The New Transformers: Turn On the Dark

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Transformers: Dark of the Moon

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To the first two movies' clinking, clanking, clattering collections of caliginous junk, T3 adds what has become a go-to staple of Hollywood fantasy: the retro-conspiracy theory. Recent films have invented Jews who killed Hitler, X-Men who solved the Cuban missile crisis, Watchmen who insured a third term for Richard Nixon and two aliens, in Paul and Super 8, held captive since the '50s in Area 51. Bay's movie plays on suspicions about the U.S. moon landings, already voiced in Peter Hyams' 1978 Capricorn One and soon to be elaborated on in the speculative horror film Apollo 18. T3 proposes that an alien race, the Autobots, crash-landed on the moon before we did and that the discovery of the crash stoked America's Apollo expeditions, whose astronauts found the Autobot remnants on the dark side. The real Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, plays himself, either to validate the claim or to pick up what I hope was a fat check for a few days' demeaning work.

T3, like Super 8, has Steven Spielberg in a guiding producer capacity, and his involvement with the two films shows how neatly he has bifurcated aspects of his early films. J.J. Abrams, Super 8's writer-director, ran variations on the awe and aw-shucks sci-fi tone of Close Encounters and E.T., while Bay updates the monster and destructo-fest elements of Jaws and 1941. When T3 escalates into soldier mode, Bay also appropriates bits of Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan and War of the Worlds. But he's an equal-opportunity ransacker of movies. He throws in images of JFK, Nixon and Barack Obama, à la Zelig and Forrest Gump; stocks his bot bestiary with "cute" critters that cross Muppets with Gremlins; gives one of the bad bots a toadying, Gollum-like sidekick; borrows Army reconnaissance tropes from The Hurt Locker; convenes a reunion of Coen-brothers cast members McDormand, Malkovich and John Turturro; lets The Hangover's Ken Jeong pad his career-long résumé of grotesque Asian Americans; and includes nearly as many toy-auto product placements as Cars 2.

The Coenheads seem to have enjoyed their payday; and Alan Tudyk registers momentarily as a gay German (all stereotypes intact). But acting is irrelevant in such a venture, since it consumes precious seconds of a 2 hr. 37 min. tower of testosterone. Playing on the violent auto-eroticism of American males, with their vehicles both as sex objects (adolescence) and as smashable playthings (infancy), T3 exists to bump chests and chassis and to blow stuff up. In these endeavors it can be almost enthralling. You'll see a sensational highway chase in which Optimus reconstitutes himself to catch the falling Sam, and skydivers in bat-web suits, and a skyscraper calamity that is cool enough to evoke the Tower of Pisa more than the World Trade Center on 9/11. Militia types will also enjoy the spectacle at the Lincoln Memorial, where Megatron, high on power, pulverizes the huge sculpture to make room for himself on Abe's marble seat.

Critics are also irrelevant to Transformers: Dark of the Moon. This review isn't meant to send people to the movie or keep them away. In fact, the scorekeepers at the various sites that rate critics' enthusiasm for a film shouldn't even try to elicit a Pass or Fail grade from me on T3. I'm a fascinated, stupefied outsider. Just mark me Present.

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