I imagine that in seeking a replacement for the discarded Megan Fox in the Transformers series, two qualifications were foremost in the filmmakers' minds: one, a talent for wearing very tight clothing; and, two, the ability to scurry through fields of smoking rubble in kicky high heels. The woman—the actress, I suppose—who met these requirements was Rosie Huntington-Whitely, an English Victoria's Secret model. Rosie lacks Fox's forthright wenchiness, but you'll be happy to know that…
Well, who cares, really? Huntington-Whitely is the designated babe in this third Transformers destruct-a-thon. Shia LaBeouf, unlikeliest of action men, is back as young Sam Witwicky, friend to the noble Autobots, scourge of the evil Decepticons. And series regulars John Turturro, Tyrese Gibson, and Josh Duhamel, all returning for another tent-pole paycheck, are joined this time around by John Malkovich, Frances McDormand, and designated supporting stud Patrick Dempsey. It's a crowded movie, especially after packing in Optimus Prime, Megatron, and all the other clanking behemoths once again on hand. But who would have it any other way?
Writer Ehren Kruger, who worked on the last Transformers film (the widely reviled Revenge of the Fallen), here had script duties all to himself, and he has fashioned a narrative of ornate silliness—which is to say, pretty good pulpy fun, when it's not engulfed by digital hubbub. In a brisk prologue, we learn that America's 1969 Apollo flight was actually a mission to investigate a mysterious alien spaceship that had crashed on the dark side of the moon, and to bring back its payload of mysterious alien technology. That mission, in this telling, was accomplished.
Down on Earth decades later, in a scene that begins with a traveling closeup of Huntington-Whitely's eloquent behind, we find Sam desperate for a job now that he has graduated college. He finds one in a company run by the eccentric Bruce Brazos (played by Malkovich with his customary eccentricity), but then has to worry about a slick millionaire named Dylan (Dempsey) moving in on his new girlfriend (Huntington-Whitely). More stressful yet, a world-threatening emergency soon arises involving the helpful Autobots—exiled from their home planet of Cybertron and now employed as international trouble-shooters by U.S. intelligence—and the ferocious Decepticons, who are currently on their way to Earth with conquest and enslavement at the top of their to-do list.
Let's leave it at that. Along with attempting to extend the franchise with a serviceable script, director Michael Bay has also shot this installment in 3D, a process of decreasing wonderment. He uses it rousingly at many points, but given all of his usual blurry-cam cinematography (to obscure the digital seams in the series' rampant effects work), the result sometimes creates the sensation of being sucked into a CGI Mixmaster—and not always in a good way. Giant Transformers erupt out of everyday automotive transport to gallop down highways and smack each other around, and—in one of the film's more impressively constructed sequences—the skyscrapers of Chicago are knocked about like bowling pins. There is, you'll be unsurprised to know, an awful lot of this stuff.
It's also a problem that the most emotionally affecting characters here are the homesick Autobots. LaBeouf, an actor of limited charisma, still can't make much out of his character; and it doesn't help that in his scenes with the decorative Huntington-Whitely, sparks consistently fail to fly. LaBeouf also displays an alarming penchant for screamy-face overacting, in which he's exceeded only by the shameless Ken Jeong, playing an irritating Asian-American character named, I'm afraid, Wang. In addition, the dialogue is sometimes as clanky as the titular protagonists, as in "Defenders of Earth—we have come for your natural resources!"
The Transformers franchise has inevitably grown repetitive, and it's beginning to feel played out. This movie's overriding problem is the fact that it's nearly two and a half hours long. I'm sure the picture's target audience of Hasbro fanboys (who were cheering at the screening I attended) won't consider this a defect, but I found the last third of the film to be excruciatingly monotonous. That's just me, of course. Your move.
Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, will be published in November by St. Martin's Press.