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Review: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Banal, belligerent, and brain-dead, it ultimately succeeds only at being far less than meets bare-minimum cinematic standards.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Photo: Paramount Pictures

No giant robots urinate on humans in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, but that’s only because they now prefer to douse hot-to-trot individuals with gooey ejaculate, one of the many ways that Michael Bay’s concussive sequel proves fouler than its 2007 predecessor. So noxious is his follow-up that its disposable kids-toy origins—the opening “In Association with Hasbro” credit summing up summer cinema’s infantilism—isn’t nearly as rank as the action at large, an incoherent mishmash of tough-guy film tropes Bay uses to overpower the 70-foot-tall IMAX screens that the film’s centerpiece sequences have been custom-retrofitted to fill out. More isn’t just better with Fallen, it’s everything, the guiding principle that crushes underfoot any other concerns, be they narrative, aesthetic, or performance-based. Bereft of a fresh idea that might artistically (rather than financially) justify this second installment, the director instead opts for a derivative plan B in which all of his favorite things are indulged to the utmost extreme: a computer-assisted 360-degree pan around a war zone shootout from Bad Boys II; a cooing lovebird chat underneath the stars from The Rock; another glimpse of overexposed hottie-du-jour Megan Fox erotically bending over an automobile from the first Transformers movie. There’s even prolonged attention slathered on the sinking of an aircraft carrier, because apparently Pearl Harbor didn’t fully scratch that itch.

Bay revels in fetishistic armed-forces overload and techno-whirligig mayhem while aping Spielbergian family dramedy via Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) and his repugnant parents (Kevin Dunn and Julie White), whose increased prominence in this sequel affords the proceedings more ugly-Americans-are-awesome humor. Militaristic jingoism has always been Bay’s thing (note the Obama’s-a-wuss jab), but rarely before has it been so thoroughly married to unconcealed racial stereotyping, which creeps into Fallen’s shape-shifting nooks and crannies. Whereas its predecessor preferred to posit African-Americans as clowns, Bay’s latest opts for a markedly primate angle. Jive-talking twin Autobots boast big ears, narrow chins, and buck teeth that make said monkey connotations plain, and just for good measure, Bay supplies a jokey throwaway shot of a simpleminded black man with buck teeth in order to irrefutably cement the characterization. Suffice it to say, this isn’t what fans meant when they demanded more distinctive personalities for the heroic Autobots and evil Decepticons, though it’s hardly a surprise considering Bay’s penchant for trading in rancid types, which extend to Mikaela’s (Fox) mini Decepticon pet who tawks like Joe Pesci, and a college campus littered with female students (including a T3-lite fembot Decepticon) ready to be the next contestants on Who Wants to Be a Pole-Dancer?

Functioning as nothing more than a jumble of inconsequential motivations for people to flee mortal threats, the plot involves Sam and Mikaela following alien hieroglyphics embedded in Sam’s mind to the pyramids. There, an energy-harvesting machine capable of devouring suns was buried ages ago by a monstrous Decepticon leader named Fallen (Tony Todd) who’s equated during a prologue with—you guessed it!— ooga-booga black tribal warriors distinguished by bestial snarling mouths. Sam begins this quest getting attacked by Gremlins-ish kitchen-appliance ‘bots and ends it searching for a magic key known as the Matrix, bookending examples of Fallen’s defining lack of inspiration. All the while, Rainn Wilson flops in a brief cameo, a Hispanic conspiracy theorist (Ramón Rodríguez) doubles the freaked-out-reaction comedy dispensed by John Turturro’s wacky spook, LaBeouf and Fox share zero chemistry during the scant conversational instances in which they’re not running hand-in-hand from explosions, and Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson’s military grunts serve no purpose except to further bloat the gratuitous 150-minute runtime. Obviously, Bay’s calling card isn’t dramatic efficiency or impact, it’s adrenalized mayhem of a dim macho sort (machismo being such a running thread, it extends to LaBeouf getting Fox to utter the “L” word first, tee hee).

Yet even with regard to his supposed specialty, the director is so taken with flash cuts, circular pans, and hectic special-effects work that his frame is literally incomprehensible. Deciphering the spatial relationship between on-screen characters, much less between the similarly shiny-metallic Autobots and Decepticons, is virtually impossible from the opening Shanghai skirmish to the egregiously extended Egypt-set finale, which manages to epitomize Bay’s oeuvre in a slow-mo close-up featuring pouty Fox in the foreground and a whirling military helicopter in the background. Employing IMAX-specific cameras for two gigantic battles pays uneven dividends. A forest skirmish between Autobot leader Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) and Decepticon baddie Megatron (Hugo Weaving) utilizes “long” takes—relative merely to the rest of the ADD-constructed pandemonium—to provide a visual lucidity otherwise sorely lacking, and thus stands as the intolerable franchise’s least objectionable moment. During the conclusion, however, Fallen flip-flops between aspect ratios to dizzying results, albeit such spasticity is part and parcel of a film defined by unintelligible whiplash action, growling robots so elaborately designed one can barely discern what their faces actually look like, and vapid, convoluted storytelling. Banal, belligerent, and brain-dead, it ultimately succeeds only at being far less than meets bare-minimum cinematic standards.

Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, John Turturro, Peter Cullen, Hugo Weaving, Ramón Rodríguez, Kevin Dunn, Julie White, Tony Todd Director: Michael Bay Screenwriter: Ehren Kruger, Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 149 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2009 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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