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Non-Review Review: Transformers – Revenge of the Fallen

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is one of those films that you have heard so much about that you feel almost obligated to check out. It’s like a challenge. “It can’t possibly be that bad,” you laugh off criticism from just about everybody you know, “I mean, if it’s that bad, it has to at least be entertaining – you know, in the same way that Ed Wood films are entertaining?” And those people reply in what gradually become pleas, imploring you to just accept that it’s a terrible film and let it go. And yet, it’s like a “do not touch” warning to a small child – it draws you closer, attracts your attention, arouses your curiousity. It couldn’t be that bad.

Oh, but it is.

Two-and-a-half hours of torture...

A lot of people enjoyed Michael Bay’s original Transformers, dismissing it as mindless entertainment – perhaps claiming that sometimes we don’t need plot or pacing, we just need to see giant robots knock the snot out of each other. Unfortunately, I wasn’t quite able to engage with this line of thought. It wasn’t a truly terrible film, nor was it the worst thing Michael Bay has ever given us – it was just pretty pants. They say that a sequel should drive to offer “more” than the original did and – in a way – bay succeeds. This movie is certainly more terrible, more offensive and more boring than the original.

The fact the film is so boring is perhaps its most serious offense. After all, with that much money thrown at the screen, you’d imagine it couldn’t be boring. But somehow it is. All those explosions and pyrotechnics should be able to at least keep an audience awake. The main problem is that Bay shoots his film like Cloverfield, but without any of the artistic flair. This may be an homage – the poster for Cloverfield turns up with the poster for Bad Boys II in a college dorm room – but Bay isn’t skilled enough to carry it off. The weird angles and shaking camera don’t give the sense of claustrophobic scale they did in that relatively intimate monster movie, instead they leave the audience struggling to figure out who is doing what to whom. With a large robot cast and a selection of indistinct human characters, it’s nigh impossible to keep track of everyone. The choreography is terrible.

You would have imagined that Bay would have paid closer attention to this, since the main goal of the film seems to be to show robots knocking the stuffing out of one another. In fact, you get the sense that Bay is skirting around the film’s low age rating – he can have the robots do things to one another he could never get away with on people. They dismember, behead and gut each other (at one point a robot punches through another’s chest and crushes whatever passes for a heart). The sequences with the robots employ slow motion gun-fu and swordfighting with the kind of intensity that would have pushed the age rating way up were humans involved.

The movie’s censorship feels… weird. There’s a moment at the start where a primitive Decepticon stops on top of an early human, crushing him. And he raises his foot and the poor native is just lying there, curled up like he’s a sleep. I’m not suggesting that Bay should have shown the guy’s guts poured out all over the robot’s foot, but at least cut away from the creature lifting its foot. It seems strange that the movie is so obviously squeamish  when it comes to human blood, but so clearly loves tearing the insides out of robots. It’s even more awkward because the movie clearly aims itself at children, featuring adorable robot sidekicks with squeaky voices who can be shown to be rehabilitated.

In marked contrast, the film portrays Autobot leader Optimus Prime as something of a borderline sociopath. He carries giant robo-guns, and the opening sequence features him repeatedly shooting a rogue Decepticon (Demolisher) in what resembles the head. One of the good guys actually uses the line “punk-ass Decepticon” (delivered entirely straight). There’s a clear sense of Optimus Prime going “darker and edgier” (which of course means more violent) – in fact, he can be heard mumbling to himself about “worthless scrap metal” in a confrontation in the forest. Despite his bright colours and wonderful voice, Optimus Prime isn’t a hero, he’s quite possibly a manic-depressive one straw away from a nervous breakdown. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t mind an in-depth exploration of the impact of centuries of unending wars upon his psyche, but the movie presents him as an unequivocal hero and isn’t interested in any complexity.

While we’re on the subject of the robots, was it just me or was the CGI a bit dodgy (particularly a scene with the robots hacking a satellite)? Though I may have been paying more attention to the graphics since there wasn’t anything else grabbing my attention. 

And before I move away from the robots, it’s worth taking the time to point out the incredibly racist “ghetto” robots. There’s a pair of them complete with a selection of racist stereotypes (both have a gold tooth! although the movie also makes the “gold teeth” joke about a human later on – a non-white character too). They utter crap like “pop a cap in his ass” and are portrayed as illiterate in their own language. Asked to read some robot symbols, the pair respond defensively, “read? n’ah!”

It's a strange beast...

