Transformers 3 Shia
Credit: Robert Zuckerman
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The new Transformers: Dark of the Moon footage shows a giant, burrowing robot with city-block-length metallic tentacles wrapping itself around the middle of a skyscraper and crushing it like a beer can.

The bad news for Shia LaBeouf is he’s on one of the top floors of the now hourglass-shaped structure, which is beginning to tip. Optimus Prime and the other Autobots have given them cover fire, helping clear a path through the decimated city of Chicago, but Decepticons are prowling everywhere, far outnumbering them. The bad ‘bots deal with puny humans easily enough: they’re armed with weapons that neatly reduce the city’s fleeing population to piles of smoking bones.

That’s what a small group of reporters got to see at Paramount Studios as Michael Bay previewed some of the upcoming movie.

“This one is a more mature storyline. It’s definitely darker,” Bay says. “When people see the movie, they feel it’s more emotional at the end. The stakes are higher because it takes place in an American city. You’re not as disconnected with Egypt and the pyramids, which are kind of otherworldly.”

As the footage plays on a massive screen at Paramount, Bay sits in the row behind a small group of journalists. He seems nervous, and wants to hear the verdict.

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Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

There’s no way to judge Transformers 3 yet based only on these scenes (which Bay admitted choosing because they revealed little about the plot). But what we saw: Craaaazy!

Spaceship crashes on the moon. Squads of American fighter jets casually shot down in the sky over Chicago like flies sprayed with bug spray. LaBeouf’s Sam Witwicky brawling, man against machine, in a back alley with the Decepticon jet Starscream. (Hint: When fist-fighting a giant robot, it helps to have a grappling hook. And aim for the eyeball.) Wounded V-22 Ospreys slamming into each other as soldiers skydive between the colliding tiltrotor planes, then swooping through the city’s canyons on wingsuits, like flying squirrels, dodging Decepticon fire …

Like I said: Craaaazy.

The anything-goes canvas is why Bay says he likes this franchise. “Anything you imagine with Transformers makes it fun,” the director says. “When you do a movie like Bad Boys 2, there’s only so many things cops can do.”

Bay also has something to prove after 2009’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. “You’ve heard what I’ve said about [the second film] and whatnot,” Bay says. He called that movie’s villain, The Fallen, “kind of a bulls— character” and acknowledged he needed to shed the goofball humor and craft more coherent battles. “Yes, people may have been turned off by it,” he said. “We may have gone a little south in the direction, but we were under the gun with a terrible writers strike.”

That led the production to commit to giant set pieces before they were fully thought out, since moving such a large crew around the world requires a lot of planning that can’t be easily or cheaply reversed. But even in the midst of acknowledging mistakes, he still notes: “You don’t make that much money on a movie ($836 million worldwide), and it doesn’t become No. 1 at the American box office that year if people hated the movie.” Well, it was No. 2 behind Avatar. But who’s counting?

Shooting in 3-D, which requires a steadier shot to be effective, led him to tame his more frenetic tendencies. Meanwhile, the humor in the film is still on the strange side, though Bay says it’s not as over-the-top as it was in the previous movie. John Malkovich plays a psychotic boss who torments LaBeouf’s Sam in the early parts of Transformers 3, and the film has two small robots who are aimed at making kids laugh. “They start out a bit goofy, but they have a huge comeback,” Bay says.

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

Will he gratuitously kill the jive-talking robot twins, two of the most hated cinematic characters since Jar Jar Bi– ?

Bay answers before the question is finished. “They’re not even in it. Not. Even. In. It,” he says.

The director spent approximately eight months working with screenwriter Ehren Kruger on the new script. (Bay’s inspiration for the crushed center of the skyscraper came while doing crunches at a gym, coincidentally.) They modeled the climax in Chicago on the true-life saga of Black Hawk Down, in which stranded American soldiers in Somalia had to fight their way out of Mogadishu alone after their chopper crashed.

The director known for always trying to top himself decided to make this one more of a lean machine after the narrative sprawl of Transformers 2. “I don’t want to say it’s bigger,” Bay says. “What I like about it is, we use the term ‘Black Hawk Down’ in that it’s a small group that you follow and there’s no cavalry coming. We tried to make the cavalry unable to come. It makes the movie more intimate.”

So Sam and the team of soldiers who have been paired with the Autobots since the first movie (led by Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson) make their way into Chicago after the Decepticons have seized control of it and reduced a lot of it to rubble – just what they have against the Windy City remains a mystery. The reason the guys are risking their lives is simple enough: Love. Sam’s girlfriend (played by Victoria’s Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) is trapped in that one ill-fated skyscraper. Wouldn’t you go after her too?

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

“In testing this movie, audiences are like, ‘I don’t believe it at first, their relationship,'” Bay acknowledges. “But then they say at the end of the movie, ‘I understand it.’ You buy it more.”

Why don’t audiences buy it at first? Bay hints that he got the same reaction regarding Megan Fox in the other movies, and jokes that it’s Shia’s fault. “I mean, come on. How’s Shia going to get two of these beautiful women?” he scoffs. It’s true. He’s a good-looking dude, but the opening shot of her climbing the steps to his bedroom while wearing little more than a button-down shirt is enough to make any guy feel like a turnip.

Bay has been feeling self-doubt for another reason. The aftershocks of negative reaction to Revenge of the Fallen still sting for the bombastic moviemaker. Taking it to heart is uncharacteristic of Bay, who has always been a critical whipping boy. Even the screenwriters, however, have acknowledged the four-month Writers Guild strike during that movie’s pre-production phase led to half-baked ideas. Bay says he was reluctant to put the movie on hold because he is loyal to his crew, and it would have significantly pushed back paychecks they were counting on. (Screenwriter Roberto Orci recently said Bay “considers himself kind of a jobs program.”) “Listen, these guys, the men and women who work for me, they have families and I’ve worked with these people, a lot of them, 16, 18 years,” Bay says. “It was a s— position to be it. You promise a thousand people jobs and then all of the sudden, uh oh, a small group is on strike – three of our crew members.”

Bay wants to do better this time. “A lot of people on the third one would just check out, get a paycheck,” he says. “I’ve been working every day for two years, every single day, because I want to make-up for the second one. And I want to leave this franchise as best I can.”

Will he succeed? “You never can say you’ve done your best. You just try your hardest,” he says. “We’ll see when it comes out.”

Look for it July 1 (in case the new image from Paramount left any doubt.)

For more on Transformers and other movie news, follow EW’s Anthony Breznican on Twitter @Breznican.

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