Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Robots and rubble: 'Transformers' is back

Shia LaBeouf returns to lead director Michael Bay's latest marathon of destruction.
Right after Sept. 11, 2001, knowledgeable people were talking about the ways in which movies might be impacted. Surely, audiences would be turned off by the sight of skyscrapers falling in the heart of major cities. Reality finally would silence Hollywood’s worst impulses, forcing it to examine the ways in which it doled out cinematic pleasure – or so the argument went.

Almost a full decade after that fateful day, we can see just how na├»ve such initial reactions were. If you don’t believe me, watch the booming last act of director Michael Bay’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which (I’m embarrassed to say) is also the best part of the movie, a knock-down, drag-out rampage that makes surprisingly effective use of 3-D as most of downtown Chicago is reduced to rubble.

Everything about Dark of the Moon leads Bay and his cast toward this climactic battle in which the Decepticons (evil robots) square off against the Autobots (robots dedicated to helping mankind). And when Decepticons and Autobots get it on, they tend to smash everything in sight.

Grudging respect must be paid to Bay for offering a smorgasbord of ingredients that probably will animate the summer box-office. If the movie had a motto, it might be: "Ignore collateral damage, pile on the destruction."

Dark of the Moon adds a few new twists to its 154-minute running time, even making room for a cameo appearance by Bill O’Reilly. Yes, that Bill O’Reilly.

Among other additions: Appearances by John Malkovich (as a silver-haired tycoon); Rosie Huntington-Whiteley (as LaBeouf’s love interest); and Frances McDormand (as a U.S. intelligence officer). Leonard Nimoy -- no stranger to portentous sci-fi -- lends his voice to the character of Sentinel Prime, a sagacious Autobot that's brought back into action several decades after having crashed on the moon.

Megan Fox? She’s not present, but don't fret. A rear view of Huntington-Whiteley elicited happy adolescent hoots at a preview screening, which ought to give you some idea about her function in the movie.

Ah yes, the moon. For years, conspiracy theorists and cranks have argued that the U.S. never landed on the moon. Dark of the Moon advances another theory: It seems that the U.S. went to the moon to check out an alien craft that had smashed onto the lunar surface.

To make his case more persuasive, Bay mixes newsreel footage with historical re-creations that include Presidents Kennedy and Nixon, and the late Walter Cronkite. I'm guessing, of course, but I can't help but think that the venerable CBS anchor would have been surprised to find himself adding traces of credibility to a loopy summer blockbuster.

After this "historical" introduction, the movie leaps into the present where LaBeouf’s Sam is jobless and living with his girlfriend (Huntington-Whiteley). Sam’s a little jealous of his girlfriend’s boss (Patrick Dempsey), a rich guy with a killer car collection.

Eventually, we learn that the Decepticons are trying to take over Earth so that they can save their dying civilization -- or something like that. The Autobots join with humans to stop the brutal Decpticons and to provide summer’s heaviest helping of metal-crunching chaos.

No offense to the robots, but they all tend to look alike, which may help explain why the movie never really develops a strong rooting interest, aside from encouraging us to wish that LaBeouf would tone down his over-amped performance.

I’ve read that the final battle sequence lasts for 50 minutes. I don’t know if that’s true, but it certainly felt like it. Bay goes for the action jugular with 3-D images of men plunging from skyscrapers and giant robots chipping away at Chicago’s skyline. A menacing, snake-like creation called Shockwave bores its way through concrete like an intergalactic jackhammer.

In case it's not yet clear, character development, story and emotional involvement all give way to Bay's spectacularly created marathon of destruction. If that’s what you’re after Dark of the Moon won’t shortchange you.

In fairness, it should be noted that Dark of the Moon represents a marked improvement over the last installment (Transformers; Revenge of the Fallen), but there’s a difference between a three-ring circus of mayhem and a story that aims to do more than give 'em a lot of what they came for -- and then add more on top of that.

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