It becomes obvious about 2.5 seconds into Michael Bay's TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON that Bay should shoot every film in 3D from now on. He shows a command of the technology that exceeds - no shit - that of James Cameron. When Bay shoots action with regular 2D cameras, his scenes, especially in the previous TRANSFORMERS films, are practically incoherent, with no sense of spatial geography and rapid edits to hide the fact that Bay seemingly threw his cameras in the air while things exploded. But in 3D, Bay is forced to slow down a bit, shoot sweeping vistas, and give the audience a visual sense of what's going on, and the result is easily the best shot action scenes that I can remember seeing in a long time. Before now, it was not really a requirement to see films in 3D - even AVATAR - but Bay has done what no other 3D film thus far has done: he justifies the technology. TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON is simply the best-looking 3D film yet, hands down.
But have Michael Bay's storytelling skills improved with 3D? Well... I'll put it this way. I knew why things were happening 80% of the time, as opposed to the previous film, where I understood the goals of the characters maybe 40% of the time. Granted, it's an improvement, but it's especially rough going in the first hour of the film, where Bay throws in the kitchen sink to keep the audience entertained, all the while holding his cards back for the hour-long finale. But there are emotional beats that Bay desperately wants the audience to respond to in DARK OF THE MOON, and the audience may be too numb to care. 3D tech may discipline Bay as an action director, but he still can't make relatable characters to save his ass.
The film's opening scenes rewrite history to show that America's space race was actually an attempt by us to explore alien technology, specifically a ship that crash-landed on the Moon. Turns out that ship was from Cybertron, and it was carrying Sentinel Prime (Leonard Nimoy), the leader of the Autobots, and, perhaps, the last hope to save Cybertron. When the Autobots discover that the ship is still on the moon, Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) and the others take a spacecraft to rescue Sentinel. Meanwhile, on Earth, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is struggling to find his first job in Washington, D.C., living with his girlfriend Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, and we quickly understand why Bay cast her almost immediately when she appears on screen - did I say already that this is a REQUIREMENT to see in 3D?). But what Sam really wants to do is work with the Autobots. He's saved the world twice already, and he doesn't want to surf some mailroom in Bruce Brazos' (John Malkovich) office. But as events unfold with the Autobots and Sentinel Prime, the machinations of Megatron (Hugo Weaving) come into play. This all culminates in the utter destruction of Chicago, as an alien invasion shreds that city and our heroes must go in and stop Megatron - again - from destroying the world.
To say that TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON is a better film than REVENGE OF THE FALLEN isn't really opinion; it's simple arithmetic. The second TRANSFORMERS film showcased everything wrong with Bay as a director. And while DARK OF THE MOON suffers from many of the same problems - Michael Bay enjoys his racial stereotypes a bit too much, and his sense of humor begins at pratfalls and ends at THREE'S COMPANY-like sexual innuendo and misdirection - when it comes to shooting action, Bay has improved as a director, something I would have never thought possible over the last film. The camerawork is almost languid in comparison to FALLEN, and while Bay will never be mistaken for Stanley Kubrick or David Lean, the action has a visceral punch and jawdropping sense of scale. I still couldn't relate to any of the characters, but Bay really tried hard this time, darn it, and you have to admire that he put so much effort into it. Shia LaBeouf plays Sam with all the earnestness he can muster, and I really can't fault his performance at this point. All the actors can do is look and react to the insane action going on for the most part, and even actors like Malkovich, John Turturro, and Frances McDormand can be made to look ridiculous in Bay's 3D lens. This ain't a Coen Brothers film, by a long shot.
But, but, but... Jesus Christ, that last hour. That last hour of TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON, as Chicago gets the asskicking of the millennium, is action filmmaking at its goddamn finest. That hour is what rises DARK OF THE MOON into serious greatness. It's what Bay does best, and with the nature of 3D forcing Bay to slow down his shots and edits, the special effects, the explosions, the insane - INSANE - setpieces, the climax - maybe it's true that Bay has no interest in character development, or the subtle nuances of actor performance, but man, can this guy blow things up very, very well. And it's through the sheer bravura of the action that we begin to feel for the characters. It's not about the performances of the actors, or the plot - it's that the sheer scale of what's happening onscreen forces the audience to think, "I really hope that Shia LaBeouf doesn't get hit by flying shrapnel."
I'm kidding, but only partially - Bay manages to find real emotion at the climax because he really is a master at this sort of thing - characters under amazing pressure forced to do whatever it takes to survive. The climax has real stakes, and we do end up caring what happens, because Bay, more than any TRANSFORMERS film thus far, has successfully made us care. It's something of a breakthrough for him. I feel like I'm overly disparaging Michael Bay here, but it's through sheer force of will that Bay does something we haven't seen from him before at this point - he creates real empathy for the characters, and for him that's fairly revelatory.
And even if the house of cards falls under close examination - there are certain characters that only appear when convenient in that last hour - it's a glorious house of cards that would have made the Brady Bunch weep in jealousy. It's the last hour of TRANSFORMERS that puts it over-the-top for sheer spectacle and into the plus column for a recommendation. The audience has to slog through some mostly inane filler, punctuated by some impressive visuals and all-too-brief action in the first two-thirds of the film, but it's not nearly as painful as the filler in REVENGE OF THE FALLEN, and once you get that first establishing shot of Chicago, strap in. Because, like the PSA from Dan Savage to America's struggling youth, it gets so much better.