Jun 27, 2009

[Movies] Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

Transformers: Revenge of the FallenI've been a Transformers fan all my life and ever since I saw the original 1986 Transformers animated film, I had always dreamed about the possibility of seeing the robots in the flesh. That dream evolved into a desire to see them depicted in a life-action movie - I mean come on, they could make dinosaurs from scratch, so why not transforming robots, right?

This dream was eventually realized when Michael Bay's Transformers movie came out in 2007. Now I clearly mark it as "Michael Bay's" since (1) he was never a fan of the series and thus (2) his creation was never intended to be absolutely true to the original. He just had one mission from Hollywood - create a movie about transforming robots and make it a major summer blockbuster. Thus given his usual movie style, we ended up with film filled with massive explosions, cheap comedy and Megan Fox. And yet we couldn't really complain since he did something eternal kids like me always dreamed of - seeing the Transformers in live-action.

So now he's come out with a sequel and expectations were never meant to be all that high given we knew what Michael Bay was capable off (or limited to doing?). Just how did it go this time around? Let's take a look-see.



Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen takes place a few years after the first movie. The Autobots have been working with the US military as a group called NEST to hunt down rogue Decepticons all over the planet. Meanwhile, Sam (Shia LeBeouf) is getting ready to finally leave home to go to college while leaving his ridiculously hot girlfriend Mikaela (Megan Fox) and his Autobot protector Bumblebee behind. Naturally, the increased Decepticon attacks are signs of a larger plan that will place the Earth in jeopardy while Sam inevitably becomes the focal point for the conflict given he gets mind-warped by a fragment of the Allspark still left with him. He starts seeing symbols and hieroglyphs everywhere and these somehow play a part in the fate of all Transformers.

You still following me? I know it sounds pretty messed up as a plot, and in many ways it is, but given this is a Michael Bay film that's just par for the course. This is probably one of the biggest reasons that the critics seem to be in universal agreement that this movie is just plain horrible - I can totally understand this perspective. But in the same way that I do my best to review movies with the consideration for the genre or the style of the film, we need to do the same with Transformers: ROTF.


Optimus PrimeImage by oseillo via Flickr
This movie is a classic "summer blockbuster" set piece. It's not meant to be amazingly though-provoking nor is it meant to change our lives somehow. It's meant to draw huge crowds, generate massive ticket sales and make full use of theater technology to do so. This means amazing visuals, bone-jarring sound effects, cheap comedy, and explosions, explosions and explosions. If they studios wanted to make a serious Transformers film, they wouldn't have hired Michael Bay. But they did in order to address a demographic, to appeal to their marketing interests and as an audience we tend to buy into this hook, line and sinker. There's nothing wrong with this per se - we just need to admit to thus truth. We go see movies like this because we want to be entertained and we want to have our brains throttle down a bit so we can escape reality for a few hours. This is the context in which I try to look at this movie.

So first, visuals, and here Michael Bay has his usual mix of the amazing and the disappointing. Sure, the Transformers look better than ever in all the varied forms and there are some amazing fight scenes in this film that push the limits of current movie technology. At the same time, the sequences are blindingly fast and we tend to miss a lot of the action or you may find yourself unable to figure out who;s fighting who, what's going on and who might possibly be winning. That's just what happens. It's a classic problem of Bay and I can only hope he grows out of this some time soon. What's the point in spending thousands if not millions of dollars on CGI to render these robots if they won't let us viewers get a good look at them.

That brings us to the characters in terms of casting and portrayal. The usual crew came back from the first film and they weren't put in the forefront as much, thank the stars. Their level of acting was never meant to be all that great, so given this expectation they delivered as best they could, haha. The first movie felt too much like G.I. Joe and the Transformers given the amount of time devoted to the humans so this time around they toned that down and bit and gave us a lot more robots, which is cool. The only problem here is that they didn't bother trying to give screen time to develop the characters and personalities of the Transformers other than the politically inappropriate faux-Ebonics banter of the twins Mudflap and Skids. With all the Transformers in the movie, we hardly knew who anyone was or even what they were supposed to be. What were their names? What made each of them unique? How can you supposedly convince kids to buy the toys when they don't even know who to look for?

This brings us to another angle - the marketing aspect. Given the franchise has its roots in being a blatant marketing tool to young boys (like myself many years ago) to buy their toys (which I did), this movie, just like its predecessor, failed to maximize potential brand awareness marketing here. If we can't identify the Transformers, why will we buy them? If we can't relate to them on more than just a superficial level, where's the emotional hook that will trigger that illogical buying decision and thus making us pick up the merchandise. The only case where the movie succeeds in this aspect is advertising the US Air Force. Let's face it - that's always been the heavy price the movie had to pay in order to get the rights to feature all those cool jets, UAVs and naval warships.

Thus we end up thinking about the glue that ties all these elements together - the story. And this is where things hurt a bit - or maybe a lot. Longer term fans of the franchise were hoping that the reference to The Fallen meant a reference to a character more prominent in the comic book series, but of course it wasn't. This is Michael Bay after all and he doesn't need a character as defined as that one. He just needs characters to assemble together in hodgepodge fashion. Thus we end up with a really weird spider-like character who doesn't make sense, a need to bring back Megatron that also doesn't make sense and a bonus character of some internet blogger who decides to tag along the entire time as Sam and Mikaela dodge various Decepticons. Things will continue to not make sense throughout the film as it becomes more and more evident that plot was clearly not of the primary considerations for this film at any level.

And this is why we ended up with warped versions of Transformers we used to love dearly. Devastator was huge, visually stunning and had even less personality than he did in the original cartoon. I know he's supposed to get dumber when he combines, but not THAT dumb. Arcee was just...there, and not much beyond that. Where was all her spunk from the original 1986 animated film? What about the other dozens of miscellaneous Decepticons who joined in the fighting? Who the heck were they? Plus even main characters like Bumblebee and Ratchet totally got shafted and did little more than transport humans or appear to be fighting in the background.

Okay, so maybe the robot angle wasn't a total loss. Ravage was really, really cool in a way that only Ravage can be cool and Soundwave, while changed, was still true to his essential role of coordination, but now on a global scale. And yes, it was still pretty cool to see a gestalt like Devastator come together and try to kick some serious ass.

Put this all together and you get a pretty shallow movie that executes its role perfectly well - it's just amazing to watch and it'll occupy you for a few hours but it won't leave any lingering thoughts in your head about the "meaning" of things. It's CGI porn at it's finest, aimed at the eternal adolescent in all of us and that is not necessarily a bad thing to begin with.

This counts as 3.5 Michael Bay level explosions out of 5 (or perhaps 4 cheap ethnic jokes out of 5) from a rating perspective and remains to be something worth seeing on the big screen since this is how the effects were designed to be seen. The jury's still out on whether or not IMAX-level viewing is truly necessary since there's not that much IMAX screen time to begin with. Enjoy it for what it is and not for what you hoped it to be.


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