Transformers: Dark of the Moon (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
During the prologue of Transformers: Dark of the Moon — director Michael Bay's latest feature-length rolling-around-in-piles-of-money cinemajaculation — we learn a plot-crucial piece of revisionist history. The Apollo moon program, it seems, was a direct response to indications that something had crashed on the moon in 1961. When the Apollo 11 astronauts land in '69, their rover explorations include a top-secret mission to investigate the wreckage of a spacecraft — one that carries a powerful piece of Autobot technology.
If you can imagine a way of conveying this information in a few efficient minutes of exposition, you are not Michael Bay. Because Bay is going to turn that prologue into 10 minutes of cinematic throat-clearing. We see Nixon congratulating the astronauts, mission control cheering and Walter Cronkite smiling giddily.
And that, in a nutshell, is what makes Bay's Transformers movies so consistently slam-bang mediocre: There appears to be no part of his filmmaking DNA that signals him when it's time to shut up.
So here we are again, with Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) now a college graduate who can't find a job despite having, in his words, "saved the world twice." But trouble is bound to find him once Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) rescues the former Autobot leader, Sentinel Prime (Leonard Nimoy), from that moon-crashed spacecraft, and he discovers a terrible conspiracy hatched by Decepticon head-honcho Megatron (Hugo Weaving).
For a little while, the new blood suggests that you could hope for more than incrementally less suckage than previous Transformers movies. Sam's new girlfriend, Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), is basically a mannequin in form-fitting clothes, but there's also John Malkovich (as Sam's finicky boss), Ken Jeong (as a paranoid engineer who knows too much), Alan Tudyk (as bodyguard/assistant to John Turturro's manic ex-government agent, returning from Revenge of the Fallen) and Patrick Dempsey (as a billionaire playboy). Every one of them gets at least one solidly entertaining moment.
But that's also a bunch of additional stuff, and while Ehren Kruger's screenplay may be slightly more streamlined than Revenge of the Fallen, it's still bursting with generally pointless asides, like a scene in which Sam gets romantic advice from his parents, or nudging references to Nimoy's Star Trek work. And Bay is sure to find room for a scene in which Sam and another guy are caught in a bathroom stall together, because nothing is more hilarious than the possibility that someone might be gay.
If there's anything pleasantly surprising in Dark of the Moon, it's that Bay actually constructs what may be his first coherent action sequence ever, in which Sam and his military pals, including Lennox (Josh Duhamel) and Epps (Tyrese Gibson), are attacked by a python-like Decepticon while in a precariously tilting Chicago skyscraper.
Yet that's only a snippet of a final hour that plays like the latest tedious variation on hoo-rah alien invasion tales like Battle: Los Angeles and Skyline. Yes, Autobots and Decepticons tear into one another with occasionally slow-motion ferocity. Yes, it's sort of cool-looking occasionally. But after two-and-a-half-hours, it feels like the robots are slamming into you.
Those who defend monotonous action spectacles often tell detractors to "lighten up." That's a valuable sentiment, but it's pointed in the wrong direction. It's Bay whose approach to filmmaking feels in desperate need of lightening, a sense of when to pare down. In keeping with its opening sequence, Dark of the Moon is yet another Michael Bay movie in which any given 10 minutes would almost certainly be better as only three.