For those who aren’t already aware, let me bring you up to speed on my feelings about the Transformers film franchise. The short version is that the first movie has great sentimental value to me for reasons that have precious little to do with the film itself and mostly to do with events that I was privy to during the film’s run-up. I still haven’t seen the second film and I strongly doubt I ever will. For the long version, click here.

I had every intention of spurning the franchise’s most recent entry as I did Revenge of the Fallen, but then the reviews came out and said that this film was far better than the second one. That did not surprise me. Judging from what I know about RotF, I’d think it would be nearly impossible to dig that hole any deeper. What surprised me was just how enthusiastic the critical reception was. Finally, I decided that I just had to give Transformers: Dark of the Moon a shot for myself.

“But wait,” you might be wondering. “How can you review this movie after deliberately avoiding its prequel for so long? How can you possibly judge the story with any degree of context or continuity?” I would answer your hypothetical question with the reminder that we’re talking about a Michael Bay movie.

In fact, I really think this film would have been better if I hadn’t seen either of the two previous movies. For example, as the trailers and teasers have told us for however many months now, the film’s premise begins with a Cybertronian spaceship being discovered on the dark side of the moon back in the 1960s. The movie treats this discovery as a huge revelation… except that nobody in the upper echelons of the U.S. government connects these dots to Megatron, who would have been frozen in Hoover Dam for forty years by that point. Anyway, the spaceship was launched as part of a plan to rebuild Cybertron. A plan, we later learn, that has absolutely nothing to do with the Allspark, which seems like a rather crucial missing ingredient as it was supposed to be the origin of all Cybertronian life.

Naturally, the plot holes don’t end there. For example, recurring hero Sam Witwicky is presently a college graduate and has difficulty in finding a job. This is a natural step in his character development and it’s a perfectly relatable situation in this economic climate — especially among people his age — not that I would know anything about that *ahem*. Anyway, you may be asking why Sam is having such a hard time finding work after he helped save the world twice. Well, the given explanation is that as far as the government’s concerned, the events of the previous two films never happened. This might have been a plausible explanation if there was any remote chance that the government could possibly cover up the existence of giant fucking robots wreaking explosive havoc unto heavily populated areas. Add in some televised newscasts implying that the Transformers’ existence is common knowledge and I’m left wondering if the matter is classified or not.

Another example: In this film, the Decepticons have human lackeys. See, the Decepticons’ grand plan this time is that they need slave laborers to help rebuild Cybertron and they convinced a few humans to get an early start at welcoming their new robot overlords. 1. The movie establishes that these traitors were at the Decepticons’ beck and call since the late ’70s, so why didn’t they call on these traitors at any point in either of the two previous films? 2. If humans are so badly needed for slave labor, then why do the bad robots vaporize thousands of terrified civilians?

So, yeah. The story of this movie is of Bay’s usual standard. By the same token, the film’s “comedy” is every bit as painful as we’ve come to expect from this franchise. Mercifully, the jokes aren’t nearly as gross (Bumblebee pissing) or offensive (the Twins, both AWOL) as the humor from previous installments. Instead, the comedy relief here is just annoying and unfunny, so much so that it’s hard to tell just who the worst comic character is. John Turturro as recurring headache Agent Simmons is the easy answer, but his character is relatively restrained this time. Two better candidates would be Kevin Dunn and Julie White, both of whom are still painful and useless as Sam’s parents ever were. John Malkovich also appears, his mouth frothing over with all the scenery he chews (which is particularly dangerous here, given the nature of this film’s CGI scenery). Frances McDormand is totally wasted, Patrick Dempsey is awful and Ken Jeong loses whatever dignity he hasn’t already given toward a much worthier cause on Community. Alan Tudyk is also in the cast, but I have far too much respect for the man to remember his performance here.

Then there’s the matter of Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. On the one hand, I applaud Michael Bay for finally coming to the realization that Megan Fox can’t act. Good for him. On the other hand, giving Sam a completely new love interest at this watershed stage of the franchise was a very bad move. Even worse, they made the new character entirely useless and cast her with yet another supermodel who can’t act. Furthermore, maybe it’s just me, but I’ve been seeing pictures of RHW for weeks now and I simply don’t get the attraction. Something about those engorged, collagen-inflated lips just puts me off.

And what of Shia LaBeouf? Well, he continues to be the humanity of the franchise and he’s gotten exceptionally comfortable in the role. His initial dorkiness in the job search and jealousy with regards to RHW’s character did get a touch grating, but that’s what I was expecting from the character. What I wasn’t expecting was how confident Sam suddenly became when shit started hitting the fan. Sam has grown to trust the Autobots implicitly after two movies of this chaos and he’s most at ease when he’s working with them, even and especially in the face of danger. That was a very refreshing bit of character development and I’m glad to have seen LaBeouf play it so well.

