A lot of people paid a lot of money to hate Transformers 2. The movie made enough money for Michael Bay to bathe in the blood of supermodels every hour, for the rest of his life. But people loathed it.
So with Transformers 3, Michael Bay has made a movie about how dumb you were to hate Transformers 2, and how much you hurt his feelings by dissing his movie. Partly, he does this by making a note-for-note remake of Transformers 2. And partly, he does this by lecturing the audience about how unappreciated he feels.
The good news is, Transformers 3 is a better movie than Transformers 2. But it's not as good as the first Transformers, by any stretch of the imagination. Giant robotic spoilers ahead!
So the theme of Transformers: Dark of the Moon is not by any means subtle, because well, it's Michael Bay. The whole film is about how people do not appreciate Shia LaBeouf's character, even though he saved the world twice. The government people, including a stubbornly non-kittenish Frances McDormand, don't appreciate Shia. Random soldiers don't appreciate Shia. The people holding interviews for crappy entry-level jobs don't appreciate Shia. Even Shia's supermodel girlfriend kind of thinks he's a loser who should get a job. Why don't they understand how special Shia is?
The actual conflict of the film is the opposite of Transformers 2 — in the second movie, everybody desperately wanted Shia to come back and save the world again, but he was too busy being in college and having a normal life. It was your standard "I want to be normal even though I'm really awesome" storyline. But this time around, Shia desperately wants to help save the world one more time, but everybody keeps telling him to go have a normal life and stop trying to help. Shia is forced to go through a slew of humiliating job interviews and stuff, and even his giant robot buddies are too busy blowing up Libya and Eastern Europe to tell him how great he is. Worst of all, Shia's supermodel girlfriend is kind of flirting with her ultra-rich boss, played by Dr. McDreamy from Grey's Anatomy.
The main emotion that comes off Shia LaBoeuf, from the first frame to the last, is a bitchy, indignant rage, interspersed with feeble attempts at ingratiation. Mutt is pissed. This is way worse than the time those monkeys kept grabbing his butt. This time, it's his self-worth and his ability to abseil off a robot's neck to glory that are being called into question, over and over again. Don't they know he got the Matrix of motherfucking Leadership last time around? And a medal from the motherfucking president?
After a few hours of seeing Shia get dissed, overlooked and mistreated, the message becomes clear: Shia, as always, is a stand-in for Michael Bay. And Bay is showing us just what it felt like to deal with the ocean of Haterade — the snarking, the Razzie Award, the mean reviews — that Revenge of the Fallen unleashed.
In case it's not clear enough, Bay throws in another clue: John Turturro's character, who was working in a deli in the second movie, is fabulously rich in the third. He has written a tell-all book about aliens, which everybody dismisses as just crackpot conspiracy theories — but it's still made him millions and millions of dollars. Just the same way that everybody dismisses Michael Bay's last film, even though it made obscene quantities of money.
And because everybody just wants Shia to get a real job and have a life, instead of trying to recapture his former world-saving glory, the entire world risks being destroyed. Because Shia is the only one who can save the day.
It's not really a spoiler to say that the final hour of this film includes a series of scenes where absolutely everybody stands around saying how wrong they were to ignore Shia, and how awesome Shia really is.
That's the reaction Michael Bay is envisioning you'll have by the end of this film: a deep remorse that you ever doubted him, and a profound appreciation for his contribution to the continued awesomeness of the world.
(Meanwhile, the actual plot of Transformers 3 is basically the same as Transformers 2. There's an ancient, super-powerful Transformer, who knows secrets. And there's a super-powerful piece of Cybertronian technology, which will destroy the sun or cause the sky to blow up or something. And Sam is the only one who can save the day. A lot of the same story beats happen, in roughly the same order, in both films.)
To prove to you that you love him, Michael Bay knows that he must turn everything up to 11,000 this time around. He has to blaze a pure, bright after-image of his Bay-ness in your mind, so that you walk out of the theater blinking and spitting up lung pieces and knowing what the fuck Michael Bay is all about. Your eyeballs will be twice as bludgeoned. Your adult diaper will be twice as heavily laden! This time, it'll be in 3D! All of the excesses from the previous two films will be doubly in excess — except for the hip hop Autobots, who are gone.
