Film Review: Transformers: Dark of the Moon

"Dark” is the operative word, at least by the generally juvenile standards of the 'Transformers' franchise.

Two movies ago, Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf) was just a nerdy teenager whose ambitions extended no further than buying his first car, a yellow and black-striped junker that to his callow eyes was the epitome of cool. As anyone with the slightest interest in seeing Transformers: Dark of the Moon already knows, that battered 1970 Camaro turned out to be much more than basic transportation: It transformed into an iron giant dubbed “Bumblebee,” and came with a rainbow coalition of robo-friends and foes—the autobots and the decepticons, respectively. Given that the little toys were aimed squarely at little boys, there’s never any question as to which are the good guys.

Sam is now a newly minted college graduate facing a grim job market. How grim is it? Grim enough that the fact he’s pals with the autobots and has already helped them save the world twice doesn’t even get him a foot in the door. Thank goodness his new smoking-hot girlfriend Carly (lush-lipped U.K. newcomer Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) has a cool Washington, DC apartment and a great gig working for billionaire car buff Dylan (Patrick Dempsey). Too bad the tycoon is such a creep, though in Dylan’s defense he might leer less if Carly’s definition of office-appropriate attire didn’t run to thigh-skimming bandage dresses and five-inch heels. And why did Sam's clueless mom and dad (Julie White and Kevin Dunn) have to choose this moment to roll into town in the supersized tour bus they bought so they could spend their retirement crisscrossing the country? Parents are so embarrassing.

Anyway, the autobots are working with the U.S. government, which has known about them since the 1960s, to keep Earth safe from space invaders. (Who knew the entire space program was launched for the sole purpose of recovering what turned out to be bits of autobot technology from the moon?) The sudden burst of chatter about decepticons lurking around the still-contaminated ruins of Chernobyl proves to be accurate: The evil Megatron (voice of Hugo Weaving) is once again marshaling his forces to take over Earth, and this time he plans to activate an interdimensional bridge that will haul his home planet, Cybertron, into our solar system, then use puny humans as slave labor to restore it to its pre-giant robot war glory.

That’s it for story, which might be fine if Transformers: Dark of the Moon were 95 minutes long. But it’s a full hour longer, almost all of which is devoted to noisy mayhem: car chases, shootouts, explosions, Chicago being pummeled into rubble (it’s nice to see some city other than New York get flattened), military operations, breaking glass (as in skyscrapers, not bar ware), screaming civilians and, of course, bossy authority figures shouting at each other about what they should be doing about it.

Heretical though it may be to say, the decepticons—which look like everything from flying chain-link dragons to monstrous worms that plunge in and out of city streets in a swirl of razor-sharp metal bands—are way cooler than the lumbering, candy-colored autobots. And the autobots are in turn way cooler than the human characters, a generally colorless bunch despite the best efforts of a cast packed with Oscar-nominees/winners (John Malkovich, Frances McDormand); experienced supporting players (John Turturro, Josh Duhamel, Alan Tudyk); celebrities playing themselves (astronaut Buzz Aldrin, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly); and pretty faces (former models Tyrese Gibson and Huntington-Whiteley). But while the special effects are terrific, they can’t make you care: There’s plenty of manly weeping onscreen when the decepticons start executing captured autobots, but as far as I could tell, there wasn’t a damp eye in the theatre.