Transformers: Dark of the Moon begins with actual footage of the first lunar landing, and for those five minutes, you can see the joy and astonishment of everyone watching Neil Armstrong hop down that ladder onto the moon's surface. Just look at Walter Cronkite's face. The archetypal newsman's expression cracks with giddiness at what has just been accomplished.
The people watching live in 1969 must have felt a wonder that the rest of Michael Bay's movie can't generate in its two and a half hours. The computers that Bay and his team used to create the special effects for this movie must be almost godlike compared with what NASA sent up with the astronauts 42 years ago. But how does Bay harness that power? By showing us a cameo of Bill O'Reilly calling someone a pinhead in 3-D.
In case you missed the first two Transformers movies, Dark of the Moon's plot again follows the battle between the Autobots and the Decepticons, two races of alien robots, one good and one bad. For a movie that owes its existence to a line of toys, this is one grim, depressing film. Bodies are dissolved to ash, their skulls left to skitter across concrete. A family is murdered. An elderly character is executed gangland-hit style. Chicago's destruction borrows imagery from 9/11, including scenes of characters jumping from the windows of a collapsing skyscraper. Dozens of corpses pile up before the credits roll and the words "based on the action figure line from Hasbro" scroll up.
There's nothing wrong with tough images, and a few movies have used 9/11 motifs effectively, but the jarring tonal shifts in Bay's film are violently disorienting. Every moment seems to exist completely apart from everything else that happens, with characters taking action only to move the — well, not even to move the plot along. At one point, a villain hands over a piece of technology that, if I understand the movie correctly, is responsible for the continued existence of every Autobot. The robot that is supposed to be the best, the wisest, the one that is always talking about the sanctity of human life, may have sacrificed the entire population of Chicago just to prove a point to the government.
Oh, but the moon-landing montage in the beginning? Its hope and joy are all but forgotten by the final hour of nonstop, Xtreme-with-a-capital-X action. Nothing against things blowing up, but at a certain point, when you're stuck watching weightless, soulless cartoons shooting other weightless, soulless cartoons, the tension drains away, and you just want the damned thing to finish already.