Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen Review
I just want to take some time off. It’s been almost three years that I’ve devoted myself entirely to this world of robots. At some point, enough is enough - and I literally carried this movie on my back. I only finished it in the last week. It was a tough movie for me to finish - especially with the writers strike, the possible SAG strike. At one point, we were the only union movie in America shooting - Hollywood was so messed up from those two events.
- Michael Bay.
Perhaps that sums it all up really.
When Paramount released Michael Bay’s Transformers into cinemas two years ago, it was met with disheartening cries from fans, who had felt that their beloved series had been betrayed by some sort of hack. Bay freely admitted to having had no knowledge of the franchise prior to being offered the gig, and so he set about creating his own universe, having the Autobots and Decepticons designed from scratch, employing military assistance, just as he had done in the past, and wrapping it all up in a tale about a boy and his first car. Yet despite the moans and groans it dominated the summer box-office, continuing to prove only one thing - that Michael Bay movies sell! If anything it was certainly a technical masterpiece; nothing of its scale had ever been achieved in cinema. Bay brought these Transformers to life, and he made them believable.
The director had next to no rest in the aftermath of its release; Paramount wanted him in on the sequel and so did Hasbro, who needed to shift loads more toys. By late 2007 work on Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen began, but it was met with a rather unfortunate dilemma. It happened to be the period in which the WGA strike took place, which lasted until February 2008. While credited screenwriters Ehren Kruger, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman were off doing what they had to do during that period, Bay took it upon himself to tweak what would become his shooting script - the result of which would set into motion yet another hateful backlash.
Transformers was notably chastised by many critics, who failed to see the appeal of its narrative, next to images of giant robots duking it out for ultimate supremacy. It inevitably failed to meet everybody’s expectations - it never could - but it was the beginning of a new movie franchise which had the potential to grow into something bigger and better. Many of the complaints from the first film seemed to stem from Bay’s hap-hazard direction and editing techniques; that the action sequences were all but impossible to enjoy, while the Autobot/Decepticon relationships, in contrast to those of their human compatriots, were lacking in substance. It seems that Bay had indeed listened to critics with the arrival of ROTF. If there’s one thing the film does right it’s in presenting its action. It’s simply easier to track, despite the scale being upped considerably. This lends itself well to some epic encounters; the opening attack on Shanghai; a four-way fight between a pissed-off Optimus Prime and some Decepticons in a woodland, and finally Egypt’s pyramids being blasted to hell and trampled all over by a gorilla-like truck monster. It’s all stunningly captured, just as well as the first feature. The CG rendering is often staggering in its attention to detail and once more we buy into the interaction between these alien species and our human protagonists.
But if Bay dropped the ball again, it’s with his failing to grasp just how important the transformers are as characters in themselves. Certainly ROTF offers a load more robots for your money, but it's at the expense of short-changing previously established ones. Transformers didn’t suffer from a lack of robots, so much as a lack of development for them. At least now there’s a bit more of the good ol’ Megatron and Starscream banter, although Megatron serving as The Fallen’s lackey is a bit crap. Nobody cares about the presence of this so-called Fallen; he never graced the first picture and nor does he ever live up to the tag’s grand expectations. Had Megatron simply been “The Fallen” himself, it would have gone a long way to sacrificing an dull back-story, perhaps open up a better storyline focusing on the Autobot and Decepticon leaders and get on with the meat and potatoes. Soundwave finally makes an ambiguous appearance, mysteriously governing the stars as a satellite, and whose intriguing design works well in this context. He’s also voiced once more by Frank Welker, sorely missed from the first film, as he channels Dr. Claw from Inspector Gadget. Welker also happens to lend his talent to Devastator, which manages to round up the list of notable bad guys; an utter beast that was unfortunately spoiled a bit too much in the preceding trailers.
