During the prologue of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, we learn some revisionist history. The Apollo moon program, it seems, was a response to indications that something had crashed on the moon in 1961. The Apollo 11 astronauts' 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 director Michael Bay. Because Michael Bay is going to turn that prologue into 10 minutes of cinematic throat-clearing, including showing 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 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. 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 in Dark of the Moon provides a whiff of hope. True, Sam's new girlfriend, Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), offers nothing more than a body on which to drape form-fitting clothes, but there's also John Malkovich (as Sam's finicky boss), Alan Tudyk (as the bodyguard/assistant to John Turturro's manic ex-government agent) 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 to shove into a Transformers movie made by a guy who never understands that it's okay to leave some stuff out.
If there's anything pleasantly surprising in Dark of the Moon, it's that Bay constructs what may be his first coherent action sequence ever, in which Sam and his military pals are attacked by a python-like Decepticon while in a precariously tilting Chicago skyscraper. Bay actually allows time for the geography of humans in peril to create tension. Yet that's only a snippet of a final hour that plays like the latest tedious variation on hoo-rah alien invasion tales.
Those who defend Bay's Transformers and other monotonous action spectacles often chide detractors with a call to "lighten up." But it's Bay whose filmmaking feels leaden and in desperate need of lightening, a sense of when to pare down and find focus.