Reviews

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

By Garth Franklin June 24th 2009, PG-13, 147min, Dreamworks Pictures
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Bigger in every way, except where it's needed, 'Fallen' represents Michael Bay at his most unrestrained and confident since "Bad Boys II", and certainly his most ridiculous to date. Often bypassing any logic or reason let alone character or depth, this utter mess of an action opus is only sporadically entertaining thanks to all the visual flair that $200 million worth of computer-generated fighting robots can buy, but holds no real value beyond that. The fanbase and target demographic of pre-teens and grown men with nostalgic mindsets will likely enjoy the initial ride, but most will be let down by an overly long and unruly sequel that effectively demonstrates that bigger and louder doesn't always mean better.

The first "Transformers" in 2007 proved a surprise. Turning a children's sci-fi cartoon of the 80's into a feasible, live-action blockbuster took a lot of foresight and risk, but the gamble paid off. Though hardly a quality film by any means, 'Transformers' at least proved a solid Summer film actioneer and often entertaining even for those of us unfamiliar with what an Autobot was. Yes, the plot was decidedly thin and the action was somewhat overdone as it dominated around half the runtime. Yet the visual effects were eye-popping, some of the character work was good fun, and the pains taken to make the idea of giant robots in our reality believable was hard not to admire.

Unfortunately this time around, the first film's mistakes have been exacerbated rather than expunged, while a few of the original's charms are gone or have been replaced with something dumber and meaner. Free of the shackles of both Steven Spielberg's guiding hand and any even vague attempt at reality - 'Fallen' indulges Bay's excesses well past the point of reason to deliver the male teenage cinematic equivalent of snorting cocaine off a hooker's ass. This "all money shots, all the time" approach robs the action of any weight or coherency - leaving behind sensory white noise that hopes to browbeat its audience into either submission or boredom.

Even though it was the weakest element of the film, persistently middling scribes Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman ("Eagle Eye," "The Island," M:I-3) actually seemed to improve on their usual cut and paste efforts earlier this Summer with the "Star Trek" reboot. Either they didn't care or J.J. Abrams didn't get enough credit for saving 'Trek' because their work here is so haphazard that one suspects some practical joker swapped a rough first draft for the shooting script on the first day of filming. The first film's backhanded attempts to give the human characters some weight aren't even attempted here, a scene or two of lip service in the first half hour about leaving home and growing up are swept aside and ignored until a highly forced situation near the end brings the metaphor laughably home.

Not much time is given to the plot either - the Autobots and Decepticons are fighting again over a cube remnant that Sam (Shia LaBeouf) happens to have. Halfway through we change from that macguffin to another - in this case the trigger for a doomsday weapon. That's it, don't expect much more than that when 80% of the film's runtime involves explosions, running and repetitive robot fighting. "Terminator Salvation" last month suffered from too much action overwhelming the narrative, but 'Fallen' is even more rife with the issue - to the point that plot lines and characters will disappear and reappear randomly with no real sense. From magic bandages and pot brownies that act like speed, to Fox's pet Joe Pesci-esque Decepticon who is integral one moment and seemingly gone the next - the continuity editor here should have their paycheck rescinded.

There's a lot more robots this time around, from returning characters like the impossibly noble Optimus Prime to the scheming Megatron, the latter at least getting decent screen time. Tony Todd's Godfather-like The Fallen is an interesting design but barely appears, while the much hyped Devastator kind of hangs around off to the side of the big final battle and leaves little impression aside from a poor taste joke involving wrecking balls for testicles. Others however make for memorable characters or scenes such as old-timer Jetfire, or a fascinating creation made out of ball bearings that infiltrates a base in one scene.

One unfortunate choice of the designers and their overly elaborate robots is that they become quickly confusing, especially the Decepticons with their similar chrome coloring and design. Combined with Bay's typical hyper editing and extreme close-ups, its often tricky to tell if its Starscream, Megatron or even the fascinating but underused satellite Soundwave attacking someone. Another poor choice is Skidz and Mudflap, two characters that aim to be this franchise's R2D2 & C3PO and instead feel like characters that escaped some twisted version of a "Fat Albert" cartoon. These annoying and rather blatantly racist targets make Jar Jar Binks seem almost an archetype of good taste in comparison.

