Big, Stupid Soul-Suckers from Mars (Now a Major Motion Picture!)
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is a film that assumes its target audience actively desires to have no taste or aesthetic standard. It assumes that the viewer’s reservoir of self-awareness tops out at the recognition that all they want out of life is a big, stupid movie about stupid characters and big robots that beat the shit out of each other. It is a movie so big and so stupid and so damn long that it very nearly forgets about halfway through that it is a movie whose sole purpose for existence is to sell toys and entertain people with big, stupid robot battles and exquisitely rendered explosions. How do you forget something that elementary?
For the most part, I don’t consider Michael Bay to be an incompetent filmmaker. He is one of America’s foremost propagandists. Above and beyond the patriotic jingoism of films like The Rock, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, and the first Transformers, his films are living, breathing testaments to capitalist success. “Success” can be transposed with “excess” in this particular case. As critics have noted since his advent as Hollywood’s go-to blockbuster filmmaker, Michael Bay does everything big. His budgets are big, his explosions are big, his vehicles are big, and it all looks sublimely polished. For the kinds of stories he tells, he spends far, far more money than is necessary, and he still turns a profit! I’ve rarely found his camerawork and editing nearly as incomprehensible as most naysayers seem to find it. Bad Boys remains one of the finest buddy movies of the 90s, and even its more humorless, bloated sequel celebrates its own lack of originality, cheerily ripping off Police Story’s opening sequence for its climax.
As a man dedicated to the holy cause of selling product, I don’t think there’s a more qualified filmmaker on the planet to direct movies about alien robots who originated as a line of action figures. One of the highlights of Transformers was a sequence during the climax that made creative use of its product placement: along with a couple other everyday objects, a Mountain Dew vending machine is magically brought to life, and the first thing it does is start chasing people down the street, firing cans from arm-mounted canons. This slightly surreal touch brought levity to a stone-sober moment, unintentionally commenting on the potentially hazardous consequences of shameless corporate shilling.
The first Transformers as a whole was pretty terrible of course, but it maintained a sense of wonder throughout at the novelty of these giant robots who disguised themselves as human planes, trains, and automobiles; I wouldn’t be surprised if that was producer Steven Spielberg’s contribution to the project. Wretched dialogue and miles-broad performances aside, Bay demonstrated a surprising inventiveness with camera angles, doing his best to anchor the viewer’s perspective to a human scale, with a few shots taking in the battling bots in all their transformed glory. Had it been a dialogue-free film, it would have been wonderful, carried along by the score and the densely-mixed sound effects work.
Part of what mitigated the inept screenwriting in the first film was the relatively straightforward plotting. It was an alien invasion flick. There was a MacGuffin called the Allspark. The good aliens and bad aliens were trying to get it, and one human kid held the key to finding it. The good guys won the day, and the kid learned a little something about courage. The End.
In theory, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen follows the same basic story, except instead of the Allspark, the MacGuffin is called the Matrix of Leadership, which is more powerful than the Allspark, and it is apparently powered by righteousness, even though the dastardly villains seem capable of using it just as well as the heroes. The supervillain of Revenge of the Fallen, appropriately enough, is named The Fallen. He came to Earth several millennia ago with his brothers and tried to suck the energy out of our sun with a machine powered by the Matrix of Leadership. Even though the Matrix can only be used by courageous individuals, the evil Fallen’s brothers killed themselves to hide it from him. So the Fallen went and hung out on one of Jupiter’s moons for the intervening millennia, because even though he really wanted to find the Matrix (which he knew was somewhere on Earth) and get the energy of the Sun, he sat around on his kiester and sent his minions instead. Oh, and Megatron (remember him?) is one of his minions. Even though Megatron was established as the super-duper villain in the first film. And Megatron was on Earth looking for the Allspark, rather than the Matrix, even though he was tasked to find the Matrix.1
If you thought it was a hell of a lot of work reading my synopsis, wait till a knock-kneed British stealth bomber who farts landing parachutes lays it all out for our protagonists, at excruciating length.
Herein lies the greatest paradox of Transformers fandom. If a critic carps about the insensible plotting of this film, the fans retort, “It’s a movie about giant robots beating the shit out of each other. If you expect anything else, you’re an idiot.” This is an interesting response, and a very common one. Fanboys like to frame the debate over their favorite films’ merits in terms of the miniscule list of elements they enjoyed, rather than the film as a whole. This is not exclusive to the Transformers franchise, of course, but the near-universal panning of the sequel by America’s critics has yielded a crop of foam-mouthed defense, most of it calling into question a given critic’s open-mindedness, intelligence, or the ethics behind even reviewing a film directed at a different (often younger) target audience. The upshot of most of the responses is that critics don’t know how to sit back and just enjoy a dumb, fun movie.
