Transformers: Dark of the Moon ✮✮1/2

Fleshlings, Roll Out!

by Glenn Lovell

The third in the Transformers franchise, “Dark of the Moon,” hews to the Rule of Three established by the “Matrix” and original “Star Wars” trilogies: As overseen by Michael Bay and Hasbro, the new installment is darker in tone, more frenetic, assumes a fair degree of insider knowledge on the part of series aficionados, and, most importantly, it ups the ante in sophisticated CG battle effects.

Optimus, McDormand confab about Humankind

Indeed, there are moments in which humans and Autobots interact that conjure some of the magic of Willis O’Brien’s pioneering f/x for the original “King Kong.” The clarity and attention to detail is that good. And this adds immeasurably to the fantasy quotient.

Also, credit Bay with an inspired confluence of “Star Trek” and Autobot lore. The new installment’s Decepticon baddie, Sentinel Prime, is voiced by none other than Leonard Nimoy of Mr. Spock fame.

Talk about mind-melding two generations of sci-fi fans …

Once again it’s Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) to the rescue. The “alien boy” with an attitude  is now out of college, job hunting and dating another Barbie simulacra (Victoria Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley). Little wonder Sam’s Autobot guardian, the yellow Camaro Bumblebee, is something of an afterthought this time around.

A bonus: For all its slavish adherence to formula droning electronic score, Army recruiting poster tableaux, squabbling street-smart wrecker bots ‒ the plotline is more intricate and engaging than that of No. 2, “Revenge of the Fallen,” which found the series lost in Egypt and on autopilot.

This being the case, fleshling fans are encouraged to join “Big Guy” Optimus Prime and “Roll out!” to the nearest megaplex playing this noisy sci-fi adventure in a box-office-crushing choice of formats ‒ flat, 3D and IMAX 3D.

It’s an eyeful ‒ and then some!

“Dark of the Moon” opens like the others with a cram course on Cybertron, home to a race of autonomous robotic organisms or Autobots. During “The Wars” waged by the traitorous Decepticons, these good robots took refuge on various planets, including Earth. Turns out they also crash-landed on the moon and, in a mingling of fact and fantasy, were the impetus for J.F.K.’s space program and 1969 Apollo 11 lunar landing. This pre-credit backgrounder surpasses anything seen in the series thus far. It’s almost as foreboding as the opening moments in the original “Alien.”

Now in the present, the Autobots, led by Optimus, continue on their mission to keep humans from harming themselves. Their latest assignment takes them to the entombed Chernobyl, where they narrowly escape with their crankshafts after run-ins with a metallic flying serpent and the newly constituted Shockwave. This encounter, trust me, leads eventually to floating space pillars, which, when activated by Sentinel, create a space bridge for Decepticons invaders, who now have something new in mind for Earthlings.

Once again director Bay and screenwriter Ehren Kruger attempt to juggle multiple plotlines ‒ the wacky government cover-up (overseen by a feuding Frances McDormand and John Turturro), the special forces military ops led by the gung-ho Lennox (Josh Duhamel), and Sam’s screwed-up personal and professional lives, which include oversexed parents (Kevin Dunn and Julie White), a Bronx-brash boss (John Malkovich), and that model-gorgeous girlfriend who works for an overly attentive financier (Patrick Dempsey) with ties to the Decepticons.

Yeah, you’re right ‒ the plot is something of a jumble. Also, even taking into account that this series is built on toy merchandizing, we can’t help wincing again at the avalanche of product placements (from GMC to Cisco to Trump Tower).

And what to make of Bay’s ultraconservative bent? Obama comes in for a number of jabs; the Lincoln Memorial is more than desecrated; and Bill O’Reilly playing Bill O’Reilly is treated with more deference than Edward R. Murrow.

But let’s face it, none of this should bother the faithful. They’re on board for the dazzling, near-balletic transformations from sports cars and tractor trailers to Autobots, the deliriously over-the-top robot smackdowns, the comic book exclamations (“Decepticon punk!”), and the climactic battle royal, which this time leaves downtown Chicago worse off than Tokyo after Godzilla.

TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON ✮✮1/2 With Shia LaBeouf, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Josh Duhamel, John Turturro, Patrick Dempsey, John Malkovich, Frances McDormand. Directed by Michael Bay; scripted by Ehren Kruger. 157 min. PG-13 (for profanity, intense action scenes, battle violence)

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