He does this in two ways:
1) Delivering a few of the smoothest, most gorgeous action scenes he's ever created. There's about 30 minutes of stunning fight choreography, urban destruction and joyriding, buried in this two hour, 34-minute movie. You could edit TF3 down to a 90-minute action film, and most people would agree that it's a decent movie. (Forget the Director's Cut. For movies like this, we need the Bathroom Attendant's Cut.)
Several of TF3's action scenes are definitely better than the confusing mess that was every part of Transformers 2 except for the forest duel. There's a sequence where a giant robot snake tentacle-porns a building that Shia LaBeouf is in, which steals brazenly from Cloverfield and Inception, and yet still manages to make you hold your breath with its audacity and vividness. (On the other hand, large chunks of action are still confusing, nonsensical and bloated.)
2) Making every other part of the movie as obnoxious as possible — and making the transitions as jarring as he can. TF3 feels like three different movies, edited together by a lemur on provigil. There's the weirdest, most unfunny comedy you've ever seen. There's an incredibly solemn political thriller where people uncover the truth about the Apollo Moon landings, and debate the role in our society of giant robots that turn into cars and trucks. And then there's a bloated but occasionally fantastic action film. None of these three films feels like they belong together, but Bay also works hard to heighten the discord.
Why does Bay bog down his pretty serviceable action movie with long stretches of brain-meltingly unfunny comedy, and idiot plot wrangling? It's partly because he wants you to love his work for what it is — all of his work, including all the horrible parts. And it's partly because he knows he's making a kids' movie, and he thinks kids enjoy uncomfortable jokes about gay toilet sex.
But still — the transitions between unfunny humor, heavy-handed exposition and occasionally awesome action are so abrupt and weird, that they draw attention to themselves. It's almost like Bay wants us to witness his movie's tone in mid-transition, like a mechanism caught halfway between a robot gladiator and a mid-priced family sedan.
Because the awkward lurches from one type of movie to another are the message.
Michael Bay wants to slam you off your axis, like a building being knocked sideways by a prehensile robot penis from outer space. So he can awaken you to the truth. When Asian men thrust their crotches in your face — in 3D — while screaming "Deep Wang! Deeeep WANG!", or Alan Tudyk (!) impersonates a gay ex-Nazi manservant in a weird suit, you are being reprogrammed. Michael Bay is flooding your brain with random input, so that a parade of colorful anthropomorphic vehicles can roll into the center of your cortex and turn into a whirl of CG tubes.
It's not an accident that this film draws way more attention to the process of robotic transformation than previous films. By now, the CG is smooth enough that we can see the robots changing shape as they roll/jog across the screen, with no pause to grow legs. Shia and other human characters are constantly being tossed in mid-air and caught by robots, that turn into cars, that the humans are suddenly inside. You can go from a hundred feet in the air, falling without a parachute, to being inside a moving car, in seconds. And now that it's all in 3D, the camera itself appears able to change shape as well, depending on how deep Michael Bay's wang wants to get.
After a while, you no longer even feel the transition between tones — you feel two or three tones simultaneously. Asian men, especially Ken Jeong, are both ludicrous and ominous at the same time. New leading lady Rosie Huntington-Whitely — who makes Megan Fox seem like Katharine Hepburn — spends the final hour of the movie looking as though she's ready to have a nervous breakdown and give a lapdance. The supporting cast from the first two movies is grim and silly at the same time.
Tone is for single-purpose machines. Consistency is for Decepticons. Michael Bay's ideal movie shifts from action movie to teen comedy to political drama with the same well-lubricated ease that his cars become men. By the time you've finished watching Transformers 3, you will speak Michael Bay's cinematic language. Your brain will be as supple and as formless as Optimus Prime.
And only then will you develop a full appreciation for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, the movie you scorned.