In Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, a Decepticon — one of those evil robots that looks like a junk heap of pewter shards designed by H.R. Giger — floats around in space, where it sends a ball of fire rocketing to Earth. The asteroid-like object hits the ocean, where it emerges as a prancing metallic cougar, which then vomits out a mass of ball bearings, which somehow assemble themselves into a super-thin droid that’s like a Calder sculpture made entirely of jackknives. And it’s this dude who gets down to business, attempting to steal the shard that will animate the dormant Decepticons hidden on Earth. The sheer velocity of all this shape-shifting is dizzying and funny and zigzag cool. The sequence serves no real purpose beyond dazzle for dazzle’s sake, but when you’re watching it, that’s purpose enough. Revenge of the Fallen has a number of dead spots, but every time the movie hits one, you can sit back in eager, childish anticipation of the next feat of industrial whirligig diversion.

When I was growing up, no movie could take me out of this world quite like a giant-monster movie. Them! and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, Godzilla and his Japanese rubber-gigantor brethren: Even flickering from the confines of a small-screen TV, these creature features delivered a blast of apocalyptic awe that made their utter ricketiness as movies forgivable, at times endearing. I got a twinge of nostalgia for those days watching Revenge of the Fallen, in which the Decepticons resume their war against the Autobots, those friendly converted vehicles who wear their machine guts on the outside. The movie is sort of like the super-size, metal-on-metal version of an old nuclear-mutant monster battle.

Directed by Michael Bay, and co-executive produced by Steven Spielberg, Revenge of the Fallen is slovenly, bombastic, overly busy, and — at two hours and 29 minutes — far too long. The plot, which sends Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) to his freshman year at a debauched East Coast college and then to the ruins of Egypt, suggests an awkward smelting of Bret Easton Ellis and Indiana Jones; it offers more frantic incident than it does purpose or sense. Yet each time the film reaches another clash of the titans, it becomes more than just a souped-up toy commercial. These toys have wizardry and grandeur. And in the case of Optimus Prime, the noble Autobot who converts into his nuts-and-bolts self out of a truck with a nifty orange-flame insignia, they also have a glimmer of soul.

Shia LaBeouf seems to get taller and leaner, more confidently chiseled, with each new movie. But he’ll always have his precocious kid’s quick-start mind, and in Revenge of the Fallen, he uses it to play off on-screen girlfriend Megan Fox, with her porno-doll sultriness, as if they were in a romantic comedy. She’s like Angelina Jolie before Jolie got too serious to be irresponsibly sexy, and Revenge of the Fallen needs their jovial, flirtatious chemistry; the movie would be too much of a juvenile boys’ bash without it. At college, Sam, having touched one of those otherworldly shards, finds himself possessed by a series of ancient symbols, and though this development is just a thin rehash of Richard Dreyfuss’ possession in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, LaBeouf, talking a mile a minute, does something witty: He literally makes you feel that his brain is working too fast for his mouth. I liked the hurtling speed of these scenes — Ramon Rodriguez, from The Wire, brings his own motormouth brio to the role of Sam’s master-of-the-Internet roommate — but Bay, unfortunately, can’t sustain it. Whenever the U.S. military comes into the picture, the movie stiffens and lumbers, and the return of John Turturro as Sector 7 Agent Simmons is one babbling, pop-eyed tech freak too many.

At last year’s Comic-Con convention, several representatives of Revenge of the Fallen appeared with the slogan ”Bigger. F—ing. Robots.” on their T-shirts, and Bay, taking that cue, knows just what his job is relative to the first Transformers (2007): It’s to make the movie huger, louder, smashier, and — on the mechanical level — more crazily, audaciously imaginative. He succeeds. Revenge of the Fallen showcases an infectiously diverse brigade of chattery unfolding contraptions, from mechanical gremlins that transform out of kitchen appliances to one that erupts from a vintage airplane to a coed with a tongue of steel. Each of these creature-gizmos has a marvelous, organic fluidity — they don’t just move, they clank and roll. And it was an inspired touch to set the film’s most ferocious battle amid the Pyramids, featuring a Decepticon so humungous it just about waddles with power. Revenge of the Fallen may be a massive overdose of popcorn greased with motor oil. But it knows how to feed your inner 10-year-old’s appetite for destruction. B

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
  • Movie
  • 149 minutes