To put it another way, Revenge of the Fallen is the kind of spectacle for which fans say you have to check it at the door. If you check your brain at the door, Gene Wilder and Marty Feldman may abscond with it and stick in Peter Boyle’s reanimated corpse.2 To say that you have to have a non-functioning brain to enjoy a film like this doesn’t impugn the viewers and critics who don’t enjoy the film; it essentially accuses the film’s fans of literally being mentally challenged.
Perfectly intelligent, thoughtful, and enthusiastic viewers with good taste may enjoy a film whose repertoire of sight gags consists of two (count ‘em: two!) scenes of gay dogs humping, Shia LeBeouf being forcibly seduced by a cross between Terminator 3’s Terminatrix and the horny alien from Species, Megan Fox landing face down on Superfluous Sidekick’s crotch after a rough teleportation (Hello, Jumper!), John Turturro stripping down to his Section 7 jockstrap, Superfluous Sidekick walking around the Smithsonian with his pants down, Turturro calling in an airstrike from beneath a Decepticon’s swinging, robo-wrecking ballsack, and a mini-Decepticon humping Fox’s leg.3 Never mind that, as a sentient — nigh, advanced — being, comparable in mental and emotional faculties to an adult human male, what he’s doing constitutes sexual assault. I’m sure perfectly intelligent, thoughtful, tasteful movie lovers wouldn’t be the least bit offended by these leaden stabs at wit, or the comic relief provided by a pair of twins that one message board poster identified as “Niggabots.”4
A couple intelligent, thoughtful, passionate movie-lovers have even cited Revenge of the Fallen as a kind of milestone, though not necessarily for positive reasons. MaryAnn Johanson heralds the fall of the American empire, while Roger Ebert heralds the fall of the summer extravaganza and excoriates Michael Bay’s hamfisted self-reflexivity. Todd Gilchrist had my favorite summation of the film thus far, bending the rules of English grammar to dub Revenge of the Fallen the “most movie” he’s ever experienced. (Setting aside Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinema and The Cure for Insomnia purely for rhetorical purposes, I imagine.) Charlie Jane Anders has been making the Web rounds with a highly-touted masterpiece of (quasi-?) ironic sarcasm, diagnosing the overwhelmingly negative critical reaction to Bay’s beast as a misguided myopia that fails to recognize the obvious: that Michael Bay has wrought the single biggest art film ever, which purposely deconstructs narrative structure and aesthetic convention. A year from now, it wouldn’t surprise me if straw-grasping fanboys cited the review as the most articulate defense ever offered in Hasbro’s unholy name.
Let us grant, for a moment, the conceit that a film can succeed entirely on its own terms, even if the terms are simply to do nothing but pacify the stilted neurons of American mecha nerds with an endless barrage of images that are essentially the deformed, mutant, hybrid offspring of a furtive copulation between disaster porn and car porn. For a movie made for an audience that staunchly dismisses the necessity of plot and story, Revenge of the Fallen spends continental amounts of time on exposition. So much so that it’s equivalent to watching a whole movie where the action set pieces are little more than a guy running around translating ancient clues for the audience. Oh, wait…
With hours of irrelevant exposition, you’d think the least the film could do would be to underline the stakes and heighten the suspense by, say, placing the characters in mortal peril. Don’t be foolish. As any most movie ever should do, it features not one, but two (maybe three) resurrections. So who gives a flying fig if someone dies? What if the Fallen’s plot succeeds and the sun goes out? No worries. Sooner or later an oversized Rubik’s cube or sockful of magic Matrix dust will turn up and reignite it.
As the Pythons skewered Dark Age barbarism in The Holy Grail, Revenge of the Fallen almost seems to be spoofing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s golden age in the 80s, when he could mutilate his foes in any number of brutal ways, deliver a smug one-liner, and have the audience in stitches. Optimus Prime — the noble, apparently reluctant warrior of the first film — has been reduced to a two-stories-tall animated caricature of Arnie’s long-past glory days, pulling Decepticons apart with his bare hands and cracking taunts as he does so. In addition to the toilet humor, Manos-level storytelling, and action choreography that is shot and edited in a way that is akin to using a waffle iron to chop celery, Revenge of the Fallen trumps its progenitor in another area: it’s genuinely mean-spirited.
