The New Transformers: Turn On the Dark

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Transformers: Dark of the Moon

The midtown-Manhattan crowd — real people, not movie reviewers, except for this one — stood patiently in line for a 12:15 a.m. screening of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the third in Michael Bay's ear-, eye- and block-buster series based on the line of Hasbro robot toys. When the feature began, a half hour late, the audience showed its fondness for the material by saluting each appearance of the friendly yellow car-bot Bumblebee, not with rowdy shouts but with courteous applause, as if after a sharp volley at Wimbledon. A few whoops greeted the 3-D IMAX leveling of Chicago. And when the movie ended, about an hour before dawn, the admirers let out a few decorous cheers. They sounded less like red-meat fanboys than connoisseurs at a wine tasting.

The critics' reaction has been more tentative. They decried the first Transformers (2007) and its sequel Revenge of the Fallen (2009), which together earned more than $1.5 billion at the worldwide box office. They charged Bay with failing all conventional (perhaps archaic) tests for coherence of storytelling and mise-en-scène. He sends the camera scampering in virtually every shot, even those lasting a split second, and he seems to think that matching them — locating a fixed point of view, a law that directors have followed since the earliest features — is for wimps. Reviewers of the first two films got so vexed by Bay's eroticized violence, his car lust and carnage, his nonstop aural and cinematic assaults, that they saw his success in apocalyptic terms, as the end of movies as we once loved them and the triumph of a virulent new strain: robotulism. T3 screenwriter Ethan Kroeger mimics the typical critique of a Bay film when he has John Malkovich, as the hero's epicurean boss, say, "You fall into a life-sucking abyss. It's a visual and therefore visceral betrayal."

With T3, many reviewers have retreated from their previous horrified stance to baffled resignation. I'm with them. I acknowledge that, for good or ill, Bay is the soul of a new machine, the poet of post-human cinema, the CEO of Hollywood's military-entertainment complex. T3 is the movie equivalent of an '80s thrash-metal concert (not Megadeth but Megatron), with bits of spoken exposition inserted into the action scenes like the lead singer's mumbled comments between songs. And yes, for Bay to give Optimus Prime and the other good Autobots blue eyes and Megatron's evil Decepticons red eyes smacks of aesthetic fascism, but in a helpful way: how else are novice viewers to tell them apart? It's all part of the director's grand, lubricious vision — what we might call Bay-watch.

Plot synopsis: Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), blah blah, Optimus and Megatron knocking heads again, new Autobot named Sentinel (voiced by Leonard Nimoy), secret government project run by a bossy woman (Frances McDormand, more or less playing Hillary Clinton if she ran the CIA, and if you hate Hillary Clinton), new girlfriend Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, whose generic blond sexiness makes her both a fembot and Playboy Femlin), big bot battle that devastates downtown Chicago (notably the aptly named Wacker Drive), blah blah, bring in the U.S. military and somehow let Sam command them to save the world — if he can first get Carly out of that Decepticon car that is trying to fondle her with its grabby tentacles.

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