And so, Transformers: Dark of the Moon is not quite a good film, in the sense that those often have stories and character development and other types of baggage Michael Bay would jettison off a commercial airline flight just to see the passengers' reactions, but it is an effective film in that it is compulsively watchable and delivers the kind of action pyrotechnics I desperately wanted from the original Transformers in 2007 but did not get. (I didn't see the second, but I read the Wikipedia summary. No knowledge of it is is necessary to enjoy this one.) The movie runs a ridiculous 154 minutes, and yet, somehow I remained engaged through all of it, maybe out of sheer curiosity to see if Michael Bay could become any more Michael Bay than he already is. Perhaps he might have manifested himself in every theater in America, screaming the national anthem before disappearing in an explosion. It didn't happen at my showing, but it was a press screening, so he could be saving that for opening night.
The story, if you could call it that, involves a Transformer named Sentinel Prime (Leonard Nimoy), who crashed on the moon in the 1960s and is re-awakened by Optimus Prime (voice of Peter Cullen) in the present day. This sets in motion a chain of events that build to a Transformer war, with Megatron (voice of Hugo Weaving) on one side, and Optimus on the other, with the fate of the human race dangling in the middle. It's all supremely silly -- I still expect audiences to laugh when the "In Association With Hasbro" credit pops up -- but Bay seems conscious of its silliness, and endeavors to include as many shots of robots blowing each other's heads off with arm cannons and dueling with giant swords and other awesome shit like that.
Eventually, we are returned to Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), the protagonist from the last two films, and his girlfriend Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, who might've just dyed her hair black and tried to trick the audience into thinking she was a boring and even emptier version of Megan Fox). Sam is irritated that after his participation in the battle between Autobots and Decepticons, he's been out of college for a few months and still doesn't have a job with the military, or with anyone at all, for that matter. LaBeouf makes these scenes work by making Sam a loud, cocky, impatient dick, which seems fitting somehow; I wonder if he's trying to channel his director. Being supermodel gorgeous, with big puffy lips and blonde hair, Carly is introduced with no pants on and has a great job doing something complicated at an auto manufacturer. Her boss, Dylan (Patrick Dempsey), ribs Sam by referring to a car as "trying to evoke the curves of a woman," while both Dylan and the camera stare lecherously at Carly. Oh, Michael.
Ultimately, Bay's primary success here is casting. In addition to Dempsey (pleasingly cynical), Dark of the Moon boasts an elaborate roster of recognizable, exceptional professionals, like John Malkovich (ridiculous), Frances McDormand (deadly serious), Ken Jeong (psychotic), and Alan Tudyk (over-the-top), who give the film color around its big silly edges. McDormand in particular adds a level of gravitas to the first half of the movie that really greases the wheels, and even though she's relegated to the far back in the last third, she shares her time with returning player John Turturro, with whom she has amusing chemistry. Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, Kevin Dunn, and Julie White also return, and they all get to do a little bit of their schtick (although in Duhamel's case, that basically amounts to exposition).
Everything else is action, action, action. I disliked the original Transformers in part because Bay placed his camera too close to the action, turning robo-a-robo Transformer battles into an incomprehensible mash of gears and wheels. This time, Bay is better with his action geography and choreography, illustrating fights from a distance and turning down the dust clouds a little bit. The 3D often helps, adding a dizzying sense of height to moments such as several characters leaping out onto the side of a tilting glass building, or troops in gliding suits diving out of falling helicopters and soaring an improbable distance across the city. Bay even gets a touch inventive with a scene that has a character attached to a rope embedded in a Decepticon's face being flung around like a yo-yo. None of it looks remotely survivable, but it's exciting.
I was tepid on Fast Five, unimpressed by Pirates of the Caribbean, and annoyed at Super 8. Transformers: Dark of the Moon is not a triumph of cinema, but Bay sticks to what he is undeniably good at, and trims away much of the toxic nonsense that suffocated the original. He successfully creates an audio/visual experience that rattles your brain cells until they can't function enough to remind yourself that there's nothing of substance here, and I mean that in the nicest possible way, because Bay does this with the utmost drive and concentration. It's silly schlock, elevated as far as it can be with skillful, bombastic technique -- it is exactly what meets the eye.