In the Marx Brothers classic Duck Soup, there's a scene in which Groucho's Rufus T. Firefly, the newly installed leader of Freedonia, receives a report from the Treasury Department. "I hope you'll find it clear," says the minister of finance. "Clear?" replies Firefly incredulously. "Why, a 4-year-old child could understand this report." Then he pauses for a beat: "Now run out and find me a 4-year-old child. I can't make head or tail of it."
Groucho's joke gets at the terrible paradox of Michael Bay's Transformers movies, now at three and counting: They're built around a line of children's toys -- and presumably appeal to the 4-year-old in all of us -- yet their mythology and their aesthetic are nearly beyond adult comprehension. And that may be the idea: Bay's hyperaggressive brand of juvenilia pumps sensation to the brain like a half-dozen hair dryers overloading the same circuit. Once the lights go out in your head, he's got you.
Forming a strange continuity with this summer's X-Men: First Class, which integrated the "mutants" into a shadow history of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Transformers: Dark of the Moon turns to its own '60s event by adding another conspiracy theory to the Apollo 11 landing. Back in 1961, the tortured narration explains, the freedom-loving Autobots, having nearly lost their home planet Cybertron to the tyrannical Decepticons, launched an Ark containing basic technology that could save their kind. But its carrier, the Autobot leader Sentinel Prime, wound up crashing on the moon. And thus we learn the real reason behind John F. Kennedy's initiative to send a man to the moon: to investigate a fallen alien spacecraft.
So far, so comic-booky good. Then we cut to the present day and things get considerably more muddled. The Decepticons have a plan to use sophisticated "pillars" to teleport more of their kind to Earth; the Autobots, those loyal protectors of mankind, are being blamed -- not unfairly -- for bringing trouble to the planet; and Sam Witwicky, the put-upon hero played by Shia LaBeouf, has another thin rationale for getting caught up in the globe-spanning fight between giant space robots. (He also has a new girlfriend to replace the exiled Megan Fox. Making her screen debut, Victoria's Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley never stops posing, like an animated bus-stop billboard.)
Ehren Kruger's script incorporates other factions as well, including a U.S. military-industrial complex imported from a Coen Brothers movie (Frances McDormand, John Turturro and John Malkovich are among the powerful), Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson as iron-jawed soldiers, Patrick Dempsey as an oily luxury car dealer, and more intrigue between good robots and bad robots than was strictly necessary. All roads lead to the ravaged streets of Chicago, where the Autobots and the Decepticons square off in a battle royale that chews up what feels like seven hours of screen time.
For fans of the Transformers series -- and judging by the numbers, there must be some beyond Golden Raspberry voters -- perhaps each installment is like a snowflake, with subtle distinctions that separate one from another. But like the last entry, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Transformers: Dark of the Moon demonstrates the problem with sequels to wildly successful bad movies: The filmmakers are eager to bottle the same anti-magic that pummeled audiences the first (and second) time around. That means more leering shots of hot cars and hot women, the absurd gravitas of a military propaganda film, the "comic relief" robots with foreign accents, and an editing style that's either legitimately avant-garde or timed to the wing-flaps of a deranged hummingbird.
Shot by shot, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, like all of Bay's work, has a meticulous commercial sheen that's distinctive and beautiful, but he never lingers on any one of them for long, and they rarely make sense in sequence. The climactic showdown in Chicago, for example, sets up simple enough goals for the opposing sides, but it's never clear where the Autobots, the Decepticons and the U.S. military are in relation to one another, or how near or far they are to achieving their respective goals. It's just open-ended chaos, a noisy fusillade of expensive effects that pop off like the grand finale of a July 4 celebration. And for Bay, that seems entirely by design. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit npr.org.