Jul 2, 2009

Review Post 31: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

DIR: Michael Bay
CAST: Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel,
John Turturro, Ramon Rodriguez

Note: Given that this movie is a sequel to another Michael Bay movie I’ve made my review my own sequel to my review of Bay’s Bad Boys II. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, how do I hate thee? Let me count the ways.

1: Thou art both fantastically stupid and hopelessly confusing.

That’s quite a trick really. To have so little plot, powered by hand held deus ex machina called things like ‘allspark’ and ‘matrix of leadership’ and yet to have to spend about an hour of the ludicrously bloated running time of your movie in raw exposition mode, yet managing only to further confuse the audience every time you give them more background information. Did you work on this at script stage? Did you think that your 13-year-old target audience would really like to listen to endless background, whose only ultimate function in the film would be to confuse them? I like to think I’m pretty smart, but I still don’t for the life of me know what the military chain of command is in this movie, nor do I know what the difference between the ‘allspark’ and the ‘matrix’ is – or why that matters. I don’t want to put the effort in though, because at the end of the day, even if I do figure out what this movie thinks it is about, I already know what it’s about… It’s about nothing. Literally. The matrix, or the allspark, or the energon, or whatever the hell you’re deciding to call the portable McGuffin in this scene, is completely meaningless. It’s an excuse to show giant robots punching each other, but attempt to dress it up in pseudo-religious bullshit.

2: Thou art not funny.
First off, what genius decided that the second Transformers film should be a crass comedy? Secondly, even if I accept that that as a good idea, why couldn’t it be funny? There are a couple of amusing moments in the first film, mainly revolving around Sam’s (LaBeouf) parents. Here though, in keeping with Revenge of the Fallen’s ‘turn everything up to 11’ philosophy, the comic relief is so heightened and so pervasive that it becomes not relief but a major irritant. Julie Harris is especially awful as Sam’s mum, who seems to have undergone a total personality transplant since the first film, becoming shrill and rather foul mouthed (well, as foul mouthed as 12A gets). In other comic relief news Sam goes off to college, which gives us some dreadful ‘comic’ set pieces such as Rainn Wilson’s hideously creepy cameo as an Astronomy lecturer and Sam seeing symbols in class. This is rendered, by the combination of LaBeouf’s awful twitchy performance and Bay’s desperately trying to be AWESOME camerawork, as an EXTREME epileptic fit. Funny. Also ‘funny’: Sam’s mum high on pot brownies, John Turturro’s bottom (gosh, thanks for that Mike), Sam’s cowardly roommate (Rodriguez), dogs humping, a Transformer humping Megan Fox’s leg, oh and roboballs. It’s enough to make the distinctly average I Love You, Man look like a comedy masterwork for the ages.

3: Thou hast no characters.
Don’t get me wrong, there are people in this movie and, of course, there are a lot of big talking robots, but not a single one of them could even charitably be called a character. Let’s take our lead Sam Witwicky. One of the things Transformers did well was that it provided an identifiable lead in Sam. He’s an everykid; wants nothing more than the fast car and the hot girl (Fox) – or is that the hot car and the fast girl? – he was smart, relatively witty and decent company for what was a long haul of a movie. Here Sam is none of that, in fact he’s a total nothing. His lines are all pure story advancement (be it the Transformers story or the painfully poor romantic subplot, in which he has to learn to say ‘I love you’ to his girlfriend OF TWO YEARS!) and during the second half of the film he has almost nothing to say besides “Bumblebeeeee” or “Optimussss”. LaBeouf seems to know how little effort has been put into his role, and he reciprocates with a performance that borders on comatose. However, anyone who can deliver the line “Megatron wants what’s in my brain” with a straight face probably deserves a paycheque. That’s the lead everyone else is, if you can believe it, less developed. Megan Fox doesn’t have a character and neither does she have anything to do, there is no reason for her to be in this movie, not a single scene in which her presence serves the story. Fox’s role is simply to wear an obscene amount of make up and attempt to distract the 13-year-old boys with her perceived hotness (I don’t get it at all, she looks like a prototype for a hooker Barbie). Another point on which Revenge of the Fallen fails to match up to the first film is in the characterization of the Transformers themselves. They may have been extremely broadly drawn in the first film, but at least they were identifiable and individual. Now most, besides Optimus Prime, Jetfire and a couple we’ll get to later, have about one line each and are completely indistinguishable from one another.

