Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

Despite being based on a line of action figures and a terrible 80s animated series, Transformers was a fast, fun summer movie with satisfying human comedy, a good grasp on its goofy tone, and cool special effects, even if the last twenty minutes devolved into a mess of incomprehensibility. With Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Michael Bay has created a film that expands every aspect of his first film, a move that destroys the precarious balance of the comedy, loses sight of the inherent goofiness of the concept, and uses its special effects so often that they become numbing. Not even an intense booming explosion that resonates with a deep bass kick in the climax of the movie could shake me out of my bludgeoned state. I guess the creators thought audiences liked the incomprehensibility the best. The experience of watching the movie is not unlike untangling blinking Christmas lights while listening to all of your dishes fall out of the cupboards.

Once again there are human actors stranded amidst the vehicles that turn into giant robots, but this time they can’t hold their own against the mostly-indistinguishable clanging CGI monstrosities. Where’s someone like Jon Voight or Anthony Anderson from the first movie? They both played the material with just the right amount of winking but are missing here. Why do other similarly lighthearted performers from before – John Turturro, Josh Duhamel, and Tyrese Gibson – get swallowed up by bad writing and self-importance? (Don’t even get me started on Julie White and Kevin Dunn, for whom I’m just embarrassed). Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox are also in the movie but make so little impact – neither is given any great distinct moments – that they are hardly worth mentioning despite being the ostensible stars of the thing.

The plot involves giant bad robot people who want to find this other big machine to kill humans and the giant good robot people that try to stop them, but even that, believe it or not, takes a back seat to the mindless action that’s little more than militaristic fetishism and rampant misogyny, ethnocentricity, and racism. The only thing Bay’s camera lingers on more than cleavage and explosions are the gleaming weaponry of robot and man alike. All women are either excessively emotional or cold-hearted man-killers (or maybe even robots in disguise). All scenes that take place in foreign countries showcase a startling condescension, using natives for comedic effect or background props and using the basest shorthand for displaying foreign cultures. And then there’s the matter of the two shuffling, illiterate, exaggeratedly incompetent and idiotic, jive-talking Transformers who are practically blackface robots. Need I say more?

I could barely tell the robots apart, could barely understand what most of them were saying, and barely cared about the exposition that both they and the humans were force to spell out. There’s no scene to match the first film’s great comedy of the exposition that reveals the true nature of the Hoover Dam. To say that the script was written with a tin-ear would insult all the great hacks out there who use their tin-ears to competent effect. What went wrong with this script? Two of the writers are Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, who have written fine popcorn flicks like the first Transformers and the great recent Star Trek. I hesitate to lay the blame with them since their record has been so spotless. What about the third credited writer, Ehren Kruger? He’s mostly written horror movies (some of them bad) but I think his influence is felt mostly in the creepy scenes of mechanical intrusions, like when LeBeouf finds himself with an itty-bitty robot crawling up his nostrils. Is the blame then to lie with Michael Bay, who supposedly did some work during the Writers’ strike? It’s possible. Or maybe the script is a result of clashing styles and tones and a rushed schedule which resulted in no ideas being thrown out? It certainly feels at times like a filmed brainstorming session. It’s a total mess.

There are two kinds of Michael Bay movies: dumb fun and just dumb. Can you guess which one this is by now? The movie is everything that is wrong with big-budget sequels. It’s long, formless, and indigestible. It’s scenes of endless noisy nonsense punctuated only by more scenes of endless noisy nonsense, and then it goes on for over two-and-a-half hours. I left with nothing more than a headache.

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