Perhaps in attempting to strike a “darker” tone for this sequel as nearly every sequels now tries to do, Bay and Co. simply miscalculated the level of nastiness. Or perhaps they, accurately and cynically, gave their audience what it wanted: a TNT-charged blockbuster that caters to the worst impulses of its viewers while purporting to be nothing more than an innocent thrill ride. Though not quite as noxious as the Crank movies, Revenge of the Fallen yokes itself to the wanton bloodshed of old school action, gussied up in the masque of a teen-friendly nostalgia trip.
Bay still does some things well, from the auteurist standpoint. His tendency to treat his actors like action figures is in full force, blending seamlessly with the personality-free, lumbering behemoths that are actually based on action figures. Many, many things are blown up or destroyed in Greco-robot sparring matches. As usual, he has brickwalled his pacing and cinematography, rendering dialogue-driven exposition and rocket-fueled skirmishes in the same cinematic language. The bots look great (when you get a rare chance to see them to full effect), and some of his classic, conventional narrative strategies — such as the Terminatrix/Species Decepticon stalking Sam and Michaela across a campus, or Bumblebee halting the onslaught of energized kitchen appliances by demolishing the Witwicky household — pay off rather nicely. An immense aid is the fact that Tony Todd, who may possess the single most intimidating voice in the universe, plays The Fallen.
These are small, simple pleasures amidst crashing, atonal cacophony — cacophony designed to slide down your throat as smoothly as chocolate syrup. I’m reminded of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Starlight Express, which I had the misfortune to see nearly a decade ago on a senior trip to England. Bright, splashy, loud, and fast-moving, there wasn’t a single tasteful moment in the entire show. The music was dull but poppy; the performers nearly indistinguishable from one another; and the entire production seemed designed solely for the purpose of allowing its performers to skate really, really fast over the heads of the bewildered audience while ear-twisting schmaltz blared from everywhere and nowhere at once. Maybe it was walking around all afternoon in the thick, London summer air, but all I wanted to do was sleep… and the soul-crushing music simply wouldn’t let me.
Like Weber’s atrocity, people enjoy Michael Bay’s films. Children of all ages enjoy playing with their toys — that doesn’t mean making stage shows or seemingly endless movies about them is advisable. (Unless, of course, you’re Pixar Studios.) As inconsequential as stories like this try to be, if only to hold our attention for a short time, I can’t escape the feeling that I should take umbrage that the people behind these productions would think that my time could be purchased this cheaply. Especially since I’m the one purchasing a ticket. It puzzles me from time to time that people are genuinely entertained by something that is obviously offensive to their intelligence, but I do my best to remain open-minded about what it is viewers get out of it.
Enjoying a stupid, incompetent film doesn’t mean one is stupid, although it would be nice if more people had the grace to acknowledge how stupid and incompetent it is. Here’s the real question: Why is it that someone can so dearly love (and defend!) a film whose stupidity, incompetence, and senseless vulgarity are self-evident? Is it because, as some critics have suggested, Revenge of the Fallen is a symptom of a distinctly American psychosis? Can we find a cure and, more importantly, must we blow shit up finding it?
Sheer ineptitude on a colossal scale reaping undue reward is not unheard of in any quarter of human endeavor. Revenge of the Fallen shoots itself in its oversized foot on so many basic levels that trying to figure out its appeal truly is like trying to pin down Proteus in his own cave. Really, the answer may be quite simple. People are easily distracted. Dangle a bright, shiny object in front of a person’s face, he’ll veer off the road or enter a hypnotic trance. $200 million buys an awful lot of arrantly burnished shiny, and as Stanley Kubrick once quipped to Jerry Lewis, you can even polish a turd if it’s frozen.
No wonder watching Revenge of the Fallen felt like being dunked in a vat of liquid nitrogen.
Edited by Tracy McCusker.
- Is this making sense yet? Good. I was afraid I’d lost you. I didn’t even mention the part about the Decepticons needing the remaining fragments of the Allspark to resurrect Megatron, but really needing them for the map they contain to the Matrix, so they didn’t really need to resurrect Megatron, and instead of using the fragment Sam Witwicky had kept for two years (unbeknownst to him) that suddenly implanted the map-visions in his head, they just wanted to take his brain (as evil aliens are wont to do) instead of going after his fragment, or just using the fragment they had, which also didn’t give them the visions, even though they’re the ones who know how the Allspark works, and Sam doesn’t. ↩
- If you put your face in a jar by the door, it may wind up in a Paul McCartney song, but that’s neither here nor there. ↩
- Never mind that she burned out one of his eyes with a blowtorch. About which you’d think he’d hold a bit of a grudge. I mean, she went Jack Bauer on the poor little bastard awfully quick. ↩
- Slant magazine’s Nick Shager had a field day with them. ↩