4: Thou hast rendered thy action scenes completely incomprehensible.
So far I’ve been complaining about story, comedy and character. All of these are huge problems with Revenge of the Fallen, but none of them is what people are going to the movie for. Let’s make no mistake; the reason most people are seeing Revenge of the Fallen is that they want to see robots punch each other. The problem is that you can’t see that. Again, this isn’t to say that there aren’t many, many scenes in which robots punch each other; the issue is that you can’t tell what the hell is going on in those scenes. For a filmmaker who works exclusively in action cinema Michael Bay demonstrates absolutely no understanding of how to shoot and edit an action sequence. All the action scenes in Revenge of the Fallen are the same, blurs of pixels flying towards one another, only to collide and become a single blur of pixels, in which you can’t make out any action choreography and, given that most of the time it’s gun metal grey hitting gun metal grey, you can’t usualy see two robots anymore. This means that all the movie’s action falls flat, because when you can’t tell what’s going on you can’t become invested in what’s going on, and if you can’t make the audience care about the outcome of a fight then what’s the point of shooting it in the first place? Add to this the fact that Bay’s action scenes; rendered almost entirely in frame filling close up, and cut as if the footage had been put in a blender then spliced by epileptic chimps, are lacking any sense of geography, any sense of movement, any sense of flow, any sense of story, any sense of purpose and you’ve got some of the noisiest, most abrasive and most tedious action recently put on screen.

5: Thy politics are worrying.

All we are saying is give war a chance. Though Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen has become the first film to explicitly reference the Obama administration (in a ham handed bit of ADR) it is unmistakably a Bush lovin’ warmongerin’ movie. A new Government character, whose job seems to be assuming command of Duhamel’s team of soldiers and Autobots (though the chain of command is so unclear here it’s hard to know for sure) and whose strategy is to negotiate; to use diplomacy before bombs, is ridiculed at every turn. We’re clearly supposed to hate this character, to laugh at how silly the idea of diplomacy is, and to cheer when Duhamel’s character literally pushes him out of a plane. YAY, might is right, might is right. It’s not just the global politics that are worrying though; the sexual politics of this movie are also quite disturbing. Okay, it’s common for movies not to have any unattractive women in them, but with the exception of Sam’s mum every single woman in Revenge of the Fallen looks like a stripper (and most of them dress as if auditions are in an hour). The college party that Sam attends looks like a ‘gentleman’s’ club, and the first girl he talks to there is eager almost to the point of sexually assaulting him. Michael Bay’s camerawork doesn’t help, being so leering that it’s actually a little uncomfortable; one scene makes a plot point of looking up Isabel Lucas' dress, another follows Megan Fox’s bottom for almost a minute (to be fair her bottom may be more expressive than her face). Fox is relentlessly objectified from the first instant she’s on screen, leaning over a motorcycle and pointing her bottom at the camera. The movie doesn’t even pretend she’s around for any other reason, she’s got less dialogue than Sam’s Mum for crying out loud. Revenge of the Fallen is a nasty, leering film that regards women as objects.

