It's both ironic and appropriate that director Michael Bay's longest, loudest, and reportedly (hopefully?) last installment of his live-action toy commercial trilogy arrives at the same time Terrence Malick's Tree of Life is still showing in select cities. Both men demonstrate a preternatural fascination with photographing events at 'magic hour', and yet while Malick dedicates his not inconsiderable running-time to the unparalleled exploration of the human condition – encompassing, quite literally, the beginning of time – Michael Bay devotes his (which is even longer) to cheap comedic mugging and making lots and lots of shit explode.

One thing that can be said for Bay is that he's not a man short on confidence. Responding to his many critics – who are legion – who claim he is essentially the cinematic Antichrist, Bay matter-of-factly stated that he "makes movies for 15-year-old-boys" and didn't see why he should apologize for it. Responding to detractors of the first Transformers movie, Bay made a point during the sequel of literally dangling what amounted to a giant swinging robot nutsack in their collective faces, making it clear exactly what he thought of those hollering at him to perhaps dial it down some.

That said, such was the overwhelming critical derision directed at Revenge of the Fallen – loud, empty, quite unforgivably dull – that even Bay has seemingly taken some of it on board. Dark of the Moon has an actual plot that makes actual narrative sense if you care to follow it along. The frame rate is such that you can actually follow the action happening on screen, in terms of which giant glob of garish pixels is hitting which other giant glob of garish pixels. The walking, talking, racist cliches, Skids and Mudflap are gone.

But' that's it. Everything else is pure 'Bayhem', so to speak. The story is still garbage, and, in some cases, poor in taste; with the Decepticons now apparently gone, the Autobots now carry out American foreign policy in the Middle East. That is until it's discovered that the entire Apollo project was a cover to recover materials from a derelict Autobot craft that crashed on the moon. Materials the Deceptions now want. All that takes a backseat, however, to a parade of needless supporting characters who for the longest time marginalize the Transformers in their own movie.

Bay is many things, but a man with a keen sense of comic timing is not one of them. John Malkovich's overly-aggressive corporate exec is painful, Alan Tudyk's mincing Eurocrat is worse, and Ken Jeong – who is now officially overexposed – just needs to go away. Sam's parents are back, apparently so his mom can make more inappropriate sexual references in front of him. Then there is Sam himself, who, stripped of any and all charisma he had by a script determined to play for cheap laughs at the expense of everything else, is now a charmless schmuck with a nice sideline in endless whining.

Rosie Huntington-Whitely, in for the now persona non grata Megan Fox, who Bay seemingly can't resist one last dig at ("She was a bitch, we didn't like her"), is quite literally the replacement piece of ass, introduced just as Fox was in Revenge… with a lingering shot of her barely clothed derriere. A former Victoria's Secret model, she's perfectly inoffensive, although the few moments where she is required to speak seriously she just sounds like a prefect addressing the rest of the class at her private girl's school.

Only in the closing stages of what is a butt-numbing runtime is Bay content to just be the man that he is, and only then does Dark of the Moon really spring to life. A Decepticon invasion of Earth is unleashed, Chicago is laid waste, and Bay's position as the world's premier director of large-scale action is cemented. There is good reason why his nine films have grossed a collective $1.7 billion even while the general consensus is that they're all mostly awful. They are viscerally irresistible. It's just such a shame that, once again, everything he has seen fit to pad around his singular gift is just the most egregious nonsense.