Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Director : Michael Bay
Screenplay : Ehren Kruger & Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2009
Stars : Shia LaBeouf (Sam Witwicky), Megan Fox (Mikaela Banes), Josh Duhamel (Major Lennox), Tyrese Gibson (USAF Master Sergeant Epps), John Turturro (Agent Simmons), Ramon Rodriguez (Leo Spitz), Kevin Dunn (Ron Witwicky), Julie White (Judy Witwicky), Isabel Lucas (Alice), John Benjamin Hickey (Galloway), Glenn Morshower (General Morshower), John Eric Bentley (Aide), Erin Naas (Arcee Rider), Rainn Wilson (Professor Colan)
While not an absolute certainty, I think it is fairly safe to say that no other movie this year, and quite possibly for the next several years, will so sharply and absolutely define the vast gulf between critical consensus and what American moviegoers will go to see than Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. At the time of this writing, a mere two days into its theatrical run, Bay’s latest overstuffed opus is closing in on $90 million in box-office grosses while its Tomatometer rating--hardly the end-all-be-all of respectable critical thought, but not a bad gauge either--is at a lowly 21%.
What is most despairing about this situation is not that it reflects some significant divide between high-brow critics and low-brow audience taste. From what I can gather, most of the people who are going to see Revenge of the Fallen don’t really like it all that much. But, it’s a massive summer juggernaut, hyped and advertised with a blitzkrieg mentality that matches Bay’s approach to filmmaking, and much of the moviegoing population dutifully heads out in lockstep fashion to be part of the event, even if the event itself is less exciting than it is simply exhausting. Many viewers will probably be tricked into thinking they liked the film simply because it assaulted their senses with such unrelieved vigor, but I doubt that many of them will still be talking about it several days from now or even have clear recollections of what, exactly, they saw.
To put it simply, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen takes everything that was bad about the first Transformers movie two years ago, and amplifies it to deafening proportions. Once again drawn from the Hasbro line of plastic toys that every kid who grew up in the ’80s remembers with much fondness, Revenge of the Fallen has a mentality that is clearly aimed at the 8-year-old set, although most parents of children that age will probably not appreciate Bay’s fetishistic treatment of various female bodies and coarse stabs at crude humor, the epitome of which begins with the ho-ho-ho image of a Chihuahua humping a bulldog and culminates with a ho-ho-ho image of a squawking miniature Transformer humping Megan Fox’s leg. One could say that the movie is really aimed at grown men’s inner 8-year-olds, yet even my admittedly childish inner child found no humor in the utterly lame sight gag of a Transformer’s giant testicles, which is made all the lamer by the movie’s perceived need to have a character actually point them out.
Ehren Kruger (The Ring) and previous Transformer scribes Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (who clearly depleted all their good ideas writing J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot) cook up less of a storyline than an excuse for action that involves the continuing battle between two races of sentient alien-robot beings that are able to transform into various forms of machinery, including cars, motorcycles, jet planes, helicopters, and in one ludicrous scene, an entire kitchen’s worth of appliances. The good guys are the Autobots, led by Optimus Prime, and the bad guys are the Decipticons, led by Megatron, although when they engage in their many (and I mean many) furious battles, it’s anyone’s guess who’s who because all we see is whirring blurs of multicolor metal and movement, with little effort to guide our understanding or concern. It’s testament to the movie’s utter vacuity that it really doesn’t matter who is smashing who at any given moment, although the various Transformers are given paper-thin personalities that rely primarily on grafting offensive cultural stereotypes onto their machine parts.
As with my review of the first Transformers movie, I note that I have gotten a full five paragraphs into the review without needing to mention any of the human characters (outside of Fox’s leg). Of course, there are humans in the movie, but they are so one-dimensional and uninteresting that they could be jettisoned with only minimal loss. Shia LaBeouf returns as teenager and Autobot best bud Sam Witwicky, who is about to embark on his freshman year at college, which means that he will have to maintain his romantic relationship with girlfriend Mikaela (Megan Fox) long distance. Sam’s parents (Kevin Dunn and Julie White) are given substantially larger roles, but much to the film’s detriment as they provide little more than a shrieking, shrewish presence that is supposed to qualify as a family dynamic (note how Bay shamelessly attempts to use them, as well as soaring choral music and slow motion, to add emotional gravitas to the film’s climactic violence).
We also get the return of John Turturro’s paranoid CIA Agent Simmons and the introduction of Leo Spitz (Ramon Rodriguez), Sam’s even more paranoid tech-geek roommate whose constant motor mouth is an ample metaphor for the film’s assaultive loud-is-better aesthetic. Not surprisingly, all of these characters are vastly overshadowed by the film’s enormous visual effects, some of which are disappointingly cartoonish, although most of them are duly impressive from a purely technical standpoint. The film’s highlight is a forest-set one-on-one battle between Optimus Prime and Megatron, and the only reason it lingers in the memory is because Bay actually holds his shots for more than a few seconds, lending the sequence a modicum of spatial coherence. The long and extremely drawn-out climax set around and on top of the Great Pyramids in Egypt is little more than an endurance test. There’s a reason, after all, that most roller coasters only last 90 seconds.
More than anything, though, Revenge of the Fallen is about Michael Bay’s love of Michael Bay. He accomplishes this in myriad ways, most explicitly by prominently placing a poster for Bad Boys II (2003) in Sam’s dorm room, and more subtly (but not really) by citing visuals from his previous films, including a shower of fiery objects taking out buildings in Paris and causing the collapse of a steeple that is taken virtually shot for shot from Armageddon (1998) and later the destruction of an aircraft carrier that is an obvious nod to Pearl Harbor (2001). But, the manner in which Bay loves himself more than any other is the bloated running times that he allows his films to indulge, regardless of narrative necessity. Consider this: Since 1995 Bay has directed eight feature films, and only one of them (1995’s Bad Boys) has clocked in at under two hours. At 149 minute, Revenge of the Fallen is one of his most swollen and lumbering spectacles, but it’s par for the course for a filmmaker whose addled lack of focus and taste would be tolerable if his movies didn’t average nearly two and a half hours in length. It is not that Bay is an inherently terrible filmmaker--The Rock (1996) is a fun popcorn movie with humor and style and The Island (2005) takes a decent stab at merging action and thoughtful science fiction--it’s just that every movie he makes encourages him to further indulge his worst tendencies, and the sheer awfulness of Revenge of the Fallen suggests that he may have finally passed a point of no return.
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © DreamWorks / Paramount Pictures