The Autobots fare far worse, however. We have the likes of Iron Hide and Ratchet, who by rights should have been fleshed out a bit more, but instead get cruelly shunted to the sidelines in favour of introducing more heroic soldiers, who themselves get next to no screen time at all. Sideswipe and Arcee for example get to share a fantastic opening sequence; their designs work incredibly well and are full of grace. However, the promising bots are all but given up on in order to allow the film’s new “twins” - Mudflap and Skids - to jibber-jabber their way through the feature, and also allow the writers to introduce the cantankerous Jetfire just so that he can talk insipidly for what feels like the best part of thirty minutes during the film’s big expo’ moment - you can quite literally see his words go over your head as you try not to doze off. There’s also new Autobot Jolt, who does absolutely sod all in a thankless position, which sees him permenently stuck in the background with nothing to say, like one of those poor chaps from East 17 (although his electric ability sure does come in as conveniently handy at a crucial turning point).
Inevitably this leads me to address the twins and their dubious fronts, which by now has seen just about everyone jump onto the Jar Jar Binks hate bandwagon. What we have here are two bumbling stereotypes of select Southern Americana; they’re hopeless idiots, stutter, have terrible teeth, can’t read and like to throw in a little jive-talk for good measure. And stereotype is the key word here, folks. Make no mistake ROTF doesn’t have a racist bone in its body; it’s just a little ignorant and lacks subtlety, though I find myself wondering if Bay is indeed being somewhat satirical here. Regardless they’re actually not too bad, certainly I was geared up for the worst. What I do find a shame is that the twins could have had far greater impact than just being bumbling comic foils. Ideally Sunstreaker and Sideswipe would have presented a better sibling dynamic, but hey, it’s a bit late to argue about that. Suffice it to say I didn’t leave the cinema offended, there were some funny moments to be had and the audience lapped them up. Bay knows his audience all too well it seems.
No, the most insulting thing here is the film’s narrative structure, and before I get accused of being pretentious, even for a Hollywood blockbuster ROTF reaches new lows. It’s complete bollocks almost from start to finish. It’s a shame because it does begin intriguingly enough; the idea of the Autobots working hand-in-hand with the military to seek out and destroy Decepticons in hiding is put to good use, but when the film picks up with Sam, now attending college, it slowly begins to fall apart seam by seam. It’s two and a half hours long and again it shows up Bay and his writers for their sheer lack of discipline, having taken next to no criticism on board from last time with their introductions of tertiary characters who serve as little more than ciphers to drive forward a plot which employs the cheapest of story-advancing techniques. Characters like the female ‘pretender’ played by Isabel Lucas and Ramon Rodriguez’s conspiracy theorist sidekick suck out valuable time from the story, as does Kevin Dunn and Julie White returning as Sam’s parents. They’re all perfectly entertaining, but their actions are inconsequential, and this is time that could be well spent following the Transformers and allowing us to become swept up in the film universe’s mythology.
Clearly nobody knows what to do here. ROTF goes from set-piece to set-piece with little care in the world. There’s little coherency, with scenes coming across randomly, rather than methodical and it clearly struggles to establish a fitting tone, flitting back and forth from depressingly dark to embarrassingly juvenile. The pacing is awkward, the plot holes are the size of canyons and the finale is ludicrously anti-climactic; there is simply too much going on for one film. We’re left to wonder if Bay really cares anymore, or more than that find it easier to believe that he never did in the first place.
It’s actually unbelievable that a summer block-buster of all things has managed to generate so much bile and hatred. Sure I have my problems with it, but I don’t mean to hate on its creators; I imagine even they know deep down just how awkwardly this picture comes across. I could sit here all day dissecting the movie for all its worth. I could go into every single reason - and there are shed loads - as to why it struggles to hold its head up high in terms of storytelling, but it would be an essay, and a film based on a toy franchise doesn’t deserve an essay. At the end of the day, despite all my misgivings, I enjoyed it considerably. It’s almost inexplicable in fact. I still dig thirty-foot machines punching each other in the face, and it’s good to see Michael Bay at least deliver on that front with such realism. It’s just a shame his priorities don‘t extend much beyond. We might not see another instalment until 2012, and if so that gives the crew plenty of time to get it back on its feet.