After being subjected to a scathing critical bashing for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (including harsh words from Megan Fox, one of the movie’s stars), Michael Bay apparently dedicated himself to cleaning up his act for the final installment in his epic trilogy based on the Hasbro toy line and animated series from the 1980s. Seeking out the best 3D technology available, Bay obviously wants this movie to be his Avatar.

Dark of the Moon kicks off with a sequence linking the arrival of an Autobot spacecraft from war-torn Cybertron with the secret hope for the future to Man’s efforts to reach the moon (the space race between the U.S. and Russia was all about discovering the crash site) and blends in archival footage with re-enactments staged to mirror those key historical moments. It is too bad that unlike X-Men: First Class, which also remixes 1960s history into its universe, Dark of the Moon never integrates those moments into a compelling and engaging narrative.

Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf) returns, although this time without long-time girlfriend Mikaela Banes (Fox), who has been replaced by another pillowy-lipped object (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) for everyone from her cheesy boss (Patrick Dempsey) to Bay’s creepily inappropriate camera to ogle from all conceivable angles, but he feels like he has been relegated to the sidelines. The young hero can’t find a job, even though he has a special medal of honor from President Obama, or spend any quality time with his transforming pals.

The Autobots and their human military partners, led by the largely anonymous Lennox (Josh Duhamel), race around the globe, ever-alert to Decepticon threats, but the stakes simply aren’t that high because screenwriter Ehren Kruger (reupping after Revenge of the Fallen) puts narrative blinders on, restricting the potential for the kind of techno-Bondian spyjinks and personal drama that made us care in a movie like First Class or that might even have some contemporary geopolitical relevance (maybe this is a sign that the war on terror is truly over).

Truth be told, the audience for this movie isn’t interested in the story and Bay knows it. Butts will settle into seats for the hyper-realized 3D action, which this time has been rendered in a slower, more drawn-out fashion for some semblance of coherence and continuity. The aim is a combination of the Bad Boys 2 and Matrix Reloaded highway sequences, only jacked up on steroids with the resulting feelings of barely contained rage. Bay gives us these money shots, and that’s exactly what they are, action porn releases. Like porn, it is all about the grand wham-bam-slam. The final hour, one long relentlessly excessive orgy of explosions, featuring the complete annihilation of Chicago, recalls, both in its soundtrack and its visual spirit, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and offers proof that Bay wants to be the thoughtless man’s Christopher Nolan and I would argue that he actually achieves a smashing degree of success, while maintaining his essential Bayness. (tt stern-enzi)