WFTB Score: 4/20
The plot: Sam Witwicky heads off to college, leaving his car-cum-robot Bumblebee and his beautiful girlfriend Mikaela behind. However, he can’t shake off his past as the age-old battle between the human-friendly Transformers and evil Decepticons is about to come to boiling point – and Sam is destined to be right in the thick of it.
Having been at the centre of a pitched battle between two factions of warring robots a few years ago, you wouldn’t blame Sat Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) for craving normality. Though Sam’s mum is inconsolable, he’s content to leave for college without his grieving car Bumblebee, even if he’s less happy that his relationship with girlfriend Mikaela (Megan Fox) is about to become long-distance. But Sam and normality don’t mix, and a shard of the Transformers’ Allspark implants symbols in his brain that send him crazy just as he’s trying to settle in to campus life with his dorm mate, internet conspiracy theorist Leo (Ramon Rodriguez).
Meanwhile, Transformers leader Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) gets wind that the Decepticons are planning a fresh attack under the leadership of something – or someone – called ‘the Fallen’, putting the robots and specialist Army unit NEST on high alert, although interfering National Security advisor Galloway (John Benjamin Hickey) is more concerned with getting rid of the ‘immigrant’ robots. More fool him, since the threat is real, and both Sam and Optimus will have to put their lives on the line – and get help from unexpected quarters – to protect the human race.
As my [pending] review of Benjamin Sniddlegrass and the Cauldron of Penguins suggests, I am a sometime listener of Mark Kermode’s film reviews, so I’m well aware of his antipathy towards Michael Bay’s Transformers films. That said, I wouldn’t dream of forming an opinion on any movie on the basis of what others say, and I assumed that Dr Kermode’s damning verdict on this sequel was merely typical grandstanding hyperbole.
Not a bit of it. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen truly represents the worst of modern, ultra-expensive movie-making. The fundamental problem is this: the film is so badly written and so chaotically assembled that it feels not like a plotted movie at all, but a never-ending sequence of verbal and visual non sequiturs. The original Transformers movie had plenty of flaws, but also had a significant novelty element and – crucially – took itself seriously; Revenge of the Fallen is a wilfully nauseating mixture of thoroughly dumb comedy, lascivious ogling of the female form, and overblown action, tinged with such ill-judged jingoism that it could equally be a recruiting advert for the US Army or the Taliban*.
Lest you think I’m also exaggerating, I’ll illustrate my work with examples: after a big, sprawling opening, the story starts on one tack (the shapes implanted in Sam’s brain) before changing halfway through to concentrate on the hidden key to a sun-destroying machine in Egypt; both are MacGuffins, empty reasons to stage noisy, slo-mo-heavy action scenes, most notably the enormous battle in the sand which forms the film’s overlong and excessively militaristic climax (luckily, the ever-boring Josh Duhamel shouts out what’s happening in case we’ve drifted off and lost the plot). Before we get there, shorter action sequences pepper the movie at frequent intervals for no good reason, such as most of the nonsense involving Isabel Lucas’ Alice and her silly tongue-on-a-chain. Meanwhile, the extraordinary computer effects used to bring the robots to life are wasted due to overkill. The fights, explosions, transformations and what have you quickly become singularly uninvolving, since at any given time it’s almost impossible to know who’s fighting who, or why they’re doing it.
The knock-on effect of Bay’s overblown film-making is that any form of character development – or even character continuity – gets trampled underfoot. For example, interfering busybody Galloway is evidently meant to be an equivalent of Ghostbusters’ Walter Peck; however, he’s a blatant straw man and the treatment he receives feels more like bullying than deserved retribution.
Most of the characters appear to exist as broad comic relief: I cringed for Julie White every time she had to embarrass herself as Sam’s mother, which was often (the college sequence is abysmal); Kevin Dunn, as his Dad, fares little better. Incidentally, I’m not sure that bickering robot twins Mudflap and Skids are racist; they are, however, bloody annoying, as is the wisecracking Joe Pesci-like droid that Mikaela manages to housetrain (sort of: he still – tee hee – humps her leg).
Not that the leads are much better-served. I don’t know why the cowardly Leo exists, except to poke fun at website-running nerds (how rude!) and make Sam look brave by comparison. Actually, LaBeouf’s not altogether bad, though he never entirely convinces as a hero or as a Romeo, while the lovely Ms Fox – filmed, as others have noted, from some very leering angles – barely seems connected to the words coming from her shapely lips (plus there’s an awful edit late on: one second she’s calm and collected, the next tearful and nearly hysterical). John Turturro also returns as former Agent Simmons, but the actor’s hammy turn (prompted, no doubt, by the rotten script) is positively harmful, nullifying any sense of danger or threat. Finally, the voicework of Autobots and Decepticons alike is perfectly fine, though even here it’s incongruous that Jetfire is an old English codger (Mark Ryan), let alone one who switched sides because he found the Decepticons too ‘miserable’.
Michael Bay has regularly come up trumps by throwing everything at the screen at once and seeing what sticks; here, it has a disastrously deleterious effect, the dismal comedy detracting from the confused action and vice versa. On a purely technical level, some of the action is so big it can’t help but impress when taken in isolation. As an entire film, however, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is deafeningly tedious.
NOTES: The explicit parallels to the ‘War on Terror’ are repulsive regardless of your personal politics. How dare Bay parade flag-draped coffins in his lousy, tasteless robot flick?