- - Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Over the years, director Michael Bay has become synonymous with aggressive, pointlessly kinetic adolescent entertainments. He’s honed his skills with the first two installments of the “Transformers” franchise, a curious marketing mix pairing Hasbro characters and General Motors vehicles with quick-tempo military-style combat. Mr. Bay surpasses his reputation for explosiveness in the third entry, “Dark of the Moon.” Clocking in at a punishing 154 minutes, the film plays out like a sugar binge, with wave upon wave of metabolic action spikes.

Shia LaBeouf returns as unlikely action hero Sam Witwicky, now fresh out of college and hunting for a job. Megan Fox was booted from the series, reportedly because executive producer Steven Spielberg was unhappy with her lack of focus on the set and her reference to Mr. Bay in an interview as being “like Hitler.” She’s been replaced by Abercrombie & Fitch model Rosie Huntington-Whitely, who in her film debut shows a great talent for pouting and looking vaguely discomfited in situations that call for outright terror.

The storylines of all three “Transformers” features are impressive when one considers that they are derived from the marketing plan of a 1980s Japanese robot toy. The noble alien Autobots, a form of sentient machines, have lost a war with their rivals the Decepticons and are sheltering on Earth and working as a covert strike force. (In one of the film’s more effective light touches, they’re based in the bombed-out headquarters of the Health and Human Services building on Independence Avenue Southwest.)

The Autobots are called into action to visit the moon to uncover the remains of one of their lost spaceships, which contains the remains of a powerful weapon system. The movie posits that the entire space race of the 1960s was an elaborate ruse designed to investigate the alien visit to the moon. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin joins in the fun, playing himself. Sci-fi hero Leonard Nimoy voices the resuscitated Transformer Sentinel Prime, with stray bits of dialogue referencing Mr. Spock catchphrases from the “Star Trek” movies.

“Dark of the Moon” is the first of the series to be shot in 3-D. The action is breathtaking at times and manages to flat-out amaze in three or four sequences. But the film is diminished by its inapt blend of horror and humor. Sequences in which the Decepticons, having taken over a major U.S. city, roam the streets murdering civilians alternate with shots of Sam and his commando buddies trading hokey laugh lines.

Even more chilling is the grotesque dramaturgy of incorporating the real-life horrors of 9/11 as a visual reference, including a scene of paratroopers in free fall framed against a striated skyscraper, recalling the victims who jumped from the towers. Appropriating indelible images from a national nightmare as if they were just another clever visual allusion isn’t just shameless, it’s soulless. The calculation is, I suppose, that for the movie’s target audience of teenagers, the horrors of 9/11 are just another reel of disaster footage, ripe for exploitation.

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TITLE: “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”

CREDITS: Directed by Michael Bay. Written by Ehren Kruger

RATING: PG-13, for violence, language and brief sexual innuendo

RUNNING TIME: 154 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS