Comedian Patton Oswalt wrote an article for Wired in which he called for the rebirth-by-death of geek culture, citing the pervasive influence of our always-on consumer mindset as an unsustainable entertainment model. According to Oswalt, once everybody has available every facet of all the geeky influences of the past, there will be no untapped sources from which to draw inspiration for the creation of modern classics.
Oswalt's article made no mention of Michael Bay's treatment of the Transformers franchise, but if he were to rewrite it today, I don't see how he couldn't. Bay's previous Transformers efforts were mere vulgar puppetry, offensive to the die-hard fan but not really harmful to the franchise itself. But Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Bay's latest trip back to the Hasbro trough, is practically the capstone of an Oswaltian case study, a self-referential bumper crop more pleasing than the previous bitter harvests but definitely more dangerous to the soil from which it sprang.
Bay and Company drew from everything Transformers to create Dark of the Moon. The plot is a mishmash of episodes from the various Transformers series, featuring characters drawn from continuities old and new interacting in settings apparently derived, in that most Bay-ish fashion, from anything likely to allow copious property damage.
Bay's race to use up all his remaining resources makes Dark of the Moon marginally better than its predecessors. Shia LaBeouf (Sam Witwicky) is all grown up, and his awesome robot pals have left to be superheroes while he rots in mediocrity like the rest of us. His girl (Carly, played by Victoria's Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whitely, proves that a complete lack of acting experience is better than whatever Megan Fox had before Bay hired her) is out of his league, he can't find a job, and his life is that of a twentysomething whose best years are somehow behind him.
Like any good jilted sidekick, poor Sam concocts a plan to upgrade his life by uncovering a vast Cold War conspiracy that affects both his Transformer buddies and the government types they ran away with. It totally works, and Sam and Carly go on to have lots of super fun running through explosions and watching robots fight over natural resources or freedom or something. Hooray!
After suffering through two movies of LaBeouf skittering between the toes of a much bigger life that's going on way above his head, finally seeing him turn his annoying primal fear shtick into a full-on manic existential rage constitutes a coming-of-age story more meaningful and more relatable than the "boy and his car" and "boy goes to college" themes of the previous Transformers films. It's cathartic, really, watching the boy we all hated grow up to hate himself.
But once that gets out of the way, Dark of the Moon suffers from Giant Robot Combat Desensitization Syndrome, a condition in which competing anthro-mechanical armies send too much metal and glass flying in too many random directions by too many explosions over too long a period of time for mere humans to comprehend. By infecting Dark of the Moon with GRCDS, Bay nearly makes an extended Decepticon takeover (which translates into both Decepticon and Bay-speak as "destruction") of Chicago boring.
It's pretty much the opposite of the two previous Transformers movie climaxes. Instead of stunted mini-battles involving Optimus Prime solving problems by removing Decepticon faces, the meat of the conflict in Dark of the Moon is all packed into one long slog of a scene that takes up the movie's final third.
Chicago blows up. Then it blows up some more. Then the pieces of Chicago that haven't blown up catch on fire, and then a giant worm eats everything. Leonard Nimoy casts a magic spell, and then the Autobots save the day... by ripping off all the Decepticons' faces. In Bay's world, Optimus Prime is leader apparently because his helmet makes his face immune to ripping.
But again, this treatment is better than what has been delivered previously. All the stupid human tricks are nice and front-loaded, giving Dark of the Moon's first acts a buffer in which moviegoers can have a robot-free piss break. Once the juggernaut of a climax gets underway, the final conflict (even humanity's efforts, which manage to have believable moments of both bad-assery and impotence) is passably tight for a sequence that in the right hands could have carried its own movie.
Dark of the Moon gives us a great opportunity to see whether Oswalt's crop rotation theories are right, if only because Bay has stripped Transformers clean. There's nothing left to do with it simply because there's nothing left of it. It's all been tapped, utilized, leached, or (mostly) had its face ripped off.
And all he managed to do with it is make a movie that doesn't suck quite as much as the previous two. Only in a Michael Bay filmography would "sometimes nearly significantly less stupid than the last ones" be high praise, but there you have it: Transformers: Dark of the Moon is nearly significantly less stupid than its predecessors. Sometimes.