LOS ANGELES (AP) - Director Michael Bay promises that the third "Transformers" movie is way better than the second.
The 46-year-old's pride was bruised after part two of the franchise, 2009's "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," did a bang-up job at the box office (bringing in more than $400 million domestically) but was roundly beat-up by critics. Rolling Stone's Peter Travers said the movie was so "beyond bad, it carves out its own category of godawfulness." It also won the Razzie that year for worst director, worst script and worst film.
Now, Bay is back with "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," which opens in IMAX 3-D on Tuesday night and goes wide at midnight Wednesday. When asked to describe the new movie, Bay said, "it's a lot better than No. 2."
"This one is much more of a mystery," he said, sitting at a shady outdoor table on the Paramount lot. "It's really epic in scope, it's got more heart. It's kind of back down to basics. Movie two, we kind of went off on a tangent."
That tangent brought Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) and his giant robot friends and foes to Egypt, where he and the noble Autobots fought to save humankind - and the Earth and the sun - from the evil Decepticons. LaBeouf said the second film was "just far too complicated," but volume three is "simple enough to be able to enjoy. ... It's without a doubt our best film."
Besides a more straightforward plot, "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" introduces new cast members Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Patrick Dempsey, Ken Jeong and Victoria's Secret model Rosie Hungtington-Whiteley, who replaces Megan Fox as Sam's love interest. (Bay told GQ magazine that executive producer Steven Spielberg demanded he fire Fox after she compared Bay to Hitler.)
"Dark of the Moon" also introduces a whole new dimension as Bay's first 3-D film. Though he didn't initially embrace the technology, the film lent itself to 3-D "because just the size differential between robots and humans," the director said. "You can really feel it."
Shooting in 3-D affected his filming style, requiring longer shots and wider frames. It's more expensive and more time consuming, but ultimately Bay found he enjoyed "sculpting with space" and pushing the boundaries of the technology.
He shot more than half the footage with 3-D cameras, including soaring images captured by wing-suited stuntmen flying off of high-rise buildings. "We were able to strap that camera on things that it's never been on before," he said. "You look at it and you just know it's real. You can't fake that stuff."
Only 10 to 15 percent of the movie is completely computer generated. The remaining footage was carefully converted from flat images to dimensional ones by a team of more than 5,000 artists who spent a year on the project. Even Spielberg gave the 3-D his thumbs-up, Bay said. "Spielberg said to me, "This is the best 3-D I've ever seen,"' the director proudly recalled. "And, you know, he doesn't blow smoke."
"Transformers: Dark of the Moon" opens with the historic American moon landing, which ends up being more than an exploratory mission advancing the U.S. space program and national pride. It turns out a Cybertronian spaceship crash-landed there, and the astronauts are there to investigate.
Like the second "Transformers" flick, this story spans the globe, from China to Africa to Angkor Wat. The film has its world premiere this week in Moscow, which became a billion-dollar movie market in 2010. The last "Transformers" was China's biggest box-office hit to date. Bay said international test screenings of No. 3 have impressed audiences so far, and he makes his movies for audiences, not critics.
"Honestly, they've had a field day making fun of me, but people go to my movies in droves," Bay said. "You can't do movies for critics. You've got to do movies that you like and you feel in your gut and hopefully the audience likes."
This time, the sprawling story culminates with skyscrapers toppling on Chicago's Michigan Avenue. Peter Cullen, who voices lead Autobot Optimus Prime, said Bay was like the chief of his own army during the making of "Transformers." "I compare him to Norman Schwarzkopf, you know, Stormin' Norman. Here's a guy in charge of this massive undertaking, and he gets it done," said the veteran voice actor.
Despite a history of action-packed box-office juggernauts, Bay said with the longer shots and 3-D action scenes, "this one really tops myself."
LaBeouf said pride also had a lot to do with it. "Everybody just fired on another level on this movie," he said. "We all have a lot of pride, you know. And so everybody came to really play this time."
AP Entertainment Writer Derrik J. Lang contributed to this report.