the case of the Autobots’ leader, Optimus Prime, who is voiced by Peter Cullen, the same actor from the original 1980s animated kids’ show.

Instead, the cartoonish portrayals of good and evil feel painfully simplistic, which is incredibly problematic during Dark Of The Moon’s extended finale, which consists of an epic life-or-death battle in Chicago between the outnumbered Autobots and the Decepticons.

Speaking of that final battle, Bay has mentioned in the press repeatedly that it was influenced by Black Hawk Down, and while Dark Of The Moon’s concluding hour has a similarly relentless war-zone atmosphere, there’s none of the feverish intensity or sickening claustrophobia that marked Ridley Scott’s action-drama. That said, Bay does pull out the stops on a few impressive set pieces, including an aerial chase and a dizzying skirmish inside a collapsing skyscraper.

But without much emotional pull, Dark Of The Moon comes across as little more than an excessively expensive and gaudy technical demonstration on the state of cutting-edge special effects in 2011. Now they need to be put in the hands of a filmmaker who can do something with these cool tools.   

Production companies: Hasbro, di Bonaventura Pictures, Tom DeSanto/Don Murphy Productions, Ian Bryce Productions

International distribution: Paramount Pictures

Producers: Don Murphy, Tom DeSanto, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Ian Bryce

Executive producers: Steven Spielberg, Michael Bay, Brian Goldner, Mark Vahradian

Screenplay: Ehren Kruger, based on Hasbro’s Transformers action figures

Cinematography: Amir Mokri

Production designer: Nigel Phelps

Editors: Roger Barton, William Goldenberg, Joel Negron

Music: Steve Jablonsky

Website: www.transformersmovie.com

Main cast: Shia LaBeouf, Josh Duhamel, John Turturro, Tyrese Gibson, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Patrick Dempsey, Kevin Dunn, Julie White, John Malkovich, Frances McDormand