I could discuss how the film attempts to use the Decepticons as terrorists, striking in urban capitals and delivering ultimatums over television (“we have lived among you, hidden,” one suggests, as the threat level is elevated to “the highest they’ve been since 9/11”) but I just don’t think it’s worth my energy. If you’re going to use a terrorist metaphor, at least use it well. “It’s time for the world to know of our presence,” a bad guy suggests, but it’s somewhat undermined by the fact that – unlike terrorists – they haven’t exactly been subtle beforehand. Early scenes show the creatures (at leats two or three storeys high) wandering around on the deck of a cargo ship and on top of a skyscraper (not to mention an opening sequence in Beijing). It’s just stupid. So stupid it hurts. Not as bad as the argument that being illiterate makes you a sociopath, but pretty bad.

The only thing more painful that the robot cast is the humans. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – Megan Fox cannot act. It looks like America is gradually learning. I know she’s here for eye candy, but I have to admit that I never really found her that attractive. In fact, the only purpose she seems to serve is to make Shia LaBeouf – who, to be fair, cannot act either – look like Laurence Olivier when she’s on-screen. That said, he’s pretty terrible too. But even good actors like John Turturro are terrible in the film. It’s like the movie sucks talent out of actors and – despite the movie’s suggestion that energy cannot be destroyed, only transformed – finds a way to obliterate it. Seriously, check out those scenes where Shia LaBeouf is spasming – it’s a token sci-fi sequence taken from nearly every space movie ever. And it is, undoubtedly, the worst spasming I have ever seen. 

Michael Bay cannot direct actors, but it’s more than just their performances – actors regularly change position (and, sometimes, appearances) between shots. The movie’s many attempts at what could very generously be called “comedy” fall flat, but the “emotional scenes” between boyfriend and girlfriend are physically painful.

The movie is offensive in its laziness. Seriously, look at the college stereotypes and count them down. There’s even hash baked into brownies sold to a mother on the day her son movies into campus. Seriously? The guy who sold her those should arrested not for drug dealing, but for the crime of sheer stupidity and reliance on cliché. Oh, it’s hilarious! The only thing more condescending is when a character actually utters the line, “It’s like Hogwarts!” Yes, because college is so threatening and foreign to the middle classes that it resembles Harry Potter.

And then there’s the way that Bay portrays Americans abroad – it is every horrible stereotype you can imagine. If any other country had offered an image of Americans this small-minded, it would have caused a diplomatic incident. And yet Bay is never casting a knowing smile or showing a hit of irony. The parents sit in Paris and mock the French eating habits (“it’s nasty!”) in a manner which expects the audience to get up and cheer for them. Egypt is treated as a desert province of America – Bay even borrows a shot of camels galloping alongside cars (like horses would were the scene shot in actual America). The outside world is a place where being “from New York” means you don’t have to worry about border control – if the cast were European or Asian, they’d never get into the country. American marines cross borders with impunity. To Bay, the added bonus of using Egypt apart from it being all ancient and stuff is that it affords him some nice scenery to destroy. At the climax of Transformers, set in a non-descript American city, the robots seemed to consciously attempt to preserve the architecture. Here, in Giza, they couldn’t seem to care less about destroying the Pyramids, a priceless symbol of classical civilisation. Sure, to the characters, the whole region is pretty much “the middle of nowhere surrounded by donkeys”.

What’s also remarkable throughout the film is Bay’s odd fixation with male genitalia. There are frequent references to “the sac” (complete with cupping gesture) and character describes his position as relative to “the robot’s scrotum”. I’m sure there’s an interesting pseudo-psychological essay to be written about why Bay eschewed the familiar phallic imagery one would expect for a focus on testicles, but I’m not the man to write it. I just find it fascinating.

It’s a terrible film. And there’s no excuse. How a film can be this empty, this terrible, this offensive and simultaneously this boring is beyond me. Perhaps it’s an

5 Responses

  1. For a film so loud and fast-paced, with all the bells and whistles provided by a bottomless budget, I couldn’t believe I was watching something so boring and, quite frankly, stupid. In fact, I’ve never seen the end…I switched it off somewhere in the middle of the fifth or sixth hour.

    • I lasted all ten hours.

      Seriously? That was only two-and-a-half hours? I think Michael Bay has actually discovered a way to slow down time!

  2. Colossal waste of time and energy in every way. I especially love the anti-climax of Prime coming back to life and basically going into God Mode and killing the Fallen in five seconds flat. After two hours of “oh my god the Fallen is the ultimate bad guy we’re so screwed!”, he folds so quickly it’s almost comical. Except that you waste two hours to get to that bed-shitting conclusion.

    • Yep. So the stakes are ridiculously high… except when you factor in the lead character who is never actually going to stay dead? Then it’s a wipe-out? Nah, I’m not sold on this.

  3. “Perhaps it’s an…”

    A what?

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