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'Transformers' on auto-pilot 

Acting terrible, but visuals great.

'TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON': Shia LaBeouf and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley star.
  • 'TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON': Shia LaBeouf and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley star.

Hardly a minute passes in "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" without something visually astonishing appearing on screen, and for that, we must give director Michael Bay his due. He's always beating us over the head with robot battles, or Chicago getting trashed like a frat house during a kegger, or a Victoria's Secret model playing Shia LaBeouf's girlfriend (an upgrade on Megan Fox, if such things were thought possible), or classic cars, or the awe-inspiring Milwaukee Art Museum, or wing-suited paratroopers, or more giant robots fighting and knocking over skyscrapers — on it goes. It looks fantastic.

Where you'll find yourself hating it is in every line delivered by John Turturro, reprising his role as a Transformers-obsessed scientist, and by Frances McDormand, almost unbearable as a grating Secretary of Defense. That's when you'll realize, too, that you're getting riled over clunktastic performances in what is in essence the fanciest toy commercial ever.

We start with the premise that the entire Apollo space program was a cover to investigate an alien ship crash-landing on the back of the moon, so Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong are dispatched to beat the Ruskies to the alien paydirt. By this, the second "Transformers" sequel, the Autobots have saved Earth twice from the Decepticons and have been integrated into the U.S. government as some kind of stealth-car task force that rolls in and beats up bad guys. The investment and refinement in the Transformer effects — especially in, you know, transforming — have gone from quite good in the 2007 "Transformers" to virtually seamless in this third installment. Early on, when the Decepticons lure the Autobots into an ambush at Chernobyl, you'll truly believe that enormous mechanized sandworm-octopus monsters are gnashing through warehouses and fighting sentient cars and trucks in the desolate Ukraine.

Anyway, the Autobots finally learn of the crashed ship — one of theirs, from eons ago — and head to the moon to pick up some gadgetry and an old Autobot. (Sentinel Prime, voiced by Leonard Nimoy, who, besides his "Star Trek" fame, will be recalled by nerds as Galvatron in the 1985 "Transformers: The Movie.") Things don't turn out as they'd hoped, and it appears the human species may soon be enslaved. LaBeouf, back (for a final time, he has said) as Sam Witwicky, struggles through a demeaning life not saving the world with the Transformers until he realizes that he needs to help the Transformers save the world again. His slimy boss is played by John Malkovich, his girlfriend Carly (yuk, yuk) is the constantly ogled Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and her slimy boss is Patrick Dempsey. Present-day Buzz Aldrin is played semi-convincingly by present-day Buzz Aldrin.

There's plenty wrong with the script (you can imagine its bard, Ehren Kruger, exclaiming, "This thing writes itself!") and with the overall tone of the movie, which devolves into slapstick at the worst times: right before (and even during) murders, for instance. Surely some of the humor is there to leaven a bleak storyline in what is ostensibly still a kids' movie; the result is a beige emotional smoothie. This "Transformers" installment reminds us that dying and digitizing the alien-robot takeover of the world are easy; comedy is hard. If you can stomach fine actors slogging through leaden performances, though, the indulgent spectacle in this sucker is so, so worth it.

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