As for the Transformers, Peter Cullen is always a pleasure to hear in one of his signature roles and Bumblebee seems to have found a happy medium between speech and radio effects. Hugo Weaving is hammy as ever in the role of Megatron and though Frank Welker did get a few lines as Soundwave, I’d like to have heard more from him. The most notable voice acting newcomer is Leonard Nimoy, who not only voiced Galvatron back in the ’80s but also married into Michael Bay’s family. Nimoy does a perfectly serviceable job voicing Optimus’ old mentor, though the character is prone to monologuing and there were a few Spock jokes that made me groan out loud. I won’t even get started on the pint-sized Autobots who exist for the sole purpose of annoying Sam.

In case I haven’t made it already clear, I do have quite a few issues with this movie. Sam’s love life and his unemployment are both terribly uninteresting and this movie’s attempts at humor are unwatchable. But then, just when it all starts to be too much, the comedy relief gets brutally injured in the crossfire of a giant robot fight that’s suddenly broken out.

Ah… bliss.

I know that Bay has made his name on over-the-top action, but he was clearly not fucking around this time. The action is very clever, taking the “robots in disguise” concept to new heights while also introducing the notion that Autobots can fire weapons without completely transforming (I’m sure both helped with the toy sales as well, I might add). The fights are easy to follow, since the Autobots are all bright and colorful while the Decepticons are drab and gray. Additionally, though the Decepticons’ plan makes absolutely no sense in the big picture, the immediate details are clear enough that its plain to see who’s fighting and why.

Best of all, the action is big. Really big. Extraordinarily big. I’m talking about entire skyscrapers being used as weapons. Dozens of Transformers fighting all at once. Franchise mainstays getting utterly mutilated. The cities of Washington D.C. and Chicago are both completely and totally laid to waste (there’s a Blues Brothers joke there somewhere…). Hell, the climax of this film is just a solid hour of wall-to-wall Bayhem to make your fingers ache from gripping the seats and your eyes bleed from all the awesome.

The icing on the cake is in how all this chaos is set up. Throughout the entire first and second acts, the narrative keeps finding new ways to punch our heroes in the collective gut. I found it absolutely enthralling to watch our heroes keep fighting the good fight, only to see them playing right into the enemies’ hands. This is exactly how an alien invasion movie is supposed to go: Watching the invading forces grow stronger and stronger, crushing the entire planet with an iron grip until all hope seems utterly lost — and then the heroes make some clever and unexpected play to win against improbable odds.

Last but not least, the visuals in this movie definitely deserve a mention. I had to pass on the 3D option because the 2D showtimes were better for my schedule, and I came to regret that roughly 30 seconds into the picture. Don’t get me wrong, this movie was good enough in 2D, but everything about it practically screams to be seen through polarized lenses. I hesitate to endorse something I haven’t personally seen, but if the 3D in this movie is as awesome as I think it is, you’ll definitely want to pay the premium. The editing in the action scenes was quite good, though the entire film had this annoying tendency to cut to black for no real reason. As for the effects, I find it quite interesting that ILM can so wonderfully make CGI robots and property damage to this tremendous degree, yet they can’t make a couple of presidential impersonators look halfway passable.

Getting right down to it, Transformers: Dark of the Moon has the exact same strengths and weaknesses that the franchise’s first film did: When robots are beating the crap out of each other, the movie is enjoyable. When they aren’t, it isn’t. When this movie is good, it’s phenomenal. When it’s bad, it’s flat-out intolerable. Fortunately, Bay apparently had the good sense to cram all the terrible humor into the movie’s front end, pepper it with some occasional action scenes, and then leave the back half for nothing but action. As such, terrible as the initial pain is, it passes quickly and may easily be forgotten. For this reason, and because this film absolutely must be seen on a giant 3D screen, I can give this film a recommendation.

As for the future of this franchise, Bay has made it amply clear that this will be his last Transformers film. However, considering the amount of money this film has already made, it’s safe to assume that the series will continue without him. On the one hand, Bay has clearly taken this franchise as far as he can. The formula is growing stale and some new blood might do some good. On the other hand, Bay has clearly taken this franchise as far as he can. Given who lives and who dies, what’s left for the Transformers to do? And where could Sam Witwicky’s character possibly go at this point that wouldn’t come off as tired and boring? No, some kind of reset button will have to be pushed. I’m guessing that a new human protagonist will come in, with LaBeouf on hand to pass the torch. Some new magic device to revive fallen Cybertronians may be necessary as well. Last but not least, it’s hard to imagine how any director could top the epic level of destructive insanity shown in this film. For my money, there’s really only one thing left to do and I’m amazed they haven’t done it sooner: They’ll have to bring in Unicron.