I have never felt more like a third nipple than I did, as a screenwriter, while watching Michael Bay’s new movie, “Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen.”
And believe me… the ownership of this film, artistically speaking, belongs to Michael Bay. This is absolutely a movie authored by the guy who directed those Coke commercials, that great “Aaron Burr” Milk ad, the ultra-sleek Aerosmith videos. This is a guy who has one thing on his mind… the moment you are watching RIGHT NOW.
“Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen” takes Bay’s signatures to a new level, a purely visual experience that plays as a two and a half hour action sequence. It is, quite possibly, the most powerful physical assault I’ve ever experienced in a movie theater, seeing it at the IMAX screen at the Bridge. More so than “Irreversible” at the Egyptian. It’s that kind of a wicked knee to the privates. TROTF, as we’ll call it, really is the most primary storytelling experience so far in Bay’s whole career. Taken as a whole, it’s barely a movie. It starts at an arbitrary moment, and it ends at an equally arbitrary moment. And the moment that should be the film’s big emotional moment will probably work best on younger viewers, much as it did when the animated film came out in the ’80s, because for most viewers, it won’t connect in any significant way
And, having said that, if you have even the slightest interest in giant robots, you should absolutely see it the way I did.
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When I got home from the screening, I saw a lot of intense reactions right away on Twitter and Facebook. A lot of intense negative critical reaction, specifically. And talking to Greg Ellwood, one of the founders of HitFix here and a guy who I definitely take seriously when it comes to discussing reactions to films…. he hated it. With a powerful intense hatred.
Listening to him react, I absolutely get it. TROTF is a mess in a lot of ways. It’s way too long considering the story it tells. And there are some crazy digressions. But it is wall to wall robots. I mean… non-stop. There is always something onscreen, something going on, and they are… amazing. They’re so casually amazing that I’m sure most people will dismiss how crazy the two hours plus of photo-real machine animation that they’re watching really is. It’s insane. It’s ILM’s biggest show ever, by far. I have to go back and see what the whole credit breakdown is for the work in the film, but I assume most of it is ILM, and it is outrageous.
Some of it, by the way, is ill-advised, to say the least, in terms of conception, and that’s where I’m having trouble precisely modulating my response. Take Mudflap and Skids, already the most controversial aspect of the film. The performance of the two characters is one thing, and literally impossible to defend. The quality of the animation is another. I think it’s pretty clear that Michael Bay is a big fan of Joe Dante’s “Gremlins,” and if you imagine that he’s sort of doing a riff on that film in these scenes, but with his own crazy wacky little monsters, it makes sense, particularly the early scene where Sam accidentally turns all of his mother’s kitchen appliances into Transformers. There’s a lot of that stuff in the film, on both sides. It’s the Minstrel Twins, though, speaking in shuck-and-jive and with gold teeth and unable to read, truly inopportune designs coupled with broadly racial vocal work, who define the problem most clearly. Like I say… I didn’t like them when they were speaking… but the energy of the scenes they’re in with the animation of how these two machines tangle… amazing.
In some ways, I think “Transformers: Revenge of The Fallen” is the movie that fanboys have been slowly but surely placing down payments on for the last 20 years of pop cinema. When I hear people complain that it’s overstuffed and indulgent and excessive, I am sort of amazed that they feel the need to point that out. OF COURSE IT IS. That’s what Hollywood believes you want. Thanks to the way we’ve rewarded the lowest common denominator wrapped in the shiniest package, summer after summer after summer, and the way we seem to constantly demand that sequels turn everything up louder, make everything longer, and fill the frame with moremoreMORE, Michael Bay stands astride Hollywood like the perfectly evolved Modern Action Director.
Which is not to say I think he’s the best action director working. Simply the BIGGEST. And it’s funny to me how out of step I am with the people who started out as Bay’s fans. “The Rock” gave me an actual headache the first time I saw it, and I hated the script so much I could barely hold a rational conversation about the movie. The first “Bad Boys” left me indifferent at best. And “Armageddon”… oh, dear god. I still find it baffling that anyone made it through that film without howling at the sheer horror of what’s on display. I still remember gasping in horror as I read the reviews other people wrote for “Pearl Harbor,” including Jeffrey Wells who called the actual attack one of the best action sequences in film history. I felt like a crazy person, watching how much other people seemed to thrive on Bay’s particular brand of over-the-top, and even when we met a few times and Bay spent time talking to me about his approach to building a sequence, I just couldn’t see how anyone could enjoy these things as “movies.”
