(Minor spoilers ahead) It's said that one definition of insanity is repeating the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Well I loathed Transformers 2, and yet there I was getting mildly excited about Transformers: Dark of the Moon. It had a nifty premise where the moon landing was a cover to investigate a crashed alien spacecraft; the cast and director Bay were making all the right noises about how they know the second film sucked, it was rushed, this one makes up for it etc ... and the new film was in 3D. And I like 3D, and if you have a problem with that, SUE ME *watches with horror as you actually commence legal proceedings*.
So anyway, imagine my surprise (or lack of it) when 45 minutes into the film that nifty premise had been squandered, there's been hardly any action and instead I'm watching LaBoeuf being interviewed by his creepy, orange-faced new boss (Malkovich), who is complaining that a girl who works for him is using a red mug and this is the yellow floor, and how it's aesthetically displeasing to him. Then Mr Chow from The Hangover turns up as a paranoid colleague of LaBeouf's, and for reasons that aren't clear accosts him in the gents toilet, pins him down in a cubicle and screams at him (everybody screams in this film, constantly ...) and then Malkovich comes in and there's all this noise coming from the cubicle, and they come out with their trousers round their ankles and Malkovich is disgusted because HE THINKS THEY'VE BEEN BUMMING! HYSTERICAL! (Wasn't there a similar, vaguely homophobic joke like this in Part 2? What the fuck is Bay's problem?).
So I'm sitting there thinking WHAT AM I DOING HERE, WHY IS THIS HAPPENING? I CAME TO SEE A FILM ABOUT ROBOTS FIGHTING? Then Mr Chow is pushed out of his office window by an evil robot and falls to his death, while Malkovich is having a meeting, and Chow flies past the window AND I THINK WE ARE MEANT TO LAUGH? Because in Michael Bay's world, when a marine or a robot dies you get sad music and slow-mo, but a little Chinese guy plunging to his death? THAT'S HILARIOUS! And then we get to spend some time with two little robots with raspy, annoying voices who whine and argue and bump into things, and also a robot with a Scottish accent who says things like: "I'll bottle yah, ya nancy wanker!" And on, and on, and fucking on.
What is utterly mystifying is that Bay thinks he needs these scenes. This film is two-and-a-half hours long, and at least half of that is devoted to this unspeakably ghastly – and I hesitate to even use the word – "comedy". What's wrong with a streamlined, hour-and-a-half adventure? Why must I wade through this shit in order to get to the good stuff? Can you imagine any other great summer blockbuster taking these kinds of detours? It's like if Natalie Portman promised to have sex with you, but only after two hours of foreplay with the girl out of Precious. I suppose someone, somewhere finds this stuff funny and worthwhile, and they probably own the box-set of Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, too. I wish to never meet that person. I would also add that at this point I'm feeling a little guilty about that Precious joke.
Now the more observant among you will have noticed that I didn't give this film just one star. And the reason for that is that despite being deeply unfunny and vaguely homophobic, and despite the way he lets his camera leer over his lead actress (Whiteley is introduced arse-first), and despite having a fetish for military hardware that leads me to believe he's compensating for something ... I do think Bay is talented. And he's talented at one thing: orchestrating incredibly complex and layered shots of robot carnage, and doing it with such verisimilitude it's just plain astounding.
These are the scenes of epic robot destruction you nerds thought you were going to get in Battle: Los Angeles. Why are the special effects in these films so good, so ahead of the pack? It makes the effects in Green Lantern look like they were done by ... umm ... the girl out of Precious? And apart from a few shots where there's just too much going on, much of it is composed in long, slow takes, gracefully edited so that it's easy to follow. AND it was shot in 3D. Now I know all the cool kids are anti-3D these days, and it's just me on the other side of the fence defending it (leave me alone you bullies!), but I think you'd have to be the most stubborn luddite not to agree that it adds to the experience here: skydivers leaping from a flaming plane among the skyscrapers of Chicago, which explode around them as missiles streak past and out of the screen: it's jaw-dropping stuff.
What it isn't, however, is particularly exciting, and this has always been Bay's problem: the eye-candy is amazing – delivered by the hand of a master, and probably the only director capable of it other than James Cameron – and yet you never really feel part of it. The best action films fuse great character/story moments with astonishing special effects. So are you going to feel how you felt when Ripley went back to rescue Newt in Aliens, or when the T-Rex was attacking the kids inside the car in Jurassic Park, or when Neo finally learnt how to dodge bullets in The Matrix? Absolutely not. There are incredible things to see in Transformers 3, and on the level of cinema-as-spectacle it's just about worth it ... but emotionally and dramatically it keeps you at a safe distance.