The latest entry in the “Transformers” franchise can be viewed in a variety of ways. It’s revolutionary. It’s trendsetting. It’s visionary. It’s supremely in tune with the current cultural zeitgeist. And it’s also a steaming pile of crap.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

At Quality 16 and Rave
Paramount

Before we go any further, in the interests of journalistic ethics, there are a few redeeming qualities about “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” that should be mentioned. From a purely technical standpoint, it’s genius. The visual effects are (initially) stunning and the 3-D is the best since “Avatar.” Since 3-D cameras are heavier than normal cameras, director Michael Bay (“Pearl Harbor”) couldn’t do that shaky-cam thing he usually does, leaving audiences at a markedly-reduced risk of seizure and/or brain trauma. And Megan Fox’s replacement, newcomer and Victoria’s Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, is absolutely gorgeous and much less of an annoying prima donna. Fox was shamelessly sexualized for Bay’s amusement. Huntington-Whitely is shamelessly sexualized, but she can also sort of deliver her lines in a (somewhat) realistic fashion.

To a certain extent, these things all set “Dark of the Moon” a small step above its predecessor, the universally abhorred “Revenge of the Fallen,” mainly because you can watch the action scenes without developing nausea. But “Dark of the Moon” also inherits most of the second installment’s problems. There’s the shamelessly explicit product placement. Government computers brought to you by Lenovo! Videoconferencing brought to you by Cisco! Transforming cars brought to you by GM! There are the endless plugs for the military, the shameless war movie clichés featuring soldiers valiantly sacrificing themselves, volunteering for a mission after their commander soft sells it as total suicide. And of course, there’s the toilet humor and the casual racism.

That doesn’t even touch on the disjointed, paper-thin plot. Protagonist Sam Witwicky (an incredibly bitchy Shia LaBeouf, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”), a now-graduate of an “ivy college,” is unhappily working the mail room. Meanwhile, Optimus Prime and the other Autobots, who stand for freedom and justice, find some sort of sci-fi MacGuffin that can somehow save their old planet, Cybertron. The Decepticons – the evil enemy robots from the last two movies – naturally start shooting each other. Witwicky manages to involve himself because he’s a big boy now and he deserves to do big boy things with the other big boys – LaBeouf, full of self-righteous angst, says words to this effect throughout the movie.

Just as Swiss cheese needs a certain number of holes to be considered Swiss and a Michael Bay-directed film needs a certain number of holes to be considered authentic, “Dark of the Moon,” with its multitude of unnecessary scenes and unresolved character arcs, doesn’t disappoint. As in most of Bay’s films, the script is an afterthought, simply an excuse to light the entire Chicago skyline on fire.

The performances are painful to watch, too. Veterans like John Turturro (“Do The Right Thing”) and John Malkovich (“Burn After Reading”) remind us through their ham-fisted paycheck jobs that Hollywood is no longer recession-proof. Ken Jeong (TV’s “Community”) once again sets his race back 50 years, playing another hideous Asian stereotype that wears bowties and drinks “special” Asian milk. The film even boasts an appearance by astronaut Buzz Aldrin who, apparently insecure about being the second man on the moon, has decided in recent years to be in a bunch of really, really bad movies.

Then again, none of this is new information. Looking for a plot in one of Bay’s movies is largely futile. Similarly, nobody’s comparing LaBeouf to Pacino or De Niro. What’s truly sad is that a vast majority of moviegoers don’t care about this. A recent gag in TV’s “30 Rock” featured a “Transformers” sequel written, literally, by no one, using it as a commentary for the state of the film industry. If people can’t tell, or don’t care, about the difference between well-scripted masterpieces and cinematic junk food, what does that say about the future?

Today, there are auteurs, like Martin Scorsese, Darren Aronofsky and David Fincher, who are dedicated to their art and care more about an engaging story than eye-opening explosions. There are directors like J.J. Abrams and Christopher Nolan, who routinely bridge the divide between intellectualism and populist sentiment. Then, there are guys like Bay, in a category by themselves, who stick a billion dollars of special effects behind a children’s toy and call it filmmaking. And modern audiences eat it up. God help us all.

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