It turns out that the giant leap Neil Armstrong made on the moon in 1969 wasn't for mankind. The space race was purely designed as an excuse for Michael Bay to unleash another Transformers movie. Kind of like the way the Cuban Missile Crisis brought together the X-Men; a small step for creativity.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon is 21/2-hours loud, with more clanging metal than a road tour of Stomp. Trucks and cars still turn into intergalactic warriors but the remarkable conversion is the way Bay turns two movies of cinematic scrap metal into a halfway decent third. Not rocket science by a moonshot but sporadically dumb fun.
Starting with a pseudo-history lesson — and three waxy stand-ins who couldn't fool the Hall of Presidents crowd — Dark of the Moon briskly sets up a conspiracy theorist's dream. Apollo 11 was an expedition to discover a crashed alien spacecraft, proving we are not alone. Bay even hires a real-life NASA hero for a cameo of confirmation so, you know, it could happen.
Back on present-day Earth, the savior of mankind (twice!) Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is having trouble adjusting to a Decepticon-free world. Sam has an Ivy League degree but no job, a hot girlfriend named Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) but little confidence that he can keep her, and he misses his Autobot sidekicks Bumble Bee and Optimus Prime.
Don't sweat the details, but Sam gets back into action with Carly joining him because if there's one thing Bay gets right in these movies besides mayhem, it's horny-teen fetishism. There's a scene in which someone describes an expensive car as "elegant, sensual … those curves" and the camera never strays from ogling Carly. Subtlety has no place in this movie.
Long, long story short: That spacecraft on the moon is a tomb for Sentinel Prime (voice of Leonard Nimoy), the long lost Autobots leader who taught Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) everything he knows. But Optimus doesn't know everything about Sentinel. Theirs is the best defined relationship in Dark of the Moon, with Nimoy in particular able to invest relatable human qualities in a robot.
Meanwhile, Decepticon leader Megatron (Hugo Weaving) plots to take over Earth because these pillars his minions found can form a space breach and blah, blah, blah. Just sit back and watch the fireworks.
Those effects are special, indeed, and relentless to the brink of exhaustion. Bay pulls out all the stops and grenade pins to present dazzling 3-D destruction, and this time the extra bucks for glasses are worth it. Nearly one-third of Dark of the Moon is devoted to a bombastic Chicago showdown with a sky-gliding SWAT team, a tilting skyscraper and death ray disintegrations. It's like Bay throwing down the gauntlet to James Cameron and Roland Emmerich, saying: "Beat this." I don't doubt that they will try.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.