It's hard to think of a more self-conscious director than Michael Bay. His latest is the new Transformers flick, "Dark Of The Moon", and starting with its swirling delirium of a prologue -- a revisionist historical montage in which the 1969 moon landing is rewritten as a secret extra-terrestrial salvage expedition -- the movie pummels the viewer with aestheticized energy. This is a movie on a high; this is cinematic Four Locos. The camera is almost constantly in motion and when it's not the angle is jarringly canted or the background is stuffed to capacity with eye-catching visual cotton candy. Actors scream NASA jargon dialogue and stare at monitors as an adrenalized score pumps from the speakers and the editor shreds the film into incoherent ribbons. It seems, from the very beginning, that Bay is terrified of boring his audience, for even a moment.
As we segue into the present and Sam Witwicky (Shia Labeouf) is aroused from slumber by his "world-class hottie" girlfriend, Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whitely who's taken over for a cumbersome Megan Fox), a close-up of the pants-less and thonged blonde bombshell accompanied by wall-to-wall pop music almost completely subjugates the point of the scene: Witwicky has a new girlfriend, but is frustratingly unemployed. Yet all Bay asks of his audience is that they enjoy the exchange like they would a music video -- viscerally and thoughtlessly. Bay is like the anti-Terrence Malick. Malick, whose new opus "Tree Of Life" hit theaters only a month ago, is so comfortable in his own vision and artistic impulses that he challenges audiences to be patient and try to understand him. The result can be frustrating and exhausting at times yet there is SO much to be gained by trusting a true artist. Bay labors to keep us entertained moment to moment because without constant stimulation, he's afraid he'll lose us for good. The sad part is, his films are even more exhausting and they still lack the intellectual reward a genius like Malick so poetically gifts us.
I fear Bay's directorial paranoia arises from two possible places: a mistrust of the story he is communicating or a general lack of anything to communicate. It might be both. The story is the conclusion of the war between the Autobots -- a bunch of alien sports cars and trucks who metallically morph into awesome fighting robots -- and the Decepticons. The Decepticons are like evil Autobots with beastly razor-sharp snarls and eerie red eyes. The humans are caught in the middle. The lunar landing reveals a secret weapon named Sentinel Prime -- the former leader of the Autobots who's now an old-timey but all-powerful mechanized castaway. Both sides want him. Two hours of frenzied build up leads to a prolonged demolition of the Chicago skyline as the two sides make war -- turning the Windy City into their cataclysmic playground. (The metropolitan destruction on display would make even Roland Emmerich proud).
If I'm being honest, Bay doesn't so much mistrust his story as completely disregard it. Spectacle is all that's on his mind; it's all he cares about. In that regard, "Dark Of The Moon" pretty much accomplishes what it aspires to. To call it a complete folly would be missing the point. Skyscrapers get torn in half and tip over as their occupants slide passed cubicles on their way through glass panes and out windows. Transformers rip up pavement as they claw across eight lane highways, flipping and smashing vehicles in their path. Chicago becomes a windstorm of 3-D debris and carnage. If I said the film 's F/X offerings weren't impressive, I would be lying. Add a few amusing bit parts (like Frances McDormand as an all-business CIA suit; John Torturro reprising his role of Seymour Simmons, the egotistical war-profiteer; John Malkovich as Witwicky's ludicrously anal new boss; and Ken Jeong ("The Hangover") as a bureaucratic traitor with hilariously bouncy dexterity) and "Dark Of The Moon" is more than watchable. Even Labeouf displays some of the "Louis Stevens" charm that made him famous in the first place.
The problem, again, is Michael Bay. He's not merely self-concious; he's also self-indulgent. The combination kills his film. With a 2 1/2 hour run-time and a relentless final battle sequence to top it off, Bay just about squanders all the film's better qualities with sheer megalomaniacal delight. He can't see the forest for the trees. Were it only 90 minutes with a clear narrative (not a head spinning one that feels like both too much and not enough), "Dark Of The Moon" might have been, dare I say it, a good movie.
We could have, maybe then, forgiven the fact that the director still has nothing to communicate -- nothing about human nature, society, spirituality... nothing. In the form it's in, "Dark Of The Moon" starts to make us wonder: how can a movie that feels like so much really be so little after all? The chance that Michael Bay will one day shock everyone and make a film with a tight, interesting story gets smaller with every effort. The director has again made an exhausting summer blockbuster that, ironically, sells its soul to be anything but.