And then came “Bad Boys II.” And the sheer amoral kick of that film, the preposterous overdrive of it all… well, it felt like Bay was finally embracing the absurdity of his own style and offering it up as more joke than anything else. I didn’t care for “The Island,” but it was an inoffensive miss. And then the first “Transformers” seemed to me, again, to be Bay tweaking his own image in very knowing ways. This sequel feels like he has taken all of the excess of every one of his previous films, added it all together, and then squared it. The film starts with cavemen fighting robots, and ends with the US Army squaring off against a Decepticon army in the shadow of the Pyramids, and inbetween those two completely wacko sequences, it rushes from set piece to set piece, from robot to robot, from gag to gag, without even the slightest indication that Michael Bay cares about telling you what would commonly be identified as a “story.”
There’s a plot, sure. Sam Witicky (Shia LaBeouf) finds a shard of the All-Spark cube from the first one, and when he touches it, it implants a series of symbols in his mind that contain the location of The Matrix Of Leadership, which will evidently power a machine built thousands of years ago by the first Transformers to visit our planet. That machine, if activated, will drain our Sun of all its energy, destroying our galaxy so that the Transformers can once again begin to repopulate the universe. The instigator of this plan is a robot who has been trapped on Earth since that original encounter with the cavemen, an angular collection of nasty called The Fallen, and the Decepticons all appear to happily follow The Fallen, terrified of him. The Decepticons chase Sam around. They try various tricks to get the info out of his head. And then once everyone knows where the Matrix is located, it all becomes a chase. And that’s pretty much all the plot there is in nearly 2 hours and 40 minutes of screen time.
What I find remarkable, and the reason I made that “third nipple” comment at the start of this review, is how little the plot seems to matter, and that’s how this movie feels to me like the final evolutionary step in the blockbuster. Much of this film was put together during the Writer’s Strike, and I’m guessing Michael Bay never once worried about it. From moment to moment, the film is always in motion, always pushing forward, and the actors are more props, placeholders to give you some sense of the scale of all of this Bayhem, than they are actual characters. I thought some of the humans made the most of their screen time. Jon Turturro’s character, disgraced after the end of the first movie, is now a marginalized nut, working in his mother’s deli, and he seems to relish his screentime. Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox, who are definitely the stars as far as how much of the movie they’re in compared to anyone else, both throw themselves into the physical demands of the film with admirable zeal, which is good, since there’s nothing else to the roles. In an almost-total inverse of the first film, the humans here are barely onscreen long enough for anyone to judge the performances they give. They run and they yell a lot. That’s about it. Instead, this time out, there are roughly 10,000 robots given speaking roles, and the barrage of different robots is part of what kept me engaged, wondering just how crazy it was going to get.
There is one robot who disguises itself as a really, really, really hot chick named Alice (Isabel Lucas), and although none of what happens with her makes any sense, there are some crazy wild images involving her character. There’s an old robot who has been hiding out on display in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum who actually has a giant metal beard and a cane, which is just ludicrous, and his change from Decepticon to Autobot seems totally arbitrary. There’s a super Transformer made from a whole bunch of other Transformers that actually has a pair of wrecking balls for a scrotum. And it seems to go on and on, this parade of wacko robot characters, which is what I mean about the surprising scale of the film. There are some ideas I like in the movie, like an early sequence in Shanghai where we see the Autobots working with a special Army team to track down and destroy Decepticons. I sort of wish the whole movie had just been about this team at work around the world, because that’s a cool idea, and nothing we’ve seen before.
But that also leads to the thing that made me most uncomfortable in the film, and it shouldn’t be a surprise. Politically, this movie couldn’t be more out-of-step with the so-called “liberal media.” I actually found that subtext far more squirm-worthy than the racial stuff. Optimus Prime is, sorry to say, a genocidal creep, and his zeal for pulling the heads and spines off the Decepticons is more disturbing than heroic. Realizing just how little I have in common with the mindset of the film, I disconnected emotionally from it completely, and maybe that’s why the spectacle of it all worked for me.
I don’t take Michael Bay seriously. But these days, I suspect Michael Bay doesn’t, either, and that may be why I am able to enjoy this era of his filmography while the fans of his earlier “serious” films are so upset by what he’s doing now. In the end, if you’ve ever supported his “more is more” philosophy, you have little room for buyer’s remorse. Complaining that his movies are big and loud and dumb now is pointless. He lives and breathes big and loud and dumb, and T:ROTF may well stand as the pinnacle of that particular type of blockbuster filmmaking.
And what’s funniest of all is that I would say that’s exactly why you should go see it for yourself. I saw it in IMAX last week, then sent a big group of friends to see it in IMAX last night, and even the people who didn’t like the film reported back that they were dazzled by the presentation. I’ll say this for Bay: it takes a lot to wow me on a visceral level these days, but the sight of Optimus Prime fighting a group of Decepticons in a forest, everything projected in front of me in real size, is one of the most remarkable visuals I’ve seen in anything all year, and for that, only the IMAX screen will suffice.
The film opens everywhere today. Resistance is futile.
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