All the technical promise of decades of "aliens invade" thrillers, from Independence Day through Battle: Lost Angeles, and the best comic character actors money can buy serve Transformers: Dark of the Moon well. The funniest, best-executed film in the talking, bleeding, Earth-protecting robots-that-look-like-cars-and-trucks series, Dark of the Moon, which opens Wednesday, delivers the popcorn in gigantic fistfuls of fun.
The third Transformers installment is as head-slappingly stupid as ever, a product-placement action film with a Camaro as a hero and assorted other motoring makes as villains. But Michael Bay's cartoon-come-to-life co-opts NASA history and redecorates Chicago with a gusto as over-the-top as any hammy Shia LaBeouf rant, rave or riff. Hey, what's an actor to do when all the best lines go to digital robots?
"I just want to matter," says young Sam (LaBeouf), a two-time planetary hero reduced to begging for work from the likes of John Malkovich. He needs a D.C. job because he has traded the bombshell girlfriend played by Megan Fox for a higher-end model (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) who wears short, tight clothes and has only one big scene, in which we note that she's a model, not an actress.
The Autobots are ever vigilant, although there are those who want them exiled (Bill O'Reilly of Fox News among them). And if you have any recollection of the old TV cartoon, you know that those darned Decepticons are never quite fully vanquished. This time, there's a buried spaceship on the moon, a half-century-long NASA cover-up and the revival of an ancient leader, Sentinel Prime (discomfitingly voiced by the great Vulcan himself, Leonard Nimoy).
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Having Mr. Spock repeat lines from Star Trek movies in robot form in this context is only the second-most tone-deaf thing here. Having real-life lunar explorer Buzz Aldrin on hand to legitimize the bogus NASA history is the first.
But as Sam hurtles from D.C. to Florida's Kennedy Space Center to piece together this alternative version of the Space Race, he meets an array of great character players — including the returning John Turturro, as an ex-CIA conspiracy buff, and Frances McDormand, as a new intelligence chief. Yes, Malkovich steals his scenes, unless he's in them with the hilarious Ken Jeong of The Hangover movies.
"It is Code Pink," Jeong's character shrieks, "as in Floyd." Yeah, he's making a Dark Side of the Moon joke for the classic-rock crowd.
That isn't topped until we hang out with the great Alan Tudyk (3:10 to Yuma, Death at a Funeral) as he slings a fey Dutch accent as a fixer/assistant to Turturro's conspiracy buff.
Moon builds to a long robot battle royale that eats up the third act, as always. But Bay, learning from the Transformers 2's digital blur, slows down the action to let us see the machinery of war and pulls off some epic stunts to go with the effects — paratroopers swooping into Chicago on wingsuits.
Yeah, the story is one big "God in the Machine" tale: heroic but hapless humans waiting for robot rescue. It's all spectacle, and too much of it at 21/2 hours. The sound effects don't match the visuals in scale, and 3-D adds only depth, not gimmicks, to this summer epic. The gear-grinding finale is well done, but it's so protracted that one might hope that Bay & Co. have finally gotten this out of their system, and that maybe Hollywood will be shamed into not foisting another movie like the dreadful Skyline or its ilk on us for a few years.
But then, after you've made billions off a cheesy 30-year-old cartoon designed to sell toys, shame doesn't figure into it.