by Richard von Busack
BLENDING IN TV and newsreel footage and actors indifferently playing US presidents, Transformers: Dark of the Moon tells how Transformerism was hushed up in the 1960s. Our US/USSR space race turns out to be an investigation of alien relics in the Sea of Tranquility. Decades later in our era, Optimus Prime flies to the moon and jumpstarts an aged robot sentinel (voiced by noble old Nimoy) who is found, switched off, in the lunar wreckage. Meanwhile, evil Megatron (now wearing a tattered cloak like King Lear) vows revenge in the African veldt. The final battle (45 minutes of drowse-inducing clash) takes place in downtown Chicago after an opening act in D.C.
A strange variety special with killbots, the film approaches the level of entertainment through the unleashed flamboyance of the actors. John Malkovich (digitally dyed to the color of a tangelo) lolls at the feet of a robot like a puppy. Alan Tudyk, renowned as Wash in Firefly, brings in some European suaveness as a Dutch bodyguard. Frances McDormand’s disgust with the entire film is infectious. Even John Turturro takes his tired part as an expert on alien robots and runs with it. And then they put him in a wheelchair, and he rolls with it.
Odd how well 3-D improves matters, too. The technique forcibly slows the editing and gives some visual dimension to what used to look like wrathful lawn-art junk sculptures, or $300 million versions of the roller-skating saps in a production of Starlight Express. Kneeling, looking indomitable and jabbing their big metal digits right into our eyeballs, the Transformers this time sometimes look as scary as the colossi of Russian illustrator Boris Artsybasheff.
What director Michael Bay has in mind for a mood is anyone’s guess. The new Transformers is less the work of a man frenzied by clashing metal than someone coming down from that high: it’s not speedy, it’s tweeked. So much onscreen is as senseless as the prattling of our hero’s non-sequitur-crazed parents. Indeed, so much in this film is like the very name of the family itself, “Witwicky”, which wouldn’t even be a funny name in a Honolulu-set movie. The whole thing is just so odd.
The grinding metal does its stuff. There is that, even when the clanging and beautifully animated spectacle is undercut by sub WWF lines like “This is going to hurt a lot”. I was more beguiled by the pitiless sexual menace and lethal martial arts moves of the amazing Dr. Ken Jeong, who gives Shia LaBeouf a good roughing-up. Hit him again, doc! Of the boggling moments, none boggle so much as Sam Witwicky receiving a rabbit’s foot from a Hawt British Gurl (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley). LaBeouf holds this token of good luck but why? What does he need it for? Look at his career. He’s the luckiest bastard since Ben Affleck.