It's not a Bay film without the director's mildly disturbing sense of reality, where the world is like a music video gone haywire. All the women are supermodel hot, and they love nothing more than spreading their legs for spotty geeks; frat parties resemble high-end nightclubs rather than keggers; minorities are best served purely as comic relief, and all conform to every stereotype you've ever read; you can't set a scene in a foreign country without token elements such as snails & mimes in France or camels in Egypt; and of course the US Armed Forces are fetishized to the point that big portions of the final act serve as an army recruitment commercial.

Everyone involved obviously loves Megan Fox's overly plasticized look which is fine, and the camera certainly makes the most of her curves. Whether its running in slow-mo in a top with the appropriate amount of jiggle, to the way she straddles a bike while painting it, Fox is treated like a goddess in Bay's eyes. It's just a shame her character is still a complete wash, and her acting certainly has some way to go. Normally pretty Aussie soap actress Isabel Lucas has a small role early on but is so overly made up as to be nearly grotesque, not helped that her character simply exists to be a slut who likes to writhe on men's laps (and in one scene gets sprayed in sticky goo).

Shia LaBeouf's character, who was surprisingly endearing the first time around, is more of a bland cipher here. Some of the charm of the everyday guy caught up in bigger situations is there in that college-set first half-hour, but after that he's mainly stuck with standard Neo-esque speeches of destiny or outrunning hardware. He fares better than a lot of the other returning males of the cast such as Josh Duhamel and Tyrese, the former could easily have been a different character while the latter didn't even need to show up. Rainn Wilson's cameo as a college professor is both funny and frankly disturbing when he chucks a half-eaten apple on the ground, and the models in the front row practically go into orgasm picking it up and fondling it. Seriously the women in this film are so subservient that the Bond girls of Roger Moore's most blatantly sexist 007 films seem models of women's lib in comparison.

Coming off the best from this are the more comedic side roles. Ramon Rodriguez, who oddly resembles a latino Robert Pattinson, plays Shia's ditzy webmaster roommate with a fun, cocky energy. Kevin Dunn and especially Julie White as Sam's parents are real champs and make the most out of the corny comedy material they're saddled with. It's John Turturro in the end though that saves much of the second half of the film from sliding into utter tedium, picking up the comedy slack amidst all the PG-13 bloodless carnage to at least give us the odd smile.

That last hour in particular is a mess and really drags out the film's 149 minute runtime. Set in a Middle East where Petra, Karnak, Giza and the Sinai all seem to be within easy walking distance of each other, it becomes one long drawn out desert fight scene with characters running from waves of sand explosions, lots of military personnel staring over screens or firing hardware, and robots battling it out in confusing ways (Scorponok for example comes out of nowhere and meets his fate just as quickly). It all drags on and tires as despite the threat of armageddon, the script has long given up on imparting any sense of reality (and thus danger) so it has no impact. It's truly only the forest fight scene in the middle of the film, where Optimus and several Decepticons battle it out, that carries some emotional weight to it.

The CG also proves oddly mixed. On the one hand the Transformers facial expressions have much more range and appearance now, on the other the integration with the real world is noticeably less smooth and more cartoonish than the first one. The first film also really lent a sense of physics and gravity to these creations, here giant robots get tossed about with no real weight or inertia. Jablonsky's score leaves little impression, mostly drowned out by forgettable metal thrash music.

As a Summer ride for the easily pleased, 'Fallen' will prove satisfactory at best. Even the most ardent fans, forgiving of all of the juvenile shenanigans, will have issues with the runtime even as they awe at the spectacle of often unconvincingly rendered metal bashing metal. There's some visually interesting shots and the odd laugh, but that's all the enjoyment to be had here and even that is pretty slim - it's certainly Bay's weakest film to date and seems light years behind his various late 90's efforts which at least had more coherent scripting and better performances.

Obviously many months of hard work from various crew members went into the making of this, it's such a shame it was all expended on fulfilling not just the writer's ramblings but letting immature macho bravado run free to a level rivaling Joel Schumacher's campy excess in "Batman and Robin". At least Joel later apologized for that travesty, somehow I doubt we'll get the same for this.

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