6: Thy script is lazy beyond imagining.
Quick question. What’s the plural of millennium? If you said ‘millennia’, well done, you are better at English than the writers of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. The fact that, with $200 million dollars and a two year production schedule nobody corrected even a basic grammatical error, if not at script stage then in ADR, just goes to show how small a shit anyone gave about making this a good movie. Then there are the plot holes. Revenge of the Fallen has more holes than a warehouse full of Swiss cheese, many of them large enough to drive Optimus Prime through. For instance, even assuming they are on the Jordanian border when they discover ‘the matrix’, how do Sam and co end up at the Great Pyramid of Giza almost instantaneously, and without crossing the Suez canal? How the holy hell do Josh Duhamel and his (AWOL) team find them based on coordinates that – A: They wouldn’t have known because they haven't been told them and B: bear no relation to where the final battle actually takes place? There are many more, but we’re not supposed to care because it’s a movie about giant robots punching each other. Fair enough, but there’s a point at which ‘you’ve got to suspend disbelief’ stops being a reasonable argument and starts being a crutch to justify nobody giving a shit whether anything makes sense.

7: Thou hast resurrected Stepin Fetchit.
Stepin Fetchit was the first black movie star, popular mainly in the 1930’s. He always played a stupendously offensive racial stereotype – speech and movements slow and laboured, to show how stupid he was, eyes bugged, lip jutting out, exploited and traded by white heroes in his movies – Fetchit was indicative of some of the worst of Hollywood’s racism. You’d think we’d have moved on, but Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen suggests, indeed insists, that we have not. In Mudflap and Skids the makers of this film have created two of the most outrageously offensive characters seen on screen for years. The design is what really makes the jaw drop. They are rendered as simian, with almost Neanderthal ‘skulls’, huge ‘lips’ and ears, buck teeth (one gold) and bugged out eyes. Then there are the voices, provided by Tom Kenny (who is white, and the voice of, among others, Spongebob Squarepants), a horrible parody of ‘gangsta’ speech patterns and language. Worst though is the dialogue, which makes repeated and explicit reference to the characters stupidity, making particularly sure that we know that they can’t read, even in their own language. It’s indefensible that characters like this exist, particularly in a movie designed for a young mass audience, and it is jaw dropping that Bay was allowed to get away with it, however much money he’s made for Paramount.

8: Thou art mind-pulverisingly tedious.
The only thing I’ll ultimately take away from Revenge of the Fallen is two hours of very loud noise, and yet, for a film whose one defining characteristic is to be really really loud, it had a difficult time keeping me awake. That’s because all this movie is is sound and fury, signifying nothing. There’s no plot to get your teeth into, no stakes to be invested in (two characters die, both briefly), no characters to care about, no interesting action scenes to be excited by, no comic relief to laugh at. There is nothing here to engage the attention other than a potentially headache inducing soundtrack, which ensures you stay conscious during the film through its sheer pummeling power. I wish it was something, anything, else. Because a movie can really do anything but be boring in my book. Make something I love, make something I hate, just don’t make something that bores me so utterly that I spend my time noticing grammatical errors in your screenplay. Of all the many sins of Revenge of the Fallen, that’s the biggest. It’s plainly, simply, fucking boring.

9: Thou hast no excuse.
There is no reason for Revenge of the Fallen to be this bad. Bay can’t plead poverty; he had $200 million at his disposal. He can’t say the film was taken away from him, because as a successful filmmaker he’s got final cut in his contract. He can’t say he didn’t have time or the opportunity to focus on the project, because it’s all he’s worked on in the two years since Transformers came out. He can’t say he didn’t have strong collaborators; Roberto Orci and Robert Kurtzman also wrote the excellent new Star Trek, DP Ben Seresin has done good work, notably on the underrated Best Laid Plans and ILM, the best CG house in the world, did the effects. It has to come down to the fact that nobody cared. Nobody needed Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen to be a good movie, they needed it to be a big, loud movie, and they needed it to meet a release date. This isn’t about expecting an Oscar winning drama, it’s about expecting a fun action film; a Die Hard, a Robocop - fuck - even a Transformers. It’s about asking for a movie and being given this; a collection of footage that someone threw at a screen without caring what it ended up being. This is Michael Bay’s baby, one he got to genetically engineer from the ground up, his hideously, hideously deformed baby. We must stop him reproducing again.

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